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Greenwich High School Science nonfiction

September 1, 2018

GREENWICH — When she set out to profile Olivia Hallisey, a town teenager who developed a low-cost reliable test for Ebola, former CBS producer Heather Won Tesoriero did not know she would find enough material at Greenwich High School to quit her job and write her first book.

Browsing the banners and posters covering the walls of Andrew Bramante’s Honors Science Research class, however, she realized Hallisey was not the exception. The teen represented a team of brilliant students who thrived in Bramante’s self-directed lab stuffed with state-of-the-art equipment.

So Tesoriero embedded herself in his class, getting to know all 48 students, their projects and their lives, to discover the secret to class members’ remarkable success rate — in which gold medals and first-place trophies in top national and international science competitions, visits to late-night talk shows and the White House have become the norm.

The result is “The Class: A Life-Changing Teacher, His World-Changing Kids, and the Most Inventive Classroom in America.” The book, to be released Tuesday, lets readers ride the frustrations and excitements of science research, relive high school drama, see Greenwich through fresh eyes and appreciate the dedicated teacher and talented students fueling the success of Room 932.

“Mr. B is the program,” former student William Yin said this week. “He keeps it alive. I believe he deserves more recognition for the work he does.”

Bramante, a finalist for the National Science Foundation’s Presidential Awards in 2015, is known for keeping the lab open after school and on weekends and always being just a text or a call away. He’s also a second-career teacher, who was a product specialist for PerkinElmer and Hitachi for more than 15 years.

Most other schools send research-minded students out to laboratories, where they work as an extra set of hands. At Greenwich High, those students, who must be accepted into the research class, direct their own work. Bramante guides them and grades their progress and participation, rather than assigning homework and administering tests.

“It was nice to see someone appreciate what goes on in here,” Bramante said of Tesoriero’a involvement. “She captured it pretty well.”

Welcome to Greenwich

Tesoriero describes Greenwich as a town full of beautiful people and luxury cars. But working in Greenwich, she discovered the reality beneath the WASPy veneer.

“I couldn’t believe how diverse GHS was,” Tesoriero said. “The money, the wealth, the history gets a lot of attention, but when you’re in the community on a daily basis, you realize it’s a more textured tapestry.”

Still, outsiders assume the research kids succeed because the community is rich.

“Andy is constantly besieged with snickers and commentary about how nice it must be to teach in such a cushy town — the implication being that the affluence gilds the road to science fair victory,” she writes.

The reality is far from true, she writes. For a research program of about 50, Greenwich High School’s science department allots $1,200 a year, though former Superintendent Jill Gildea did allocate $20,000 for the program this year, Bramante said.

To supplement the modest support, Bramante leans on his connections in the research industry, who donate old instruments to him instead of reselling them.

In other ways, Greenwich lived up to the stereotype. Tesoriero captures the dedication and hard work students put in, their camaraderie and humor, and the thrill they experienced when a project came together. But she also watched the teens struggle under extreme pressure — both external and self-inflicted.

“The competition is fiercer,” she said. “I really felt for the kids.”

She devotes pages to developing how Greenwich families fixate on Ivy League colleges and stake everything on Harvard or Yale acceptance emails.

“Our lives are wrapped around getting into college,” Romano Orlando, a freshman at the University of Southern California and a central character in the book, said this week. “Is it bringing you fulfillment? I hope a lot of kids ask themselves that question.”

Tesoriero tracked Stanford sophomore Yin’s college admittance process, describing his Harvard deferral, the shock waves it sent into GHS and how Yin channeled his frustrations into science.

In the book, Tesoriero describes Yin, who passed 20 Advanced Placement tests with flying colors and juggled overbooked academic schedules, piano and research, as a star student others both envied and aspired to imitate.

Yin this week said he thinks about the “tiger parents” of Greenwich often, as many have asked him how to their kids can be like him.

“They should recognize their kids have interests that don’t align with getting into college, but should be encouraged nonetheless because that’s how these individuals will be able to grow up to be mature and independent, functioning members of society,” he said.

Given the pressure and stakes, Orlando said it surprised him that students competing against each other did not hesitate to support their classmates.

“This class is what it is because of the people who are in it,” he said. “That is the only reason this class is successful.”

Holding up a mirror

Tesoriero admitted certain passages about the town may not flatter readers.

“In a way, the book holds a mirror up to Greenwich and to the people in it,” she said. “Sometimes the truth is not easy to read, but that’s not to say it’s not true.”

Greenwich families are heavily invested in their kids’ success, she said, but can blur the line between support and overreach — especially as deadlines loom and competition stiffens.

“It’s not a hazy, rose-tinted view of the school, or the class,” Tesoriero said. “I wouldn’t be doing my job if I sanitized the book.”

Parent and research scientist Prem Subramaniam, who offers his expertise as a biologist to students, experienced how the tough competition and the high stakes can get to parents as well.

His son, Rahul, built a trap that detects Zika in mosquito saliva, but he lost to another girl who developed a chip that detects Zika during the 2017 Junior Science and Humanities Symposium.

As a parent invested in the success of his child, he voiced his objections to Bramante and science fair leaders.

“I learned from that episode that it’s not worth it,” Prem said one year later. “You go insane if you question every decision. Just pack it up and come back home.”

He imparted that lesson to his son, too.

As a parent of a former science fair competitor himself, Bramante understands.

“You want to be your child’s biggest fan, I get that,” he said. “I appreciate their intentions, but not their methodology.”

As for the numerous parent stories Tesoriero includes, Bramante shrugged, saying, “It happens.”

“You’re talking about a lot of money,” he said, comparing the science competitions to football championships.

Bramante reminds his students and their parents the shingle on the door says “Science Research,” not “Science Fair.” Hard work will always result in something positive, he repeats to them.

Tesoriero attributes the parental pressure to the “college arms race,” adding it can cloud judgment.

Unexpected friendships

Family dinners. Homecoming. Prom. Tesoriero did not just occupy a seat in the classroom. She stitched herself into the fabric of high school life, talking to students for hours about their daily victories and struggles.

“Talking with Heather helped me sort of get a more synthesized idea of how I think about the world,” Yin said.

Orlando and Tesoriero became “best friends” because of the book, he said.

“We became so tight, and it was this unlikely friendship, because you have different genders, ages and stages of life,” he said. She even came back for his graduation party this year.

Orlando gave Tesoriero the responsibility of being an adult chaperone for the rented school bus shuttling friends from pre-prom to prom and back.

“I felt so honored, honestly,” she said. “I felt so legit. I wasn’t as embarrassing or cringe-worthy as having a parent. I passed muster with the prom set.”

Bramante and his students felt her absence as she wrote more and participated less.

“It was like, ‘Where is she, I miss her,’” Bramante said. “It was odd last year not having her around, it was like something is missing.”

Tesoriero said she considers the time spent getting to know the class a privilege.

“I am so glad I took the risk and did it,” she said, “not just because I have a book, but because the time I spent with Andy and his kids, I say this with no exaggeration, was the highlight of my career.”

jo.kroeker@hearstmediact.com

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