Marilyn Flores and Kevin Zeno
This Week’s Gateway Cities Leaders
Cities are shaped by their citizens. From New Bedford to Pittsfield, passionate young leaders are spearheading innovative efforts to reinvent their communities for a new generation. The Gateway Cities Leaders series profiles their work and introduces their ideas, visions, and aspirations to the wider Gateway City world. Is there a young leader in your city that we should spotlight? Please let us know.
Marilyn Flores is an Education Advisor at Massachusetts Education & Career Opportunities, Inc.
Kevin Zeno is a Talent Search junior at Burncoat High School who recently won a highly-competitive slot to spend seven weeks at Princeton University this summer as a Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA) Scholar.
How did the two of you come to know each other?
K: I met Ms. Flores because I was interested in a program that she was coordinating at Worcester State University about college access. We became acquainted through the various college-related activities that we did in this program. However, I really got to know her during my frequent visits to her office in my school.
M: Last August I started a new position with Massachusetts Education & Career Opportunities, Inc. (MassEdCo) providing college and career advising through the Educational Talent Search program at Burncoat High School. From my early conversations with Kevin, I could tell that he was a very motivated and passionate young person. He frequently impressed me with his ability to speak eloquently about current events and social justice issues. I became even more impressed the first time I saw his transcript and realized he was a straight-A student!
Do you feel there are enough opportunities for gifted students in Worcester to develop their talents?
M: As someone who spent the bulk of her K-12 years in the Worcester Public Schools, my answer is no. I remember receiving high scores on standardized tests in elementary school, but never being given the opportunity to take more advanced classes, despite having skills well above my classmates. I was never recommended for the few opportunities available for gifted students because I was very outspoken and displayed poor student conduct in class. I think this is a whole separate issue; many smart students who are not well-behaved are often overlooked and may even become alienated from the idea of traditional schooling. I saw this happen to my brother and many others.
A few years ago, the Worcester School Committee discussed a proposal to open a gifted school in Worcester. Many spoke out against this idea, which frankly, took me aback. Like exam schools in Boston, Chicago, and many other cities, this school would have had a competitive entry process. It also would have improved opportunities for gifted students, expanding on the existing gifted program, the Goddard Program, at Sullivan Middle School and South High. Such a school would have put Worcester on par with other large public school districts while providing opportunities for truly rigorous learning not currently found in most of the city’s secondary schools. I believe the Worcester Public School system still plans on opening another gifted program, as opposed to a school, that will follow the International Baccalaureate curriculum, but I have not heard many details on when that program will be opened.
K: From a personal perspective, I feel as though I have lacked opportunities to develop my talents. Last year was my first year taking an Advanced Placement class at my school. If I had not taken the initiative to seek more rigorous classes, I would not have had this opportunity. There were no teachers or faculty pushing me to challenge myself by taking college-level courses. When I initially enrolled, students and teachers questioned my abilities because I was the only sophomore in the school taking AP Psychology. On a bigger scale, the same thoughts apply. The city doesn’t reward students who are passionate about their education; there aren’t any incentives for us to keep challenging ourselves and keep growing academically. In the Worcester Public Schools system, gifted students, excluding the Goddard Scholars, have to be self-motivated in order to benefit from the opportunities they deserve.
Marilyn, what opportunity did you find for Kevin and how did you uncover it?
M: I initially found out about the LEDA Scholars program when I was an admission officer at Smith College. I came across an applicant with a letter from LEDA in her file, and out of curiosity, I googled the program. I was impressed when I read about the opportunities that LEDA offers to talented students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, including a summer leadership program at Princeton University, offered at no cost. Last fall I was new at Burncoat High and decided to establish a Twitter account to post announcements relating to college applications and scholarship opportunities for the students. Looking through my newsfeed one day, I saw a Tweet about applying to LEDA. The deadline was two days away, but I immediately thought of Kevin. Once I knew he was interested in applying, I spoke to staff at LEDA and they were happy to give him an extension in order to get his application completed.
K: After Ms. Flores informed me about this opportunity, I was determined to complete my application. I felt I had to apply to this program because it is a program that was created specifically to target students like myself who are academically gifted and come from less privileged backgrounds. I was intrigued by LEDA’s intensive SAT prep, their rigorous writing courses, and the opportunities they provide to visit top tier colleges outside of Massachusetts. These are all opportunities that I would not have the chance to take advantage of if it was not for LEDA. At the end of my seven week stay at Princeton, I hope to have learned skills for improving my writing, my ability to lead, and my test-taking capacities. Additionally, I hope to have a solid list of colleges to apply to before going into my senior year.
How should we recognize the achievements of students like Kevin and help others pursue these kinds of opportunities?M: I think it’s about school culture. At BHS, there are often announcements in the morning about which sports teams won their games, but rarely do we hear about other types of accomplishments. I would like to see more celebrations of academic achievements, both to acknowledge the students who consistently do well and also to motivate students who may need a push to be more academically focused. For example, I would love to see all of our schools implement a special breakfast or pizza party in the fall and spring for the students who make honor roll. Additionally, I think there’s a role that the city government can play. Why is Worcester not sponsoring a special annual event for honor roll students? This year at Burncoat, I initiated our first ever College Decision Day Celebration, where the entire school participated in a pep rally celebrating seniors going off to college. Some US cities organize community-wide events to honor seniors and their post-secondary plans. They invite notable guest speakers, college cheerleaders and mascots, and even organize giant outdoor carnivals following the ceremonial gathering. Worcester could definitely do more.
K: I think there are plenty of different things that my school, and the city as a whole, could do in order to recognize students’ academic successes. Every year, Burncoat High School has a “Sports’ Night,” an athletic awards night that is funded by our Booster Club. This is a night that every student at my school hears about, whether it be from the announcements or from a friend. I think we should have a night similar to Sports’ Night that focuses solely on highlighting the students who have excelled in any academic area. It would be like an Academic Banquet. Several of the other LEDA Scholars that I have spoken to have this ceremony at their school every year. In fact, they were surprised to hear that my school does not hold a similar event. There is no reason why we can’t organize events like that here. After all, students who see their peers’ hard work being celebrated will be inspired to emulate their work ethic. I definitely think it’s something the Worcester Public Schools should consider. Additionally, it is discouraging to see how schools are portrayed in the media. The last time my school was on the news was because of a gun incident. It’s unfortunate to see local media outlets shed such negative light on my school when there is so much more that doesn’t get noticed.