There’s never been a 2-way tie for Staples High School valedictorian.
There still isn’t. But this year, there will be 3 valedictorians.
Natalie Bandura, Zach Bishop and Julian Weng all have the same 4-year grade point average — down to hundredths of a decimal point.
All 3 will speak at graduation on June 16.
Though they finished in a deadlock, the tri-valedictorians have very different scholastic careers and interests.
For the first time in history, Staples High School will have three valedictorians: Natalie Bandura, Zach Bishop and Julian Weng.
Though all three are high achievers in the classroom, each charted their own way through Staples. They have a variety of passions, and each contributed in different ways to a host of extracurricular activities.
Natalie Bandura made news last fall, as one of the first 2 high school students ever appointed to the Connecticut Board of Education. She also served as editor-in-chief of Inklings (which this year earned its first-ever Columbia Scholastic Press Association gold crown), and captain of the math team (4thplace in the state competition).
Each of those activities provided Natalie with a different sense of community. Each allowed her to apply what she’s learned in class to real-life situations. She has appreciated the opportunity to write creatively, and apply logical thinking to solve math problems. Joining the state Board of Education gave her confidence to speak publicly, and use her voice to rally others around common goals.
Natalie was surprised to learn she is a valedictorian. “I was always focused on pursuing my interests, not grades,” she says. “I don’t think any of the three of us set up our schedules to maximize our grades.”
Her favorite classes included Advanced Placement Chemistry with Dominick Messina (“a great teacher who allowed us to be ourselves, and talk about content in a fun way”); Journalism (“of course”) with Mary Elizabeth Fulco and Joseph Del Gobbo, and Calculus BC with Jonathan Watnick (“a real challenge”). AP Literature with Brian Tippy, and Freshman English with Heather Colletti-Houde, helped her grow as a writer.
She advises incoming students to “explore everything that interests you. Don’t think that something will be too much, or impossible. Don’t be afraid to try to figure out who you are, or what you want to pursue. Join a ton of activities. Don’t go by what other people say you should take or do.”
Natalie will attend Harvard University. She looks forward to exploring her passions for government, journalism, math and research. She hopes to join the Crimson newspaper, and attend law school after graduation. But she is unsure of a major, and has an open mind about how to tie her many interests together.
Valedictorian Zach Bishop is well known as a musician. A violist, violinist and composer, he plays with the orchestra, and chamber and pit ensembles, along with All-State, Norwalk Youth Symphony and the Greater Connecticut Youth Orchestra.
While playing classical music helps him feel connected to musicians from centuries ago, composing is a different creative outlet. He describes his compositions as ranging from neo-Baroque and Romantic, to experimental. His favorite composers include Mendelssohn and Sibelius, but he studies lesser-known composers to broaden his understanding of both music and culture.
Academically, Zach loved Suzanne Kammerman’s Advanced Placement United States Government “We the People” class. Students research, analyze, synthesize and present key constitutional issues, as part of a national competition. “We debate really important questions, and it’s very practical,” he says. Fellow valedictorians Natalie Bandura and Julian Weng are in the same class.
Zach also enjoyed Calculus BC with Jonathan Watnick (“he finds multiple ways to answer questions, and helped me understand math”), and Music Theory with Philip Giampietro. As part of the Coleytown Elementary and Middle School Workshop program for gifted students, Zach appreciated the opportunity to do group work, and make creative presentations.
Being valedictorian is “a cool honor,” Zach says. “But I really valued all my classes. And it’s really cool to share it with others.”
His graduation speech may include some of his personal philosophy on how to make life rewarding. In his free time he reads philosophers like Plato, Camus and Kierkegaard. “They help me question things,” he notes.
Like Natalie, he tells incoming Staples students, “if you think you can manage taking rigorous classes, don’t let people talk you out of it. But if you know yourself and they’re not right for you, don’t get pushed into them.”
This spring, Zach will do a senior internship at the Museum of Mathematics in New York City. In the fall he’ll attend Williams College, where he looks forward to small classes, the possibility of a double major in music and math, the chance to hike, and auditioning for the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra.
The third valedictorian, Julian Weng, is used to sharing honors. He was co-president of the Debate Club (in a tied vote). He also founded Code for a Cause, a group that provides resources and support for virtual hackathons. His team won one of those events, for their work mapping economic data to optimize college selections for undergraduates. In his spare time, Julian plays tennis.
Like Natalie and Zach, he cites Suzanne Kammerman’s Advanced Placement United States Government “We the People” as a favorite course. “We did in-depth research on constitutional topics, and defended it against experts who spend their entire lives studying this,” he says. “It had a real impact on how I approach team-based work, and how I speak. It was a very different experience than other social studies classes.”
A self-described “big STEM person,” Julian especially enjoyed Applied Algorithmic Design with Dr. Nick Morgan; Statistics and Discrete Mathematics with John Wetzel; Building Web Applications with David Scrofani, and Advanced Placement Chemistry with Will Jones.
In his Independent Learning Experience with Mr. Scrofani, Julian created a chatbot. It helps students review class concepts by generating customized practice questions, then tracking their progress. It was inspired by his work as an instructor for an after-school STEM program and math tutor with Mu Alpha Theta, the national mathematics honor society.
Julian’s route to the Class of 2022’s top spot included “taking every class I could that sounded interesting.” Like his co-valedictorians, he did not plan his schedule with the goal of finishing with the highest GPA.
Julian notes, “A lot of people say Staples is a very competitive place. It is. But there are lots of supportive people. Try to surround yourself with people you can talk to at lunch about more than your chemistry grade. I found lots of real support.”
Julian will study management and technology at the University of Pennsylvania. He plans to pursue a dual degree, through the Wharton School and the School of Engineering and Applied Science.