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A baker, a dancer, a computer whiz, and a pianist walk into a high school.
Those are the true — and some secret — passions of this year’s four South Whidbey High School valedictorians: Sydney Ackerman, Kiana Henny, Greg Smith and Jack Hood.
Each said maintaining a perfect 4.0 grade point average meant several late nights working on projects, writing papers and studying for tests. The Record chatted with each soon-to-be Falcon graduate about their success, their passions and their futures.
Sydney Ackerman made news and history last year when she was appointed as the first student representative on the South Whidbey School District’s Board of Directors. She spent the year attending the twice-a-month meetings, listening to public comment and relaying their work to her peers.
Her time on the school board gave her an insight into how their votes impact students and teachers, and the more pressing issue of the state’s battle to adequately fund education.
The 18-year-old, nearly lifelong South Whidbey student had plenty of experience talking to her peers; she was a class treasurer through her junior year before becoming the school’s Associated Student Body treasurer this school year.
Yet for all her acumen working with people, her real love is in the kitchen. Ackerman enjoys cooking — a pastime she’s favored since ninth grade. Her specialty, she says, is her homemade tomato sauce and pasta. Her secret: her nose.
“I do everything by smell, you know, like ‘Ratatouille,’ ” she said.
That sense of wanting to give something a sensory exam led her to enroll at Gonzaga University, a Catholic Jesuit school in Spokane. Visiting the campus was all she needed to choose it because of its small student population — about 5,000 — and large-school feel across 131 acres.
“I’m sure I’ll come back here, but I have to go,” she said.
Her advice to students when facing challenging classes like physics or AP English — which almost ruined her perfect GPA — was to seek teachers’ help when they struggled.
“The teachers are your best resource, other than yourself,” she said. “If you put in an effort, then they’ll put in effort.”
Since she was 3 years old, Kiana Henny has danced. Her love of motion progressed from the early days of twirling and leaping to performances with Whidbey Island Dance Theater.
These days, dance is a major part of her life. Seven times a week for nine months of the year she has dance class.
“Basically all I do is go to school, do homework, go to dance and maybe watch Netflix,” said Henny, 17.
A soft-spoken student, Henny has a name that speaks loudly on South Whidbey. She is the oldest child of Tonya and George Henny, the co-CEO of Whidbey Telecom. She heard from teachers about how her father was as their student, and it meant presumptions by her classmates.
“Sometimes it’s frustrating because kids make assumptions that aren’t necessarily true,” she said.
Henny spends a good part of her time not scheduled for class or dance volunteering. She has been a student leader with a Girl Scout Troop since ninth grade and teaches Sunday school at Trinity Lutheran Church.
But she was able to find a little time the past few months to run track for the first time as a high school student. She ran the 300-meter hurdles and did the long jump. Years of pirouettes, leaps and spins meant her running form was a bit off, but she found her stride.
Dancing remains her passion. In the production of “The Nutcracker,” she had a solo as the firebird — a mythical fowl of flame that burns itself out and is reborn from its ashes.
“I had to act fierce, which is not my personality,” she said.
The Whitman College-bound senior said she encourages younger students to do the work and pay attention — a lesson she learned after being challenged by her calculus class. Years of easily taking to math concepts came to a halt ahead of one exam, she recalled.
“I suddenly realized I had to study for a test, and I didn’t know how to study for a math test,” she said.
The computer whiz
Those foreboding screws underneath the laptop or encasing the tower were basically an invitation to Greg Smith, 18. The tech titan built his own computer as a freshman, started designing simple video games soon after and now writes complicated codes for games in XNA — the coding language used for the Xbox, Smith’s favorite gaming console.
He’s a chip off the old block. Steve Smith, his father, is a technology teacher in the Mukilteo School District. At home, Greg said they split tech troubleshooting duties like when the internet goes down or the router connection strength drops.
Smith’s talent for coding and building computers impressed one South Whidbey High School teacher enough for him to set high expectations for the young man bound for Northwest Nazarene University in Idaho.
“I expect him to either be in a company doing extraordinary things or by himself doing extraordinary things,” said Jeff Greene, a South Whidbey High School technology teacher.
Greene recalled one project he had Smith do to design a game. Most students did a polygon-based game akin to “Asteroid,” but not Smith. He created a game in which the character was out to get revenge for his or her sister’s murder. Rather than a “Mario Bros.” two-dimensional look, Smith built a game with a third-person, top-down view that had three different characters for the player to choose.
It had 100 rooms to explore, and every 20 rooms had a boss. Complete with music and voiceovers, Smith created that in nine weeks.
“An A didn’t do it justice,” Greene said.
This year, Smith splits his days at the Sno-Isle TECH Skills Center and the high school. He took a Digipen class to further his game development education. The most important lesson he learned was that video games are never ending.
“What I learned is a game can be complete, but it’ll never be done,” he said.
Jack Hood speaks with a patient cadence, the same calm he displays while slamming the keys of a piano during a jazz ensemble performance.
He’s also an avid hiker and trail walker around Saratoga Woods and the Department of Natural Resources paths on South Whidbey. From time to time, though, he likes blazing his own path.
“Sometimes, I don’t even use the trails, I just cut my way through,” he said.
Not surprising, given his affinity for the improvisational nature of jazz music. Since he was 9 years old, he has played piano after his parents got one from a family friend. Discovering jazz music came shortly after he started taking lessons, and for the past four years he’s been in the school’s jazz ensemble under Chris Harshman.
More traditional uses for piano were not enough for Hood, who has also written music that uses electronic keys and voice loops, akin to British soul pop artist James Blake.
“There’s not a genre of music I don’t like,” he said. “Though I’m not fond of country.”
Hood is headed east to Williams College in Massachusetts. Music will be in his future, though probably not professionally as a performer. He said composing and writing music, if he was to enter the music industry, would be where he’d want to end up. Most likely music would remain a hobby, even if it is a highly skilled hobby.
“So it’s not work I do; it’s something I enjoy,” Hood said.
Outside of music, Hood stayed busy as a four-year tennis player, four-year soccer athlete, the Associated Student Body president, Key Club president, Knowledge Bowl member and an avid skier.
“Sometimes it’s overwhelming,” Hood said of being active and maintaining a 4.0 GPA. “I’ve had some long nights staying up doing homework.”
His advice to students was to set their goals early and stick to them.
“Don’t sit back and wait,” he said.