Gainesville High School senior Sterling Reed said he never thought language arts would be a subject he excelled in.
His father, David Reed, can still vividly remember his son coming home from fourth grade in tears saying school was too hard. Shortly after, Sterling Reed was diagnosed with dysgraphia, a learning disability that affects the motor skills needed to write.
In December 2019, the now 18-year-old received news that he earned the ‘Top in the World’ award for the Cambridge Advanced International Certificate of Education English language exam – a feat never before achieved by an Alachua County student. The award is given to those who score the highest standard mark in the world for a single subject.
“It is such an honor to receive this recognition, especially because writing was something I grew up struggling with,” Reed said. “In a way, I proved to myself that my diagnosis is only a limitation if I let it limit me.”
Across Alachua County, students are exemplifying academic prowess, and school ratings are mirroring the trend. The county’s public school system achieved an A-rating in summer 2019 from the Florida Department of Education after years of earning a B-rating.
Helena Jiang, a 17-year-old senior at Buchholz High School, is another example of high achievement in Alachua County.
Jiang was named one of the 40 finalists at The Society for Science and the Public’s 2020 Regeneron talent search for her work on a sensor that can detect pollutants in the environment.
For her work, she was awarded a $25,000 prize.
Jiang said she was inspired by her advanced placement chemistry and environmental science classes, as well as a documentary, to create her sensor.
“I became keenly aware that our environment is going through a crisis, and I felt compelled to do something about it,” she said. “I see myself continuing this research until I can perfect it.”
Her mom, Julie Wang, said she will never forget watching Helena’s grandmother teach Helena how to count. After she got to 10, Jiang was able to do the rest of the numbers by herself without further instruction, Wang said. Since then, she knew she had a gifted child on her hands.
“She is set on donating part of her prize money to the math club because they’re like an extended family to her,” she said. “Her brain is big, but her heart is bigger.”
Math club coach William Frazer has known Jiang since she was in the eighth grade.
“She is extraordinary in every sense of the word,” Frazer said. “Not only does she have a brilliant mind, she also has a warm personality.”
Fifteen-year-old Buchholz sophomore Navya Tripathi also received national attention for her research.
Tripathi used geographic information system mapping to track the drug epidemic in the U.S. She said she was the only high school student invited to present her full work at the GIS-Pro conference in New Orleans in September 2019.
Tripathi’s parents, Nitesh and Shefali Tripathi, both work with GIS, or geographic information system, technology. Nitesh Tripathi said their passion was clearly passed down to their daughter.
“I grew up looking at these really cool colorful maps, so they have always intrigued me,” Navya Tripathi said. “As I got older, I realized that the maps were telling a story, and I liked them even more.”
Navya Tripathi zeroed in on her topic, the drug epidemic in the U.S., when she realized the problem is present in many communities.
“I thought GIS would be the best way to show the drug epidemic because it breaks it down visually,” she said. “We are never going to solve any societal problems if we don’t publish data in a way that the average person can understand; I believe GIS does this.”
It makes scientific research not just accessible but digestible, too, she said.
“She is very focused and does not let anything distract her,” Frazer, who has taught Navya Tripathi since she was in sixth grade, said. “She is lasered in.”
Back at Gainesville High School, David Reed said he was not surprised by his son’s top score.
“Sterling has always had an inquisitive mind and eclectic personality,” he said. “Growing up, he would create entire worlds with games like Legos and Minecraft, so I believe his writing is an extension of that same creativity he’s always had inside of him.”
Thirty Alachua County Public school students were just notified that they are finalists in the prestigious 2020 National Merit Scholarship Program, up from 23 last year. The largest group of these finalists, thirteen students, attend Gainesville High School with Reed.