CENTRAL FALLS — David Hernandez sat at a desk in Biology Classroom 310 at Central Falls High School on Monday afternoon, admitting he wished he could relive what he deemed a dream.
Back on Saturday, April 9, at about 4:30 p.m., he and fellow junior Cristina Robalo seized first place in the “Anatomy & Physiology” category at the R.I. Science Olympiad, held at Rhode Island College. Frankly, the championship blew their minds.
“We had to wait about 4 ½ hours after we competed to find out, and I couldn't sit down,” grinned Hernandez. “I was pacing back and forth, and my mom kept calling my cellphone, 'Did you win? Did you win?' She called me about four times, and I told her, 'I still haven't heard. I'll let you know.' She was driving me crazy!”
Stated first-year science teacher/Warriors' Olympiad “coach” David Upegui: “We were on the second floor of the Donovan Dining Center at RIC, and we were waiting to hear from the judges. They started announcing the winners of each event, and they got to Anatomy & Physiology. They announced the bronze medalist, Cranston West, and then the silver medalist, which was Classical.
“We had lost all hope,” he added. “I already had in my mind my consolation speech, 'Guys, you came, competed and learned, and I'm proud of you for trying.' But then the judge slowed down his speech. He said, 'And your champion, in first place … the gold medal goes to … Central Falls High School!' He said it definitively, emphatically, and the kids just looked at each other for a second. Then they jumped for joy and hugged each other; they went crazy.
“The crowd went ballistic! We had the loudest noise for any champion. I think the scientists and the students realized what had just taken place. We weren't supposed to win. I mean, this wasn't C.F. soccer or track. This was science, and Central Falls High isn't supposed to win anything academically.
“Given the last year and a half, with everything that's happened here – and also the erroneous classification, or stereotype, these students and teachers have endured statewide and region-wide – I think the kids proved they can accomplish academic greatness. It was very emotional.”
The Science Olympiad is a national program created 27 years ago to increase interest in science, and it has members in all 50 states, with more than 12,000 actively participating students in grades K-12.
The event aims to teach science by involving the youngsters in active, hands-on activities that emphasize problem-solving and the scientific process. In state and national competitions, winners of individual events capture athletic-style medals, and triumphant teams snare trophies.
In fact, at the national level, there are substantial scholarships awarded to the victors.
During their one-hour practical exam, Hernandez and Robalo were asked to identify certain body parts from the respiratory, endocrine and muscular systems. The judges labeled those parts on a mannequin, and the Warrior tandem responded to questions such as “Name this gland, and what hormone does it produce?”
For this pair to outscore fellow duos from Moses Brown, La Salle, Hendricken, Barrington and the like, Upegui noted, “was truly satisfying.”
Central Falls High students weren't the only ones to find success inside RIC's Clarke and Fogarty Science buildings. The Tolman duet of Savannah Gregor and Rosalinda Perez captured bronze in the 'Sound of Music” event, while Alyssa and Kristina Browning collected the same color medals in “Forensics.”
The Tigers' squad, which was led by Oluwaseun Anderson and finished 17th out of 26 high school teams, also consisted of Michelle Moreno, Abimbola Olagunju, Destinee Mackey, Haylie Quebec, Stephanie Greenberg, Rachel Soria, Kelly Serna, Nidia Ochoa, Nathaniel Lomastro, Ligia Alvarez, Anh Nguyen and Yaba Boan.
A host of teachers, and Jennifer Wendtland of Schepens Eye Research Institute of Boston, also helped out with a series of intense “practices.”
For Central Falls, junior John Davis and senior Lisa DaCosta competed in the “Technical Problem Solving” category, while DaCosta and senior Jose Contreras took part in the “Write It/Do It” classification.
Neither captured a medal.
“But I'm not bummed,” DaCosta offered. “We did gain from going. We got experience, and we got knowledge. In the 'Write It/Do it,' I had to go into a room and observe an object, then create a procedure as to how to make it. There were a bunch of styrofoam balls, a coffee filter, plastic cups, toothpicks, a Q-Tip and a rainbow ribbon attached to a fork.
“There also was, like, a Gummy Bear, and it was all attached in the shape of an object,” she continued. “I had to describe it, where things were, without using a drawing or symbols. Jose then had to build it based on my instructions.”
Explained Upegui: “He did really well, based on what Lisa told him. She had 15 minutes to write down the descriptions and instructions, and he had 20 to build it, so it wasn't easy. Jose and Cristina Robalo also competed in the 'Forensics' category, where they were given a crime scene, and they had to perform chemical tests to narrow down the suspect group of four.
“They had to report on what result they received from each test, and what led them to their conclusion. They didn't place in the top three, but they did learn a lot.”
The notion of forming a CFHS team – for the first time ever – came to Upegui back in December. That's when he began asking students and teachers to volunteer their time.
“Algebra teacher Dan Amadio told me, 'You have to get John Davis on that team,'” Upegui stated. “Our team, at that point, was 14 members strong. We ended up with five because some kids had other commitments, like sports or work, and a couple backed out.
“I also contacted a friend of mine, Barbara Fuller, who works at the Brown Medical School's Admissions Office, and I asked her if she could provide me with a couple of students to volunteer their time,” he added. “They were (first-year med students) Jon Hernandez and Libby Flores, and they came here once for two hours. They worked with David and Cristina.”
David Hernandez admitted their help was invaluable, “because they clarified our questions and explained to us certain topics we didn't understand. They also were very accessible, answering our e-mails.”
Davis didn't win, but really didn't care, as he now knows what to expect when he competes as a senior.
“You know, teachers here are stereotyped as being horrible, lazy, unmotivated or incapable, but that isn't true,” he said. “We had teachers helping us after school, and we owe them a lot. They believed in us.”
The youngest Hernandez revealed he felt like his gold medal belonged to Upegui.
“He's the one who started the team, and he's the one who got us involved,” he said. “He gave us the information and told us what to study. He answered our questions and made the contacts to get the Brown students.”
Continued DaCosta: “He was here every day until 5:30-6 p.m., talking to us, teaching us. We were supposed to meet once a week, every Tuesday from, like, 3-4:15, but – down the stretch – we were here every day from 3-5:30 at least.”
For Upegui, his students winning gold meant the world to him, as he studied at Central Falls High before graduating in 1993. He then moved on to Rhode Island College, where he received his Bachelor's, and later worked as an adjunct professor at his alma mater before becoming as community health researcher at Brown.
When his son, Isaac, was born with Down Syndrome, he opted to move onto CFHS, as “I wanted to give back a little of what I had been given.
“I'm proud of what we did,” he smiled. “We showed that Central Falls High School is capable of performing with the best academically. It also feels good because this shows everyone who has put us in a negative category that we could do it. It proves them wrong, and I think it shines a new light on our school.”