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Valley Stream’s top students tell their stories

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Over the course of their high school careers, Valley Stream’s six valedictorians and salutatorians at its three high schools have grown as individuals, earning several honors along the way.

“It really is a tremendous accomplishment,” Superintendent Bill Heidenreich told them on June 6, “and to go through four years of high school and end up at the top, that’s something you should be very, very proud of.”

North High School

Since she started at North High School, valedictorian Amelia Cossentino has taken many Advanced Placement classes, including literature, Italian and the district’s new A.P. Capstone course, which she said was “probably one of the most influential classes I’ve taken in high school.”

As part of it, she spent the past two years studying tonality and the effect of music on politics, and wrote a 22-page research paper on the subject. During that time, she said, she grew close to Capstone instructor Joseph Powers, who helped her cultivate a love of history and taught her to think “outside the box.”

In her free time, Cossentino enjoys performing. She has been the principal tuba player in the district band since ninth grade, and played Kelsi Nielsen in the school’s performance of “High School Musical” and Flounder in “The Little Mermaid.”

“The point I think is [with] those shows, we were able to share a lot with the audience,” she said, adding that the performances always drew large crowds. “And it always felt like a big, schoolwide thing.”

North salutatorian Kailyn Fan has also taken several A.P. courses — including statistics, government and physics — and is a member of several honor societies. Over her six years at North, Fan said, she developed a close relationship with orchestra teacher Rebecca Hayden, who was always there for her if she was having a bad day. “So really, we’ve developed such a friendship that goes beyond, you know, just teaching orchestra,” which is her favorite subject in school, she said.

Fan is president of the school’s Breakfast Club, a string ensemble, and enjoys playing holiday music every year for children at a special-needs high school in Queens that doesn’t have a music program. “It’s really nice for us to be able to share our love of music,” she said. “And I love when they sing along when you play ‘Jingle Bells.’”

Cossentino will attend Harvard University in the fall to study philosophy, and Fan is headed to Stony Brook University to study psychology.

Central High School

Central High School valedictorian Sophia Steele described herself as a shy student, but said she was able to succeed with the help of teachers such as Christina Burke and Angela Trager. “They just made the class more fun,” she said, “and got everyone involved, even like the quiet people like me.”

Steele has taken A.P. courses in government, computer science and psychology, which she said sparked her interested in studying neuroscience when she attends Princeton University this fall.

In her free time, Steele is the vice president of the Student Council and a member of the Future Business Leaders of America, and volunteers at Long Island Jewish Valley Stream hospital, where she works with patients and helps in the pharmacy.

Salutatorian Nader Ahmed moved to Valley Stream when he was in eighth grade, and has since become very involved at Central. He took A.P. courses in physics and psychology, but said he most enjoyed science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or STEM — electives because they gave him an opportunity to express his creativity.

“For me personally, I did a lot of robotics in STEM, and I never thought that’d be something I’m into,” Ahmed said. “And so now I was given access to a lot of 3D printers and laser cutters, and I think experimenting with that allowed me to discover myself.”

He is now considering studying engineering at Swarthmore College, and suggested that future students follow his lead by trying new electives in high school.

South High School

Like the other valedictorians and salutatorians, South High School valedictorian Anne Hwang keeps busy. Not only has she taken A.P. courses in calculus, English and government, but she is also the president of the National Honor Society, the Science Honor Society and the Student Government.

Hwang is an intern at Angion Biomedical laboratory, and volunteers at Northwell Health’s Adult Daycare Center. She also researches biomarkers that could detect the early signs of liver cancer.

Her favorite part of the school year, she said, was the interdistrict science competitions, and she considers Science Department Chairwoman Jeanette Azzaretto her “school mom.”

“Any time I was on the edge of a breakdown, I was in her office,” Hwang said, noting that science research teachers Jeffrey Hsi and Melissa Torregrosa also spent a great deal of their own time helping her.

When she starts school at Macaulay Honors College in Queens in the fall, she plans to study political science and Chinese, hoping to work one day in foreign policy and diplomacy.

Like Sophia Steele, South salutatorian Joshua Ragan was once a shy kid. But, he said, when he “spontaneously” decided to join the school’s Centre Stage theater club in his sophomore year, he was able to “come out of my shell.”

In school, Ragan has taken A.P. Calculus BC, English literature and music theory. He is also the vice president and head of reporting for The Falcon Report, working closely with adviser Ross Lipsky, who he said “helps me realize things will work out” when he is stressing about his grades.

Ragan will study computer science at Stony Brook University next year, but said he may change his major to psychology.

If there were something they could tell future students, Hwang and Ragan said, it would be to make sure to make time for themselves.