By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Elizabeth Thole, an English teacher at Western Hills High School, has seen students wither under academic pressure and fold when faced with tragedy.
But the two top students at West Hi transformed personal tragedies - the deaths of a mother and a boyfriend - into a steely determination to succeed.
"These kids refuse to be broken," Thole said. "They are both among the best I've ever taught."
SALUTE TO SCHOLARS
Today, the Enquirer salutes the more than 300 Tristate students who reached the pinnacle of academic achievement this year, being named valedictorian, salutatorian or "top student" at their high schools. For the complete list, go to
our special section.
Coming Wednesday: Sports salutes the champions of the 2003-04 high school athletic season.
But success didn't come easy for valedictorian Sheila Brown and salutatorian Kisha Woods.
Sheila's mother died in a car crash when Sheila was in eighth grade.
Cynthia Brown was in a rush to get to work on the morning of Dec. 7, 1999. Sheila remembers chiding her mother for always being late just before she headed out the door.
Sheila could joke with her mother like that because they were like friends, sharing their secrets and problems.
"I could tell her anything," the Cheviot student said.
That quick exchange was the last time they would joke. Cynthia was killed after her car collided with another vehicle on Harrison Avenue.
At the time, Sheila had no contact with her biological father. Her mother's boyfriend, Mark Zimmerman, raised Sheila and her brother and their younger sister.
Despite the turmoil of her childhood, Sheila, 18, has been a mostly straight-A student throughout high school and is graduating with at least 15 college credit hours after enrolling in college-level courses.
She served on student council and as a class officer. She also played three varsity sports - volleyball, softball and basketball - and was honored as the school's "All Around Girl" for her achievements in athletics and academics. A talented artist who recently discovered painting, Sheila plans to attend Ohio State University and study architecture, possibly double-majoring in civil engineering.
"If I'm always doing stuff, I don't think about" the accident, she said. "It's a matter of trying to stay sane. Those things really hurt."
But she persevered because she wanted to make her mom proud, she said.
This year was Sheila's toughest because she faltered in some courses. Teachers said the reality of going off to college and starting her life over without her mother's guidance was tough on her.
But Sheila, who prides herself on jamming her days with extra activities on top of rigorous courses, acknowledged her shortcomings in her graduation speech and said she intends to do her best in college. She's already planning on being involved there and wants be a greeter to incoming Ohio State students.
"This is going to be my life from now on," she said. "I just have to take a deep breath. I can't change the past but I can try to change the future."
Salutatorian and varsity cheerleader captain Kisha Woods faced tragedy last year when her boyfriend of two years was killed.
Amateur boxer JeShawn Johnson, 18, died after being shot at a party.
At the time of his death, Kisha was working a shift at Kentucky Fried Chicken. She's been working there a year, in part to save money for college.
The news of his death devastated her. JeShawn had proposed to Kisha just a few months earlier, she said.
And they had big dreams together: JeShawn, who in 2002 was ranked in the top 10 in his weight class by United States Amateur Boxing, had planned to open a local boxing club for kids. Kisha wanted to open a charter school.
But Kisha, who is known to pass up the dance clubs in favor of studying, didn't let her schoolwork falter.
Friends and teachers say Kisha's determination kicked in.
"She didn't miss a beat," said her former English teacher, Jennifer Cook. "He was a good kid and they were so happy. It shocked me that she was able to keep her eye on the goal."
Cook said Kisha was known for her energy and enthusiasm for school, and that hardly wavered.
"In Cincinnati Public, most kids don't have enthusiasm about anything involving school," Cook said. "But Kisha came into ninth grade with booster shoes on. She was a rocket."
Kisha, of Price Hill, served on student council and as a teen mentor in the Postponing Sexual Involvement program. She worked on the staff of the yearbook and school newspaper. Kisha also took college-level courses in high school and graduated with 27 college credit hours.
She said she is driven by the relationship she had with JeShawn.
"If he was here, he would still want me to continue with my goals," she said. "We always reminded each other to strive for the highest academic excellence."
Kisha, the first in her family to attend college, plans to major in secondary education administration at Spelman College, a historically black college for women in Atlanta.
"She exemplifies what every teacher wants - a good student who wants to be better," Cook said.
Kisha said she intends to come back to Cincinnati to improve education here. In addition to starting a charter school and opening the boxing club JeShawn had planned, she plans someday to be superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools.
She hasn't yet told the current superintendent, Alton Frailey.
"But I want him to be prepared," she said.
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