Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Whitehaven Millionaires Club: Teacher Prepares Students For Scholarships

Brandon Dill/Special to The Commercial Appeal
Whitehaven High School seniors (left to right) Gene Robinson, Karlyn Washington and Victoria Young are the top scholarship recipients at WHS. With the help of calculus teacher James Ralph Sparks (far right), each of the students has earned more than $1 million in scholarships.

By Jane Roberts
Of The Memphis Commercial Appeal

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

On the power of its brains and the strength of its will, the 400-some member senior class of Whitehaven High School this year blew the top off the school record for scholarships, earning a collective $13.7 million.

The school is third among Memphis City Schools in scholarship earnings, behind White Station and Ridgeway.

At the head of the WHS money heap -- graduation was Saturday at Cook Convention Center -- is Victoria Young with a cool $2.3 million, including the prestigious Gates Millennium prize, a full ride to Duke University and scholarships to 30 other schools.

No. 2 is Karlyn Washington, salutatorian, with $1.2 million; Gene Robinson, No. 3, headed to North Carolina on a full athletic scholarship, racked up $1.2 million.

Before you write them off to a random streak of brilliance, consider the power of well-intentioned math geek and calculus teacher James Ralph Sparks -- who some time ago zeroed in on the power of the ACT.

"I talk about it every day in my classroom. It pays off," says the wiry 26-year WHS veteran, who strides about the campus in athletic shoes and hair and glasses from the past.

More than 62 percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch, the federal guideline for at-risk students.

It's a point of pride for Sparks, 63, that he knows none of the details.

"At one time, we were supposed to know all that about each student. I didn't do it then either because it's not the important thing to me," he tells a visitor struggling to match his pace.

In 2002, he started the 30+ Club, an exclusive roster of students who've earned ACT scores of 30 or more. Their pictures are arranged in two big frames by the school office. College acceptance and scholarship letters for this year's class line the hall 100 yards on either side.

"Every time I get a hold of some new scholarship, I make copies. ... Anything we can get our hands on, we go after," Sparks says.

"The more math they get, the higher their ACT scores. The silver lining is, they get more money."

More than 90 percent of students in the money are his students, including Bronson Worthy, who scored 35 out of 36 on the math test, 31 in science and a 32 overall.

To make the connection between ACT scores and free rides to college, Sparks started the Fortune 500 Club two years ago. To get in, you have to have at least $100,000 in scholarships. (Sparks insists on signed letters from the colleges as proof.)

"It's actually infectious. I publish a monetary standing every week and give it to the kids. They say, 'Wait a minute, I can get higher than you.' They go crazy," Sparks said.

"We started out just trying to beat last year's class," Young said, nodding to the banner at the front of Sparks' classroom that boasts earnings of $10.8 million.

By December, with her own total approaching $1 million, she was at the top of the pack.

"Now, they will have to make a new club. I passed the $2 million mark," she said. "I wanted to set the bar high, which makes the other classes work even harder. It's only helping the people who are following us."

The competition to get in the 30+ Club is stiff. "I mean, look at the scores," she said. "They are really, really high."

Eleven seniors earned 30 or more in the English portion; five more made the mark in reading.

When new principal Vincent Hunter and Sparks began "co-conspiring" in 2005-2006 with ACT tips in the daily announcements, awards went from $4.2 million to $6.9 million in a year.

The marquee in front of the school serves as the community scoreboard.

"Every time we get a new total, we put it up there," Hunter said.

"Every time a student graduates from college, the same thing, up it goes," he said, rifling through test data for the goods on this year's sophomore class.

"Look at those scores," he says with awe. "They've got great showing on the TCAP, great attendance; these all are projections of what this class might be."

Sparks has already told the class it will be his last.

Hunter's hoping for a real sendoff. "Wouldn't it be nice for him to go out on $20 million?"

Top scholarship-winning city high schools

-- White Station: $25.8 million

-- Ridgeway: $14 million

-- Whitehaven: $13.7 million

-- Cordova: $12.8 million

-- Central: $11 million

-- Jane Roberts: 901-529-2512

© 2009 Scripps Newspaper Group — Online

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