Thursday, November 23, 2017
Education

Weeki Wachee High student, charting a new path for his school, will attend Harvard

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WEEKI WACHEE

Alex Stewart was easy to pick out at Weeki Wachee High School on Monday morning.

It was not just because he's tall and flashes — very frequently — a brilliant smile, not just because nearly every student he passed gave him a friendly wave or called out his baseball-playing nickname, "Stewy."

It was also because he wore a crimson T-shirt that announced big news for both Stewart and the school.

"Harvard," the words on the T-shirt stated, "Class of 2021."

Stewart, a 17-year-old graduating senior, is the first Weeki Wachee High student to be admitted to Harvard University or any other Ivy League school, said principal Troy LaBarbara.

He is proof that the 7-year-old school can satisfy the highest academic ambitions, LaBarbara said. And he's an example that could lead other students to follow the same path.

"He's very infectious with the other kids. They see him achieving high goals and start to believe they can achieve them, too," LaBarbara said during an interview at the school with Alex.

"When he walks around, he carries an aura of positivity."

Though none of Hernando County's high schools are standouts when it comes to state ratings — all received C grades last year — Springstead High School, with its International Baccalaureate program and wide range of Advanced Placement classes, is often perceived as the top choice for ambitious students. This year, for example, Springstead valedictorian Tully Goldrick plans to attend Yale University.

But Weeki Wachee has dramatically expanded its offerings of AP and honors courses, as well as classes that allow students to receive dual-enrollment credit from Pasco-Hernando State College, LaBarbara said.

Like other high schools in the county, he said, "we push our kids to the highest standard. We all make sure we're constantly challenging our students and that we're giving them the best opportunities."

Stewart and his parents, Wil and Judi Stewart, knew that no high school could guarantee admission to a top-tier college. But they did look for a school that, with a high degree of involvement from Wil and Judi and smarts and hard work from Alex, could give him a shot.

It was apparent that any college was within his reach "from birth," Wil said. "He's been an exceptional student all along. He's always been self-motivated, and he's always succeeded in academics."

Judi said she and her husband have traveled extensively with Alex, their only child, and began reading to him every night at an early age. He responded with questions that demanded background and detail.

"I'd have to Google a lot of his questions," she said.

She met her husband in Orlando, where they worked on television shows for the Nickelodeon network.

They both stayed in the entertainment industry while Alex was a preschooler, living outside of New York City, but returned to Florida before Alex started first grade.

"Sunshine's a good thing," said Wil, the finance coordinator for Hernando County government's Fleet Management Department.

After attending the Quest Academy for gifted children at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics during middle school, Alex considered the IB program at Springstead.

But Judi, a freelance wardrobe stylist, said the family committed to Weeki Wachee after meeting with a guidance counselor there who "basically mapped out a plan" that would allow Alex to reach a good college.

That path included a lot of dual-enrollment classes, both at Weeki Wachee and the Spring Hill campus of PHSC. At one point during his junior year, Alex said, he was enrolled in "five or six" college-level classes, and he has accumulated enough credits to receive his associate's degree.

He called these courses "a nice, friendly challenge" and performed well enough in them to earn a 4.54 grade point average at Weeki Wachee, the fifth-highest in his graduating class. He also played baseball for four years and was active in student government, Key Club and the National Honor Society, all while racking up an astronomical number of community service hours, including a recent stint with Habitat for Humanity.

LaBarbara said he was stopped recently by an older Habitat volunteer who congratulated him on a great kid from the school who had energetically wielded a sledgehammer on one of the group's job sites.

Sure enough, it was Alex.

Learning that Alex had been accepted at Harvard "was like winning the lottery," Judi said. That's especially true because, as is common for students from middle-class families who attend elite universities, Alex "got just short of a full-ride scholarship," he said — a valuable lesson for students who think they can only afford in-state public schools.

"You should never choose not to apply to one of those schools for financial reasons," said Alex, who plans to study neurobiology. He also was accepted at Duke and Johns Hopkins universities.

When he spent a weekend at Harvard in April, he did not feel out of place as the only kid from his school. He felt at home among his new community of talented students from all over the world.

"The fact that we were all merging and enjoying each other's company — it was incredible," he said.

That does not mean he wouldn't welcome any Weeki Wachee Hornet who might follow him to Cambridge, Mass.

"I would be happy to take him or her under my wing and give advice or anything else ... anything I can do to help build on the tradition of Weeki Wachee," he said.

"See," said LaBarbara. "That's an example of why he's a true Hornet."

Contact Dan DeWitt at ddewitt@tampabay.com; follow @ddewitttimes.

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