They are the children of immigrants, or the latest in a long line of siblings to graduate from public schools. These are the valedictorians of New York City. Some will enroll at the City University of New York, others are off to colleges in California and Texas and Maine. They are violin players, dancers, singers and student government leaders. They aspire to be engineers or writers or architects. Many are the first in their family to graduate from high school.
Whether they set out to maintain the best average or not, these are students who have spent high school bent over their textbooks, often commuting hours to get to class. In all, there are some 270 valedictorians — one for each graduating class. Some will graduate with a straight A average, while others are at the top of their classes with mostly B’s. All will be invited to a barbecue held by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg at Gracie Mansion this week. And dozens attended a reception with Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, meant for students who beat the odds.
As they graduate this week, they will deliver the traditional valedictory speech. Here are portraits of a few of the city’s top students; in a system as vast as New York’s there are hundreds more like them.
A Chance to Start Over
When Fareed Mohammed arrived in Queens from Trinidad three years ago, he was told he did not have enough credits to enter the 10th grade with other students his age at John Adams High School in Ozone Park. “They said I was new to the country and I had to start over,” he said.
Fareed saw it as a challenge. “I love competition,” he said. So he attended classes whenever the school offered them, not just during the regular school day but in the evenings and on Saturdays, not quite earning credits so much as gobbling them up.
And three years later, he is not only graduating on time but as the John Adams valedictorian, with a 98 average. He narrowly edged out his main competitor, Kulwinder Kaur, thanks to three Advanced Placement courses, whose grades carry more weight.
Fareed’s father works for a moving company. His mother is a full-time baby sitter. They came to New York to give Fareed, now 18, and his sister, 16, a better life, and Fareed has every intention of getting one. He plans to study mechanical engineering at City College, then get a master’s degree in physics.
He is a shy, lanky, bright-eyed young man, whose soft voice, barely above a whisper, belies a fierce competitive streak. In his college-level Spanish course, he was the only nonnative Spanish speaker. He put his greatest effort this year into a world history course, but his strongest subject is math, and after graduation this week he is headed to Oklahoma City for the national high school mathematics championships.
On weekends, he works 12-hour days for a vendor of household goods at the Aqueduct Flea Market, saving money to pay his own tuition at City College next year. He said his parents had never pressured him about doing well in school and were not surprised to hear that he had finished first in his class.
“They were expecting it,” he said. “I was telling them all along, I wanted to be No. 1.” DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
One Last Time
Tianna Jeter calls her graduating class “the big bang” because the roughly 250 students will be the last seniors to earn their diplomas from the school — Thomas Jefferson High School in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Everything was big at Jefferson — the classes, the hallways, the lunch room. So big, in fact, that the Department of Education moved to shut the school and replace it with several smaller ones in the building. It is part of the Bloomberg administration’s overhaul of the school system.
Tianna understood the basic politics, she said, when she heard the news during her freshman year. She had heard horror stories about the school from other students — gangs running the school and threats from older students.
“It really did scare me,” she said, thinking back to her first day at Jefferson. “Nobody wants to go to school and not feel safe.”
By the end of her first week, Tianna’s fears had dissipated. Her honors classes in English, history and math had about a dozen students each. The teachers were encouraging. Nobody, she said, had even thrown a punch in the hallways.
“It was nothing like everyone said it would be,” she said.
Tianna stuck mostly to her friends in the honors classes, but met other students in the dance club and choir. By her senior year, she had friends at the smaller schools that have already opened in her building, but she maintained loyalty to Jefferson.
“The Big Bang Theory was a gigantic explosion of an atom, which is an accepted explanation to the creation of the universe,” she wrote in a letter to her fellow graduates published in the school yearbook. “Everything we have done this school year was done in a big way.”
Then Tianna signed off with this: “Just because we were not students who attended one of the specialized high schools does not mean that we were not as smart as them. We had the ability to do anything they could do or even better and guess what — WE DID!” JENNIFER MEDINA
It Pays to Start Early
Marina Shuster knew that to succeed at Brooklyn Technical High School, one of the city’s most elite public institutions, it would not hurt to be an early riser.
So Marina, 18, typically woke up at 4 a.m. to study each day, then squeezed in what she called “about three hours of normal studying into a half-hour” on her N train ride, from her home in Gravesend, Brooklyn, to the Brooklyn Tech campus in Fort Greene.
Marina named anatomy, genetics and organic chemistry among her favorite subjects in school, and plans to attend Princeton in the fall, major in molecular biology and eventually become an obstetrician. “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she said of medicine. “I call it my high.”
She immigrated from Ukraine at 4 with her parents and grandparents, who had careers in engineering and education in their native country. In the United States, they are working their way up again, Marina said, with her mother taking jobs as a dental hygienist and her father working as a housepainter.
“We had a pretty decent life in Ukraine, but they knew that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to have a great future there,” Marina said. “My own motivation has been to show them that it was worth something.” JULIE BOSMAN
A Winner of Lotteries
When Charles Oduro was 8 and living in the New Koforidua village in Ghana, his mother told the family one day that they had won a lottery for a car. The fact that nobody in the family knew how to drive was irrelevant; the prize made Charles instantly popular with his classmates.
“It was a big status thing,” said Charles, now 17 and the valedictorian at Fordham Leadership Academy in the Bronx. “I went around telling everyone.”
But the car was only in his mother’s imagination. A few weeks later, Charles learned of the family’s real prize, won in an immigration lottery: a chance to come to the United States. His older brother and sister stayed behind, but Charles came with his mother and younger sister. They landed in New York, bouncing around in several different homes in the Bronx.
By the time Charles enrolled at the leadership academy, his older brother had become a priest in Ghana. Meanwhile, Charles, who excelled in math and science classes in middle and high school, tried to find a way to help his childhood friends back in his village. When he earned an internship at North Fork Bank last summer, he used the money to buy cows and land near the village that his friends could work on to earn more money.
“That way they could earn things on their own,” he said matter of factly.
This year, Charles focused his energies on the school’s Robotics Club, leading his team to build the winning model — in the form of a car — at the citywide competition in robotics.
“My mother was very proud of the car,” he said. “But she still can’t drive. I can’t, either, but I think I will learn after this summer.”
Charles plans to attend the State University of New York at Stony Brook in the fall. JENNIFER MEDINA
Coming Back for More
There is at least one valedictorian who is not graduating this year. To secure his diploma, Lucio Ramirez, 18, will return to Aviation High School in Queens next fall to take an economics and government class. But it is an honor, rather than a failure, to come back for a fifth year at his school.
Students who complete four years at the school receive a license from the Federal Aviation Administration to repair airplanes. Students in the top third of the class are invited for a fifth year to receive a second license, which qualifies them for working for major airlines. Many students — both after the fourth or fifth year — go on to college.
Lucio heard about the school from a few older friends in the neighborhood, who had attended and had jobs at Kennedy Airport. They told him he could do the same if he attended Aviation, he said.
In shop classes, Lucio sat at the front of his classes, often asking questions more often than anyone else, he said. At times, he felt like the only one who didn’t understand the mechanics of the planes. But the younger teachers, many of them Aviation alumni themselves, took time to explain it all and kept prodding him to work even harder.
“I was never rushing to leave this school,” he said, explaining that on most days he would not get home from classes until after dark. Lucio lives with his parents and two younger brothers in the Elmhurst section of Queens. Lucio decided to earn a second license rather than go right to college.
“Why not just do it now,” Lucio said. “There’s really no reason to wait.”
He plans to go to college after that, and eventually come back to the school as a teacher. He has already begun recruiting new students; his younger brother, Juan Carlos, will begin as a freshman there next fall. JENNIFER MEDINA
Not Telling Her Father
Victoria Chernow still won’t show her father the essay that got her into Harvard. “It’s too flowery,” she said, fingering her long blond braid. “He thinks I take after Jane Austen.”
Victoria, who maintained a 97.8 percent average at the Bronx High School of Science, often rolls her eyes when talking about her own achievements. She plans to spend her summer reading the classics and developing a firmer set of political opinions before moving to Cambridge.
“I need to figure out where I stand,” she said.
Raised in Jamaica, Queens, Victoria grew up speaking Russian with her parents, who immigrated to New York in the late 1970s. She thinks they secretly want her to go into medicine — for the summer, she is an intern at the American Museum of Natural History, studying jaguars — but she also finds herself drawn to history.
It troubles her that she hasn’t yet decided on her fall courses. A painter, salsa dancer and tennis player, she fights the impulse to “be in a continual state of preparing,” she says, shaking her head. But, she added, “I guess I’m one of those people who can never really be happy with what they’ve just achieved.” RACHEL AVIV