We regularly celebrate the people who enrich the cultural fabric of the Magic City and move us forward, but what about the the movers and shakers of tomorrow? We decided to shake things up and shine a light on the next generation of Birmingham’s great minds. We went to high schools across Birmingham and asked about their students. We not only wanted to find students who excelled academically, but those who extended their excellence to the community, a passion project or some other intriguing personal cause. What are the youngsters of tomorrow doing today? And we were delighted to discover the inspiring, unexpected and moving answers to that question. Here are 16 of Birmingham’s most impressive high school students and the marvelous things they are already doing to change, not only Birmingham, but also our world.
16 of Birmingham’s Most Impressive High Schoolers
Taking a look at this impressive senior’s resume will make your jaw drop. Ranked first in her class with a score of 35 on the ACT, Zixiao “Annie” An has seemingly taken every AP course her school has to offer. She is an Alabama Governor’s School Representative, Birmingham Debate League Runner Up, Birmingham Youth Leadership Forum Finalist, Magic City Chapter Essay Content Gold Award winner, among other honors. Active in the Student Government Association and tutoring in school and out (as a piano instructor at Scrollworks of Metropolitan Youth Orchestra of Central Alabama and math and reading tutor at Kumon), she is also the varsity team captain of the lacrosse team, president of the debate team, Patriot Pride ambassador and Spanish club member.
But her true passion emerges in the realm of medicine. She served as a volunteer in the Children’s of Alabama emergency department and UAB’s Spain Rehabilitation Center & Neurointensive Care Unit. In her senior year, she shadowed UAB’s Dr. Louis B. Nabors III, going on clinical round with the neurologist and medical oncologist and witnessing the effects and treatments of brain treatments over a month’s time. She then served as a neuro-oncology research intern at UAB’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, where she sliced and prepared mice brains for ongoing manuscript and assisted with lab preparations and procedures.
“Moving to Homewood from China in first grade to be where I am now, I could not have done it without the selfless investment of teacher mentors and similarly enthusiastic peers, even outside of school,” says Annie. “My goals for the future include pursing my passions in medicine, integrated with my interest in public health prevention and education, to continuously make an impact at home and abroad.”
A student who excels across disciplines, Simona Shirley serves as Co-President of the Heritage Panel, a club devoted to developing a better understanding of people from different backgrounds and experiences. This year Simona organized an exchange program between students from Mountain Brook High School and Carver High School. She’s also helped coordinate a student-led movement that focuses on school safety and gun violence in light of the recent events in Parkland, FL. Students may walk about their classrooms and participate in a 17-minute program to honor the memory of the victims and discuss steps that could lead to change. Simona says of her interest in promoting tolerance, “I believe that forward thinking, with an emphasis on social acceptance and inclusion of personal differences is the key for a happier lifestyle and a happier world.” Simon also serves as Editor-in-Chief of The Muse, the high school’s online literary magazine, and she volunteers at Children’s of Alabama. She will attend UAB next year and has been accepted into their Early Medical School Acceptance Program.
With a charitable conscience and an innovative business plan, Indian Springs School senior Carter Gaché has established his own brand of social entrepreneurship. In spring 2017, Gaché founded WayPoint Pilots, an aerial photography and videography company that employs drones to capture distinctive images for clients. (For examples of his work, visit IndianSprings.org.) Driven by his faith and his mission of “employing technology to empower others,” he has mentored younger Springs tech enthusiasts. This year, he has also drawn on his social networking and digital marketing skills and his experiences as a missionary in Cuba and the Dominican Republic to create a new nonprofit, LifeTab. Through his website GiveaTab.org, which Gaché launched in early March, LifeTab harnesses cutting-edge cryptocurrency technology to fund child-focused services of Holt International, including adoptive services, family strengthening and Gospel ministries in 13 countries. A leader and No. 1 seed on Springs’ Boys Tennis team, Gaché held a peak ranking of top 200 in the Southeastern Conference and top 10 in the state of Alabama for more than two years, before deciding to devote more time to his entrepreneurial projects. “My future goals at the moment are to continue to pursue my passions of innovative engineering and business in college and move into the tech entrepreneurship scene after graduation,” says Carter. “It has always been a dream of mine to plant and grow start-up companies. I hope to do that for the rest of my life, Lord willing. We will see what God has in store for me.”
Few people ever go up in a plane only to jump out. However, that’s just what Hoover High School senior Jalynn Charley plans to be doing after high school graduation. As a newly-minted enlistee in the Alabama Army National Guard, Jalynn will train as a combat videographer, parachute out of military aircraft and using video to capture critical airborne missions. “Just thinking about my future, I wanted to do something bigger than me — something that I knew no one else was doing and that put life into perspective,” says Jalynn.
Jalynn was sworn in as an E-1 Private in the Alabama Army National Guard in November 2017. Following her May 2018 graduation, she will travel between and among many states to ramp up her training, including stops in Fort Jackson, South Carolina; Fort Meade, Maryland; and Fort Benning, Georgia. “The more I researched, I discovered the National Guard was so much more. They have a job for any and everything. [The Guard] serves Alabama and protects the homefront and can be called to serve in times of natural disaster. It’s not about you; it’s about your battle buddy, your sergeant, the United States.”
Moreover, the Guard provides full medical benefits and will cover 100% of Jalynn’s college tuition, a piece that brought her a sense of peace, as she did not want her family to bear the significant financial burden of a college tuition. Hoover High School College and Career Specialist Cindy Bond considers Jalynn a shining example of taking opportunities. “She is bold and courageous,” says Cindy. “Because this is a non-traditional path to college, she will have opportunities the normal citizen would never have because of this commitment she’s willing to make at 18.”
Jalynn sees a bright future, saying, “The character benefits that [this experience] will instill in me — that’s it, right there. This is one of the best decisions I could have made.”
Alabama School of Fine Arts, Math & Science
Percy Gresham, a senior at Alabama School of Fine Arts, was selected from millions of students worldwide to compete in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), the world’s largest international pre-college science competition, in Pittsburgh in May. To make Percy’s accomplishment even more impressive is that she originally entered the competition at the regional level at the Central Alabama Regional Science and Engineering Fair held at UAB and secured a first place win, which would normally move her on to the state level. However, her project was so notable that it earned her a spot at Intel ISEF, bypassing the state level competition. At Intel ISEF, her project will be judged by doctoral-level scientists to compete for more than $5 million in prizes.
Percy’s research was with Dr. Joan Barth at the University of Alabama. It is titled, “Peer Group Influences on High School Girls’ Interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).” Specifically, the study looked at how belonging (how much a girl feels like she fits into a group) and perceived gender stereotypes (how traditionally stereotypical a group is) correlate to an interest in STEM. She says, “The disparity between the number of men and women in STEM fields is something that often goes unnoticed by the greater public, but is always felt by the women in those fields, and I want that to change.”
“Though very different from my research project, my mom is the one who got me to love research in the first place,” says Percy, who served as a research assistant for her mother’s dissertation experiment for her PhD in Evolutionary Biology at the University of Alabama. The experiment involved fish, so Percy spent a summer and weekends feeding the fish, checking for eggs, measuring eggs and fish, dissecting them and checking and fixing salinities.
Percy also helps lead and organize the Affirming Lunch Bunch, a space for LGBTQ students and their allies to discuss current issues, ask questions and get to know others in their community. They meet for lunch, providing resources, support and guest speakers to provide insight to the LGBTQ experience outside of high school.
After high school, Percy would like to continue and expand on her scientific research.
Senior Kendall Carter is involved in the Student Government Association, National Honor Society, Business National Honor Society, French National Honor Society, peer tutor, American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life team captain and committee head, Vestavia Ambassadors, Youth Leadership Vestavia Hills and Habitat for Humanity club. She also won the Rhodes College Book Award, which honors a student who has made a significant impact in their schools and greater communities through service and volunteerism. But she is most proud of City Youth Connection (CYC), which she founded. “CYC is an organization of juniors and seniors that serves to engage students in civic and business endeavors for the dual purpose of providing the community with generational perspectives, innovative ideas, passion and enthusiasm of the city’s youth, while allowing students to gain knowledge of the interworking of civic life and local business,” says Kendall, who, as a sophomore, saw a gap in the connection of students to civic involvement and decided to create an organization focused on connecting high schoolers to their city. “I find great value in giving back locally and learning how a community thrives, because connecting locally allows one to share skills and learn new perspectives on life, which ultimately results in the improvement of a community as a whole.”
With a 4.52 GPA and a 36 ACT, Adam Pendry is Oak Mountain High School’s valedictorian. While his academic successes have been great — earning honors such as National Merit Finalist, Presidential Scholar Candidate and AP Scholar with Distinction — Adam prides himself on his activities outside the classroom. Adam is an Eagle Scout and always looks to give back to his community.“Oak Mountain has given me countless opportunities to excel which I could not have had at any other school,” says Adam, who gives back to the Oak Mountain community by serving as a leader among the student body, participating in Student Government and holding top leadership positions across multiple clubs and student organizations. Outside of school, Adam works as a tutor, seeking to sharpen the minds of others and inspire a love of learning. “There are few things I love more than seeing others excel,” says Adam.
KaiLian Davis is one of John Carroll Catholic High School’s outstanding seniors and one of the school’s first students to complete the AP Capstone Program in the school’s Honors Academy. She says, “My AP research project about dementia caregivers has inspired me to become a researcher and help find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease,” says KaiLian, who also notably completed over 300 service hours at the American Baseball Foundation. But she is most proud about graduating as the school’s valedictorian and signing to play soccer at the University of Alabama Huntsville.
An activist and leader at Indian Springs and beyond, senior Liz Jones is working to make a difference and promote justice in the world, one informed decision at a time. As a four-year member of the school’s award-winning Mock Trial Team, Jones has honed her legal knowledge and skills while shining at state, national and international competitions. She heads the school’s Amnesty International Club, which raises community awareness for victims of injustice, as well as the Animal Kindness Club, which promotes compassion and respect for wild and domestic animals. An officer for the school Choir and member of Springs’ Board-appointed Mission Review Committee, Jones has also immersed herself in global justice through Peace Birmingham, a YWCA program that brings students together to eliminate prejudice and support one another, and Springs’ Model United Nations Club, which fosters discussion of international issues. “Inclusive justice, to me, means that everyone, regardless of our differences, has value that is worth protecting in our society,” says Liz. “Learning about our justice system has given me a way to help ensure that one day I’ll be able to advocate and defend those who seek justice. At the moment, I hope to pursue a career in international relations, with the end goal of becoming an ambassador or working to obtain a law degree and specialize in Constitutional Law.”
Alabama School of Fine Arts, Dance
Rachel Lockhart, an 11th grade dance student at Alabama School of Fine Arts, is one of only 44 dancers worldwide selected to attend The Juilliard School’s summer intensive in New York City this year. Rachel believes that, “hard work pays off.” And she has been working hard since she was a 2-year-old studying at her mother’s dance studio.
Rachel was the first African-American dancer to play the leading role of Marie in Alabama Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.” She is a member of the dance company Atlanta Dance Connection, and in the fall of 2017 she staged an original work for the company. Rachel initially performed the piece as a solo at the 2017 Inspire National Dance Competition, and she went on to win first place at their national dance competition. When an audience member approached her afterwards and said, “Your piece really touched me,” Rachel realized that, as she says, “the joy of dance transcends winning a trophy and inspiring people by doing what you love will have a lasting impact.”
On top of her full dance schedule, Rachel maintains a 3.6 GPA. After high school, Rachel plans on attending college to continue her dance training, and then pursuing a career in dance and the entertainment industry. She says, “I want to continue sharing my love for dance by teaching aspiring dancers and motivating young artist to chase their dreams.”
Russell Weas loves to research current events, the latest computer technology and issues of public policy. Through the high school’s debate program, for which he serves as captain of the policy team, and his involvement with Youth Legislature, Russell has gained valuable insight into the world of public policy, and he’s intrigued. Last year, because of his success at the YMCA Alabama Junior Youth Legislature Conference, Russell was selected to attend the YMCA Conference on National Affairs (CONA) where he advocated a proposal that would finance the research, development and manufacturing of next-generation nuclear power plants. The proposal won an Outstanding Proposal Award and was one of ten proposals to reach the plenary chamber at the conference. At the 2018 Youth Legislature Conference, Russell was appointed to serve as Attorney General. He has also interned at a web development company and is a self-taught programmer. Russell plans to study Physics or Applied Physics in college. “I want to use the skills I have gained from Youth Legislature and CONA to be an advocate for scientists and technology in the public sphere,” he says.
Brooke Tarrant excels in academics, in dance, as a leader and as a community volunteer. She is a member of the National Honor Society, Youth Leadership Vestavia Hills, Rotary’s Interact Club, Biology Olympiads, Mock Trial Team, the Literacy Club, Latin Club, Girls’ FCA and Varsity Reblette Dance Team, for which she serves as team captain. In her senior year, she was awarded and Arts Achievement Seal with a Concentration in Dance. She served on the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life committee, helping to raise more than $275,000 to fight cancer, the second highest amount raised in the nation in a youth Relay for Life fundraiser. She was also chosen to attend the Alabama Lions’ High School Youth Leadership Forum, a state conference on leadership.
“Laura Herren is one of the most amazing students I have ever had the privilege of working with,” says Tara McNeal, Director of Counseling Services at Briarwood Christian School. “She is humble, intelligent and talented. She is at the top of her class academically and has not gotten there without hard work.” Laura fractured both of her feet simultaneously, but pushed through rehab to be back on the tennis team this year. She won the state DAR award for her paper on being a good citizen, while also winning first place nationally for her DAR artwork.
“Not only is she gifted, but she also has a servant’s heart,” says Tara. Laura leads a group of students every month to visit a local assisted living home, where they spend time with the residents through crafts, games and conversation. “We want to show these senior citizens that they are valued, respected, and an essential part of our community,” says Laura. “I am passionate about standing up for and learning from people who do not have a voice in society. Today, some of those groups include unborn or newborn children and the elderly. My ultimate career goal is to become a neonatal nurse practitioner, where I will defend the lives of infants in neonatal intensive care. I know that every hour of work that I put into my job as a student pushes me closer to being able to serve the smallest members of my community with excellence.”
Nathan Ruppert is one of John Carroll Catholic High School’s outstanding seniors and one of the school’s first students to complete the AP Capstone Program in the school’s Honors Academy. He says, “I plan on studying chemical engineering in college and then possibly entering the medical field as I enjoy helping and interacting with others in a personal way.” Nathan is most proud of being elected Class President the last two years, being chosen as a student leader on the Kairos religious retreat for seniors and serving as a John Carroll Student Ambassador.
Cameron Elise Banish
Cameron Elise Banish has received Homewood High School’s advanced academic endorsement and seal of distinction. The National Honor Society member and HHS Female Leadership class member is also active in community activities, serving as the chair of the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life committee and participating in the National Alliance on Mental Illness walk. As a Star-Spangled Girl officer, she has also performed in the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Orlando Studios Parade.
“At Homewood there are many opportunities to get involved in the community and grow, not only as a student, but as a person,” says Cameron. “With the constant love and support of my teachers, I have been able to achieve my dream of going to college and serving my community. I hope to pursue a career in orthopedic medicine.”
Junior Bryce Perrien is a quiet leader, an academically strong student and an amazing athlete, who due to his humble nature could almost be missed. He is a wide receiver and long snapper on the football team. “He is always on time, ready to work and practices with the anticipation of getting better,” says Coach Yancey, who was a major champion of Bryce’s rehab and recovery after he suffered a major knee injury as a sophomore. “He came back strong, because he was diligent and consistent with his rehab. I often challenged him to be ‘the hardest working rehabber in the state.’ I think he accomplished his goal as he played his entire junior season injury-free and never missed a practice or a game.”
Bryce also is a member of Briarwood Christian School’s varsity baseball team. “He is a student who brings stability to the rest of the team,” says Coach Renfroe. “He is the epitome of working hard unto the Lord — I cannot think of more honorable words to recognize who Bryce really is, not only an athlete but a person. He knows how to set a goal and work hard to achieve insurmountable tasks.” When asked about his how he achieves the seemingly insurmountable, like his sophomore-year injury, Bryce says, “I feel like a lot people think that adversity is overcome entirely on your own, but through my ACL injury, I have really learned that even if I work as hard as possible to seek out a goal, it is only by God’s grace that my goal can become a reality.”
We are so proud that of these talented young Birminghamians!
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