MIAMI — Miami Northwestern Senior High School Principal Charles Hankerson has said that the inner-city school famous for its football championships is becoming known more for its academics than its athletics.
He has at least four reasons to make his boast.
Two of the school’s seniors were honored May 19 with the coveted Silver Knight Award, and two others were recognized with honorable mentions.
In addition, the graduating “Bulls” of 2009 have racked up $3.4 million in scholarships to attend the likes of Cornell, Harvard, MIT and Hankerson’s alma mater, Hampton University.
Jaroda Strapp, 18, was recognized with a Silver Knight Award in the music category for creating “We See Music,” an innovative program that uses music as a bridge between visually impaired elderly people and students from middle and high school.
Ky'Eisha Penn, 18, won a Silver Knight Award in the social science category for essentially making lemonade out of lemons.
After moving from homeless shelter to homeless shelter with her mother and siblings, she noticed that counseling was provided to the adults, but not the children. To fill the gap, she created “Sheltered, Not Shattered,” a program to help children in the shelter deal with their problems and remain hopeful about their futures.
In addition to Strapp and Penn winning in their categories – each garnering $2,000 scholarships – Northwestern seniors Crystal
Harrison, 18, and Harold Stuart, 17, each received honorable mentions and $500 awards. Harrison was recognized in the mathematics category; Stuart was recognized in the speech category.
SCHOOL SUCCESS STORIES
The inner-city school with a rich athletic tradition, chronic failing ratings on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and numerous scandals that kept the school in the news for the wrong reasons is now boasting a different headline.
For an inner-city, predominantly black school to have a single winner in the prestigious annual competition that considers not only a student’s academic prowess, but also his or her commitment to serve the community is certainly a high honor. Having two of them is worthy of bragging rights.
“I wish I could take credit for it, but I cannot,” Hankerson admitted. “I think it’s their commitment to want to do something with their lives.”
The Silver Knight Awards program was instituted at The Miami Herald in 1959 by John S. Knight – a former publisher of the newspaper – in an effort to honor students whose accomplishments in their communities rivaled those in their classrooms.
Northwestern’s winners are attractive, articulate young women who both exhibit poise beyond their teenage years.
Strapp, an active member of the Florida Council of the Blind, was inspired by her visually impaired mother to create the program that brought together those who see and those who cannot.
According to her profile in The Miami Herald, she ranked second in her class of 475. She has played in the marching band since ninth grade, and was named last year as the most outstanding junior band student.
She has performed for President Barack Obama, the newspaper reported.
“These students and visually impaired people had one common means of communication, and that was music,” Strapp told the South Florida Times during an interview in the school’s Student Resource Center.
She said the gravity of the award hit her when she arrived at the ceremony.
“I noticed that there were a lot of people nominated in each category. I was noticing that the credentials that some of the other individuals had who won were so outstanding,” said Strapp, who has a 5.7 GPA. She was awarded a full academic scholarship to Cornell University.
Upon hearing her name called, Strapp said, “I was completely overwhelmed…to have had these two things that are so important to me incorporated together and to have been recognized for it was very outstanding to me.”
Strapp’s mother, great aunt and grandmother attended the ceremony and could not have been more thrilled.
“My mother was crying, great aunt and grandmother were there. All of them were very, very happy,” Strapp said.
Penn became a founding member for a local chapter of the Harlem-based Zone Project, which creates a protective web for children in troubled areas, monitoring them from birth through college, according to her Herald profile.
She is ranked in the top five percent of her class, completed summer enrichment courses at local universities and belongs to the National Honor Society. She also served as band captain and clarinet section leader. She was also president of her student government, and has also performed for the president, the newspaper reported.
Sounding especially introspective, Penn explained, “I help my mom out a lot, especially now, a crucial time because she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She’s been epileptic since 2007. I always looked at her and thought she went through a lot, and never really noticed how much it affected me.”
Determined not to allow her circumstances to defeat her, Penn said, “I used everything that I went through to build on what I want to do in the future.”
Penn will be attending Florida State University in the summer and plans to major in nursing.
POSITIVE PEER PRESSURE
The students’ Silver Knight advisor is easily confused as a peer. The very youthful looking, 24-year old Nykeah Cohen is the school’s 12th grade AP Language Arts teacher, and is a Northwestern alumnus.
Cohen said that of the 15 youth who initially responded to the school’s call for students with strong records of community service and a minimum 3.2, unweighted grade-point average, the list was eventually whittled down to four, all of whom were honored at the ceremony.
In attendance at the ceremony, Cohen said she jumped up and screamed when she heard Strapp’s name announced.
“I lost it,” she said.
Later in the ceremony, upon hearing the word “courage,” Cohen said she knew Penn was also a Silver Knight winner.
Cognizant of the enormity of the recognition, and the historic nature of double winners, Penn said she did research to determine whether their feat was a first.
“The last time we had multiple Silver Knights was in 1988, a very long time ago,” she said of the year Northwestern had three winners; with Willie Pate being honored in science, Deithrea Smith in music and Zabrina Haynes in the vocational-technical category.
Hankerson said any doubts about Northwestern students’ ability to win the award have been shattered.
“Before, we would apply, but no one really thought that any of our kids could win it. [The double win] breaks down a lot of walls, a lot of barriers, a lot of myths,’’ he said. “It gives our underclassmen a sense of hope that if you put in the time and you put in the work, yes it can happen.’’
Photo: Jaroda Strapp, left, and Ky'Eisha Penn, right.