Haynes Academy has most National Merit semifinalists

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Haynes Academy has 11 National Merit semifinalists-- more than any other Jeff Parish School. The girls, from left, are Jessica Gaethe, Betool Ridha, Stevie Cavalier, Leigh Vila and Nowrin Chowdhury. Boys, from left, are  Quan-Son Eric Le, Noah Ross, Sahil Patel, Ahmad Razi, Zaid Khan and Senthil S. Natarajan,
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Haynes Academy has 11 National Merit semifinalists-- more than any other Jeff Parish School. The girls, from left, are Jessica Gaethe, Betool Ridha, Stevie Cavalier, Leigh Vila and Nowrin Chowdhury. Boys, from left, are Quan-Son Eric Le, Noah Ross, Sahil Patel, Ahmad Razi, Zaid Khan and Senthil S. Natarajan,

METAIRIE — Haynes Academy for Advanced Studies has more students who have achieved National Merit Scholar semifinalist recognition than all other public, private or parochial schools in Jefferson Parish combined, and the Metairie school is celebrating the 11 seniors who will compete for a prestigious finalist spot in the spring.

“It’s a big honor,” said semifinalist Zaid Kahn of being included in the top 1.5 percent of PSAT test scores nationwide.

As a public school that is traditionally run and not a charter, Principal Jerome Helmstetter said that the students’ success shows that schools like Haynes can hold their own against all types of schools. “We can compete with anyone,” he said.

Haynes ranked fourth in the state in its number of semifinalists, exceeded only by much larger schools, Helmstetter noted. The only schools with more semifinalists were Benjamin Franklin, which had 27, Jesuit High School in New Orleans with 26 and Baton Rouge Magnet High School, which had 19.

Just 20 students in all of Jefferson Parish were recognized as semifinalists, with 14 of those students attending public schools.

Overall, the Jefferson Parish public schools district performance score improved by 11 points, moving the district from a “D” to a “C.” Haynes, along with Thomas Jefferson High School for Advanced Studies, Patrick F. Taylor Science and Technology Academy and Metairie Academy for Advanced Studies ranked among the top 10 schools in the state.

The correlated cause for celebration is the success of the first year teaching a test preparation class to Haynes, initiated by the nonprofit Jefferson Dollars for Scholars’ National Merit Program and taught at no cost to the students through a grant from the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation.

PSAT-prep class teacher Alex Gershanik said that there is an increasing emphasis on standardized test scores. This year, for the first time, the state will pay for all junior students to take the ACT.

The original JDFS program “To the TOPS” was established in 2006 with a focus on boosting ACT scores, thus boosting eligibility for TOPS scholarships.

Increasing student eligibility for scholarships helps JDFS leverage resources, Gershanik said. The group was founded in 1993 and has awarded more than $12.5 million in scholarships to more than 4,500 students.

The cost of offering the class is far outweighed by the scholarships made available to students as they increase their scores, he said.

The 11 Haynes students will now set their sights on being a National Merit finalist, vying for one of about 8,300 scholarships worth $32 million.

Gershanik, who is the president of The Power Courses, said that standardized test scores carry more weight “this year more than ever,” as the state determines School Performance Scores. And, the higher the students can score, the more dollars become accessible in the form of scholarships — including TOPS money available to students, as well as other scholarship providers like the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.

Gershanik said he remembers that when he was a National Merit semifinalist, he began receiving information and invitations in the mail from numerous colleges. Colleges are “desperate to get National Merit kids,” Gershanik said, adding that the recognition brings “prestige” and fuels a “stronger student body.”

Even if students taking the class don’t reach National Merit level, any increase in test scores means an increase in higher education options, Gershanik said.

The PSAT prep course focused on critical reading, writing, math and time management. Kahn said he felt much more prepared for the PSAT because of the 10 classes that were held over a five-week period. The class helped with techniques such as reducing time spent reading or on difficult questions, learning about common mistakes and pacing. The biggest advantage, Kahn said, was in taking the four practice tests. When the day came to take the real PSAT test, Kahn said he felt confident and knew what to expect.

Last year, Gershanik taught 22 students at Haynes. This year, the school has worked to incorporate test preparation into their curriculum, offering the class to about 45 students in two sections. “We are very proud of the results,” Helmstetter said, adding that it leaves no doubt about the decision to continue offering test preparation classes with a “bigger and broader impact,” as well as serving as a model of success for other schools. Helmstetter bragged about Haynes students currently attending Harvard, MIT and Yale.

Helmstetter said that the semifinalists were among many reasons he is enthusiastic about his school’s growth and successes. He points to the diversity of the student body, spanning a multitude of ethnic backgrounds along with special-needs students.

Haynes has a peer-tutoring program, dual enrollment opportunities at UNO, a volleyball team at state playoffs, exchange trips to France and Academic Games championships, Helmstetter said, amid the other “whirlwind” of activities at the school, which he describes as academically “rigorous.” Helmstetter said that he hopes the growing measures of high achievement like the 11 semifinalists will convince younger Haynes students to attend through high school, as well as make the school more competitive when parents are deciding where to apply.

“Our rigor is what we are all about,” Helmstetter said.