Severna Park High School's National Merit finalists credit their teachers, parents and school administrators. They even credit block scheduling and their school's wide selection of AP classes.
But Severna Park High School teacher Richard Haas thinks the credit for their success belongs elsewhere - with the nine students themselves.
"They're naturally smart to begin with. All they needed was a little push," said Haas, who helped prepare the students to take the PSAT, the qualifying test for the National Merit competition, in their junior year.
This year's group of nine finalists is the most the school has had in at least five years.
"In the wine industry, you have a vintage year. This was a very good year," Haas said. "It was a bumper crop, absolutely."
Interim schools Superintendent Nancy M. Mann said in a statement: "For one school to have nine finalists this year is just an example of the students, faculty and staff making achievement a priority."
The National Merit Scholarship Program was founded in 1955 to recognize achievement and offer scholarships, according to the National Merit Scholarship Corp., the nonprofit that runs the program. To be recognized, students must take the PSAT; the top-scoring 1 percent become semifinalists. The corporation also runs the National Achievement Scholarship Program, an additional contest for black students based on PSAT results.
To choose National Merit finalists, the corporation looks at each student's academic record, SAT scores and an application that includes an essay and list of extracurricular activities. About 15,000 students nationally are selected as finalists, according to the corporation, and from that group, 8,200 National Merit Scholars - those who receive scholarships through the competition - will be chosen.
But even if the Severna Park students don't win those particular scholarships, they said they've already seen benefits to the recognition.
Ethan Vidal, 18, of Millersville said he first was looking at Amherst College for football, and wasn't sure he'd get accepted. But when the all-county linebacker went to the Amherst, Mass., school for a visit and mentioned that he was a National Merit semifinalist, the school was doubly impressed, he said. Vidal, who became a finalist, has committed to go there next fall.
"I know it's helped," said Varun Maheshwari, 17, of Millersville. "It's the first thing interviewers ask about." Maheshwari had an interview with recruiters from Princeton yesterday.
Other finalists are heading off to Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa.; the University of Pennsylvania; and the University of Delaware. Others are waiting to hear back from their top choices or are weighing their offers.
The students have much in common. They all said they have supportive parents. A collective list of their extracurricular activities includes kung fu, dressage, school sports, music and academic clubs. And they've all taken a heavy load of honors and Advanced Placement courses.
"They are what I would call an extremely strong group as a class," said Principal William H. Myers. Referring to block scheduling, he added, "They've also had the benefit of a schedule that's allowed them to increase their academic workload. They've taken advantage of it, and that shows in these test scores."
The county school system does not keep track of finalists from previous years, but Myers said the nine finalists is the most Severna Park has had in the five years he's been principal.
"Most schools only have one, two or three," he said.
The students say that Myers has been extremely supportive, and that the school atmosphere of academic excellence helped encourage them as well.
But a class taught by Haas also gave the students a boost. The students met after school to learn test-taking tips and strategies.
"It's not something you can cram for," said Edward Nie, 17, of Severna Park. "We're all pretty good test-takers."
Added Vidal: "We've all been in accelerated and honors since middle school, and it's really, really paid off."
And though they've been in many of the same classes for the last four years, the students insist that they were not competitive with each other for this honor.
In addition to the nine finalists at Severna Park, it was announced that two private schools - the Severn School and Archbishop Spalding - each had a finalist. Archbishop Spalding's finalist, Adam V. Higuera, earned perfect scores on the PSAT and SAT, said a school administrator.
National Merit Finalists
Severna Park High School
Severn School (private)
Benjamin W. Iliff
Archbishop Spalding High School (private)
Adam V. Higuera
National Achievement finalist:
Severn School (private)
Source: Anne Arundel public schools and private schools