Top Schools: Tales out of School

No doubt attending a great high school gives students a leg up in the college sweepstakes. But admissions officers today aren’t necessarily looking for applicants with laundry lists of clubs and activities — it’s the passionate and in-depth pursuit of one interest that really makes a kid stand out. We’ve profiled seven high achievers — and one entrepreneurial dropout — who discovered life-changing passions outside the curriculum and followed them to success. And for your homework assignment, we offer a backpack full of real-world activities to help you energize your child’s own talents.

Amber Permsap
High school: Nazareth Academy, Philadelphia | This fall: Freshman at New York University

Amber Permsap looks like the type of teenager a four-year-old dreams of becoming: long, wavy hair, frilly skirt, impeccable nails, a penchant for pastels. Oh, and she’s an aspiring professional ballerina. “Ballet is so unnatural,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve done all the dances. It’s the hardest.”

She should know. Permsap, 18, a Bensalem native whose mother is an administrator at Wharton and whose Thailand-born father is an architect, has been practicing for four or five hours a day since she was 10, and has appeared in The Nutcracker at the Academy of Music many times. Her efforts culminated in her recent admission to New York University’s hypercompetitive dance program at Tisch School of the Arts.

Though she was always a first-­honors student, Amber never really considered going to college until she visited Tisch, with which she promptly fell in love and into which she figured, just as promptly, she’d never get. Her early-decision acceptance proved her wrong. “You could tell they take dance really seriously,” she says. “I always thought I’d go straight to a dance company, but you make no money, and so most of the girls who do it are rich girls. Like, their parents are so happy they made it into a company that they’re buying them an apartment on Rittenhouse Square! I’m not like that.”

She’s not like most kids you know; she attended Nazareth Academy because the academics were more rigorous than those at the performing-arts schools her dance friends were attending, but she never really saw much value in high school beyond the classes. “Some girls were so into the school. We’d have
these assemblies and they’d be like”—she lets out an ecstatic scream and pumps her fist—“‘NAZARETH, WOOOOOH!’ And I’d be sitting there like, freaks! I mean, I don’t think I’ll be looking back at high school as the best days of my life.”

Damaris Walker

High school: Parkway Center City |This fall: Freshman at Dartmouth College

“The Devil will lead you to believe there’s a shortcut,” intones Damaris Walker from a makeshift altar in an auditorium at 19th and Girard. “But shortcuts lead to detours, and detours lead to delays. Everything the Devil offers is false.”
On a hot summer Sunday, the skinny 18-year-old sweats in his polyester pastor’s robes. His pulpit is a long way from the couch in the disciplinarian’s office at Fitz-Simons Middle School, where, as a sixth-grader, he was summoned to explain why he had pulled the fire alarm. “I wasn’t a bad kid,” he says. “I was mouthy, trying to fit in.”

Fitting in could have proved dangerous. When he was 13, some older kids around his family’s home at 23rd and Diamond tried to recruit him to deal drugs, promising $3,000 a week. A transfer to Stoddart Fleisher Middle School — arranged by the FitzSimons disciplinarian, who had seen his potential during their sessions — allowed Damaris to share the halls with gifted students who showed him that cool and smart aren’t mutually exclusive. “I began to get serious about wanting to be successful and not wanting to find myself incarcerated or dead,” he says. “I pursued what I was passionate about — church and education.”

By 16, Damaris had been ordained a Baptist minister and started his own parish in North Philadelphia. Some of his 50 or so regular worshipers are recovering addicts and alcoholics. “My sermons are geared at building people up,” he says, “as opposed to tearing them down.”

Last spring he graduated from Parkway Center City High School as the valedictorian and second-term school-body president, and was awarded a full scholarship to Dartmouth. Damaris, the second-youngest of five children, will be the first to go to college, but not the last — his little sister, he says, “doesn’t have a choice.”

After college, he plans to run for mayor or councilman, either in Philadelphia or down South, where he recently visited. “They could use someone like me down there,” he says, “someone who’s young, fresh, vibrant and crazy.”



Dillon Compton

High school: Great Valley, Malvern; also homeschooled | This fall: Senior year at Great Valley

To Dillon Compton, grade school was one long trip to the library. He and his three
sisters—­educated at home and encouraged to build their learning around their interests — toted laundry baskets filled with books, returning one load and immediately checking out another. Since Dillon had so much freedom to explore, it’s a little surprising to hear he had his future mapped out by age 10. “I had a sequential plan,” recalls the 17-year-old. “I was going to take every pre-college class having anything to do with the law, go pre-law in college and right into law school. Then I was going to start my own firm right away.”


The plan remained intact through Dillon’s first two years at Great Valley, which he’d decided to attend after feeling he’d hit a wall with homeschooling, and even survived into his junior year, when he left school to take classes at the Community College of Philadelphia. But then his father, a science teacher at Mastery Charter School in Philly, asked him to contribute some computer programming expertise to his students’ robotics team. Working with a core group of 10 Mastery kids, Dillon was often up till midnight unraveling their creation’s design riddles. “It gave me a lot more experience in stuff I’d never touched before,” he says. “It changed my whole mind-set around.”

With a new direction came a new course of study — engineering. He has two colleges in mind, and will be busy this fall helping to start a city-wide school robotics program. And he’s added “Have a social life” to his to-do list. Back at Great Valley as a senior, he may or may not attend the prom. “I’m really not decided,” he says, sounding uncertain for the first time. “I’m going to take that as it comes.” 

Sharrita Alexander

High school: Mastery Charter School, Philadelphia | This fall: Freshman at
Immaculata University

Growing up in Germantown, Sharrita ­Alexander had two pet passions — shopping for clothes, and caring for her Pomeranian, Puff. She also liked watching the cable channel Animal Planet, especially the shows about healing sick animals. She aspired to be a model or a veterinarian, but since she was never that interested in school, her destiny was looking more like America’s Next Top Model than Animal Miracles.

When, at her mother’s urging, she entered Mastery Charter School in ninth grade, she tested at a seventh-grade level and was placed in remedial classes. “I thought school was a joke,” says the willowy 17-year-old, who interpreted the high school’s policy of encouraging students to work at their own pace as an invitation to slack off. But she quickly found out that it really meant she couldn’t advance without earning at least a 76 in all her courses, even if this tacked another year onto her high-school career.

Sharrita buckled down a bit, and in junior year she landed an internship at the Philadelphia Zoo. Every Wednesday afternoon she’d hop on a bus to Girard Avenue, but instead of looking after cute, furry beasts like Puff, she confronted her worst nightmare: bugs. She fed mealworms and crickets to lizards and other reptiles. “I got over my fear,” she recalls. “That made me feel like I could do anything.” When Mastery’s internship coordinator put her in touch with some real live vets, they advised her to get good grades so she’d have a chance at vet school. Suddenly, high school seemed useful.

“I knew I needed to keep up with math and science, so I tried really hard in those,” she says. Since her parents were both working night shifts, neither knew that their daughter had upped her homework time significantly —but the scholarship she won to study vet science at Immaculata was notice enough.

After vet school, Sharrita wants to work at a zoo or an SPCA, where the animals need her most. And though she’s honed her life goals, she’ll never lose her other main interest—shopping. Ask her where Immaculata is located, and she won’t miss a beat as she directs you to two geographic landmarks: “It’s between the Exton Mall and King of Prussia.”


Dan Lieberman
Passionate Pursuit: Online Journalism
High school: Friends’ Central, Wynnewood | This fall: Freshman at McGill University, Montreal

“You know what I love? I love it when they ask for your résumé.” In a conference room in the offices of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Dan Lieberman is complaining, somewhat unconvincingly, about the trials of summer job hunting. “I mean, I’m 18. I don’t have a” — he affects a silly French accent — “ray-zu-may.”

“Aw, you’re all right, man,” a 16-year-old to his right protests. “You got this Teen Zone thing going.” They’re at a meeting of this Teen Zone thing, Teen Zone being the teen-centric news website ( Lieberman launched in March that draws contributions from students at more than 20 local high schools, has been the subject of an Inquirer feature, and is the recipient of a $13,000 grant from the Philadelphia Foundation. If anything is clear from the meeting of the staff of Teen Zone, it’s that Dan Lieberman will never have trouble finding a job, because Dan Lieberman makes things happen.

It started in eighth grade. Lieberman had been attending Abrams Hebrew Academy and was, he admits, a “bad-ass.” He wanted out of private schools, so he enrolled at the High School for Creative and Performing Arts in Philadelphia. Promptly realizing that he wasn’t really cut out to be a full-time drama kid, and that he craved English-class discussions, he called Friends’ Central, where the waiting list contained hundreds of names, and submitted an application against the wishes of his parents. He lobbied admissions officers between classes and filled out all his own forms, a rare amount of involvement for a teenager.

But almost upon arrival in the school’s sophomore class, Lieberman realized something was missing there, too — diversity. So he created Teen Zone (“It’s kind of a cheesy name,” he acknowledges, “but it says what it is. I was going to call it the Link, but no one knew what that meant”) as an excuse to bring together students from schools urban and suburban, public and private, to interact. And interact they do, at the meeting, over the quality of bands at Live 8, the legal travails of rapper Lil’ Kim, the jailing of New York Times reporter Judy Miller — all topics of stories the Teen Zone staff will write and post. “I’d really like to stay to see it grow,” Lieberman notes, but instead he’s headed to Montreal this fall to study management and business at McGill University. “I really like managing teams,” he explains. Lieberman, whose brother Dave has his own show on the Food Network, is no doubt headed for bigger teams.

Christina Huang
Passionate Pursuit: Pharmacology
High school: Bartram Motivational, Philadelphia | This fall: Freshman at Temple University


Christina Huang didn’t sign up with Philadelphia Futures’ Sponsor-A-Scholar when the recruiters came to Bartram Motivational during her freshman year. The now-18-year-old would’ve been perfect for the college-prep program — she was a straight-A student in everything except phys ed, had good attendance and a perfect behavioral record, and harbored a vague idea that she might like to go to college. What she didn’t have was the know-how to get there.

Her parents, Laotian immigrants, knew nothing about the process, and she was too shy even to knock on the guidance counselor’s door. After-school activities were also out — she spent afternoons helping her father, who’s been disabled since she was seven years old. The only reason she signed up for Futures as a sophomore was because her brother, Sam, who’s a year behind her, had joined. “My parents wanted me to keep an eye on him,” she says. “I was reeled in.”

The subject of college came up her first day at Philadelphia Futures when she met her mentor, Diane Davis, the former principal of a middle school in Rochester, New York, and the wife of George Davis, a Lincoln Financial executive and Futures board member. Davis, 60, remembers Christina saying she wanted to go into pharmacology — she was curious about the pills her dad took for his disability. “Also,” Christina interjects, “you don’t have to speak to too many people.”

The pair got to know one another during visits to the mall, to museums, to the Flower Show and the Huangs’ home. “When we first met,” Davis says, “Christina said she wasn’t so sure she wanted to join things.” Three years later, she was vice president of her high school’s honor society, chair of the peer tutoring program, and treasurer of the student government.

 With Davis’s guidance, Christina navigated the financial-aid maze so successfully that her studies at Temple will be paid in full. And she plans to reach her neck out in college — she’s getting so confident, she might even take a crack at the one thing she didn’t eventually ace in high school. “I may try a sport,” she says, shrugging.

Dan Schneider
Passionate Pursuit: Business
High school: Dropped out of Central Bucks West in 1998 | This fall: Making a few more million

“Dan was always wheeling and dealing something,” says Diane Schneider, spinning anecdotes of her only child’s bartering at train shows with his father, his quick acceleration to a black belt in karate, his rock-climbing phase. Then her voice takes on a serious note: “But … he didn’t fit into the school system.”

As a student at Central Bucks West in Doylestown, Dan could sit in the back and get by without touching a book. Seeing little value in homework, he filled his afternoons and evenings with part-time jobs. Dan began skipping first period and got sent home before the day’s end on a regular basis. Not far into 10th grade, he signed himself out of school permanently. “I didn’t like to get up early,” he says.

Intent on proving himself, Dan began working for a small cell-phone company in Chalfont. After six months, he says, “I realized I could do it better.” He conceived of a store that would offer “Every Carrier, Every Rate Plan, Every Phone,” and had a lease for Main Street Cellular three days later.

“AT&T told me I was too young,” he laughs. “So I said, ‘No problem — I’ll sell somebody else’s phones.’” Within a few months, Dan’s business was so strong that those same suits no longer cared when he attended meetings in shorts and t-shirts, his feet propped up on their desks.

After banking his first million a year later, at age 19, he thought, “If one store worked, others would, too.” Within seven months, he had nine more stores up and running in the Philadelphia area. Now 24, he has revamped Main Street Cellular as a wholesaler and expects to gross more than $15 million this year. As customers and suppliers from Miami, New York and L.A. ring the cell phone that almost never leaves his ear, Dan grins:  “It’s like Monopoly — I just buy and sell all day long.”

Jacob Schwartz

Passionate pursuit: Theater
High school: Lower Merion | This fall: Freshman at Penn State

Jacob Schwartz knows he’s ready when he ceases to be Jacob Schwartz. He’ll be backstage, waiting for the curtain to go up, and feel himself start to slip away. He’ll pace like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, or drink a glass of water like Nick Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He loses himself completely in the character until, on cue, he leaps onstage, completely reborn. “Everything — my toes, my eyes, my skin — becomes that character when the stage lights go up,” says 18-year-old Jacob, who graduated in June. “I become who I’m playing. It’s the only way to make it believable.”

The youngest of five kids, and the only one interested in the arts, Jacob first found his calling in eighth grade, when he auditioned for Fiddler — and got the lead. “Ever since, I’ve been completely sucked up by theater,” he says.

At Lower Merion, Jacob was a star of Players, the school’s theater troupe, performing in seven shows over three years. It made for a grueling schedule: rehearsals six days a week on top of a hefty class and homework regimen. Only once, when studying for the SATs, did Jacob give up a part — and that was at the urging of his parents, supportive but concerned for his future. “I got a lecture from my father about how money isn’t important to me now, but how one day I’ll need it,” Jacob recalls. Still, he plans to be a stage actor in London or New York after studying theater at Penn State, which he chose over more expensive schools so he won’t be in debt when he graduates. He knows he could have some lean years before his big break. But he also knows he’ll never lose his sense of selves.