2015 Arkansas Times Academic All-Star Team 

Meet this year's best and brightest high school students.

ICE PRINCESS: Little Rock Central's Sherry Gao is headed to Harvard with her gold medals in skating.
  • Brian Chilson
  • ICE PRINCESS: Little Rock Central's Sherry Gao is headed to Harvard with her gold medals in skating.

The class of 2015, our 21st, is full of Olympic-caliber athletes, musicians, quiz bowlers and scientists. There's rarely a B on the transcripts of these students — in not just this, their senior year, but in any year of their high school careers.

Back in 1995, we created the Academic All-Star Team to honor what we called then "the silent majority — the kids who go to school, do their homework (most of it, anyway), graduate and go on to be contributing members of society." Too often, we argued then, all Arkansans heard about young people was how poorly they were faring. Or, when students did get positive attention, it came for athletic achievement.

As you read profiles of this year's All-Stars, it should be abundantly clear that good things are happening in Arkansas schools and that academic achievers deserve to be celebrated.

They have busy lives outside school, too, with extracurricular activities, volunteer work, mission activities and more.

They'll be honored this week at a ceremony at UALR with plaques and $250 cash awards.

The final deadline for college decisions has not yet arrived. College plans listed are, therefore, not set in stone.

Age: 18
Hometown: Cabot
High school: Cabot High School
Parents: Naomi Lalonde and Andrew Applegate
College plans: Hendrix College

Maxim recently sent an email to the Arkansas Times tooting his own horn: He has won the Governor's Distinguished Scholarship to Hendrix College, a $10,000 award matched by the college for a total of $20,000. Tooting a horn — that is, a trumpet, in the Boston Crusaders Drum and Bugle Corps — is something Maxim loves to do, and something he says has taught him "important life lessons that I will never forget." He elaborates in his essay for the Academic All-Stars: "Having to precisely hit 2.5 steps off the 35-yard line, 5.75 steps in front of the front hash on count 6, while playing a complex lick with a crescendo initiated on 2, all while looking tall, strong and professional taught me how detailed and precise I can and need to be with everything I do in life."

Maybe it's that precision that's allowed Maxim to do so much: Besides his excellent academic record (33 on the ACT, a GPA of precisely 4.2308, National Merit semifinalist, AP Scholar), Maxim has managed to spend summers traveling the country and practicing 12 hours a day for the international-level drum and bugle corps; performing with the Winter Guard International in winter; playing with the high school marching band, the school wind symphony and a jazz band and working as a barista two to five nights a week during the school year.

In between those activities, he's completing his Eagle Scout project — a clothes drive — and teaching trumpet lessons. He has also donned a hazmat suit while working with a church group that was cleaning out a New Orleans house hit by Katrina and closed ever since. At Hendrix, Maxim hopes to double major in music and environmental studies; a conversation he had with a Hendrix professor has got him thinking about "developing cities environmentally." Let the Times toot Maxim's horn a bit: From talking to him, we fully expect him to succeed at whatever he chooses to do.

Age: 17
Hometown: Pocahontas
High school: Pocahontas High School
Parents: Ely and Ginger Baltz
College plans: Baylor University

Haley Baltz of Pocahontas High School comes from a long line of achievers.

"I've got a little bit hanging over my head because my mom was valedictorian and all her brothers and sisters were valedictorian," she said with a laugh. "So I thought, 'Oh man, I've got to kick it in gear or else I'm going to be in trouble.' "

Kick in gear she has, rising to the rank of No. 1 in her class of 125, with a GPA of 4.2 and an ACT score of 30. With plans to go to medical school after getting her B.A., Haley has already started down that path by volunteering and hosting charity events that highlight her interest in medicine.

"One thing I did was host a blood drive," she said. "I started planning for it last October. They sent me posters and I hung them up and then I called some people who I knew were donors. They sent me a list of donors, and I had 25 to 30 people show up in January." She has also served as a patient ambassador at St. Bernards Medical Center.

After college at Baylor University, she hopes to become an obstetrician, a goal she aimed for after taking a child development course and attending a program in Jonesboro that helps students decide whether the medical field is right for them. "They talked all about the fetus and how it grows," she said. "The whole idea of delivering babies into the world is really cool. It's a big moment in people's lives when a child is born. When you're there to help them with it, that's exciting. You might not get excited about a colonoscopy, but you'll get super excited when there's a baby on the way." She said she plans to come back to Northeast Arkansas after medical school and her residency, to serve the people in the area where she grew up.

Haley credits some of her success to her parents, Ely and Ginger, who she said have always encouraged her to excel. "My parents really pushed me when I was little," she said. "By the time I got to high school, that was already ingrained in my mind: that I wasn't supposed to settle. I was supposed to be the best."

Age: 18
Hometown: Little Rock
High School: Pulaski Academy
Parents: Dave and Beth Bartholomew
College plans: University of Oklahoma

After considering it for a moment, Reid Bartholomew admits that he is "probably the only major writer on the football team" at Pulaski Academy. Reid has received the Sewanee Book Award, the Arkansas Scholastic Press Association's Best Short Story award, and was the editor-in-chief of his school's literary journal, "Veritas."

I really got into writing in my sophomore year," he says. "I had some teachers who pointed out that I was a good writer. Once I started, I realized that I absolutely loved it and could do whatever I wanted. It was my own world." His fiction, like that of his foremost influence, C.S. Lewis, is informed by his faith. A "very strong Christian," Reid plans to become a pastor, and his short stories reflect the intensity of his religious practice. Accordingly, he will major in English. "As a pastor, one of the most important things I'll have to do is communicate my beliefs to others," he says. "And writing is all about communicating ideas and beliefs clearly and effectively. Writing sermons will be really easy if I can write a book."

He does plan to write a book, in fact, which will most likely depict a spiritual journey. "A lot of the books they have you read for school are so depressing," he says. "It always was at odds with my views on life. I'm a very positive person. I believe that there's meaning in life and that life is inherently good. And so I try to write about things that give hope. Things may suck sometimes; but, in the end, everything's going to turn out all right."

Age: 18
Hometown: Pocahontas
High School: Pocahontas High School
Parents: Shawn and Melissa Carter
College plans: Hendrix College, if not some Ivy League prospects

Boys State? Check. Photo with president? Check. Working to acquire athletic skill (golf) to be a well-rounded Rhodes scholar candidate. Active in grass-roots Democratic Party politics.

With that resume, it shouldn't surprise you that Pocahontas High's Graydon Carter admits to a desire for a future in politics. Here. "Arkansas matters a lot to me," he said.

In 2014, he moved from being an intern in the Democratic Party's coordinated campaign to turn out the vote, to forming a Young Democrat chapter at his high school, to running for presidency of the state YDs.

It wasn't easy. 2014 wasn't a good year for Democrats in Arkansas. Pocahontas is a conservative place. Flyers sometimes get taken down. Graydon was undeterred. He sees recent Arkansas election results as a backlash to national politicians and believes there's a growing progressive streak in the state.

His teachers think if anybody can make things happen, Graydon can.

Pocahontas High Principal Daniel Goodin says Graydon is an "action person. If he wants something done, he's going to act on it."

Graydon said his political work at least encouraged a lot of discussion and "brought political issues to the minds of 300 adolescents." Some of them joined the volunteer effort.

Graydon also found time to start a debate club in Pocahontas, which helped hone his political interests.

Volunteer work didn't harm his schoolwork. Graydon is ranked fouth in a class of 124 with a 4.17 gradepoint. He's a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist.

He's competed in Quiz Bowl and Odyssey of the Mind (leading a Pocahontas team to world competition) and participated in student government and the Key Club. He's done volunteer work for St. Bernards Medical Center and the local Catholic Church. He led a campaign for anorexia awareness. He's published poetry.

Says Principal Goodin: "He's continually looking for ways to make Pocahontas a better community."

Age: 18
Hometown: Little Rock
High School: Episcopal Collegiate School
Parents: Steven Dunnagan and Kim Dunnagan
College plans: Undetermined

Looking ahead, Laura Dunnagan can envision getting a degree in law, with a concentration in immigration law. She seems a perfect fit for such a career: As president of Episcopal's Honor Council, Laura spends much of her time thinking about right and wrong and what her high school's Honor Code should look like.

"As president," she said, "I decided that it was time for us to take a critical look at the Honor Code and see what needed to be amended."

Because Episcopal is a relatively new school, she believes the code, while strong, could be expanded. The Honor Council hears allegations of cheating, stealing, lying or plagiarizing, and Laura said she spends an average of one and a half hours doing the work of the Council every week. The Council's members — who are chosen for their "personal honor and integrity," Laura said — determine the outcome, but consequences must be approved by the head of the school.

Laura's other leadership roles are president of the Spanish Club and senior class secretary. Laura is not all about public service: She also has a musical side. Laura plays the piano and, because she wanted to "branch out," the accordion.

She also has an interest in nature: She has gone with Earthwatch to Trinidad to study leatherback sea turtles and help collect eggs.

Laura is still deciding between Davidson College, Rice University, Washington University and the University of Arkansas, where she has been offered a Bodenhamer Fellowship.

Age: 17
Hometown: Little Rock
High school: Little Rock Central High School
Parents: Xiang Gao and Li Tong
College plans: Harvard University

Sherry Gao was at the ice rink when she had a phone interview with the Times, because that's where she is most of the time when she's not in school. Sherry has been skating ever since she saw the Disney movie "Ice Princess" when she was 8 years old, and wrote this about her "love affair with figure skating" in an essay for the Times, which began: "THUMP. What happened? I fell on my butt. Again." Gao says skating was a journey, from skating with ease as a little girl, to finding it took more than "pointed toes" to progress as an older skater, and to finally figuring out her "groove," winning four U.S. Figure Skating gold medals. How? "THUMP. I climb back up, brush myself off and skate on."

In the academic rink, Sherry's achieved a triple axel of sorts: She's first in her class, scored a perfect 36 on the ACT and missed a perfect SAT score by only 90 out of 2400 points. She scored a $5,000 Stephens Award for high school seniors and was named a semifinalist in the Presidential Scholars Program as well. The hardest thing Sherry says she's ever done: Biology at Harvard summer school.

"You think it's an introductory class and that you already know things, but it's so much more than that. Just being at Harvard is crazy and surrounded by other people — like a really close classmate who had just graduated from Cornell [University]" and needed the class for medical school.

Medical school is probably where Sherry is headed as well. She lives with a doctor — her father is a radiation oncologist — "and I've met a few foot doctors in town," she said. She's also thinking about teaching.

"I've had such amazing teachers" at Central, Sherry said. "The one that inspired me the most is my European history teacher, which is crazy because I am 100 percent math and science. I walked in thinking it would be the most boring thing ever and I just loved it — it's my favorite high school class."

Just like her spins on ice, Sherry is a well-rounded girl, something Harvard likely took into account when it admitted her last fall.

Age: 18
Hometown: Pearcy
High School: Lake Hamilton High School
Parents: Darlene and David Gentles
College plans: University of Arkansas at Fayetteville

You don't often hear teenagers rave about the delights of statistics, but if you talk to Emily Gentles you'll want to take a course yourself. She calls statistics "exciting. I get excited thinking about it." Statistics allow you to "take abstract things and quantify them and analyze them." There are lots of career options for a statistician, she said, analyzing trends for companies, for example. What might be her next statistical study? To redo a project she did for school, to quantify the difference in the number of females used in ads in male-targeted magazines as opposed to males in ads in female-targeted magazines.

Perhaps if there is something rarer than a teenager wowed by statistics, it's one who is also a flutist and piccolo player. She says band has been a "constant force" in her young life, and that she worked as hard as she could to gain a seat on the All-Region band and then the All-State band.

"I still practice daily," school day or summer day, she said, and she plans to play in the concert band at the University of Arkansas, where her academic credentials — first in her class at Lake Hamilton — earned her a full ride. But before she's off to college, Emily will travel to Hanamaki, Japan, as a mentor for students visiting Hot Springs' sister city. On her return, she'll head to West Virginia to the National Youth Science Camp, where she'll study biology and nature. Emily says her motto is to "become the best that I can be. ... When I don't win competitions or get the best grade, I'm still happy with myself because I tried my hardest."

Age: 18
Hometown: Little Rock
High school: eStem Public Charter School
Parents: Ellen Hammond-Hagood and Doug Hagood
College plans: Vassar College

Community service is the thing for Darcy Hagood, who is ranked No. 1 in her senior class of 117 at eStem Charter School in Little Rock, with a GPA of 4.38.

A Girl Scout since the second grade, Darcy has achieved the prestigious Girl Scout Gold Award, the equivalent of the rank of Eagle Scout. She was the first student in eStem history to take a full schedule of seven AP courses in one year, for which she earned straight As — and she did it as a junior. She has since taken 11 AP courses in all, and has been named an AP Scholar with Distinction.

Darcy said the biggest success of her high school career, however, was her establishment of a successful, student-led program that brings high school students from eStem to tutor and mentor in elementary school classrooms. That program will surely endure long after she has graduated.

"I really like to learn, and I feel like it's important for kids to have that — to enjoy learning and to be able to appreciate it," she said. "I know it's really hard for lots of kids in middle and elementary school to engage because of disabilities, because of socioeconomic situations, what have you. I thought it was really important to get somebody who does enjoy learning into those classrooms."

While Darcy hasn't decided on a career goal yet (in college, she hopes to study neuroscience, linguistics and design, and hopes to make a decision about what she wants to do in life after taking a few classes), her attitude and work ethic ensure that she'll likely be successful no matter what she does.

"It's been instilled in me since I was very young that just doing enough isn't going to get you where you want to go. It's been established in my life that having a strong and very determined work ethic is very important," she said. "I enjoy the sense of accomplishment when things are done and done well. It's important for me for anything I do to be done well ... I feel like if I were to take on a project or an assignment that isn't done to that full capacity, it's not good enough. It deserves better."

Age: 18
Hometown: Benton
High School: Benton High School
Parents: Julie and Terry Jester

College plans: Ouachita Baptist University

When others on this list head to Ivy League schools this fall, Cole Jester plans to travel just 45 minutes away from home to attend college in Arkadelphia, despite having a GPA and ACT score that stand toe-to-toe with any high school senior in the state. Cole said he chose OBU for a reason. It's "like home to me," he said. "It is defined by kindness and mutual community ... [and], it has innovative and cutting-edge biblical research and education." He'll major in political science and Christian studies, and after finishing his undergraduate education he has plans to enroll simultaneously in law school and seminary.

If you haven't guessed by now, faith is central to Cole's life. Specifically, he has a passion for service, and his high school career has included volunteering for a community clinic, tutoring younger kids, working with the homeless and participating in mission trips from Little Rock to New York City to Quito, Ecuador. However, he said, "the greatest opportunity of my life to help others" has been leadership in the Pure Energy Youth Choir at Benton's First Baptist Church. As president of the 120-member choir, Cole leads practice every week, and he's also found opportunities to counsel and assist young people dealing with trouble at home. "Many students come in lost and hurting and leave better, happier, stronger people. To many, it is the defining aspect of their high school experience," he said.

Cole's guidance counselor describes him as "a natural born leader" and "an all-around outstanding young man." Ranked first in his class academically and voted "most likely to succeed" by his peers, it's no surprise that Cole contemplates a future in electoral politics as an extension of his desire to do good works. "Men and women just want a kind word and a reason for tomorrow, and I fear more than anything the day I don't assist in that," he wrote in his essay to the Times. "It is my, and all's, duty to assist in building a kinder, gentler life for those we touch."

Age: 17
Hometown: Fayetteville
High School: Fayetteville High School
Parents: Grace Keegan Johnson and Floyd Johnson
College plans: University of Arkansas

Samuel Johnson, who moved to Fayetteville from St. Louis, spends most of his free time volunteering for various activities and organizations related to the Catholic Church. He is a member of the Youth Advisory Council for the Diocese of Little Rock, leading prayers and organizing rallies for the church's interests. He is a regular attendee and participant at the "primarily Catholic" Search Retreat, at which he participates in Christian-themed skits. "One of the most powerful ones," he explains, "is about the 'seven deadly vices' that come and attack a girl, and she goes and joins the devil. And then at the end Jesus protects her from all of them." He plays a cigarette smoker. Though not a native, he has fallen in love with Fayetteville, his adopted hometown, and has committed to attend the University of Arkansas, to be close to family and remain in the city he's grown to admire. "It's a big enough city that you can have plenty of Walmarts, stores, a mall," he says, "but it's not so big that you have to deal with a bunch of traffic or a bunch of violence." He plans to study business management — with a minor in French; he scored among the top 10 students in the country on the national French exam, and plays French-language trivia games on his phone with his French teacher. After graduating, he says, "I want to do some management level stuff for however many years, then I'm considering retiring early — not full retirement, but instead going into teaching. That way I wouldn't have to worry about the teacher salary, because it's not the easiest thing to live on."

Age: 18
Hometown: Fort Smith
High School: Fort Smith Southside High School
Parents: G. Keith and Cindy Larkin
College plans: Harvey Mudd College

The world of the future is sure to be a place that runs on ever-better computing power, and Blake Larkin of Fort Smith plans on helping make that future happen. A senior at Southside High School, Blake has a GPA of 4.2, and scored a near-perfect 35 on the ACT. Involved in scouting since elementary school, he has risen to the rank of Eagle Scout. He's also a National Merit Scholar and National AP Scholar.

Along with captaining his school's Quiz Bowl team, which he says he loves because it gives him the justification for learning as much as he can about as many subjects as possible, Blake's passion is computers. He wants to be a computer engineer someday.

"I spend a lot of time with computers," he said. "I have a computer that I built that I spend a lot of time tinkering on, upgrading things. I program things. I love it. I'm excited to be a computer engineer. I want to build stuff to help other people do other stuff."

With computers already an integral part of people's lives, Blake said that there is enormous potential for good in the field of computer engineering. "I think computers are a magical box," he said. "If you can make a better computer, you make a better life for everybody — doesn't matter what field. Medical, business, whatever. They can already do almost anything. If you can make them do it faster, you just made everybody's life easier. You just saved people's lives, you helped people make money, you did everything."

Blake said he chose Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., because the school stresses a broad curriculum of all-around learning. Asked why he pushes himself so hard to be academically superior, Blake said that if a student refuses to settle for a "good enough" grade, then learning is always an exciting challenge. "Whatever you put into high school, you can always get out. When you move on from high school and go to college, there's never a point where you can say, 'Oh, I did all this extra work and that was for nothing,' " he said. "If you're willing to set yourself up to never coast, then working hard always gives you another mountain to climb."

Age: 17
Hometown: Benton
High School: Benton High School
Parents: Hanh Huynh and Thinh Le
College Plans: University of Central Arkansas

Dawn Le's family chose an inconvenient date to emigrate from Vietnam to the United States. "It was two weeks after 9/11," she said. "I remember, because our flight got postponed." Dawn was 4 years old and remembers her first few years in Arkansas as being "immersed in an alien world" until she finally began to grasp English. She now speaks the language with no trace of an accent, and since third grade she's helped her parents make phone calls and schedule appointments. That language barrier, she said, "prepared me to deal with people early on. I know there are kids in high school who still don't know their Social Security number, but I can talk over the phone with insurance people and the government."

Her transcript shows Dawn can master any academic subject she puts her mind to, but she's especially passionate about math. "There's a right and wrong answer, and it's set. It's not subjective," she explained. At UCA, she plans to study number theory and minor in applied math. But she's developed an unconventional fallback plan, too: "I'm going to go to cosmetology school at the same time." Why? "Because I really love cosmetology."

Talk to Dawn for more than a few minutes and you'll discover she also has a certain tendency toward social advocacy, a dimension of her personality developed by her time at Girls State, Governor's School and Model UN. "I like voicing my opinion and having it heard," she said. For example, "I'm an animal rights activist. The mass production of animals for the sole purpose of food — it's inhumane." She's been a vegetarian for four and a half years now. "And HB 1228? Honestly, I think that bill has good intentions, but it's worded very, very, very wrongly. I support the LGBT community." One gets the impression that it's the same streak of nonconformity that would lead a top student with an ACT score of 34 to take night classes in cosmetology that also underlies her bold opinions. "I do well academically to make up for my first years of school, in which I couldn't even talk," she said.

Age: 18
Hometown: Searcy
High School: Searcy High School
Parents: Annie Luy and Jayton Lim
College Plans: Stanford University

The Arkansas Times recently interrupted Joseph Lim from one of the few hobbies his busy schedule allows: fishkeeping. To an ignorant reporter, Joseph offered a precise definition: "Keeping fish and aquatic organisms and making sure they are in situations that fulfill their needs." The afternoon we called, Joseph was going to great lengths to fulfill the needs of two of his rarer species of fish. To breed pygmy corydoras (small, South American catfish) and gold-ring danios (small, gold fish recently discovered in Myanmar), he was tending to a 100-gallon, aboveground pond he put together in his family's back yard. He's starting with three of each species. By the end of the summer he hopes to have 20 of each type of fish. "Keeping them outside is a very good way to condition them for breeding," Joseph said. "There's a lot of food for them to feed on. There's a lot of sunlight for them to be happy in."

What's happiness mean for Joseph? Variety.

"Mondays after school this year usually follow this pattern: Exit AP Spanish, head to quiz bowl," he wrote in an essay for the Times. "Exit quiz bowl, drive to swim practice. Finish swimming, then head home and practice saxophone and piano. End musical practice, and study. I've often asked myself why I keep such a busy schedule. The answer is that I like doing everything. Variety is the spice of life, and I like my life extra spicy!"

But Joseph is no dilettante. He's No. 1 in his class, with a 4.22 GPA and an ACT one point shy of perfect. He's a National Merit finalist, an All-Region band member and a Quiz bowler. In the summer of 2013, he participated in the Harvard Secondary School Program; last summer, he attended Arkansas Governor's School. Still, he writes that he could have done more. Yet, at the same time, he knows he can only look forward. "The only thing I can do now, is look to the future, and take every opportunity that comes my way."

Age: 18
Hometown: Jonesboro
High School: Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts
Parents: Phuong Ly and Lynn Chang-Ly
College Plans: University of Pennsylvania

In her essay for the Times, Sophia Ly recalled a flash of larger inspiration she found hidden in a teacher's response when she asked for help studying for an immunology exam. "What he said struck me like lightning," she wrote. "'Life lives by shape.' Those words not only helped me understand how conformational changes initiate each step in the complement cascade, but also taught me how to think differently." Later, she explained further: "Everyone's life is shaped differently. Life is a puzzle, and we have different pieces. We can't just cheat off of other people about where our piece fits."

Speaking of complement cascades, Sophia's counselor says that she's the most respected student at the ASMSA by kids and teachers alike. That must be why Sophia is president of the Student Government Association, a position she's used to successfully lobby the residential school's administration for changes in student life. Bandwidth issues are a constant problem in a dorm filled with science- and computer-oriented teenagers, so she arranged a student forum with the school's tech directors that resulted in an agreement for the ASMSA to buy faster Internet and students to cut back on the personal Netflix use. Sophia also led the SGA in protesting for cafeteria reforms: "Now we have more variety on the sandwich bar and more fresh options," she said. "And there was this one dish made of leftovers that no one liked and no one ate, so they got rid of it completely. It was called Shipwreck Dinner."

Oh — we almost forgot academics. Sophia, who will major in pre-med, has spent summers studying forensic anthropology at Duke University, bay ecology at Washington College in Maryland, and Mandarin in Zhuhai, China, through a language exchange program sponsored by the U.S. State Department. All but one of her senior classes are in math or science — Genetics, Neurobiology, AP Physics, etc. — and she's researching how to optimize the uptake of heavy metals by E. coli bacteria in wastewater treatment. She also plays the piano and the ukulele, not to mention basketball. Wherever Sophia goes, our guess is that she'll solve the puzzle.

Age: 17
Hometown: Little Rock
High School: Episcopal Collegiate School
Parents: Walter and Nancy Bellhouse May
College Plans: Yale University

Recently, the New York Times profiled the famed college debating prowess of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who as a Princeton undergrad would abrasively bully his way through contest after contest with aggressive appeals to emotion. Debate seems to have taught Alan May the opposite instinct: to express a measured sense of restraint, self-effacement and cool reason on every topic. Now a three-year, award-winning veteran of Student Congress, he remembers discovering debate through a 10th-grade oratory class that first delivered nothing but discomfort. "I did a poor job; I just lost my train of thought," Alan recalled. Then, he slowly found his grip on public speaking. "I started writing down the things I wanted to say, and that helped."

Alan shows a similar mix of persistence and humility about everything from his participation in the Episcopal cross-country team ("I'm not very fast, but I got to like the people on the team") to his future career plans ("At this point in life, I don't think I'm qualified to make a decision.") But his academic record reveals plenty to brag about: He's got a GPA of 4.51, he's aced AP classes on every subject from calculus to Virgil and he's the captain of the school's award-winning Quiz Bowl team. He also interned for U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. last summer and is a National Merit finalist.

Alan's counselor marvels at both his emotional intelligence and his appetite for knowledge, including a list of recent reading materials that includes Edward Gibbon, William Faulkner and Tina Fey. When Alan spoke to the Times, he'd just started on the Federalist Papers, which he described as "literary kale — good for you but not always fun."

Alan himself may not be certain what career path he should take, but his counselor isn't circumspect: "I concluded that Alan should serve as a United States Supreme Court Justice," he wrote.

So, how about it? "Being a judge would be an interesting career," Alan responded. "I don't think I would end up on a really high court." Sen. Cruz should take some notes.

Age: 17
Hometown: Searcy
High School: Searcy High School
Parents: Kelly and Wendy Neill
College plans: University of Oklahoma

Crystal Neill is a leader with experience. For two years, she served as captain of the Searcy High School Quiz Bowl team and drum major of the school's marching band. As the former, she dictated strategy, including deciding which teammates would play each round and what topics the team would pick when they got the chance to decide. As captain, Crystal writes in her essay for the Times, "I can be a part of something bigger than myself and yet contribute to extending our capabilities."

Meanwhile, it took her some time to grow into her stentorian drum major call. "At first, it was difficult to yell at people," she said. "I'm kind of quiet, so that was interesting. But it's kind of a different voice that you're using." Serving as drum major also means managing at least a half-dozen tasks simultaneously. "I feel like that's really something that helped me with leadership capabilities and learning how to deal with people, how to motivate people and dealing with conflict," Crystal said.

In both positions, Crystal also led by example. As a clarinet player, she was a member of the All-Region band for four years. She sat in the Searcy High band's first chair for two years. She was a member of the all-tournament Quiz Bowl team for four years, including in 2013, when the Searcy team won a state championship. All the while, she's excelled academically. She's a National Merit finalist and an AP Scholar, and she scored a perfect 36 on the ACT and maintained a 4.19 GPA.

In the fall, she'll attend the University of Oklahoma, likely in pursuit of a mathematics degree. Why math?

"I love that every problem has an answer, but you can still be creative in how you answer," Crystal said.

Age: 17
Hometown: Springdale
High School: Har-Ber High School
Parents: Nancy and Dave O'Brien
College plans: University of Arkansas

Leadership and faith are the twin pillars in the life of Springdale's Alex O'Brien, a National Merit Scholar ranked No. 1 in his class at Har-Ber High School, with a GPA of 4.25 and a perfect score of 36 on the ACT.

A self-professed "math and science guy," Alex said that he likes the problem-solving aspect of calculus, his interest spurred by the inventive teaching staff at Har-Ber. He will attend the University of Arkansas, which has offered him the prestigious Honors College Fellowship. A saxophone player, he also has been accepted to the Razorback Marching Band. He plans to study engineering at the UA.

"I'm leaning towards chemical engineering right now because I want to get involved in the environmental side of industry and try to clean that up a bit," he said. "But I'm trying to keep an open mind, realizing that once I get involved in the engineering program, I might change my mind."

A member of Crosspoint Community Church in Tontitown, for the past few summers Alex has volunteered at New Life Ranch, a Christian summer camp in Oklahoma. He became involved in its leadership program in recent years, starting out as manual labor and working his way up.

"I went and worked on the landscaping and worked in the kitchen," he said. "I served the campers and everything else that needed to be done. This past year, I moved on to the second stage, which was working as a day camp counselor." This summer, he'll be a counselor-in-training. He plans to continue as a counselor there throughout his college career.

That stick-to-it attitude has defined Alex throughout his high school career. He said it came from his sense of competitiveness. "My older brother got involved in sports, and he was very good at that," he said. "I kind of found my identity in academics and music. Those were the things that I wanted to be the best at. I pushed myself, whether it was easy or not."

Age: 17
HOMETOWN: Fayetteville
HIGH SCHOOL: Fayetteville High School
PARENTS: Haiyan Chen and Xiaogang Peng
COLLEGE PLANS: Yale University

Michelle Peng took flight in describing the month she spent last summer in France, honing language skills she'd begun acquiring in junior high (on top of the Chinese she speaks at home).

She was nervous — jumping off a cliff with a paragliding instructor and being dropped into rapid-fire French conversations. Her nervousness faded away. "I realized that I wasn't in free fall. Just like I had my paraglider wing, I had four years of French to help. ... Thanks to my amazing French teachers at Fayetteville High, I was able to have conversation in French without sounding too idiotic."

It's important to take chances, she says. "Sometimes when the cliff looks scary, you just have to take a running start and jump."

Her parents jumped, from China to the U.S. She's returned to their homeland and learned of the opportunities many there lack. It has built empathy toward others, says counselor Leslie Zeagler.

Her teachers echo her praise of them — "calm and quietly confident," said counselor Dawn Norman. She's a National Merit scholarship semifinalist and president of the school's chapter of Young Democrats, and vice president of the statewide Young Democrats organization, which recognized her as the Young Democrats' Woman of the Year recently.

She's captain of the debate team, president of the Model United Nations and president and founder of the school's chapter of Amnesty International, where members wrote letters and studied immigrant rights and the Guantanamo detention facility.

She's the top-ranked student in a class of 652, with an ACT score just one point short of perfect. Her achievements include top honors in French and math competition.

Among other activities, she worked as a canvasser in the campaign (unsuccessful) to Keep Fayetteville Fair, which sought to preserve a civil rights ordinance.

She sees international relations, political science and economics in her future. She's passionate about her work with the Democratic Party.

She acknowledges the end of reliable Democratic voting patterns in Arkansas, but thinks the Democrats can cope by stressing the economic programs they support. "It is a party for people who are struggling. We're not a wealthy state. It makes sense to vote for programs that benefit them. The party should make that clear."

Michelle does.

Age: 18
HOMETOWN: Little Rock
HIGH SCHOOL: Little Rock Central High School
PARENTS: L.E. Tang and Puteri Sillenneon
COLLEGE PLAN: Leaning toward Yale University.

In the brief essay the Times asks All-Star nominees to write, Zen Tang revealed a mathematician's precise analysis with the dreaminess of a lyric poet.

"I've spent years studying real analysis (fancy calculus), nonparametric statistics, probabilistic knowledge representation and inference, machine learning and computer vision. But in artificial intelligence, there are no boundaries. ... The future, filled with strange machines, crippled systems and people, sometimes is a hazy cloud, but staring at the sky, with my back on the ground, I can breathe in clearly. It asks only that I be free to change, to choose, to improve, to make things better."

Ask Zen's counselor, Kim Williams, about him and a project to make things better comes immediately to his mind. Zen is one of the more serious students Williams has counseled, but also, he says, "one of the most caring."

Since the ninth grade, Zen has worked in a program that sends tutors to middle schools to "help students get excited about math." He's helped coach his charges at Pulaski Heights Middle School into the state Mathcounts competition.

Zen is No. 1 in a class of 570, with a 4.54 grade point in AP courses (he's taken 22 of them). He's a National Merit scholarship semifinalist and one point shy of a perfect 36 on the ACT test.

He plays piano, dabbles in cooking, but shines in math and the sciences. He's been in the Mathletes club since ninth grade and leads the school's nationally competitive Science Bowl team.

He's a national AP Scholar for high scores on tests in the many courses he's taken and had the top score in the state on the National Spanish Exam. He's president of the National Honor Society chapter at Central as well as Mu Alpha Theta, the honorary math group.

Zen says he's moved from a math focus to a broader scientific focus, particularly artificial intelligence, for its potential to "change the world." He's been experimenting for two years with experiments to have machines replicate human intelligence. The problem solving is, by Zen's lights, "fun," even "magical." And potentially world changing in the bargain.

Age: 18
Hometown: Cabot
High School: Cabot High School
Parents: Brent and Amy Weeks
College plans: University of Arkansas

In February, at the Arkansas Vault Club in Black Springs, Cabot native Lexi Weeks set the national indoor pole-vaulting record for high school girls, clearing the bar at 14 feet, 3 ¼ inches. She is now tied as one of the country's two top female prep vaulters; the other is her identical twin, Tori. The two are also co-salutatorians at Cabot High School — both are ending their high school careers with perfect GPAs. The New York Times profiled the sisters earlier this year in an article titled "Twin Pole-Vaulters Reach the Height of Alikeness."

"There's a lot of pressure that comes with it," Lexi told the Arkansas Times recently of her rank and of the attention it has generated. Asked whether sharing the top spot with her sibling had proved contentious, she replied that it had not. "We're, I guess, competitors," she said, "but it's always a healthy competition, never a bad competition. We just push each other, really."

Both Lexi and her sister, who have also been on the tennis and cheer teams for much of their high school careers, have also accepted track scholarships to the University of Arkansas, whose team is currently ranked No. 1 in the nation. She plans to major in chemistry and apply to pharmacy school after graduation, because it would be "a good job for a mom to have," she said, "really good hours."

Lexi has also expressed an interest in competing in the 2016 Olympics. "It kind of feels like flying," she said of pole vaulting's appeal. "There's always that new goal. Once you clear something there's always that next height to go for."


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