Signs of excellence among city students

Scholarship: Three Polytechnic Institute seniors show their academic talent in Baltimore public high schools.

February 16, 2000|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Every school day, Raven Johnson, a slender 17-year-old with a sunny smile, crosses the city from her East Baltimore neighborhood, leaving at 6: 45 a.m. to take the North Avenue bus and the light rail to Polytechnic Institute, where she is one of three seniors recently recognized for academic achievement by the National Merit Scholarship Corp.

Becoming a finalist in the National Achievement Scholarship competition has already created a turn in Johnson's life. Yesterday, she left for Florida, traveling alone for the first time (with a borrowed suitcase) to see if Tallahassee is the place to spend her college years. Florida A & M University offered her a full scholarship earlier this year, after she was named a semifinalist based on her PSAT scores.

She was among a few Baltimore public school seniors to be named a finalist last week in a competition designed to acknowledge academic achievement among African-Americans.

FOR THE RECORD - A list of National Merit Scholarship finalists in yesterday's Maryland section incorrectly listed students from Carroll County. The Carroll students listed are semifinalists. The scholarship program has not released a list of finalists for the county. The Sun regrets the error.

Two of her friends in Poly's Class of 2000, Simon Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Armenti, were named finalists in the National Merit Scholarship program, based on their performance among all those taking the PSAT. All three students are ranked in the top dozen of their class, school officials said. One other city public school senior, Nadia Sirota at the School for the Arts, also was named a National Merit finalist. The gifted viola player is leaning toward the Juilliard School of Music.

In Maryland, 277 high school students were named National Merit Scholarship finalists. Nationwide, 1,200 finalists were named in the Achievement category, about 700 of whom will be named winners and receive scholarship funds, a corporation spokeswoman said.

The oldest of three sisters, Baltimore-born Raven Johnson is the first in her family to venture out of state for college.

Her hopes span the globe. Intrigued by Japanese culture after taking a language course and starting a Japanese animation club at Poly, she would like to teach English in Japan after college. "I plan to move there permanently, if at all possible," she says, in a confident voice that suggests she has conquered odds before.

Her mother, Linda Johnson, supports the dream: "I would prefer she go there than some other places."

"Like walking outside the front door?" Raven Johnson asks with a laugh.

The neighborhood at night is not a place to let her daughters linger. As a result, Raven Johnson focuses less on socializing than on homework, the computer and musical instruments. She plays the violin, piano and clarinet.

"There's nothing they can really do outside, with so much negativity. So they stay close to home," says Linda Johnson in the living room of their modest rowhouse on East Lafayette Avenue near Greenmount Cemetery. Her husband, Tyrone Prout, is a school system policeman.

In this household, the emphasis clearly is on school. Raven Johnson was discouraged from working a part-time job. "We didn't want her to have a job that would interfere with her grades," her mother says.

The rewards are evident. Johnson can appreciate the pleasures of Hemingway, which many don't discover until college. "The Sun Also Rises" just caught my attention," she says. So did Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man."

Johnson, who excelled in the most difficult part of Poly's engineering and science curriculum, might have considered Harvard, which also invited her to apply. However, she said, "I'm not interested in a big name."

Her friend Armenti, 17, concurs. The brown-haired girl with delicate features is inclined toward Georgetown University, the University of Pennsylvania, or Emory University in Atlanta.

Since her father and stepmother teach at City College, she comes from a family that believes in public education.

Like Johnson, Armenti plays the piano -- "since I was 6," she says.

The third student from Poly recognized for academic excellence happens to be Armenti's boyfriend, Simon Fitzgerald.

Decribed as the social conscience of the Class of 2000 by C. Allen Becker, Poly's grade 12 guidance counselor, the soft-spoken and disarming Fitzgerald comes from an activist family in Mount Washington. His father, a doctor, often takes him to Sunday services at the home of the Rev. Phillip Berrigan, a priest arrested many times for protesting U.S. military policy.

Swarthmore and Penn are his first choices.

Besides AP classes in biology, physics and English, Fitzgerald, 18, says Poly has given him an invaluable perspective by being part of a minority on campus: "It gave me an important view of life," Fitzgerald says. "Most white upper middle class males don't feel that [minority status] ever."

He and Armenti staunchly believe their education equals that in Baltimore's private schools, which, Fitzgerald says, amount to "a form of class segregation."

Armenti adds, "If you're living in this city [but not going to public school], you're not interacting with the cultures in the city."

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