Monday, October 6, 1997

School system earns merit: The National Merit scholars at Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools share some common ground

Published in the Columbia Missourian

The Kewpies continued their winning streak this year with a 9-1 semifinal victory over the Bruins, despite only a 2-1 advantage going into the game. The game isn't football. It's the National Merit Scholarship qualifying competition. The stakes are college admissions and funding.

Nine Hickman seniors earned National Merit Semifinalist status in the 1997-98 competition. Only one Rock Bridge senior is in the running for the National Merit prestige and money for college tuition.

Students have been in high school for just more than a year before they take the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. That exam, which students take as high school juniors, determines eligibility for National Merit Semifinalist status.

It is hard for any high school to have much impact on a student's ability in that
short time. The entire school system contributes to the success of top students. "Every one of those semifinalists is a Columbia product," said Thomas Arni, Rock Bridge's director of guidance.

These students have known each other for years. Five of the district's 10 semifinalists this year were in elementary school together at Ridgeway. Three of them went to Midway.

A solid start
The environment in which these young adults have grown up has enabled them to succeed.

Junior high students tend to dislike smarter students, said Angela Paneck, a Hickman semifinalist.

In high school, that disdain changes into quiet respect. The lack of negative distraction contributes to the learning environment.

"It helps to have really supportive friends," Paneck said.

"It's also good to have people help you relax," said Aimee Blanchard, another
Hickman semifinalist.

The home environment also is important.

"Parents start you off on that track," said Matt Arthur, classmate and fellow semifinalist.

Each of the three Hickman students had access to books at a young age. Individual exploration of books and parents reading to children help the learning process, they said.

Parents also need to be positive forces in their children's lives during school. "Everyone needs to go home and get approval," Paneck said. "It's hard for me to brag to my friends, but you're supposed to be able to go home and tell your parents."

In the end, though, students are on their own. "You make your grades for yourself, not your parents," Paneck said.

The school is a place to stretch students' abilities, said Bragg Stanley, Hickman's director of guidance. "What we do here is build on a solid foundation."

Schools contribute
Because of its larger enrollment, Hickman has a wider variety of classes, more student activities and a larger number of advanced classes.

Rock Bridge, though, has its attractions.

"They have more fun," said Paneck, who has several friends at Rock Bridge. Blanchard moved to Columbia from Texas two years ago. Her teachers there had heard of Hickman's opportunities. She lives in the Rock Bridge district but transferred to Hickman.

Rock Bridge works hard on its learning environment, but every year, students transfer to Hickman.

"We hate to lose them, but there's not much you can do to fight that," Arni said.

Many students who transfer live in the Rock Bridge section of West Junior High's district. They do so to stay with junior high friends from the larger Hickman section of West's district.

Arni attributes the different semifinalist numbers to those transfers, though both Arni and Stanley agree the schools are about equal when all the transfers are done.

The curriculum prepares students for test-taking and for further education. It shows.

This year was the most successful ever for Rock Bridge students taking the Americ an College Test. Despite the imbalance in National Merit Semifinalists, Rock Bridge test-takers scored the highest in the school's history.

Teachers of advanced classes at Hickman offer opportunities to improve test-taking skills, Blanchard said. Extra classes such as film study, genetics and "write to publish" add depth to the curriculum.

"There's too much to take," Arthur complained.

Teachers also seem to be willing to spend time with advanced students. Paneck points to her honors-level teachers, who push her harder. In a "regular" class, she said, she got a lower grade because the class had less motivation than in an honors environment.

Honors classes
Blanchard was never formally taught grammar. Instead, she picked up appropriate language usage from reading books and from teachers' comments on her writing. Paneck is frustrated that some teachers don't correct grammar or spelling on her papers now. So is Blanchard.

"You get a handout from a teacher that has grammar and spelling mistakes on it," Arthur said, "and you say, 'What are you thinking?' "

On the whole, though, the students agree that honors classes are more advanced, more learning-oriented and draw stronger students than nonhonors courses. "The biggest thing about an honors class is the people in it," Paneck said.

Testing and scoring
The tests, though, aren't necessarily accurate measures of ability. Blanchard mentioned a friend who got a perfect score on the math section of the PSAT and did less well on the verbal section. The National Merit Scholarship Corp. ranks students by doubling their verbal scores and adding math scores. Blanchard's friend was a Commended Scholar and did not make Semifinalist status because of this calculation method.

The PSAT is intended to be a measure of potential academic achievement, Arni said. In contrast, the ACT is based more on completed coursework and knowledge already attained.

"I think that testing is way overrated," Paneck said. She offered the example of a bright student who has a bad day. She added that the time limit affects scores by making some test-takers feel rushed.

Academic achievement isn't the only attribute worth attention, the students agreed.

"Other students do good things, too," she said.

National Scholars
Hickman High School
Semifinalists Finalists Scholars
1995 19 18 14
1996 12 8 3
1997 12 11 3
1998 9 * *

Rock Bridge High School
Semifinalists Finalists Scholars
1995 5 5 3
1996 3 3 2
1997 4 4 2
1998 1 * *
*The 1998 Finalists and Scholars will be announced in spring 1998.