By Gary Stern
If you were to ask me, “What Makes High Point So Special?” I could certainly go on for hours, extolling a unique and nurturing culture that awakens the joy of learning in its students through outstanding teaching and curriculum, plus thoughtful strategic planning and implementation. A culture that achieves this through a broad and deep focus on academic excellence, diversity, and character building—and with the help of an HPA community that is so profoundly a family, alumni parents continue to serve the school long after their children have graduated.
But that’s just my take. Admittedly, I am a huge fan, since it is all of these aspects among others which drew me to High Point Academy in the first place.
Yet, most importantly, how do our students feel about their experience here, after their years at High Point? What would they tell other youngsters who may be enrolling here? To the parents of children who are seeking an independent school education in the San Gabriel Valley, what personal experience stories would they relate? What insight could they offer even to newcomers to California, who may have preconceived notions about a Southern California independent school education?
Our HPA “veterans”—our 8th graders—reveal their unique insights.
“I don’t say that it’s private school that is special; it’s High Point,” explains 8th grader Joelle Souma. “High Point has shaped us to be the people we are,” she says, putting character first.
And according to Joelle’s classmate Donya Jadvar, from her own earliest kindergarten memories onward, High Point has been a safe, special, and caring place in which to grow up. “One of my favorite memories is when I lost my first tooth in Mrs. Vernon’s kindergarten class.” Donya recalls. “I was scared and started crying. But Mrs. Vernon comforted me and told me to put the tooth under my pillow that night. She said I was about to get a surprise from the Tooth Fairy. Then she walked me down to the office, gave me a little bag for my tooth and a candy surprise from the Tooth Fairy.” The special little ritual was not only nurturing, it was a formative experience for Donya, resonating even years later. “But all the teachers at High Point are like this,” she insists. “All of my teachers have always been there for me.”
“What High Point does for us is show us that everyone—no matter what their background or culture is—can be a good person,” says Joelle. “We may be different in our own ways, but in many ways we are just like each other. Everyone here accepts and likes us for who we are.”
In fact, while some families new to the Pasadena area may assume that independent schooling comes with a more culturally homogenous environment than a public school education, Joelle’s most special memories, she says, have everything to do with her diverse HPA friendships. “I always learn something new from my friends here, and their different cultures. Because everyone here is different and there’s a lot of diversity, I get to know a little bit of everything!”
Her educational experience, she adds, has been unlike the experiences of her friends at other schools. “Kids at other schools say that each class is completely the same. My education here has been special because I honestly think [High Point teachers] have a different way of teaching. Every class is completely unique.”
Joelle’s BFF Sofia Christodoulelis agrees. “The teaching at High Point is really different. My friends from some other schools in Pasadena say, ‘Oh, can you help me with this?’ And I feel so smart and it’s just great! I think it’s because each teacher at High Point shapes how they teach to fit with you and how you learn. That really helps.”
Adds Sofia, “The learning is challenging, but since they care so much, it becomes easier. You feel more confident if your teachers are confident in you. That really helps me. Even though at the moment, things may be a little difficult, soon you’ll be in excellent shape and become a better person with self-motivation. It’s hard work and I really have to think.
Eighth graders Kabir Nagrecha and Adam Lewczuk both agree that it has been the willingness of High Point teachers to always go the extra mile that has made such a difference in their educational experience, and in their ability to move forward toward an excellent high school experience, as well. According to Kabir, currently a candidate for the Early Entrance Program at Cal State LA and a former pupil in the accelerated academic program at Crosfields School, England, “Our math teacher, Mr. Millard, helped me move into Algebra II and pre-Calculus, making it possible for me to pursue my advanced mathematics education.” (Kyron Millard is also the Jr. High Director.)
Adam recounts a similar experience with Mr. Millard: “He stepped in and made it possible for me to pursue Geometry at La Salle High School over the summer, when the school absolutely doesn’t do that for 7th graders going into 8th. I never asked him to do that for me; he saw that I had the potential to move into advanced math, and wanted to make sure I had all the opportunities I needed to succeed.” Adam went on to study Algebra II and additional higher math in 8th grade. (Adam has since received a Presidential Merit Scholarship to attend La Salle High School in the fall. He is one of eight High Point graduates who will receive such scholarships for attendance at the school.)
Donya Jadvar and her classmate Maddy Kwei, both of whom will matriculate to Polytechnic High School come autumn, had similar experiences with a number of High Point teachers during their years at the academy (including Mr. Millard and history teacher Gint Valiulis, who coordinates and orchestrates History Day, a favorite High Point Jr. High event; this year five High Point 8th grade students advanced to the state finals for History Day in Sacramento).
“The teachers here are really there for you, just like our parents are,” says Donya. “They truly care about you and push you to do your best, so I’ve always excelled here. And High Point is known for having a great 7th and 8th grade,” she adds. Junior High English teacher Colleen Zeiss, for instance, was always there for her, she confides. “She noticed that I was having trouble with sentence structure and told me I could come in for as many lunchtimes as I needed to. That meant a lot to me. She noticed it; she brought it up; she took her break times to help me with it. Mrs. Zeiss has such a love for English!” Donya exclaims, adding that this kind of dedication is “very common” among the teachers at High Point.
Maddy feels the same way about science teacher Krista Huezo. Though Maddy is a world traveler who loves languages and is in her seventh year of French at High Point, through her science studies she has also discovered the joy of hands-on experimentation and the intrigue of proving hypotheses. “Mrs. Huezo loves science so much, and I am sure that is one of the reasons I do, too.” Maddy relates that she came to High Point looking for a new academic challenge “and High Point gave me that challenge and took my academics to an entirely new level.”
According to Adam, the language program at High Point—with its highly qualified instructors—has been a major contributor to the excellence of his education. “Spanish was so important to me,” he notes, “at my previous school, Spanish didn’t exist in the early grades. At High Point, the instruction is excellent even in the early grades.”
When it comes to learning at High Point, what is also striking is how many 8th graders express, word-for-word, I learned so much from my friends here. “Everyone wants to help everyone else, and the student body is so diverse. I have learned so much about different cultures,” Donya explains. “We have International Day which is just so enriching, and we’ve all bonded by sharing our cultures. Over the years, we have become a family.”
“It doesn’t matter who you are or what your background is,” Maddy agrees. “My friends have taught me so much and I think the diversity is what has helped to make our friendships so special.”
Kabir credits the climate of “healthy competition among friends” as central to the environment of excellence at High Point. “Although everyone wants to achieve and do better and better, it’s still friendly competition,” he maintains, explaining that the desire to take achievement to higher and higher levels brings out the best in everyone, as friends help friends to learn. Both Joelle and Maddy describe memories of what could have been embarrassing moments in front of their classmates when “they didn’t laugh at me, they laughed with me; they were supportive of my mistake” which made all the difference. “High Point is so accepting of who you are,” says Maddy.
As our graduating High Point Eagles move on to their new schools in 2017-2018, we asked them if they had any parting words for the friends with whom they have shared so many fond memories, and the school at which they experienced so much personal and academic growth. Joelle Souma summed it up well when she spoke for all: “I will miss you SO much!!”