Here they are again, 20 good reasons to feel good about Arkansas high schools and the students they produce.

The Arkansas Times is proud to present its fourth Academic All-Star Team.


There’s not a grade-slacker in the bunch, but the honorees are chosen for more than their homework skills. They are great musicians, great athletes, committed community volunteers, budding scientists, stellar role models, funny and the apples of many parents’ eyes.

Nomination forms are sent annually to every high school in the state, public and private. We also seek nominations of home-schooled students. Only seniors are eligible.


School counselors and principals are allowed to nominate two seniors–one boy and one girl — from each high school, regardless of size. They supply grades, test scores and accounts of significant achievements. We also ask the nominees to write a brief essay on their accomplishments.

The nominations are reviewed by two independent panels of professional educators and others interested in education. From a group of 50 finalists, the top 20–10 boys and 10 girls–are chosen.


Following are capsule biographies of the winners. We’ve also given a bit of extra attention to the other finalists, along with a complete list of all nominees. The All-Star Team will be honored at a reception this week at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. They’ll receive plaques and cash awards, bringing the amount rewarded since the program began to more than $20,000.

Read on and be inspired.


In the rain forest

Age: 18
Hometown: Fort Smith
High School: Southside
Parents: Dr. and Mrs. Mike Berumen
College plans: University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, pre-med.


The summer after his sophomore year, Michael Berumen went to Costa Rica with a group of students to do tropical ecology research in the rain forests, as part of the Duke University Talent Identification Program. “This experience had a profound impact on my life,” Michael says. “We were able to work hands-on with several scientists undertaking their own research projects. Extreme specialization in a field exposes one to new ideas and problems never before addressed.

“Much of our time was spent adventuring in the forests, comparing various habitat zones, and listening to lectures or presentations. We visited banana plantations, and saw firsthand the destructive efforts of mismanaging the forests. We also visited places where environmental groups worked with the natives to harvest and cultivate the forests in ways that will keep them viable for many generations. Living in the same conditions as the natives (i.e., without hot or running water, electricity, etc.) really made me aware of how much we take for granted. Someday I hope to return to the Costa Rican rain forests, the place that cinched my desire to pursue scientific interests.”


At Southside, Michael was president of the National Honor Society and organizer of many service projects through the society, vice president of the Senior Council, secretary of the Physics Club, and a member of the varsity quiz bowl and varsity soccer teams. He ranked fourth in a class of 483 and could have competed for the top spot, his counselor says, except that he chose to take some courses at Westark College that were not available at Southside.

Michael participated in numerous volunteer activities with the Fort Smith Area Catholic Youth Ministries, the Humane Society, Habitat for Humanity, and the Boys Club, where he served as a soccer coach for two seasons. He has won major academic awards in mathematics, algebra and Spanish, among others. His counselor, Sherma R. Granger, says “Michael gives total effort to everything he does.”

Full-immersion American



Age: 17

Hometown: Monticello

High School: Arkansas School for Mathematics and Sciences

Parents: Deenesh and Bhanu Bhaleeya

College Plans: Southwestern University, Georgetown, Texas, biochemistry

The lessons Swetangi Bhaleeya has learned at the Arkansas School for Mathematics and Sciences go way beyond the classroom. Living in the dorm, getting involved in extracurricular activities and befriending some of the state’s brightest teens, Swetangi has soaked up American culture.

Swetangi and her family moved to the United States from India when she was 8, and spent four years in California. When Swetangi was in the seventh grade, the Bhaleeyas moved to Magnolia, where her parents own the American Inn.

Still, “Americanization” wasn’t a big part of the picture. The Bhaleeyas continue to speak Indian in their home, eat Indian foods and live in the Indian traditions. When she lived full-time in Magnolia, “the only time I was really exposed to American culture was at school,” she says. When she came to Hot Springs last year for her first of two years at the School for Math and Sciences, Swetangi jumped right in the middle of American life.

She runs cross country, is on the student council, is a member of the school newspaper staff and has volunteered often

“I increased that kind of thing when I came here, because I had a lot of friends involved,” Swetangi says. “It’s like a big community here. “

She does so much, in fact, that “sometimes I find myself too busy,” she admits. That doesn’t surprise her counselor, Marlene Bush, who says, “Swetangi is an incredible kid. She takes three AP classes–calculus, chemistry and biology–in addition to taking organic chemistry and British literature. Plus choir at night. And she maintains a 4-point [GPA] in everything. Her time management skills have to be extraordinary.”

Fully immersed now in American life, Swetangi says, “Now that I’ve been through two years here, I don’t think I’ll have any problems adjusting to college.”

Aldersgate volunteer


Age: 18

Hometown: Little Rock

High School: Parkview

Parents: Penny Bruno

College plans: Princeton, medicine.

One-half of the Parkview combo among this year’s All-Stars, Richard Bruno was president of the student council at his school, having previously been president of the junior class and president of the sophomore class. He achieved a 4.2 gradepoint average while performing in numerous stage productions and participating in other activities.

But it’s his volunteer work in the community, including more than 770 hours working with handicapped children at Camp Aldersgate, that really distinguishes Richard. The Aldersgate experience “has been a highlight of my life,” he writes. “Helping a little boy or girl canoe, swim or shoot bow and arrows is an amazing feeling, surmounted only by watching their faces light up when they accomplish something that they have tried or persevered to achieve with a little help. I can safely say that I shall be going back for many more years to come.”

Richard’s guidance counselor, Mary Ann James, says, “A student like Richard Bruno comes along only one time in an educator’s career. Not only is he a wonderful class leader and superior academician, he is an outstanding humanitarian. He has the rare gift to be able to associate and converse, with equal sincerity, with individuals from different age groups, genders and races.”

Richard is a member of the National Honor Society, the Beta Club (vice president of the state group), Mu Alpha Theta, PTSA, the Key Club, the Chess Club, Accept No Boundaries, and the Biracial Committee. He has won academic awards in physics, math, chemistry, organic chemistry and oratory. He ranked third in a class of 300.

Out of Honduras

Age: 20
Hometown: Crossett
High School: Crossett
Parent: Rosa Wallace
College plans: Harding, UCA or University of Arkansas, medicine.

Juan Caballero has a wish.

“I wish some young American people could realize the great opportunities they are taking for granted.”

When Juan got his opportunity in 1991, he did anything but take it for granted.

He was born in a Honduras village near the country’s capital, but still a four-mile walk from safe drinking water. The family had no electricity, but sometimes powered a TV with a car battery. Opportunity came in the form of Ricky Wallace, a South Arkansas native who met Juan’s mother at a bingo game. They married and move to the United States, first Huttig and now Crossett.

Juan spoke not a word of English. He was set back to the fifth grade. He soon caught up, and then some. The young man who didn’t speak English seven years ago has nearly perfect grades and is ranked first in his class.

In citywide competition, his essay won him admission to Vision 2000, a youth leadership program that has brainstormed ways to provide more activities for kids in Crossett. He’s also been active in a variety of school clubs, and is president of the National Honor Society. Outside school, he’s tutored new Hispanic immigrants in English and helped them with homework.

Juan will be the first person in his family to finish high school. When he arrived in the U.S., though he couldn’t speak English, “I understood some people to say I would never succeed. I have proved them wrong.” Says his counselor: “Because of his work ethic and commitment, I have no doubt that he will be very successful at whatever profession he chooses.”

Juan says he wants to become a doctor, fluent in French and set up a medical clinic for the poor in Africa. “I was in that road once,” he says.

Summer awakening

Age: 17
Hometown: DeQueen
High School: DeQueen
Parents: Ann and Roy Coker
College plans: UCA, education.

Like many people, Jamie Coker had “heard all kinds of horror stories” before she attended Arkansas Governor’s School last summer. They turned out not to be true.

Jamie says that “no accomplishment in high school has affected me in greater ways” than Governor’s School, and that her time there “was truly the greatest six weeks of my life.” She had been living in a small town, around the same people, all her life. The free-flowing discussions at Governor’s School opened her eyes about that.

“The more I heard different people talk who believed different things, the more my beliefs made sense to me,” she says. “Not that I don’t respect them for their viewpoints. It’s just that for me, mine are the right ones.”

Governor’s School wasn’t Jamie’s first time of testing. Jamie’s mother was diagnosed with cancer “when I was 2,” she says. “I don’t ever remember her not being sick.” Her mom died when Jamie was 9.

Two years ago, her friend Cindy Williamson had a bicycle wreck and “hit her head real bad. She was supposed to be OK.” She wasn’t and “died that Easter Sunday morning two years ago.”

Soon after, Jamie’s step-brother, Dwayne Miller, “the first one of the [step] family who really accepted me,” was working on his truck. “He had it up on blocks and it fell on him.” He died.

Through it all, she maintained her academic resolve.

“If anything, it made me work even harder,” she says. “It was something to keep my mind focused on.”

Since sixth grade, Jamie’s semester grades have been all As–except for four Bs, including two when she was a junior. “Those were painful, really painful,” she remembers.

They left Jamie–who scored a whopping 32 on the ACT–with a 3.95 GPA and fourth in her class.

“It’s me and three guys. One of them, Drew Williams, is pretty much my best friend. We’ve been competing forever.”

Sno-cone queen

Age: 17
Hometown: Prescott
High School: Prescott
Parents: Debra and Duncan Culpepper
College plans: Louisiana Tech, pre-law.

Beth Culpepper has always set goals–and then reached them. Realizing as a 16-year-old 10th grader that she was ready to move on to the more challenging academic world of college, Beth took two college courses that summer. That allowed her to head directly into 12th grade at Prescott High School and get a one-year jump start on the rest of her life.

When it was time to look for a summer job last year, opportunity presented itself again: a friend offered to sell Beth her Hobo Joe’s franchise, a shaved ice business.

Her parents weren’t ready to invest, but they offered some advice. t sent Beth to a local bank where–with her father’s co-signature–she got a $2,500 loan. A new form of education began.

“At first I thought it was going to be easy,” Beth says. “I didn’t think about everything that would be involved. I had to deal with someone in Dallas to rent the lot, the city for utilities, the garbage men, the health department, a plumber and customers. I had to hire people to work when I couldn’t. I had to order supplies from Louisiana, keep an inventory, and pay all of the bills.”

But pay them she did, quickly retiring the loan and having “money to spend all summer and some left over.”

That’ll be her spending money next fall, when she begins classes at Louisiana Tech in Ruston, a school she chose “because it’s on the quarter system. I can take more classes that way.” But not before at least one more summer at Hobo Joe’s. The Chicken and Egg Festival in July and the Nevada County Fair in September are huge in the shaved ice business, she reports.

Committed to deaf

Age: 18
Hometown: Morrilton
High School: Morrilton
Parent: Dora D. Dinnan
College Plans: Harding University, Searcy, speech pathology

Like many of the Academic All-Stars, RaDora Dinnan’s record of accomplishments is long. She’s a National Honor Roll member, a state 4-H Teen Leader, a former Hugh O’Brien Youth Leadership representative, winner of a National English Award, a Girl’s State delegate, will graduate with highest honors … and we’re just getting started.

But unlike the rest of her All-Star teammates, RaDora is deaf. She was diagnosed at the age of 2 with an inherited hearing loss, and has worn hearing aids in both ears since then.

The aids bring her hearing up to 90 percent, RaDora says; she puts 100 percent into her efforts to comprehend. “I can’t stand not to understand,” she says; “I hate missing things around me.” If she’s had a hard time hearing in class, she goes back to her teacher after school to go over what she’s missed. That says a lot about her drive, and something about the devotion of her teachers at Morrilton High School.

One of those teachers, Sharon Martin, who’s taught RaDora geometry and advanced math, says, “She doesn’t give up easily, she just keeps working and working and working.”

The hard work’s paid off: RaDora is going to Harding University, which she’s visited on church trips since she was a little girl. She’s a little apprehensive; she’s heard some professors are pretty tough

It’s unlikely any professor would turn down a request for help from this responsible teen-ager who’s worked at a Christian book store after school for the past year and is a member of the Morrilton Vision 2020 program, a community committee looking toward Morrilton’s future.

And though RaDora’s passion is marine biology, she’s committed to a career in speech pathology. “I want to work with children with hearing loss,” she said.

Anchors aweigh

Age: 17
Hometown: Smackover
High School: Smackover High
Parents: Danny and Sherry Farley
College plans: U.S. Naval Academy

Come June, Jonathan Farley will pull up anchor in Smackover and set sail for a congressional appointment to the Naval Academy.

If all goes well, he won’t be earthbound forever. Jonathan hopes to follow the footsteps of his brother into the Marine Corps and a career as a flyer.

Big brother will be betting on his success, remembering the time when Jonathan was but a ninth grader and big brother had to put every other class aside to do enough cramming to match the freshman’s score in physics.

Jonathan excels at lots of things, including the calculus and American government courses he took at the University of Alabama last summer, though he’s still irritated that he got only an A- in calculus.

Jonathan is well-rounded. He long jumps and runs the 800 meters in track, plays baseball and does a rare triple in band–percussion, baritone and trumpet. He switched to brass, finding the drums “too much of the same thing over and over again.”

Jonathan will graduate second in his class of 44, with honors as the top student in most math and science courses he took. He’s worked as a teller at a local bank, volunteered in community cleanups and for Special Olympics.

Jonathan also has taught classes about Arkansas at the public library for elementary school kids. (He passed our impromptu quiz on his hometown’s name–it’s from the French for sumac-covered.)

Smackover is still covered with sumac and it’s still, says Jonathan, “a place where everybody knows everybody else and has a lot of community pride.” Some of that pride these days is in Jonathan Farley, who guidance counselor Lucretia Norris said, has been aiming at the Naval Academy since junior high. In her appropriate words, “he’s a student willing to risk unfamiliar waters.”

Back to the land

Age: 17
Hometown: Alread
High school: Alread
Parents: Ronald and Linda Harder
College plans: Hendrix College, theater education

The back-to-the-land movement of the ’60s and ’70s brought to Arkansas’s hills a generation of people who wanted a life closer to nature and self-reliance. Now, the state is reaping the benefits, one being Mariah Beth Harder.

Like three of her four brothers, Mariah was delivered at home, in a building since turned into the family’s chicken coop. Her father builds oak deck and patio furniture; her mother teaches phonics at little Alread Public School, which has 110 students in grades K-12. When the Harders located to Arkansas, “we went a year without electricity and several without running water,” her father said, “and that’s how she got started.”

That rugged start put Mariah on the road to Hendrix College, where she’ll study theater education. “My goal has always been to teach dance,” Mariah said, “but that’s kind of a hard degree to get.” She considered ballet school briefly, but her practical side won out. She loves performing; she figures a career in teaching theater will allow her to put her dance and performance background to best use.

Mariah, class valedictorian with a 4-point GPA, an alumna of the Governor’s School, Beta Club president, and FBLA, Student Council, and Senior Class vice president, credits her parents. “My family is great,” she said. “We’re all really busy and active. .. They’ve taught me how to manage my time well.”

Almost half the students in the Alread School District are the children of the back-to-the-landers, Ronald Harder said. There used to be more, but not all of the newcomers found the life to their liking. “You either love it or you hate it, and if you love it it’s hard to leave,” he said. The Harders, he said, are “lucky to have Arkansas.” And vice versa.

Church leader

Age: 17
Hometown: Fayetteville
School: Fayetteville High
Parents: Brian and Debra Holt
College plans: University of Arkansas.

Nancy Johnson, assistant principal at Fayetteville High, guesses that Aaron Holt is destined to be something unique in her career: the “student against whose performance all subsequent students will be measured.”

Strong words at a big high school known for producing lots of top students.

Aaron’s record fits the buildup, though he modestly says his greatest achievement has simply been to “survive” his senior year with some success.

That he did. He’s number one in a class of 417, with SAT scores approaching perfection and, in his pocket, the prestigious Sturgis Fellowship. He won’t have to come up with a dime to continue his college education in his hometown. (Aaron ruefully admits he once made a B, in the third grade. He was adjusting to his first round homework, having skipped the second grade. It wasn’t that he couldn’t do it. He just forgot to turn it in.)

Aaron already has a leg up on college. He’ll leave high school with 12 hours of college credits, almost a full semester, thanks to top performance in advance placement courses.

Grinding away at the books isn’t this National Merit finalist’s only pursuit. His extracurricular work is almost as daunting. Work with the Methodist Council on Youth Ministries, that has sent him around the state organizing assemblies for youths, a program that “really can touch people’s lives.” Religion has played an important role in Aaron’s life, a way to overcome his own struggles even as he helps other strugglers.

He’s worked with Habitat for Humanity and for a community house painting program, among other church-related missions. He’s also done tutoring at school, where he’s been president of the Foreign Language Club.

Math and psychology interest him as possible college courses of study.

Youngest all-star

Age: 15
Hometown: Little Rock
High School: Central
Parents: Dr. K.C. Huang and Dr. Pippa Simpson
College plans: Cal-Tech, Pasadena, mathematics and physics

When Emma Huang was 4, a sportswriter called her mother in amazement. He’d seen Emma do the butterfly stroke, and was eager to write about the little wonder. “She’s always had tremendous concentration skills,” her mother, a statistician at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, explained.

But Emma’s competitive swimming will take a back seat to math and physics when she enters Cal-Tech, where Emma will be one of the youngest freshmen

Only 14 when she was accepted, Emma will follow in the footsteps of older brother Casey, 19, who will graduate from Cal-Tech this year and move on to Cambridge University in Great Britain.

“I’ve taught for 28 years, and she’s one of the most intelligent students I’ve ever taught,” said advanced placement biology teacher Annice Steadman. “She’s got problem-solving skills you usually don’t see until the graduate level.”

Perfect SAT scores, a GPA of 4.380 and a class ranking of No. 1 tell you something about Emma. Then there’s this: At 14, Emma won a national mathematics symposium with her paper, “Number Theoretic Methods in the Topology of Singular Four-Manifolds.”

Emma explained breezily that the project was simply to pour sets of numbers into a formula to see “if they could be used for a model of the universe.” It was kind of “weird,” she said; “we were just fooling around with numbers.”

Emma’s biology class is preparing to dissect a mink, and Steadman expects Emma, as usual, to help teach the rest. “A lot of bright kids know how to do things, but don’t want to share [their knowledge]. She wants everybody else’s grades to come up, too.”

Emma moved to Arkansas with her parents from Detroit last August. Emma’s sister, Pip, 17, will also graduate from Central this year and head to Wellesley College.

The Sara Show

Age: 18
Hometown: North Little Rock
High school: North Little Rock
Parents: Debbie Cate and Gene Manning
College plans: Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, anthropology or history.

Dinah Allen, the gifted and talented facilitator at North Little Rock High School, West Campus, says that “when we have the awards assembly this year, it’s going to seem like the Sara Manning show.”

The list of Sara’s school activities, awards and volunteer efforts runs over two pages–single-spaced. “Sara has done everything,” Allen says. “She’s the most organized child you’ve ever seen in your life.”

Sara’s organizational ability has led her to succeed at activities ranging from cheerleading (four years) to calculus (advanced placement award, 1997).

Test-taking makes Sara nervous, Allen says, but Sara uses hard work and goal-setting to overcome her nervousness. In the eighth grade, at the urging of her math teacher, Sara set herself the goal of becoming her high school valedictorian. “I would work days ahead in my classes just to stay afloat with all the other extracurricular and outside activities I had going on,” Sara wrote.

She didn’t just stay afloat, she became No. 1 in her class of 479.

The causes for which she’s volunteered include Habitat for Humanity, North Little Rock Boys and Girls Club, the Girl Scouts, the Sierra Club and Race for the Cure. Sara is active in Fellowship Bible Church, and started her own drive to provide clothing and food for the homeless.

Asked what motivates her, she says it “makes me a lot happier to make people happy.”

Sara plans to major in anthropology or history at TCU. She thinks she’d like a career as an anthropologist or archeologist–a hard-working one, no doubt.

As Allen says of Sara: “Her mother and I know that that child works all the time. Everything she’s gotten she’s worked hard for.”

Melting pot

Age: 16
Hometown: Little Rock
School: Central High
Parents: Nguyen H. and Ngoc-Nga Nguyen
College plans: Rice University, pre-med.

Freddy Nguyen is a one-man melting pot. Born in Paris, son of recent Vietnamese emigres, he added knowledge of Spanish to French, English and his parent’s native tongue in moves to Houston and, now Little Rock.

Though a resident of the U.S. only six years, he’s about to graduate Number 2 in Central’s class of 460, not bad for a student who turned 16 within the last 10 days.

Freddy (his last name is pronounced Win) hasn’t cruised through Central on crip courses. This year, he’s taking six Advanced Placement courses and acing the lot of them.

Says guidance counselor Sam Blair: “Freddy has challenged himself academically as much as any student I have known.”

He shines in engineering, his greatest achievement a two-year project that put him in the American Junior Academy of Science. With household materials–coffee cans, spoons and such — Freddie built two different types of tiny hydroelectric turbines. The idea was to rate them in electricity production. He shared his findings (the vertical propeller turbine beat the Pelton wheel turbine, in case you wondered) with a hundred other top students in Philadelphia.

For fun, Freddy makes computer and calculator programs to display graphics.

Outside the classroom, Freddy went back to school last summer to help paint the library, taking members of his family along with him, and judged science fairs at two elementary schools.

Freddy volunteered at the events surrounding the 40th anniversary of the school desegregation crisis at Central and he lists as one of his important school activities the Accept No Boundaries club. A positive legacy of the school’s pivotal role in American race relations, the club’s aim is to expose its members to different cultures. Freddy Nguyen can speak with authority — in many languages.

Ja, er gut.

Age: 19
Hometown: Pine Bluff
School: Pine Bluff High
Parents: Rick Pierce and Diane Pierce
College plans: Hendrix College

Most kids are in a hurry to put high school behind them. Not Jared Pierce.

Excited by the account of a friend who had been an exchange student, Jared won a scholarship to spend what would have been his senior year in Germany. Living in the home of a small town handyman and gravedigger, Jared went off to a German high school knowing little more of the language than “ja” and “nein.”

“I’d just sit there in class and listen. Finally, things started clicking. After three or four months, I could definitely speak and understand German.”

He spoke it well enough, at least phonetically, to sing bass in three local choirs. He also played the universal language, soccer, during his stay in Hochstadt, near Heidelberg.

Back home for his senior year (the time spent in German high school didn’t count toward graduation), Jared qualified to be a National Merit winner for the second time. He couldn’t win the award while abroad, so he had to be retested.

Jared is tops in his class, with a grade point bulked up to 4.5 with A’s in honors courses. He is captain of the Quiz Bowl team.

Sandy Chavis, counselor at Pine Bluff High, calls Jared “other-centered.” The Eagle Scout tutors underachieving third graders, as well as working with classmates in need of help in geology, trigonometry and biology. “He is real, not affected, when helping other students,” says Chavis. “His easy smile and kind words are given freely to all students regardless of their race, academic level or socio-economic background.”

Jared won one of Hendrix’s top scholarships. This summer, he’ll be in San Diego working with the agency that helps arrange student exchanges. He thinks he’d like a career in which he could travel and use the foreign languages he’s learned.

A brother’s lesson

Age: 18
High school: Mount St. Mary Academy
Hometown: Little Rock
Parents: Randy and Carolyn Prickett
College plans: Randolph-Macon College, Ashland, Va., unsure of major, plans career in physical therapy

Sarah Katherine Prickett’s grades and test scores are high, and she’s an accomplished equestrienne and singer. But when asked to describe her most significant achievement, Sarah writes not of honors.

Her greatest achievement is the lesson she has learned from her brother Matthew, who has Down Syndrome. Sarah writes that “Matthew has a lot of limitations; but when I think of Matthew, I only see all the things he can do.”

And the lesson she’s learned? “I can look at him and see how happy and lively he is despite his handicaps. If Matthew can find joy in his life, then I know I can find it in mine.”

Sarah Wilkinson, a guidance counselor at Mount St. Mary, says that Sarah Prickett’s high school career got off to a commendable, but low-key, start. Then it took off. “All of a sudden we began getting this outstanding work from her,” Wilkinson says.

Sarah says that the high standardized test scores she started achieving in her junior year made her realize that “I’m smarter than I always thought I was.” Sarah’s transcript and her grade-point average of 3.9 reflect her growing confidence in her intellectual ability.

St. Mary’s choir director, Kim Abbott, has seen Sarah’s confidence grow. “She has really blossomed over the last couple of years — in everything, in music, in her personality,” Abbott says.

Sarah is president of the Concert Belles, Mount St. Mary’s choral ensemble, which has performed at the White House and received an invitation to perform at Carnegie Hall.

Physical therapy appeals to her as a career choice because it combines physical activity with helping people.

Substitute teacher

Age: 18
Hometown: Ratcliff
School: Subiaco Academy
Parents: Bob Jr. and Jeanette Redford
College plans: Hendrix College

John Redford has a decidedly playful side. He acts in all sorts of school and community theater productions, emphasis on comedy.

Give him a nice weekend and a patch of pasture near his family’s Arkansas River Valley ranch and he’ll likely pull out a weapon for a few blasts of paintball.

At his house, he’s the hero of the children his mother teaches in a Montessori pre-school. “They just love to watch him juggle,” his mother says.

And juggle he does, from academics to sports to the stack of books he has going at any given time.

An A student with a 1520 SAT score (1600 is as high as it gets), John manages to rank “only” 5th in his class of 28 at demanding Subiaco Academy. His teachers think highly of them. In computer and math classes, when teachers have to step away, John sometimes steps in. He’s been a prize winner in biology, chemistry and algebra at Subiaco.

He ranks his top academic achievement as making it to national finals in the Chemistry Olympiad, while a first-year chemistry student. He’s also a National Merit scholar.

Besides drama, John pitched in on the football team (wide receiver), fencing and the school newspaper. He taught himself to play guitar, which he sometimes plays in church.

He’s also been president of his 4-H club, chairman of his church youth council and a volunteer for the Salvation Army.

Computer science is a likely college focus.

Says his mom, who should know, “I bet John can do just about anything he sets his mind to.”

Lincoln Logs pay off

Age: 18
Hometown: Batesville
High School: Batesville High School
Parents: William and Louise Sandefur
College plans: University of Missouri at Rolla, materials engineering.

Teacher Paul Reynolds describes Elizabeth Clarice Sandefur as the intellectual equal of her parents. Since both her mother and father hold doctorates–her father in physics, her mother in organic chemistry — Elizabeth meets a pretty high standard.

Elizabeth’s remarkable test scores reflect this standard: 1,570 out of a possible 1,600 on the SAT; 35 out of a possible 36 on the ACT. She just won a National Merit Scholarship.

But Reynolds stresses that Elizabeth isn’t one of those high school students who flaunt their scores. “She’s not intimidating to her peers,” he says. “Even though she’s probably the smartest kid we’ve had for years, she’s not out to impress anyone.”

So despite her record of straight A’s in high school, she hasn’t hitched her identity to her brains. She plays violin and is on the school’s track and cross-country teams.

Elizabeth says her persistence in finding a violin teacher contributed to Lyon College’s decision to bring a string teacher to the area. She also thinks that her devotion to her studies–she does her homework on the bus to and from track meets–has demonstrated to her peers that it’s acceptable to be both an athlete and a scholar.

Elizabeth came to Arkansas from New York state, and acknowledges that things are different down here. “Everybody is very friendly. … The pace of life is slower.” She likes the Ozarks enough to remain in the area, planning to attend the University of Missouri at Rolla.

Elizabeth wants to go into materials engineering, which seeks new uses for new materials, because “I like to make things.”

“I like to sew. When I was little I liked to play with Lincoln Logs.”

We knew something good could come from playing with Lincoln Logs.

Cancer researcher

Age: 18
Hometown: Sherwood
High School: Wilbur D. Mills University Studies High School.
Parents: Suresh and Rohini Shah
College plans: Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland. Pre-med.

Sapan Shaw of Sherwood presents a daunting list of accomplishments.

First in his class of 238 seniors at Wilbur D. Mills University Studies High School; Young Artists Award; one of four winners of the Promising Young Writer of Arkansas awards, first place overall and Best in State in the state Science Fair competition.

But these are only state-level achievements. Sapan received a coveted invitation last summer to participate in the Research Science Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he got to do followup work on cancer immunotherapy research work he’s done over three years’ time at the Arkansas Cancer Research Center in Little Rock. His focus was “free radical biology” and it was serious stuff.

“Altogether, this experimental endeavor has given me great experience in medical research to serve as a foundation to continue my academic pursuits,” he writes. “My experiments have proven influential in their respective fields winning numerous awards at scientific competitions and presentations.”

This is a kid who’s also a varsity soccer player and a violinist.

Delores Treadway, his counselor at Mills, says Sapan’s only problem at Mills has been not having enough time to pursue all the academic endeavors he’d like to. Against teachers’ advice, he took six advanced placement courses his junior year.

When he had to find time for a required speech course, “he couldn’t bear to pass up AP Environmental Science, or AP Art, or AP Physics, or AP Statistics, which he’s doing as an independent study here at school,” so he enrolled for a class at UALR to satisfy the speech requirement.

MIT engineer

Age: 18
Hometown: Little Rock
High School: Parkview
Parent: Helen Stephenson
College plans: College undecided, will major in engineering.

One half of the Parkview entry, Jeannette Stephenson is vice president of the student council. She writes:

“Who would ever have thought that a summer of intense, hard work could turn out to be one of the most important experiences of my lifetime? The Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science is a rigorous six-week program sponsored each summer by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MITES allowed me to learn in an environment in the fast-paced college world but lacking the pressures of making good grades on all the work. It gave me the skills I need to survive in the field of engineering and in the world.”

Jeannette was a member of the Lady Patriots volleyball team, co-president of the Beta Club, and a member of the Key Club, the National Honor Society, Mu Alpha Theta, Accept No Boundaries, and Peer Helpers. Her major community contributions include the Parkview blood drive, Coats for Kids, the Parkview canned food drive, serving as a research lab volunteer at the Veterans Hospital, and judging the Forest Park Elementary School science fair.

She won the Robert Sarver Memorial Volunteer Award at Parkview, and has won academic achievement awards in Latin, chemistry and physics. She ranks seventh in a class of 300 and maintains a grade point average of 4.1.

Still, she finds time for her church (First Baptist of England), where she is assistant director of the youth group and secretary of the Sunday School, and for the state Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, where she was a junior commissioner in 1996-97.

Jeannette’s guidance counselor, Hazel May, writes “Jeannette is remarkable on a personal level. This was dramatically brought to my attention as I worked with Jeannette on the Parkview Puppeteers and Conflict Resolution Committees during Parkview Peer Helper Training. Jeannette was born to be part of programs such as this.”

For the birds

Age: 18
Hometown: Solgohachia.
High School: Morrilton High.
Parents: Ken and Jan Sutterfield.
College plans: Wheaton College, Illinois. Philosophy

Ragan Kenneth Sutterfield of Solgohachia is probably the first accomplished birdwatcher and coffeehouse philosopher to make the Academic All-Star team.

His birding accomplishments include having been a walk leader at Pinnacle Mountain State park, doing field work for the Breeding Bird Atlas of the University of Arkansas and the Breeding Bird Survey for the U.S. Interior Department, winning the youth team competition at the Texas Birding Classic and serving as a contributing writer for “Snipe, the central Arkansas Audubon Society’s newsletter.

He numbers among his birding distinctions having discovered a rare forked-tailed flycatcher in 1995. That’s a Costa Rican bird and its appearance here caused quite a flap in the Arkansas birding community.

Ragan’s interest in the physical sciences has also had him participating in several archeological and paleontological digs and auditing at age 11 a physical anthropology/paleoanthropology class at UALR.

Ragan, class president at Morrilton High, got interested in philosophy–notably, existentialism–a couple of years ago and organized a student discussion group that meets at a local restaurant to discuss their favorite existentialist writers. This reading and these discussions helped him clarify his thinking, he says, “working to free me from my blindness to the human condition.”

He counts the formation of the discussion group as his favorite accomplishment.

“It was from a like group that our nation was born,” he writes, “and it is from like groups that the great changes that man so desperately needs will occur.”

Patty Rainey, Ragan’s counselor at Morrilton High School, calls him “the most prepared student for college that I have ever seen.” He has a learning disability, a form of dyslexia, “but instead of using that as an excuse for failure he has made it a reason for success.”

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