3 Homer High seniors recognized as National Merit Scholarship finalists

Three Homer High School seniors, Spencer Co, Blaise Banks and Lucas Story, recently received recognition as finalists in the 69th annual National Merit Scholarship program. The recognition is based on scores received on the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test that the students took as juniors.

According Homer High School counselor Paul Story, who is also Lucas’ father, in Alaska if you receive a score in the 99th percentile the student is likely to qualify as a semifinalist.

The National Merit Scholarship description states that the nationwide pool of semifinalists represent less than 1% of U.S. high school seniors. To become a finalist the student is required to submit additional application material but, according to Paul Story, that is somewhat of a formality and most students advance to the final level. Reception of the finalist status qualifies the students for various university financing merits and additional scholarship opportunities.

Homer High School has participated in the National Merit Scholarship program since 2000. Three student finalists are the most to have qualified since the school started engaging in the program.

“For a public school of Homer’s size, having three students qualify is pretty substantial because their graduating class only has roughly 85 students in it,” Paul Story said.

Banks said the PSAT test covers on-level academic material for 11th grade students. It doesn’t go through pre-calculus math or very advanced level English and grammar.

“I didn’t even really have to study very much because I was just doing my class work,” Banks said.

Lucas Story said that taking higher level math classes can provide assistance because it can help address the problems on the test in different ways.

Co said he took the time to study for the test with fellow exchange student at the high school from Tunisia.

The PSAT takes about four hours to complete. These seniors took the last paper and pencil PSAT and SAT; the tests transitioned to a digital format in the fall of 2023 and the test duration time has decreased with the upgraded format.

Paul Story explained that the test is not something that students really study for. It’s more a result of their aggregate baseline learning in the school system from kindergarten through high school and these students have been in the Homer public school system for that full time.

Banks said if you do study, it’s more to get used to the format of the test because there are patterns and models that you can prepare to recognize but you can’t really try and learn something new at the last minute.

The students noted that standardized testing is a typical component of most school years. They’re a feature that administrators can use to compare student achievements and standing across state and national levels to address comprehensive academic standing.

“The benchmark tests just help keep track of general student performance,” Co said.

Lucas Story and Co are planning to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Banks received a full-tuition scholarship to Washington State University in Pullman for his reception of the National Merit finalist award.

Banks said he was surprised to receive full tuition for his test scores and feels a little undeserving for it.

“I still need to come to terms with the fact that it’s already the end of high school and I’m headed off to college next year,” Co said. “It feels very crazy to me but I’m super excited for next year. I’m really looking forward to it.”

“I feel like it’s personally rewarding to have achieved this but I also feel like it’s kind of indicative of a larger good thing in our public school system because there are lots of kids who have come through Homer High who have been able to do this and to have three of us in one year is pretty special,” Lucas Story said. “To be able to go on to high-level universities, it lets you know that you got a good education. And, Homer High gets a reputation for being a school that puts out good kids.”

As they start schools, Co is interested in studying computer science and engineering and Story is interested in aerospace engineering. However, they explained that the MIT protocol doesn’t have students declare a major in their freshman year of school so those interests may change. Banks said he’s interested in computer science or computer programming but about 60% of students switch their majors.

“I think Homer High has done a good job to go into courses in engineering and STEM related fields because we have really great classes that aren’t typically available at smaller level high schools like AP biology, AP chemistry. We have a really great physics teacher, Mr. Spurkland, and he also taught a computer science class and I think he was instrumental in getting Spencer and I accepted at MIT because having a background in computer science is becoming increasingly important,” Story said.

The dual credit enrollment program with the college and AP calculus also provided the students the opportunity to do math classes at a college level. The campus is much smaller than at a university but it still helped, Banks said.

Another feature the students noted as helpful to their college applications was Homer High School’s requirement for community service hours. Students are required to complete 10 hours per year of community service but some students do it all in their senior year. For these seniors, their freshman year hours were removed from the requirement due to COVID. Typically students complete their service with a single organization.

Story, who plays varsity basketball and soccer, used his sports skills to provide community service. He served as assistant soccer coach at Homer Middle School and he has coached basketball at elementary schools. Co completed his service through a variety of organizations.

Co noted that Homer High School also has many clubs and activities that he’s participated in that likely assisted his college applications. He’s a member of the National Honor Society and president of the Homer High School Student Council this year. He also participates with the Drama, Debate and Forensics team in the Lincoln-Douglas debate forum. Blaise has played hockey throughout high school as a goalie and that’s also the forum he used for volunteer service hours to contribute to the hockey program in the community. He was the goalie coach for youth with the Homer Hockey Association.

“Growing up coming through these programs and having high schoolers that you can look up to has always been a great experience. It’s cool to be able to the one that the kids are looking up to now,” Story said.

The students said they don’t have any fully set plans for the summer yet. They’ll start their freshman years in college in the fall of 2024.