Two superstar high school seniors, one from a Marietta school and one from Cobb, have been named top in their districts, and the Cobb student has also outshined the competition in the entire region.
Julie Yan, of Wheeler High School in east Cobb, and Merrill Hart, of The Walker School in Marietta, were named winner of the two district STAR titles, respectively, as part of the 54th annual Student Teacher Achievement Recognition announcement.
Yan has also proven her academic rigor by taking home the title of region winner. The 3A region, one of 12 in the state, includes Atlanta City Schools, Buford City Schools, Decatur City Schools, Marietta City Schools and Virtual School System, as well as Cherokee, Cobb, DeKalb, Forsyth, Fulton and Gwinnett County Schools. Yan now moves on to represent the region in Atlanta as she competes for state STAR scholarships. The state winner will be announced in the coming days.
The STAR program celebrates the highest-achieving students from public, private and charter schools in Cobb and Marietta for having the highest SAT scores and falling within the top 10% of their class or top 10 students in their class, according to grade point average. Each student also chooses a teacher they feel influenced them most or contributed most to their academic success.
Normally, the Metro Marietta Kiwanis Club hosts a banquet, honoring all the school-level STAR winners and announcing the district-level winners at the end of the ceremony. Because of COVID-19, this year’s banquet was canceled.
Elizabeth Rhodes, of the Metro Marietta Kiwanis, said she believes this year is the first time the event hasn’t been hosted in its more than five-decade history.
Yan said she was shocked, and “a little confused,” when she was told that she had won not just her school’s STAR title and not just the Cobb County STAR title, but the STAR title out of a region with hundreds of thousands of students.
“It’s incredible,” she said. “Out of all the amazing people that I know are in my school — and then I can’t even imagine how amazing people get as the region gets bigger — I can’t believe I’m the STAR out of all of them.”
Yan is bound for The Georgia Institute of Technology in the fall, with an intended major in biomedical engineering. She said she wants to develop and design medical products. Prosthetics are particularly interesting to her.
The Wheeler senior, who earned a near-perfect SAT score and will graduate with a GPA around 4.7, credited her STAR teacher, Jennifer Callison-Bliss, with creating a classroom environment that she said fostered curiosity and academic exploration.
“She’s just an amazing teacher. She perfectly walked the line between teachers who are your friend and teachers who are your teacher,” Yan said. “We all respected her so much that it created a classroom environment of — we really wanted to make her proud, so everybody was really on top of their game.”
Callison-Bliss taught Yan in her DNA and genetics class, a hands-on and lab-based course that the student said was her favorite throughout high school.
The science teacher said she was surprised to be chosen as Yan’s STAR teacher, given that she’d only taught the student for a class in her junior year. But, Callison-Bliss said, she was excited nonetheless.
“She’s one of my favorite students that I’ve ever taught,” Callison-Bliss said. “Julie’s really unique. ... She’s just willing to go above and beyond because she wants to. She’s not necessarily looking for a grade. She just gets good grades because she’s excited about what she’s learning.”
For his part, Yan’s father, Tiejian Yan, called his daughter “very hardworking and self-motivated.”
“We are so proud of her achievements,” he said. “We can’t wait to see where she goes next.”
Walker School STAR Merrill Hart said she, too, was surprised when she received word that she was the Marietta STAR. She said she knew many of her friends were also at the top of the class, giving her fierce competition.
Hart scored 30 points shy of perfect on the SAT and is expected to graduate with the equivalent of around a 4.6 GPA. Her school measures GPA on a 100-point scale. She’s headed to the University of Virginia in the fall and doesn’t yet know what career path she may take.
Hart said she’s interested in many subjects, which makes her decision difficult, but she especially enjoys science. She was supposed to intern at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta before the pandemic canceled those plans.
She said her interest in science, combined with her drive to help people could lead her toward the public health field. And, she added, her proficiency in Spanish could help her reach Spanish-speaking communities.
Fittingly, Hart said it was her Spanish class and teacher that were major factors in helping her come out of her shell and get more comfortable with taking leadership roles.
Hart said her STAR teacher, Eva Bundy, was “always excited to teach,” and that passion rubbed off on her and on other students.
“She did a good job of pushing me without embarrassing me too much in class or making me talk too much,” she said.
Though her student may not have been expecting her recognition, Bundy said she’s “not surprised” Hart was named the district STAR. She also said she was honored to have been chosen by Hart, who she taught in Spanish classes over four years.
“We’ve developed a relationship,” Bundy said, adding that an exchange trip to Spain that she’d accompanied Hart on brought her and Hart close and challenged Hart to get out of her comfort zone. “She has performed at the highest level consistently for four years.”
Bundy said she and other teachers marveled at how hard the student, who has received countless accolades, volunteered and participated in various extracurricular activities, worked and how quietly she did so, never looking for praise or validation.
“She really has the respect of all her teachers and her peers, and she works so, so hard,” she said. “Sometimes you forget, you just take for granted that she’s doing all this work.”
Hart’s mother, Anna Hart, said watching her daughter’s growth has been highly gratifying. She said the teachers at Walker, especially Bundy, challenged her to be the best possible version of herself without trying to change her.
“Really what we’re most proud of is that Merrill’s led a very balanced high school life,” she said. “She’s participated in the life of the school, as far as sports and being the yearbook editor and really involved in clubs and spending time with her friends.”
Anna Hart said her daughter is a quiet leader but one with a soft heart. She said Merrill Hart was quick to help her peers with their work, while balancing her own.
“I would be in her room and say, ‘Don’t you have a paper due tomorrow?’ And she’s editing someone else’s paper,” she said. “She was able to accomplish a lot without making sacrifices as far as being a part of the community or building friendships and connections.”
This year, there were 26 school-level STAR winners for Cobb and Marietta. Here is the full list of STAR students and their teachers from each of the participating schools. Two schools had two STAR students:
♦ Allatoona High School: Luke Jansen Towery and teacher Elizabeth Downey
♦ Campbell High School: Canon Jackson and teacher Heather Lynch
♦ Cornerstone Preparatory Academy: Alexandra Swanson and teacher Tracie Setzler
♦ Dominion Christian School: Brooks Barahona and teacher Nabile DePraect
♦ Harrison High School: Kai Adams and teacher Megan Schuitema
♦ Harrison High School: Kevin Bhavsar and teacher Tracy Weir
♦ Hillgrove High School: Kevin Barron and teacher Joseph Hilliard
♦ Kell High School: Christian Hurn and teacher Doug Hale
♦ Kennesaw Mountain High School: Naisha Sylvestre and teacher Bonnie Wright
♦ Lassiter High School: Victoria Dutkiewicz and teacher Chris Minich
♦ Marietta High School: Abigail Creyts and teacher Barbara Manwell
♦ McEachern High School: Ifran Ambahun and teacher Michael Lee
♦ Mount Paran Christian School: Matthew Buchan and teacher Bonnie Stephens
♦ North Cobb Christian School: Abel Yared and teacher Josh Speck
♦ North Cobb High School: Paulette DeJarnette and teacher Deepa Stephen
♦ Osborne High School: Jacqueline Montelongo and teacher Phillip Thurmond
♦ Pebblebrook High School: TiOluwalade Adesanya and teacher Katina Howell
♦ Pope High School: Greg Park and teacher Julie Kokan
♦ Shiloh Hills Christian School: Sean Kasper Jeter and teacher Andrew Bundrum
♦ South Cobb High School: Abena Tanoh and teacher Terry Davis
♦ Sprayberry High School: Allison Mawn and teacher Kyla Passman
♦ The Walker School: Merrill Hart and teacher Eva Bundy
♦ Walton High School: Banglue Wei and teacher Brian Benton
♦ Walton High School: Vedika Bhatnagar and teacher Erin Guthrie
♦ Wheeler High School: Julie Yan and teacher Jennifer Callison-Bliss
♦ Whitefield Academy: Chase Watson and teacher Stephen Hellier