Everyday Hero: Smarts, Curiosity, and Leadership

Soren Cowell-Shah talks about the scholarship he recently won that will pay his tuition and books for four years of private high school.

This week’s Everyday Hero is an eighth-grader with a world of opportunities ahead of him.

Soren Cowell-Shah learned recently that he’s been chosen as a Caroline D. Bradley Scholar by the Institute for Educational Advancement. With that prestigious title comes a sizable award: a four-year full ride to any private high school in the country.

“It really is a great opportunity because there’s a lot more different kinds of places I can go now rather than just the public high schools,” says Soren, “I’m excited for that.”

But while he sifts through the glossy brochures the top private schools across the country are continuously mailing him and thinking about the future, Cowell-Shah still has a full load of classwork and assignments from his teachers at ACCESS Academy, a Portland public school for highly gifted first through eighth graders.

“It’s like a unique school here, and in Portland, cause it’s where students who learn differently can be together, and we can all accelerate at our own pace, which is really useful,” says Cowell-Shah, who’s taking precalculus this year, a class students don’t normally take until their junior or senior year of high school, if at all. “Only two of my other classmates are with me in math.”

To even be considered for the CDB Scholarship, students have to be smart and show exceptional academic ability (to apply, Soren had to take the SAT as a seventh-grader and he scored a 1450 combined). But kids also have to show maturity, integrity, and leadership.

Soren’s a soft-spoken kid who seemed a little overwhelmed by the KATU News camera in his classroom. But his leadership ability showed during last school year, when PPS proposed closing ACCESS Academy. Soren and his classmates and their parents were up in arms over the proposal from new PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero. They marched, spoke up at school board meetings, and put their minds to work.

Soren wrote a passionate essay for pdxparent.com, explaining why his district’s smartest kids would suffer if the ACCESS program closed. And it wasn’t just for academic reasons.

At ACCESS, all kids can have friends that are interested in the same things; at their old schools, many students were lonely and didn’t have many friends that they could relate to. Many students had to work alone with worksheets and not participate in what the rest of the class was doing. Many students were bullied by kids and teachers at their home schools for being different. At ACCESS, it’s okay to be different; we’re all different and therefore the same.

Soren's mom explains how she's seen ACCESS benefit her sons and others.

"The school has meant so much to them. It has made the difference for them between being ostracized and isolated in a class where perhaps there was nobody else interested in what they were doing, or bullied," Kinnari Shah explains. "At times, it has meant that they have the opportunity to just be kids and have friends and they aren't the strange ones and they aren't the ones who have to be made an example of somehow -- they can just be normal kids."

"That in itself is a form of being an Everyday Hero," she says.

The pleas from parents and students appeared to work, to a point. PPS decided not to close ACCESS, opting instead to split it into two programs. All ACCESS students were under one roof last year, at Rose City Park Elementary School on Northeast 57th Avenue. This year, the program for sixth- through eighth-graders is in one corner of Lane Middle School in Southeast Portland, while the first- through fifth-graders have an area carved out for them at Vestal Elementary.

But Soren is still trying to make an impact for the elementary-aged ACCESS students, including his younger brother, Kirin, who’s a fifth-grader, even though they're now five miles away.

“Now that we’re split apart, we’re still working with the younger school kids,” explains Soren. “We’re gonna go set up the haunted house, which is this thing we do each year ... harder to do this year because we’re in two separate places, but we’re still trying to keep traditions.”

As for his future, Soren has some ideas. He likes math and computers, but he's also very well-spoken. And he's found a field where those skills and interests intersect.

"Apparently, there's a shared field called computational linguistics, which is what it sounds like: linguistics, but with computers, which sounds fascinating," he says.

Soren's also concerned about the future of the world his generation will be in charge of some day.

"There's a lot of not-so-good things happening right now, like there's climate change and everything," he says. "But I feel like if we worked hard to solve a lot of these problems, we could turn it around."

"Climate change is something that they are passionate about: energy, how to prevent pollution, those are all things they study for science fair projects," says Dr. Alfonso Garcia Arriola, a science education teacher at ACCESS Academy. "The students who are leaders in the education field are future leaders in the government, and in policy, and in companies, corporations. They are our future."

And the future is in promising hands.

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