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Brainy teens say top scores no big deal

by: Jim Hart, Eight seniors at West Linn High School are National Merit Scholar semifinalists. From left, back row: Marta Hanson, Heather Wallace, Isaac Cohen, Eric Nesbit and Alix Gerber. Front row: Christiana Cha, Audrey Riesen and Jenni Denekas.

Ask almost any of the eight 2006 National Merit Scholars from West Linn High School, and they'll tell you they're more interested in creative arts than academic skills.

These seniors would rather play music, sing a song, stage a play or write a poem than listen to a lecture on math logic, 19th-century authors, the U.S. Civil War or photosynthesis.

And yet all of them had such high scores on the preliminary SAT, a standardized language and math skills test required by many colleges and financial aid programs, that they are among the top 1.1 percent of students with the nation's highest scores.

About 1.4 million students took the test.

As a result, the eight West Linn scholars are semifinalists in the 52nd annual National Merit Scholarship Program, which gives more than 8,000 scholarships worth a total of $33 million.

To win the award, each student must have an outstanding academic record throughout high school, be recommended by the principal and earn SAT scores that confirm the PSAT scores.

The student and principal also must write descriptive essays about the student's participation in school and community activities.

Here is a snapshot of each semifinalist at WLHS:

Christiana Cha

An active teen who likes to speak her mind, Cha is involved in a number of school activities, including several that benefit others. She also is a counselor at a church camp, active in a church youth group, a volunteer tutor and serves elders at Tanner Spring Assisted Living Center.

Her ability to focus and understand information as soon as it is presented to her, she says, will help when she is accepted at one of the prestigious or ivy-clad universities that she has her eyes on. Supporting the young woman at home are her parents, Kilnam and Kyung Cha.

Admittedly a 'Grammar Nazi,' Cha says she is skilled at writing and demanding of herself with writing skills. 'English is my second language,' she said. 'I wanted to learn it right.' Cha would like to get into a professional career, possibly in psychiatry for children, neurology or neurosurgery.

Isaac Cohen

Demonstrating his individuality, Cohen is opposed to the idea of standardized testing because he says it creates conformity.

'All of the (semifinalists) are intelligent,' he said, 'but I would say for much different reasons than being able to fill in bubbles correctly on a test page. That is not able to say as much about a person's intelligence as their music, writing or painting.'

He prefers, instead, to be involved in creative endeavors. Cohen plays the oboe and English horn for the Portland Youth Philharmonic, and the bass for the school's jazz choir. He also enjoys writing and BMX biking.

Admitting that academics is important, Cohen said there is a direct correlation between academics and the creative arts. And that's likely why he did so well on the PSAT. Cohen's parents are Joseph Cohen and Sally Visher.

Cohen said he wants to pursue his interest in philosophy and allow his university professors to mold him into 'an upstanding, patriotic American citizen.'

Jenni Denekas

With a long list of extracurricular activities to her credit, Denekas doesn't have much time for homework. But that doesn't bother her, since she said she focuses enough during class to gain a full understanding of the subject.

In the community, she has written articles for the Lake Oswego Review and the West Linn Tidings, and joined the papers' youth board. She also is active in a local church. Even though she took the PSAT once before, she thought taking it again offered another challenge.

'This time I was able to go through the test very quickly,' she said. 'I didn't feel too bad.'

She expressed excitement at the fact that so many people from WLHS achieved semifinalist status, and said she is amazed that she is one of them.

'So many smart people took this test,' she said. 'It is surprising and an honor to have made it (to semifinalist rank).'

Denekas has plans to choose a college in California or Washington state.

Her parents are Brian and Naomi Denekas.

Alix Gerber

An acknowledged reader, this teen feels a little guilty because she said there are a lot of students at West Linn High School who do things more worthy of recognition than getting a good score on a test.

Gerber is a self-described perfectionist, always striving for the best performance in all of her endeavors.

'It bothers me if I don't do something as well as I can do it,' she said.

She said she would like to see more recognition for students who volunteer to help others by serving the community.

At West Linn, Gerber has been involved in dramatic performances, while in the community she has worked at the library.

Gerber plans to apply for entrance to Cornell or Parsons universities or the Rhode Island School of Design.

Her parents are Mami and Cliff Gerber.

Marta Hanson

Filled with wonder at the expanse of topics for future studies that interest her, Hanson finds it difficult to commit to one career path. Instead, she offers a lengthy list of possibilities spanning from philosophy to international relations.

Active in high school, she said she finds pleasure in singing, acting and writing. Meanwhile, she also participates in church activities, outdoor school and tutors younger students. One of her qualities is color-coding her class notes. She uses that technique to be more organized while reviewing the subject during study parties prior to tests.

She also has an ability to focus on one topic at a time and not be bothered by things that might distract others, she said.

Hanson plans to choose from among Willamette, Columbia or Tufts universities.

Her parents are Mark Hanson and Greta Pedersen.

'I'm so grateful for my wonderful family, amazing friends and fabulous teachers who have supported and encouraged me every step of the way,' she said.

Eric Nesbit

Amazed at the number of people involved in the fine and performing arts, Nesbit said people who are focused on creative arts can also do well academically.

'I think that being involved in the arts and creative skills really does help,' he said. 'There's a lot of interesting connections between creative skills and general intelligence.'

Although he's interested in music - playing in the jazz and symphonic bands as well as the pit orchestra - his strong interests also include science.

And that's where he might end up in a major field of study at a university in Washington state, encouraged by his parents, Julie and Gary Nesbit.

And the National Merit Scholar honor will likely appear on his college application for admission.

'The biggest honor is being included in such an amazing group of students and people,' he said. 'It's amazing how involved everyone is in the arts.'

Audrey Riesen

Not only do dance, music and art fill this teen-ager's days and nights, but also she does volunteer library work during the summer and is active in a church youth group.

But when it comes to academics, Riesen focuses on homework and taking good notes for study.

Riesen will be heading to college-level studies in either engineering or dental majors - perhaps at Santa Clara University or the University Honors College at Oregon State University.

Riesen said her success in academics is due to her ability to focus, especially when taking the tests that she says occur in all of her classes very often. She also appreciates the recognition for her abilities.

'It feels nice to be recognized,' she said. 'But it also makes me feel like I have a lot to live up to - which is good motivation, but also is a good stressor.'

Her parents are Jon and Kellie Riesen.

Molly Robison

Admitting that she has a less-than-perfect grade point average and a spotty attendance record, Robison said it takes more than a 4.0 grade point average to do well on an academic test.

She is an environmental activist and member of the school's Green Team, which is concerned with conserving resources. She also has strong interests in art and music. After classes at West Linn, she goes to a Portland recording studio to learn about recording, composing and working with sound recording and editing equipment.

Homework is seldom on Robison's agenda. Instead, she said she takes in what she needs to know during class.

'I think one should learn by way of reading and listening constantly,' she said.

Robison is planning to attend college a distance away from home, since she would like to attend an art school in New York City or Paris.

Her parents are Steve Robison and Mary Hayden.

Heather Wallace

This teen admits having a burning curiosity and interest in the world. And that's why she said she performs well on tests. She considers studying as exploration and pays attention in class because she cares.

'In class, I make sure I have not just a repeat-back-to-the-teacher understanding of the information, but I make it my own,' she said. 'For me, it's not about the grade; it's about understanding what's going on.'

In school, she has been active in band, drama, fine arts and many advanced placement and honors classes as well as track and cross country.

In the community, Wallace served as a youth group leader and taught Sunday school, volunteering at every opportunity. Wallace plans to study neuroscience or philosophy at the university level.

Even though she said the pressure is great to be an achiever, calling decisions about her future 'looming and weighty,' she said she is grateful for the opportunity to move into the future.

Her parents are David and Laurie Wallace.