1. The Education Gradebook

Four students named winners of the <i>Times</i> Barnes scholarships

Kevin Solomon was in a state of disbelief.

Rachel Baber had to have a co-worker take over for her so she could calm down.

"I'm so happy," said Naomi Mora. "I haven't stopped being happy.''

"It's kind of a dream come true,'' said Juan Leis-Pretto.

Those were the reactions of four Tampa Bay area high school seniors after learning they had won the 2016 Barnes Scholarship, worth up to $60,000 for four years at an accredited college of their choice.

The scholarships, sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times Fund, are awarded annually to four students who have overcome hardships to achieve excellence. The scholarship is named for Andrew Barnes, the former chairman and CEO of the newspaper's parent company, Times Publishing Co.

The winners competed against nearly 200 applicants. They will receive their scholarships at a luncheon April 19 at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg.

In addition to the four winners, six semifinalists will each receive one-time scholarships of $1,000.

Here's a look at the winners:

Kevin Solomon

His mother died when he was 12. His father has been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver.

Kevin Solomon, 17, a senior at St. Petersburg High School, said his life has improved greatly since a friend's family took him in. "They're very reflective and emotionally stable people," he said.

Aside from giving him food, shelter and love, they've helped him rise above the problems of his upbringing. In that environment, he said, he's become more studious, more focused on academic achievement.

In school, he started the Thursday Club, an informal support group for students with troubled lives. They meet weekly. "It's made me appreciate the things that I have, just hearing what other people don't,'' he said.

He was also a pitcher on the baseball team.

Solomon has a 4.58 grade point average and is ranked No. 6 nationally among high school students competing in Congressional Debate, where students take on the roles of senators and representatives to debate bills and resolutions.

He would like to attend either Duke University, Northwestern University or Claremont McKen­na College, a highly ranked liberal arts institution in Los Angeles. He plans to study business and computer science, with a goal of joining the management team of a tech company.

Naomi Mora

Born in Venezuela, Naomi Mora moved with her mother, who was born in Cuba, to the United States 10 years ago. Her mother works as a program assistant at the Florida Institute for Community Studies in Tampa.

Her stepfather, whom Mora considers her father because of the emotional support he has provided her, is an out-of-work trucker.

Mora, 17, was attending Jefferson High School when she said she got her big break: She was awarded a scholarship to the prestigious Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa.

"My life was turned around that day,'' she wrote in her Barnes application essay.

"I was the poor, weird, Spanish girl who could not speak English at one point. Yet, somehow, I made it, I had a chance to pursue an education even better than that my parents hoped for me to have.''

She has a 3.85 grade point average and wants to study international relations, international business and computer science in college, though she hasn't yet chosen a major. "I don't want to limit myself to one thing now," she said.

Her top choices are Brown, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California.

Juan Leis-Pretto

Juan Leis-Pretto, 18, a senior at Gulf High School in New Port Richey, moved to the United States from Panama in 2005 with his mother. His parents are separated; his father still lives in Panama. His mother, with two years of college, works as a medical assistant.

Being overweight and having a thick accent made him the target of a lot of bullying when he started school in the United States.

Through a rigorous exercise regimen, however, he has lost 37 pounds and is close to his target weight of 175.

"Once you see progress," he said, "it's addicting.''

He is on his school's tennis team and loves playing baseball, basketball and soccer for fun. He also taught himself to play the ukulele.

Leis-Pretto said his mother has always emphasized the importance of education, and he took it to heart. He is the top student in the entire Pasco County International Baccalaureate program.

With a grade point average of 4.81, he wants to study software engineering and computer science at either Stanford University or the University of Rochester.

Rachel Baber

Rachel Baber, a senior at Wiregrass Ranch High School in Wesley Chapel, moved to Florida six years ago with her mother, who had lost her job in Indianapolis. Her father is in prison.

Described by others as smart, funny, humble and outgoing, Baber, 18, wrote in her application essay that she has learned to deal with anxiety and depression by diverting herself, keeping busy and "laughing them off.''

She goes after what she wants with determination. For example, just a couple of days after leaving the hospital after eight days with a burst appendix, she practiced stomach crunches so she would be ready for a physical abilities test to land a job as a camp counselor.

She works to help her mother pay expenses.

Baber, who has a 4.65 grade point average, said she is interested in a variety of topics, including history and politics, but she plans to major in neuroscience at Duke University in the fall.

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Six other semifinalists received one-time $1,000 scholarships. They are: Spencer Whitten, Seminole High School; Edward "Wesley'' Finch, Dunedin High School; Juan Forero, Tampa Bay Tech High School, Tampa; William Petro, Hillsborough High School, Tampa; Carly Serrano, Blake High School, Tampa; and Cari Bean, Springstead High School, Spring Hill.