From Illinois to Georgia, from Massachusetts to California, the Weehawken High School Class of 2017 is pursuing its education further away from home than ever before.
“This year’s class applied to colleges in many more states than in previous years,” said Francesca Amato, Weehawken school district’s director of academic affairs and innovation. “They are expanding their horizons. We’re encouraging them to not be afraid.”
Amato should know. A teacher for two years, a guidance counselor for 10, and a curriculum chief for the past two years, Amato has helped guide most of the Class of 2017 to their graduation day. She credits, in part, the college fairs held by the district since March 2016 for the greater inspiration.
“They are being exposed to more options than previous classes,” Amato said.
But exposure to more options isn’t the whole story. The Class of 2017 is especially driven, Amato said. “The students in this particular class have been very competitive from the get-go, and especially hard-working ever since they got to seventh grade,” Amato said. “This class has always been trying very rigorous courses.”
Increased Advance Placement classes
Advanced Placement (AP) classes offered to Weehawken High School students have nearly doubled from 16 during 2015-2016 to 31 in the 2016-2017 academic year, when the school administered 240 AP exams to 112 students.
“These students are very dedicated, and have always challenged themselves,” said Amato. “They have a great amount of grit: When they’ve tried something and have encountered hardships, they’ve persevered.”
In May, the Washington Post named Weehawken High School to its list of “America’s Most Challenging High Schools,” which ranks the top 12 percent of high schools in the nation.
“We set a district goal to increase AP Exam participation by 10 percent and we saw an increase of 83 percent,” Board President Richard Barsa said.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Robert Zywicki said, “We’re developing a ‘culture of risk,’ in which our students feel supported enough to take on the challenge of college-level work while still in high school.”
Given the amount of AP classes the graduating seniors have taken, it would be hard to believe that they have time left for extracurriculars. But somehow, Weehawken High students make time for activities. “It’s true that it’s always best give a busy person more work to do, because they always get it done,” Amato said, referring to the comedienne Lucille Ball quotation, If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. The more things you do, the more you can do. “Being busy helps the students learn time-management skills, and how to prioritize.”
Boston College-bound Nicole Primero certainly knows how to prioritize. Having taken a whopping 10 AP classes, she also recently won the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s Scholar/Athlete Award. To earn that honor, students must maintain a high grade point average while excelling at sports. “I didn’t know about it until I won it,” Primero said. The senior is a standout cross-country; basketball, softball and tennis.
Daniel Sanchez, who will be studying biomedical engineering at Yale University, is also bracing himself for a less congenial environment than he’s enjoyed at Weehawken High School. “I will be going to school with sons of politicians and super-rich people,” he said. “It's not that it makes me uncomfortable, but I will be a little different from them. I’ll be in a different world.” Sanchez is nothing if not persistent, though. He has taken nine AP classes, and in October, 2016, broke the record for the 5K for Weehawken High School. He’s played on the school’s soccer; baseball; track and field and cross country teams; played tenor sax, baritone sax, and clarinet for the Weehawken High School Marching Band; served about 140 hours in Peer Leadership, and appeared in every school musical save one, when he injured his leg playing aforesaid sports.
Kamil Rahhali will major in biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech, rated the number 1 school for that field by U.S. News & World Report. “Biomedical engineering is the Liberal Arts of engineers,” Rahhali said. At Georgia Tech, he will learn how to modify the DNA of single-cell organisms to serve a particular purpose, such as dissolving plastic, or detecting a poison in a water supply. “I had a definite interest in this since I was pretty young,” Rahhali said. “Even in third grade at Roosevelt, I knew I wanted to be a scientist, and genetics fascinated me.” Seeing the film, “Jurassic Park,” didn’t hurt, either.
Taking two biology courses with Weehawken High School science teacher Theresa Milos, Rahhali said, “further developed my knowledge of and reaffirmed my interest in biology. I enjoyed her class in general and her as a teacher.”
Rahhali credits his classmates with his academic success. “My classmates helped me push myself. I was really driven because I was surrounded by the best students, and we pushed each other to strive for higher aims,” Rahhali said. The fact that Georgia Institute of Technology is 870 miles from Weehawken is itself alluring. “It’s exciting,” Rahhali said. “It feels like traveling and exploring new places is part of my life, and it is something that I will continue doing;: engaging in new cultures and new experiences.”
Gauthier Dunan, who will attend CUNY Baruch College in New York City, is returning to a city where he says he underachieved as a student. “The teachers in New York City weren’t as supportive or as connected to the students as the teachers in Weehawken High School are,” Dunan said. “The school system here as a whole is very welcoming. That's pretty much what turned me around. I wasn’t such a good student before, and Weehawken helped me get back on track. Because it’s such a small school, it helped me create closer bonds with everyone: students, teachers and staff.”
Dunan says that, along with its supportive teachers, it was the high school’s academic rigor that finally fired up his interest. “Sophomore year turned me around. It came to a point I knew I could do better, and I wasn’t pushing myself enough, so I decided to take action. And, the courses became more challenging so they engaged me more.” With the confidence that the Weehawken experience gave him, Dunan is ready for New York City again. “I’m kind of excited about it,” he said.
Dunan has taken seven AP classes. While at Weehawken High School, he played on the soccer team; was a member of the Science Club as well as the Chess Club; served in Peer Leadership; and as an editor on the yearbook staff. Despite having studied ancient Greek philosophy and rhetoric during the last two summers at the Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris, he is planning on a career in finance.