Tag Archives: super student

Three-Peat

September 5, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This state capital on the Pearl River was named after a president of the United States. What is the city and state? 

Most people could not answer this questions without going through an internet search. But Brendan Pennington, 15, wouldn’t hesitate to answer. 

“It’s as if he’s faster than Google,” insists Kristen Job, a secondary Excellence in Youth coordinator at Westside’s middle and high schools. 

Pennington’s brain is filled with facts about countless coastlines, odd flags, and endless tough terrains. Maps, globes, and atlases are a breeze for him to analyze. At 3 years old, Pennington pointed at cellphone towers and told his mom they looked like the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

“He has a real world perspective,” his father, Paul, says.

That is one reason why, when Brendan competed in the 2014 Nebraska’s National Geographic State Bee, he won.

Then, he won the next year. And two years after that.

Job believes it’s unlikely someone else will be able to capture a three-peat. 

Students in schools all around the state are required to take a geography test from fourth to eighth grades, then the top-scorers compete in their own geography bees. Each school champion then takes an online test to be eligible to compete in the Top 100 at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Competing in this event is optional, although Pennington believes the opportunity is worth it, as it helps the knowledge “stick” and creates opportunities for critical thinking.

Pennington prepared by poring over samples and researching facts before the competition.   

“When my parents asked me questions, I was like ‘ugh, it’s like an assignment,’” Pennington says. “But I liked looking at the atlas because it was fun.” 

He scored top honors in 2014, 2015, and 2017—but he almost lost the last time. The contest went to a tie-breaker. Pennington won by correctly naming the Tigris as the river that runs through Baghdad.

With prizes of $100 in his pocket and new atlases in his hands, Pennington headed to Washington, D.C., three times for the televised National Geographic Bee Championship.

Unfortunately, Nebraskans never saw this local boy on television. Last year, they almost did. Pennington got one question away from making it to the Top 10, the portion that is televised. He can’t recall the question that eliminated his chance on the small screen, but he doesn’t let it bother him. 

“I just thought…it would be great if I won, but if I lost, it wouldn’t change my life,” Pennington says. 

But the experience has done just that. Each time Pennington went to Washington, D.C., he met other students from different states and countries. Pennington still treasures these connections.

The state champion’s prize includes an all-expenses-paid trip for the student (and one adult, either a parent or a teacher, depending on the year), including tours of the capitol, meals, airfare, and hotel costs. Pennington had the opportunity to cruise the Potomac and enrich himself with history. He met Jill Biden, the wife of then-Vice President Joe Biden, during an ice cream social at her house. She complimented his red Husker polo shirt.

For now, Pennington has to set aside his dreams of winning a national championship, since it isn’t open to high school students. Instead, he joined Westside’s Quiz Bowl and French Club. He also started cooking international foods and playing tennis.

Oh, and if you still don’t know the state capital on the Pearl River, it is
Jackson, Mississippi.


Secrets of a Three-Peat Geography Champion 

“If you are doing something you don’t enjoy, it will feel more like homework and you won’t get much out of it,” Pennington says. “But if you are passionate, you will learn a lot more from it.”

  • Study It. Pennington watched videos, read books, and studied maps for half an hour or so each day. Study patterns should reflect how a student learns best. One student  might need to look at an atlas, while flashcards might work better for another. “Study hard, but study right,” Pennington advises. 
  • Take a Chance. Pennington lost the state geography bee in the fourth and seventh grades. Pennington moved on and put more effort into the following years. “Even if you don’t win one year, you shouldn’t get discouraged. There will always be another chance,” Pennington believes. 
  • Stay Calm. During the competition, “take a chill pill.” Pennington believes if he looks calm on the outside, he will remain calm on the inside. “Just put yourself in the mindset that you are just getting asked questions. If you don’t win, it’s not the end of the world,” Pennington says. 
  • Do Your Best. Hard work and effort do pay off in the end. “If you don’t understand another country or culture, it will be hard to critically think about what is going on in the world,” Pennington says. “And when you see things on the news, you will be able to understand it and make sense of it…there is a lot more out there than just Omaha.”

This article was printed in the Fall 2018 edition of Family Guide.

Passing On Education

May 4, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As a freshman at North High School, Elaundra Nichols knew she would someday go to college—she just wasn’t sure what that would look like or what it would take to get there.

An excellent student in math and science, Nichols figured she’d go to a state school—probably the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she attended several summer science camps, or the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Then, Nichols spent a week at the College of Saint Mary Summer Academy the summer before her sophomore year.

“I didn’t even know College of Saint Mary existed before I attended that camp—and it changed my opinion about attending a small school that’s also an all-girls school,” says Nichols, now a second-semester freshman at CSM studying science to become an occupational therapist.

As a young African-American woman, the ability to surround herself with other African-American women was important to her, and to College of Saint Mary.

“One of the things we try to show people who come from these two populations (African-American and Latina) is that if you have an interest, if you persist, you can do it,” says Summer Academy Coordinator Alexis Sherman.

“That experience changed my life in many ways because not only did I learn about CSM, but I also saw and listened to other African-American women who went to CSM during the camp. It completely changed my outlook in many ways.”

Nichols says she learned about the camp (there also is a separate camp in the summer for young Latina women) from a guidance counselor at her school.

Word was out that CSM was looking for African-American students interested in science, so she filled out an application and paid the fee — a mere $25 for the whole week.

“I really didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “This was a full week. Plus, all of the presenters and counselors at the camp were African-American women and students. I was really excited but also a bit apprehensive at first.”

Like many camps on college campuses, Nichols was quickly immersed in the college experience—living in the dorms, eating at the cafeteria, attending regular sessions and meetings, etc.

At CSM, Nichols immediately loved the forensics and coding classes she took in the mornings. She was drawn to meet and interact with other African-American women.

In the evenings, fun activities brought campers and counselors together to share stories, ideas, experiences, and dreams.

“Almost all of the counselors were CSM students, so it was a great experience to learn about science, but also learn about their experiences in college as women, and African-American women,” Nichols says.

“The speakers they brought in were really amazing, with great stories and experiences. It made it very easy to understand where they were in their lives in relation to where we would be in a couple of years.”

Nichols says she returned to the camp the summer after her junior year, and enrolled as a full-time student at CSM last fall. She participates in student senate and HALO (Honorable African-American Leadership Organization), and works in the CSM Student Leadership Office.

Nichols is excited once again for this summer’s CSM Summer Academy because she’s returning as a counselor.

She can’t wait to pass along all that she’s learned to the next group of young African-American women.

“I’m really looking forward to being as helpful and inspirational to them as the counselors were to me when I was attending as a student,” says Nichols, who keeps in touch with many of her fellow campers and counselors.

“I felt very empowered during my time at the camp, and I want these young women to see how powerful and smart they can be. The goal is to get them all on the right track to go to college, and I want them to know that there are options for them just as there were for me.”

UNL Big Red Summer Camps

Summer camps on UNL’s Lincoln campus also offer experiences that coordinator Lindsay Shearer says “give kids an opportunity to explore what college has to offer.”

UNL camp themes include: chickens, culinary arts, engineering, entrepreneurship, filmmaking, outdoor Nebraska, veterinary science, weather and climate science, and unicameral youth legislature.

“It’s an opportunity to explore what college has to offer. They get a chance to interact with faculty in their chosen field,” Shearer says.


This article was originally printed in the Spring/Summer 2018 edition of Family Guide.

Ally In

December 8, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Like many pre-teen girls, Ally Dworak loves animals. Unlike most 12 year olds, Ally doesn’t just think about animals. She raises them, studies them, and has made it her life’s mission to create a better world for her four-legged friends.

While most elementary school students are years from choosing a career path, this future veterinarian already comes with references. She understands that it is going to take a lot of schoolwork—specifically eight years of college—to reach that goal, but that doesn’t phase her.

“I love studying science and nature, I love animals, and I love meeting new people. Being a vet is just a way to combine all of these things I love,” she says.

The title “veterinarian” could cover anything from poodles to porpoises, and Ally loves them all. She fully understands that at some point, she’s going to have to narrow her field of study, and she’s thinking about going in a unique direction.

“I think I’d really like to learn more and maybe work with wolves. There’s a sanctuary in Colorado I’d really love to visit, and maybe study at,” Ally says. “They’re so pretty, and it’s so cool how they work in ranks. I like the way they work together. They’re kind of like us.”

She really loves dogs, which is not uncommon for a future vet. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, in 2016, 65.5 percent of all private-practice vets were in companion-animal exclusive practices, and 61.2 percent of those vets were women.

But Ally’s pony, Buttercup, also needs care, and Ally might want to work with horses. Mom Shellee Dworak is helping her to figure this out.

“My mom is working to set things up for me to spend a day with a vet,” Ally says. “Dr. Michael Thomassen at Nebraska Equine Veterinary Clinic is going to let me come with him and learn what he does all day. He gives horses their vaccinations and checkups, makes sure they’re healthy before a family takes them in. He does everything and he’s really so great!”

She wanted to spend the day there last year, but Dr. Thomassen said she needed to be at least 12 before shadowing him. Most students shadow in high school. Shellee is also looking at the possibility of Ally shadowing at Ralston Vet Clinic, where the family takes their small animals.

In the meantime, the Elkhorn Grandview sixth grader has been pushing her animal care dreams along on her own. She has been a member of 4-H since starting Clover Kids at age 5, and has successfully raised, and shown, several animals.

“Last year I showed a sheep,” she says.

Actually, she didn’t just show a sheep. She won Reserve Champion Junior Sheep Lead. The champion was her sister, Kate.

This year, Ally pulled no punches. In addition to her schoolwork, family obligations, and maintaining her social calendar, she intensely prepared several animals for scrutiny.

“I showed a pig, a sheep, a goat, a chicken, and a horse. At the last minute, I decided to show my pet green-cheeked conure (small parrot), Sherbet. He won first place!”

As did her goat, chicken, and horse. It took many hours of care to prepare for the fair, including learning more about veterinary science. Aggie the pig got a hernia in June. Concerned about what to do for her ailing pig, she peppered their veterinarian, Dr. Lupin, with questions.

With the help of the veterinarian, and the future veterinarian, Aggie recovered well. He then placed a respectable third at the fair.

Ally brings out the winning spirit in her charges. Her tireless enthusiasm is as much a sight as the creatures she nurtures to award-winning health and status.

This future veterinarian is well on her way to nursing, as well as nurturing, animals.

This article was originally printed in the Winter 2018 edition of Family Guide.

The Goal 
Smasher

August 30, 2017 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

Jose Soria’s summer vacation was not about sleeping in late and hanging out aimlessly. To the contrary, Soria spent the long, hot days of June, July, and August taking summer classes—not because he had to—but because he wanted to.

His preference for learning over spending his days at the beach began when he found out after his freshman year that his school offers students the opportunity to take college courses alongside their regular coursework. “I looked into the general education class requirements to get into the nursing program and started taking those,” he said. “I’d rather take them now instead of waiting to take them when I get to college.”

As a result, he’ll begin college with some of his required classes already completed, decreasing the overall time, and money, he’ll spend in college before he can begin his career.

He enjoys the opportunity to take these classes now while still in high school. He says this program is different from taking AP classes. “They’re similar to AP classes, but in AP classes you have to take an exam to see if you’re eligible for the college credit. What I’m doing now is [joint enrollment] with Iowa Western Community College.”

According to educateiowa.gov, the concurrent (or joint) enrollment program provides opportunities for high school students to enroll part-time in courses at or through community colleges. Per “Senior Year Plus,” concurrent enrollment courses are offered through contractual agreements between community colleges and school districts within their service area.

That means because Soria is a high-achieving high school student, he has taken courses ranging from college-level composition to intro to health care occupations, and the Council Bluffs School District paid the fees for those courses taken during the school year.

Soria hopes to go into the medicine field as a nurse, or working in surgery in some capacity. He’s drawn to the field because he wants the opportunity to “help a person out and make their day better.” His favorite classes are chemistry and health science, not surprisingly. He enjoys chemistry in particular because he is able to create something out of other things. Soria recently applied to volunteer at a local hospital and hopes to gain valuable experience in the medical field through volunteering.

When not studying or volunteering, Soria can be found exercising daily. “I walk or run every day,” he said, further demonstrating his ability to set a goal and work toward it.

His parents are from Mexico and were not able to finish high school. “They came to the U.S. to give us a better future,” he said. “This pushed me to become more independent and strive to get as much education as I can before I graduate.” Though he was born in Mexico, he has not yet visited there. Now an American citizen, his summers away from high school are full of “school, homework, and making sure I’m on track.” 

Soria has advice for anyone else who wants to accomplish their goals. “It doesn’t matter what your past is,” Soria says. “Always think ahead, and just because you’ve had a certain situation, it doesn’t mean you can’t succeed. Do it for yourself.”

This article was printed in the Fall 2017 edition of Family Guide.

Elizabeth Byrnes

November 20, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Students come up to me in the halls and ask when the pantry is going to stock toothbrushes…Toothbrushes…What they’re coming in for, it’s not just food they need, but basic items to survive and help their family.”

-Elizabeth Byrnes

Tucked away in a discreet supply room at Ralston High School, beyond the steel lockers and crowded classrooms, Elizabeth Byrnes is stocking nonperishable goods.

While classmates hurry to first period at 7:30 a.m., Byrnes shuffles paperwork, counts inventory, coordinates volunteer shifts, and organizes pick-ups and drop-offs for the school’s food pantry.

Byrnes is not your typical teenager. Sure, she’s a 17-year-old cheerleader who gabs on a smartphone and loves to shop at American Eagle. But this 5-foot-6-inch brown-eyed beauty takes her community service seriously.

So when she saw a sign last year advertising the school’s free food pantry, titled the R-Pantry, Byrnes decided to check it out.

“I didn’t know it was needed,” she says.

On that particular day, she visited the small closet of a lecture room where teachers had been operating a makeshift pantry that allowed students in need to shop anonymously for food, toiletries, and other supplies inside the high school.

Roughly 60 percent of students at Ralston Public Schools receive free or reduced-rate meals.

To create a healthy pantry, teacher Dan Boster says the Ralston High staff noticed the need and donated nonperishable items and the seed money—roughly $800 worth—in exchange for casual dress days.

“Once the pantry was created, we handed it off to the students,” says Boster, who also serves as National Honor Society adviser and oversees the pantry project.

Byrnes acquired the larder responsibility and has helped it evolve from the small closet of a lecture hall into a spacious supply room with large tower shelves brimming with food as diverse as artichoke hearts, fruit snacks, and granola bars.

Byrnes has grown the one-person operation to having 70 volunteers on deck to assist when needed. She has presented before the Ralston Chamber of Commerce when soliciting for donations and has advocated and made Ralston High an official Food Bank of the Heartland donation site.

She describes the families who utilize the pantry as living break-even lifestyles, existing paycheck-to-paycheck, with little left over for simple luxuries such as lip balm or toilet paper. Students from such families experience a lot of stress and anxiety over where their next meal is coming from, she adds.

“I saw how education is extremely difficult to get, especially if there’s a need in the household,” Byrnes says. “Students come up to me in the halls and ask when the pantry is going to stock toothbrushes…toothbrushes…What they’re coming in for, it’s not just food they need, but basic items to survive and help their family.”

Food insecurity—which means that people lack access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle—can be invisible, she explains. “Not knowing if there will be dinner on Friday night or lunch on Saturday.”

The R-Pantry idea is a positive response to a really challenging situation: student hunger. It is not the ultimate solution, but it is a start.

“I have so much respect and admiration for these students who are asking for help to support their
families.”

Byrnes excels in calculus, biology, and creative writing. She serves on DECA, is a class officer, and participates in National Honors Society. She enjoys running, hiking, and playing with her two dogs—Sophia and Jack.

Byrnes credits her family for always influencing her to do what’s best and help those in need. Dad (Robert E. Byrnes) is a doctor. Mom (Mary Byrnes) is a mortgage banker. Brother (Kent Keller) is a police officer.

“Her empathy for people runs very deep,” her mother says.

However, the driven teen doesn’t always communicate well with mom and dad, jokes her mother: “She was never one to seek glory. We didn’t know how involved she had been in the pantry until she was recognized. When she made homecoming court, we didn’t know about it until people began congratulating us.”

Mom adds, “She moves through life as if this is just a job. Helping others is just what she does.”

Byrnes plans to attend a four-year university next year and major in biology. She’d like to someday become a cosmetic dentist or dermatologist.

Byrnes encourages other young people: “If you see something you could change or help out, don’t be afraid to jump in there. You could change someone’s life with your one small action.”

The R-Pantry at Ralston High School (8969 Park Drive), is open on Fridays after school until 4 p.m. To volunteer, contact the school at 402-331-7373.

This article was printed in the Winter 2016 edition of Family Guide, an Omaha Publications magazine.