Tuesday, June 15, 2004

After an amazing turnaround, scholar leaves them cheering

Porscha: 'I didn't learn anything until my junior year'

By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COVINGTON - Before she became an academic superstar, Porscha Jefferson worried about looking good.

She wore Abercrombie. She spent two hours getting ready for school in the morning. Sometimes she even did her hair before going to bed, in case a late-night emergency forced her to run outside.

That was then. Four years and many all-night study sessions later, Porscha is over all that. She's proof, her teachers say, of the teenage gift for self-transformation.

The one-time fashionista is this year's salutatorian of Holmes High School and a graduate of the International Baccalaureate program, one of the most rigorous high-school curricula in the nation.

• 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.

She aced calculus as a junior. She has a full scholarship to the University of Louisville. And she has the satisfaction of surprising a lot of people, who know her more as a petite, bubbly cheerleader than a writer of long papers about Hiroshima and the Cold War.

"People were like, 'Whaat? Porscha's that smart?" says Porscha, 17.

Of course, school officials always knew she had potential, and her parents were certain of it. They never stopped pushing her, and those expectations meant a lot, she says.

Porscha's mother was 16 and her father 20 when she was born. The couple never married and eventually parted ways. Neither went to college, but both insisted their children would.

"That's my big lecture in life - to be better than me," says Carl Jefferson, a truck driver whose own rough childhood landed him in foster care at the age of 11.

Porscha lived with her mother, Tina Phillips, until she was 6, then moved to her dad's home not far away.

The house sits across from an auto parts store on Madison Avenue, the main drag through downtown Covington. It's a busy street and a busy home: Besides Porscha and her dad, there is her dad's girlfriend, the couple's 1-year-old baby and Jefferson's two teenage sons.

"I push education to them," Jefferson says. "They can't go anywhere without me being in their ear or sitting right beside them."

As early as sixth grade, Porscha was steered into a program for gifted students within the Covington Independent School District. She made sure to always get A's, she says, but that was easy. She wasn't really thinking for herself.

There were distractions. Fast-pitch softball, football players, friends with cars. As a freshman, Porscha was a varsity cheerleader who hung out with seniors. Then she joined the regional Kentucky Elite North squad, which won a national cheerleading championship her sophomore year.

She could have coasted through the rest of high school. But when her older friends graduated, she came to a crossroads. She could either maintain status quo or join the International Baccalaureate program, for which teachers had recommended her.

She chose the latter: a genuine stretching of the mind.

"I honestly feel like I didn't learn anything until my junior year," Porscha says.

The International Baccalaureate asks a great deal from young people. Following a standard curriculum for IB programs around the world, students take advanced classes in science, English, history and the like, some of which stretch over two years.

Final exams can involve six hours of essay-writing, plus an oral test that may be taped and sent to other countries for scoring. The students' culminating paper is 14 pages long and represents nearly two years of research.

"The average student gets about four hours of sleep (a night), if you really try and you're caught up in all your work," Porscha says.

She was one who tried. Other students would even get aggravated sometimes, because Porscha asked a lot of questions in class, history teacher Joan Gregory says.

"She would call me at home at night and say, 'Now let me get this right,'" Gregory says.

This year, some IB students got a touch of senioritis, but not Porscha. She and a handful of others met Gregory at Panera Bread recently to review for a final.

"She taught her teachers a huge lesson - that students can change, that no one should be counted out," says Elizabeth Beene, a guidance counselor at Holmes.

This summer, Porscha is working two jobs: as a lifeguard at a public pool and a receptionist at a veterinary office. She has checked out housing at the University of Louisville, where she will study biology in preparation for dental school.

And she is, at least for the moment, reacquainting herself with hanging out. On a recent evening, two friends came over to go the movies. As they waited for Porscha, her cell phone rang periodically, playing the tune "My Boyfriend's Back."

Sometimes, even scholarly girls just want to have fun.


E-mail kgutierrez@enquirer.com

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