You know who they are. The high achievers. The all-around athletes. The community service super-stars. The students who succeeded against all odds. They're in every school, in every city throughout Fulton County.
These students are just a snapshot of the amazing lives represented in every Fulton County high school. We commend you -- and all Class of 2013 graduates -- for your achievements and the impact you've made.
Congratulations on your graduation. We wish you a bright and successful future.
Catherine Stephens – Centennial High School
When Catherine Stephens started her senior year at Centennial High School last fall, she had a list of things any typical teenager looks forward to in their last year of school. Enduring brain surgery, however, was not on that list.
Earlier in the fall, she was diagnosed with AVM, a rare disorder that develops in the womb and leads to weak blood vessels in the brain. She was quickly scheduled for brain surgery. The recovery would take longer and cause her to miss a chunk of her senior year – 2.5 months to be exact.
“It’s not something anyone wants to go through,” she says. “I was back in time for homecoming, but I did miss a lot of the fall. Now that it’s getting close to graduation, I want to turn back the clock because I want those missing moments back.”
In order to minimize the impact on her senior year, Catherine focused on her recovery. As a result, she’s set to graduate on time and third in her class. An AP student, her favorite classes have been AP Chemistry and AP Music Theory. Even though she says she will more than likely attend Georgia Tech University in the fall, she’s still struggling with a major.
“I’ll either major in chemical engineering or psychology with a minor in music,” she says.
One thing she does know for certain is the advice she would give another student faced with the same situation. “Don’t give up,” she says. “Push yourself to recover so you can get where you want to be.”
Johnny Thompson – North Springs Charter High School
Called a "remarkable, hardworking student with tremendous character," Johnny Thompson is no stranger to serving the community and his peers. Since his freshman year, Johnny has served on the Fulton County Youth Commission, and in 2011 he received the Incredible Dedication Award for never missing a meeting or rarely an event.
As part of the Fulton County Youth Commission he has visited multiple middle schools to share information about healthy eating and physical fitness to students, and every other Saturday he helps pack and distribute “hope boxes” for the Youth Commissioners to hand out to help the homeless.
His service doesn't end there. Johnny is also part of the Global Youth Leadership program and was selected to go on their international trip to China last summer and in December he went to Brazil, taking Portuguese classes after school to prepare. He also serves on the Fulton County Teen Court as a “youth volunteer lawyer” and advises at-risk, first offender teens who are arrested and charged but whose sentence may be community service.
Johnny also knows what it means to face adversity. In his sophomore year he was diagnosed with osteochondroma, a rare bone disease that caused a bone growth in his femur. The growth wrapped around his sciatic nerve and was extremely painful. His doctor told him he couldn’t play ice hockey for 6 months to 1 year but Johnny was back in two weeks.
Johnny has enlisted in the US Navy and will be going to submarine school. He hopes the GI Bill can help pay for future schooling, possibly in the medicial or law field. He’ll begin basic training right after graduation.
Janai Thompson – Creekside High School
Janai Thompson has been a special education student since fifth grade, taking rigorous courses including AP US History and PreCal. She is a part of the "Starfish" mentoring program for special education seniors and is being mentored by Creekside assistant principal Leah Mackey. She is a battalion commander for the ROTC, of which she has been a member for the past four years. She is an honor roll student and received the Creekside PRIDE Award for Dependability. Janai participates in the Jobs for Georgia grads program and was awarded second place in the district competition for Employability Skills.
Janai has a grade point average of 86 and has been accepted to Le Cordon Bleu where she plans to pursue a career as chef with a focus on baking and pastry. Janai participated in the Career and Technical Instruction program, placing third in the Culinary Arts and Professional Foods state competition. She has demonstrated superior customer service skills as a peer facilitator for the Guidance Office.
Janai says she is completely career driven and would like to have her own catering business one day. Having the chance to pursue her chosen career means everything to her. She says she “does not ever want to stop going on to the next thing.” During her high school days, Janai had ups and downs – but more ups than downs. She says she “strives to do her best and always wanted to do more than what everybody thought she could do or should do.” She has not allowed anyone else’s opinion stop her from doing what she wanted to do. Some of her family members have not been able to pursue their dreams so she appreciates all the more the opportunity to pursue her own.
Northview High School senior Lily Xhiang admits she thought she was weird when she realized she could do something her friends couldn’t –automatically associate numbers with colors.
Lily Xhiang – Northview High School
“I looked it up and realized it’s a real thing – synesthesia,” she says. “I’m really good at memorizing numbers, so I always tell my friends they better hide their credit card numbers when we’re out shopping together.”
No doubt this unique ability will serve her well in the fall when she starts her college career at MIT. She’s planning on majoring in computer science and minoring in management. Her future career plans include consulting with a firm or working for Google.
“I’d like to work at Google and be a part of the next big thing, whatever that next big thing is” she says.
Lily graduated third in her class. As a student, her favorite classes were physics (enjoyed being able to apply content to the real world) and Spanish (it was useful).
Her extracurricular activities include being the secretary of Kaleidoscope (Northview’s diversity club), dancing and serving as co-director of Hand-in-hand, an organization that teaches Chinese culture to adopted Chinese youth.
Last summer Lily spent a month in Nanjing, China volunteering in an orphanage. “It really made me appreciate what I have,” she says. “I want to go back and work there again.”
Jordan Wilkins – Chattahoochee High School
Jordan Wilkins has a reputation around Chattahoochee High School as being one of the nicest students, but the administration and faculty know him as something else – one of the most dedicated students to walk the hallways.
Jordan lives in south Fulton but travels to north Fulton every day to attend Chattahoochee High School. Getting to school on time required dedication – waking up at 5 a.m. and taking MARTA to a station close to the school. Wilkins’ family hired a driver to pick him up at the station and drive the final leg of the voyage to the school. Wilkins says it was worth it.
“I like being surrounded by other students who have high standards and who want to achieve,” he says. “I also like the diversity that Chattahoochee offers.”
Jordan will be the first to graduate in his family and plans on attending Georgia State University in the fall to major in marketing.
A DECA student and varsity basketball team captain, his favorite high school memory is of his time on the court. “I enjoyed beating Alpharetta during overtime,” he says.
Brittany Southall – Tri-Cities High School
Brittany Southall embodies the spirit of determination and character. A well-rounded student, she is a member of her school’s Psychology Club, a member of the Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) Club, and a proud cadet of her school’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps Program (JROTC). An astute student, Brittany is planning to attend college.
Brittany has not allowed the hardships of her life to prevent her from accomplishing what other teenagers so frequently take for granted – earning a high school diploma. At a very young age, Brittany was diagnosed with autism and began receiving Occupational Therapy, Speech/Language Therapy, and services through the Moderately Intellectually Disabled Program of Special Education.
It would have been easy for Brittany to use her many challenges as excuses to give up on life, give up on education, and/or become angry with the world. Instead, this courageous teenager did the opposite. She used her unfavorable experiences as motivations and inspirations to stay in school and complete the requirements needed to obtain her diploma.
Her tenacious appetite for knowledge enabled her to exceed in areas in which general education students struggle. At age three, Brittany did not demonstrate verbal communication skills. Today she participates in classroom discussions and often successfully competes in debates with her classmates in spite of her speech impediment. Brittany was once diagnosed as having low social and interpersonal skills. Today she is one of her classmates’ favorite peers. Her teachers say that she works well in groups and contributes to the class. In fact, all of Brittany’s teachers say that she is a self-starter; that her rate of work is above average, that she works independently, that she works hard to complete all assignments and tasks, and that she is disappointed if she gets an answer wrong. In fact, Brittany is so academically gifted in the areas of history, American Literature/Composition, and spelling that her peers turn to her for the correct answers.
Although she was once diagnosed as having ‘at risk’ leadership skills, that is no longer the case. Because of her effective leadership skills, her school’s JROTC Senior Army Instructor assigned her to one of the program’s leadership positions. She has been awarded the ‘Old Guard of The Gate City Guard” JROTC medal, the uniform Personal Appearance ribbon, the Academic Achievement ribbon, the Leadership, Training, and Education ribbon as well as the JROTC Parade ribbon and the Youth Force Top Cadet award.
Malcolm Barnard – Johns Creek High School
This spring, Malcolm Barnard earned the prestigious Nestle Very Best in Youth award which honors young people for their academic excellence and proven dedication to improving communities and creating a better tomorrow.
Malcolm has served as Science Olympiad president and National Wildlife Federation youth ambassador. He is responsible for registering Johns Creek as the 60th National Wildlife Federation Community Wildlife Habitat in the U.S. and helped to certify more than 200 homes, local businesses and all 18 Johns Creek public schools as National Wildlife Federation habitats.
After graduating, Malcolm plans to study aquatic biology. His future career goals include using research to develop new methods for cleaning and purifying freshwater sources for consumption.
Erick Peek – Langston Hughes High School
Erick Peek, with a 99.1 GPA, was his school’s first male valedictorian. Erick is a well-rounded student and has committed to University of Georgia. Erick played football and is known for being a great athlete while excelling in the classroom.
Erick says his junior and senior years were his most challenging years, especially his Advanced Placement Literature and Calculus classes. He credits his parents for inspiring him because they provided him with the necessities he needed to succeed. Playing football and maintaining academic success was a challenge because no matter how late practice ended, school assignments still had to be completed which sometimes left him with little or no sleep.
He sees going to college as a time to start over again and prove that he can work hard to achieve what he wants to be in life. He says in college you are back at the bottom where high school credentials won’t matter. However, he plans to strive for the same credentials -- being valedictorian -- when he becomes a graduating college senior.
A teacher who inspired Erick was Antonia Strong, US History teacher. She took on the role of his parent away from home. She taught life lessons as well as history lessons. Erick says he never really learned history until he took Ms. Strong’s class.
He encourages ninth grade students to not wait until their junior or senior year to step up their grades and begin working hard. He says ninth grade really does count and an excellent work ethic should begin in ninth grade in order to help students get to where they need to be.
Alexis Bruton – Independence High School
Some of the toughest challenges faced in life are the challenges we place on ourselves. Alexis Bruton challenged herself to dig deep, buckle down, and commit to her education. After once considering dropping out, she is now a graduating senior at Independence High School.
Alexis struggled to get focused in her traditional high school setting. “I don’t think the work was that difficult,” she says, “I just didn’t want to do it.” Alexis had other things on her mind. She wouldn’t participate in class, she wouldn’t do her homework. “I was being lazy and wanted to give up.” She started to believe that she just didn’t like school. After talking to her counselor and to friends who went to Independence, she realized that it could be the break she needed; but she didn’t meet the requirements -- she needed to be 16 (she was 15 at the time) and she needed to have 7 credits to attend, which she didn’t have.
Alexis was suddenly surprised that she had allowed herself to fall so far behind. She decided she had to make some changes – first for herself, but also for her mother who she adores and didn’t want to let down. In an essay to accompany her application to Independence High, Alexis said, “everyone deserves a second chance to turn their life around.” On that day Alexis committed to her success. She vowed to make something of herself. “My outlook changed when I got to Independence. I started to take my time and became a perfectionist. Failure wasn’t an option when I got my second chance.”
There was pure joy on Alexis’ face as she shares that her entire family is extremely proud of her. “They didn’t believe that I was going to graduate,” she says. “But now they’re all travelling from Ohio to celebrate graduation day. And I’m not stopping there. I’m ready to continue on to college.” Alexis will start at Perimeter College and continue her education and passion for cooking at a culinary school. At graduation Alexis received the Principal’s Award, as well as a cash award from the school faculty to help with supplies.
Jylinn Steele – Banneker High School
Jylinn Steele is an ‘A’ student who has overcome Katrina, homelessness, and a lack of biological family in the state of Georgia. As a result of moving from Louisiana to Georgia, Jylinn was off track with her graduation tests which necessitated additional studying outside of the classroom to prepare for her tests. As a result of her diligence, Jylinn passed her graduation tests with flying colors.
During the school year, Jylinn became pregnant. However, she did not let her pregnancy stop her from her path toward graduation. Jylinn refused to stay out of school beyond the minimum time required after her baby was born. She returned to school in order to take her end of course tests and march with her classmates.
As a child, Jylinn dreamed of attending Spelman College in Atlanta. No hardship was too much to endure in order to establish Georgia residency and apply to Spelman. After working hard to overcome all the hardships she faced, she was recently accepted to Spelman. Her teachers and peers are very proud of her perseverance and accomplishments and wish her the very best as she begins this new chapter in life.
Christa Dennis – Alpharetta High School
Thousands of students will graduate from Fulton County Schools this summer but each would have experienced a very unique journey. Christa Dennis’ journey was a challenging blend of determination and life – which helped her decide that failure wasn’t an option. Christa will be the first of her two older siblings to continue on to college– it hasn’t been an easy road, but she has no regrets.
Christa has worked extremely hard throughout school to succeed. She studied hard and stayed focused on going to college. She didn’t allow barriers like not having a home computer or having to work after school get in her way. He teachers say Christa has been a model student and they are extremely proud of her. “Wise beyond her years,” says her principal. “I know she will go on to do great things.”
When asked about her passion in life, Christa said her mom told her once that “passion is something you would do for free, but you do it so well someone would pay you for it.” Christa wants to get paid for making a difference in someone else’s life. Her fifth grade teacher made a difference in her life. She’s been Christa’s inspiration. She helped her to stop being angry. She helped her to focus on working hard. This teacher was such an inspiration that Christa wants to attend Florida State and even become a teacher, just like her teacher did. “They have a great education program,” Christa said. “I researched everything I needed know to get into Florida State and did everything I needed to do.”
Christa will begin her education at Tallahassee Community College. She passed her entrance exam to be a firefighter in the US Air Force Reserves while in college; and plans to graduate from Florida State with a degree in elementary education. She would ultimately like to teach English abroad.
Mason Brannon – Riverwood International Charter School
One of his school’s Top 10 seniors, Mason Brannon is a science super-star. He was the only student at Riverwood to be recommended by a science teacher to work in a lab at Emory alongside graduate students, where he researched proteins that are linked to degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Mason also founded Riverwood’s Science National Honor Society. After graduation he plans to attend the University of Virginia to pursue his dream of becoming a neonatologist, a pediatrician specializing in the care of premature and newborn babies in the hospital setting. Mason also is a weekly volunteer at the Shepherd Center, assisting patients with severe injuries.
An interesting hobby of Mason’s is learning ancient languages such as Old English, Latin, and Old Norse, and the influence these languages have had on present-day languages. These languages will serve him well as he studies medicine in college.