“A lot of kids think that if you go to Union City High School with 700 others from a background looked upon as, well, not the greatest, you can't do much with your life,” said school valedictorian Denisse Melgar last week.
Set to graduate June 19 with a grade point average of 4.53 and admission to New York City's Ivy League Columbia University in the future, Melgar has certainly proven this assumption wrong.
“Our school has so many opportunities if you really want to do something,” she added. “You simply have to look for them. This goes for life, too.”
“Our school has so many opportunities if you really want to do something.” – Denisse Melgar
Student Body President Jowkuell Arias will attend Penn State University in the fall. He plans to major in psychology and minor in political science, he says, in preparation to eventually become a criminal attorney.
“I want to learn more than the criminal aspect of law,” he explained last week. “I want to find out why people do certain things before they do them.”
As class president for three years before achieving his current status in the student body, he is no stranger to working with people, anticipating their needs, and delegating and organizing a very large group of teens who can sometimes be, well, teen-like.
“My desire for responsibility has always been there, but being president pushed that level,” Jowkuell said. “I can talk to anybody now, even on the street.”
He will graduate with a 3.8 GPA and has run track, taken tons of honors courses, participated in the school’s STEP group (a form of dance similar to the sort seen in the Broadway musical “STOMP”), and has mentored sophomores during their transition from the freshman academy.
“The culture and diversity of the school has influenced me a lot,” Jowkuell added. “Penn State will be a bit of a culture shock, but I’m excited. It’s bittersweet.”
Top of the class
While many 12th graders complain of that pesky student disease known as Senioritis, Melgar and Salutatorian Peter Yeung have discovered the antidote: pile on the Advanced Placement courses, attend local college classes, and rely on Science Supervisor Nadia Makar for mentorship.
“She is one of the reasons I got as far as I did here,” Melgar explained. “I wouldn’t be where I am without her.”
Yeung agreed. “I was supposed to go to a different school, but Ms. Makar was one of the reasons I chose to stay,” he said. “She and the other teachers are amazing. They go above and beyond for us.”
Thanks to Makar, both Melgar and Yeung enrolled in college classes and took intensive summer research programs both years after arriving at UCHS. Melgar spent last summer conducting research on plasma at St. Peter’s College.
Most kids conduct research on the most ergonomic position to strike in the chair in front of the television.
Yeung will move on to study at the Stevens Institute of Technology to study either computer engineering or cyber security after graduating with a 4.5 GPA. He says he’ll miss the family feel of the community at the high school.
“I’m a little nervous for college life as a completely different realm, and because I’ll have to grow up,” Yeung explained. “I’m anxious and skeptical, but I’m excited.”
Success in a school the size of a small city
Union City High School houses around 2,400 students, sophomores through seniors, with around 200 at the Academy for Enrichment and Advancement just down the street and 600 at Jose Martí Freshman Academy.
“Sometimes this environment is too big and too overwhelming and they need something that is more conducive and individualized,” Bennetti said. “Our graduation rate is well into the 90s because we offer so many supplement and alternate programs to get them through.”
Some of the programs the school offers that help with the rate of attrition are the Alternative Design Academy for at-risk students, the high school’s day care program for students who have children and wish to complete their education, night time adult learning courses, and the School-Based program which offers students counseling and support in a school “the size of a small city,” Bennetti said.
The school, which was completed three years ago and joined the former Union Hill and Emerson high schools, was meant to be a powerhouse on three fronts, he said: athletics, academics, and the fine arts.
“To be principal now at this time is simply amazing,” Benetti said. “The kids are amazing. We've become so close to them, we rely on them, we're with them all the time in the mornings and after school.”
On Teacher Student day, students dressed as staff members and shadowed them throughout the day. Bennetti was trailed by Arias, who dressed like him and even carried a walkie-talkie, he said.
“It’s a whole family thing we've developed here,” Arias said. “I’ve become close with so many people. I can't believe it's already June.”
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org