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GW boasts 20 National Merit semifinalists

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Twenty seniors at George Washington High School have been named National Merit semifinalists, meaning they scored among the very highest in the state on the Preliminary SAT exam as juniors last year.

"To have 20 students eligible for the National Merit Scholarship in one school is just remarkable, statistically," Kanawha County Schools Superintendent Ron Duerring said Tuesday at a surprise banquet held for the students at GW.

"That's what people don't understand -- you've had to work hard every single day since grade school to get here," Duerring told the students.

About 16,000 students qualify as semifinalists nationwide, with only about 9,000 moving on to actually receive the award, according to the National Merit Scholarship Program. The scholarships start at $2,500.

Last year, only 80 students in West Virginia were named National Merit semifinalists. This year's numbers are expected to be released Wednesday.

Qualifying scores differ by state. In West Virginia, students have to score a 203 on the PSAT -- the lowest requirement in the nation, according to new data released by FairTest -- the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

The qualifying exam is on a 240-point scale. Wyoming is the only other state to require a score of 203, according to FairTest. Students in Massachusetts and New Jersey, however, must score at least 224 to be a National Merit semifinalist.

While George Washington High has historically been one of the state's highest-achieving schools, it's considered a success to produce even 10 National Merit semifinalists, said Principal George Aulenbacher.

This year's group is the largest the school has seen in years. Last year, seven semifinalists came from GW, and in 2011, 15 students were named semifinalists.

Aulenbacher arranged for a surprise breakfast Tuesday morning for the students, and invited their parents to join them. That's because he believes their families should be thanked for their success as well.

"It all starts with the parents," he said. "These are great kids, and their focus on academics started at home."

The students at GW -- which had the second-highest standardized test scores in the state, according to new data released last week -- don't only excel in academics, Aulenbacher said.

"Academically, these are absolutely the best and brightest in the building. But as people, they're even better than that," he said. "This isn't what's going to define them, though. Really what's going to define them is what they're doing in 10 years from now. I'm positive they'll be the area's high-fliers."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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