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Good News from Public Schools

From the outset of a more than two-hour coaching session with Quakertown Community School District students and parents, Justin Guarini put everyone at ease. Headlined as an Audition Secrets Masterclass, the star of Broadway shows and American Idol let everyone know that he sat where they’re sitting and their dreams can be fulfilled.
“I’ve done what you’ve done and lived what you lived,” he said. “I’ve been where it is you want to be. It takes a lot of hard work but if I can do it you can do it.”
His message hit home with Quakertown’s young people. Karinna Richardson, a senior who performs with the Varsity Singers and in school plays, said “It’s very relieving to know that I can be more confident in my own abilities. He made it in acting and you can see he’s a real person. Where else would I ever hear these things from someone of his background or have the opportunity to meet him?”
Mr. Guarini was brought to the district by the Quakertown Community Education Foundation’s biennial Artist-In-Residence program. Dr. Erin Oleksa-Carter, a QCEF board member and QCSD’s Supervisor of Middle Level Teaching and Learning, huddled with several teachers to discuss the program. Erin Camburn, the high school’s choral director, suggested Mr. Guarini.
His interactive Audition Secrets was a huge success as he shared the highlights and lowlights of a career that took off in the first season of American Idol in 2002 when he reached the finals with Kelly Clarkson. Mr. Guarini, 44, has been the lovable “Lil’ Sweet” in Dr. Pepper commercials since 2015 and performed in seven Broadway productions.
As he spoke and gracefully maneuvered the stage in the Quakertown Performing Arts Center, Mr. Guarini used photos, videos and his magical singing voice to teach, encourage and motivate his attentive audience.
“(Being here tonight) is one more step in a long road of steps to your success,” he said. “I’m taking you by your hand … watch that pothole. Everything you want is waiting for you on the other side of willingness to fail.”
“It felt real, and I was very excited to hear what he had to say,” said Zach Polek, a junior who finished first in auditions as both a singer and instrumentalist or the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association District 11 chorus, band, and orchestra. “I have to be confident. It’s okay to be me where I’m at.”
Mr. Guarini enjoyed the back-and-forth with audience members and they savored his feedback. He opened up about his failures, including getting words wrong Idol’s Big Band Night when singing Route 66. “I just kept going,” he said.
A low point came one night alone in a hotel room in Los Angeles, watching Saturday Night Live when Tina Fey on Weekend Update announced Mr. Guarini had been dropped from his recording contract. It’s how he learned about it.
Mrs. Camburn referenced that type of “authenticity. To hear him describe the incredible highs and crushing lows was so inspiring and a great message for our students.” 
Stephanie Zajkowski, QCEF’s board president, said he “spoke to them in a way they can relate. ‘You need to go for it.’ ”
In addition to the audition tips he shared, Mr. Guarini’s advice is something that will inspire students with just about any challenge they face or career they seek.
“There’s something you have to give,” he said. “You’re not just an instrument in a line of people.  You all have value.”
He also said something many parents were happy to hear.  “Create another stream of income for yourself,” Mr. Guarini said, holding up a cell phone. “With this, anyone can do it.”
Dr. Oleksa said “His messages are important no matter what you do. The goal of the Artist-In-Residence program is to touch on a variety of career pathways. We think hearing what our students did from a star performer will go a long way.”
Mrs. Zajkowski of the QCEF said “the things he said are going to stick with our kids forever. It’s not just about auditioning. His words work for whatever path they choose.”  
For his part, Mr. Guarini is hoping “the underlying lessons and principles I teach will be part of my legacy. My hope is that I teach people how to avoid the mistakes I made so they can get down the road to success faster than I did.”
A team of Fox Chapel Area High School students recently won two awards in the Carnegie Science Center’s SciYinz Squad: Chain Reaction competition.  The students won a People’s Choice award, as well as an award for Best Presentation.  The participating Fox Chapel Area students were seniors James Harris, William Rice, and Sydney Ward; juniors Maria Costantino, Sophia Gass, and Jillian Stahl; and sophomores Rebecca Chang, Alex Kim, Kyle Matthew Ong, Sangyon Park, Hyunoh Ro, Gretchen Shelestak, Maria Stiger, and Samuel Ummer.
The SciYinz Squad competitions are held at the Carnegie Science Center and are fun, impromptu challenges that encourage teamwork and creativity, all while addressing basic scientific principles and concepts that are regularly encountered across a wide array of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.  The competitions are open to students in grades 6-12.
Seneca Valley seniors Haihan Xu, Peter Ko and Eric Combs have been named finalists in the 68th Annual National Merit Scholarship Program held by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC).

“Eric Combs, Haihan Xu and Peter Ko have qualified as semifinalist in National Merit Scholarship which indicates that they are in the top 16,000 high school seniors in the country.  Recently, we were notified that they have moved onto the finalist round where they can compete for finalist standing in this prestigious honor.  All these students are currently enrolled in a demanding course load that requires maximum effort to succeed, and all are doing extremely well. We are very proud of all of them and wish them the best of luck as they move further along in the process,” said Seneca Valley Senior High School Principal, Mr. Bob Ceh. 

These SV standouts are three of approximately 16,000 finalists and will now advance to the next level of the program where they have the opportunity to earn National Merit Scholarships and, ultimately, the Merit Scholar® title.

“I am grateful for my incredible teachers and my parents who have inspired me to work hard. Without their support, I would not have been able to earn this great award," said Mr. Combs.

Mr. Xu added, “I feel honored to receive the distinction of National Merit Finalist and represent Seneca Valley with this title.”
About 1.5 million juniors in more than 21,000 high schools entered the 2023 National Merit Scholarship Program by taking the 2021 Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT®), which served as an initial screen of program entrants.

“I am proud to be a National Merit Finalist and represent Seneca Valley with this title. Being recognized for this reflects both my own hard work as well as the contributions from my teachers here at SV, and I know I will continue to work hard to achieve success in my future endeavors,” said Mr. Ko.

For more information on National Merit Scholarship Program, visit www.nationalmerit.org
Eleven Fox Chapel Area High School students recently placed in the Pennsylvania High School Speech League’s state championship qualifying tournament.  First place awards went to the Policy Debate team of junior Adhitya Thirumala and sophomore Moonyoung Hwang, junior Lakshanya Rajaganapathi in Informative Speaking, junior Isabella White in Commentary, freshman Ulyana Kubini in Persuasive Speaking, and freshmen Joanna Li and Zachary Rubin in Duo Interpretation.  All seven of these students have qualified to participate in the Pennsylvania High School Speech League State Championship Tournament.  The state tournament will be held March 17 and 18, 2023, at Bloomsburg University. 
Additionally, four Fox Chapel Area High School students placed at the tournament and will serve as alternates for the state competition.  Sophomore Swati Mylarappa won third place in Informative Speaking, freshman Varnujah Rengaramanujam Kanagaraj won third place in Poetry, freshman Madeline Urso won third place in Commentary, and senior Martin Stanton was awarded fifth place in the Senate.
The state championship qualifying tournament was held at Moon Area High School February 25.