Josh Via is ready.
Adrenaline pumps through his veins hotter than blood; he knows what it feels like to win. These last four years he’s been building, grooming, basking in that feeling so often his mind knows nothing else. He’s been lifting, practicing, and dieting. Fifteen pounds gone in a matter of weeks, shed like a light jacket, muscles toned through hours of grueling practice to function like a well oiled machine.
Josh Via is ready to win.
And everyone expects him to. After placing eighth at state wrestling his freshman and sophomore year, Via is confident in his ability to place this year, his last go around, after choking last season.
“This year is the year that I get it. I know how much I want it, and that’s my drive,” Via said.
Most people wouldn’t have Via’s mentality. Far from possessing an undefeated record, Via has actually lost a lot of matches. However, his confidence doesn’t stem from past victories, or even past failures. His rigid mental drive comes from the knowledge that he’s worked harder than anyone else.
“You can be naturally talented at something but if the next guy over works their butt of twice as hard they’re going to beat you. They might not win the first, second, or third time but they’re just going to keep getting closer until they can overtake you,” Via said.
This self-assured disposition is certainly a sought-after trait in society today. But at Elkhorn South, it is far from a rare one. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. As one of the top high schools in the state of Nebraska, ESHS has earned itself a reputation as a school that tries hard and wins harder.
“I’m not very boastful by nature, but I am very proud of what we have at Elkhorn South. If we’re not the best on any given metric, I’d like to see it and let’s go be it,” said principal Mark Kalvoda.
In the past eight years this school has been open, its student population has skyrocketed from 600 to almost 1500. A staggering 95% of Elkhorn South’s graduates went onto college in 2016, compared to the national 69.7% from the same year. No one is denying that Elkhorn South is doing something right, but there are other factors at play.
“Our parents expect their kids to go to college. Why? Because they went to college. It’s a little bit different dynamic here than if you were in inner city Omaha,” Kalvoda said.
Mike Fauss, chemistry and physical science teacher, agrees. After leaving the Westside district two years ago, he notices several differences between the two schools. Chiefly among them is the income gap. Westside has a 25% free-reduced lunch population, still lower than some schools in inner-city Omaha but far higher than ESHS’s 6%.
“There, getting a meal was super important, more important than education. Here, education, or at least grades, are valued much higher than at Westside as a whole,” Fauss said.
Elkhorn’s placement of value on grades has been questioned by some and praised by others, mainly in the discourse revolving around the new ACT emphasis in the district. Ever since the Nebraska State Accountability Test (NeSA) was discontinued for junior testing, Elkhorn South has been throwing their eggs into the ACT basket. One of the main complaints with NeSA was its content-based approach, an issue which the skill-based ACT solves.
“ACT is much more meaningful. It’s portable, it’s a matter of pride, there’s dollars at stake, opportunities at stake by that test. It just makes sense,” Kalvoda said.
The ACT is not only convenient and good for scholarships, but it is a test that nearly every college requires to apply. Along with giving students an opportunity to improve skills like time management and reading charts and graphs, the standardized test’s focus is designed to give students a clearer streamline to college. Now that every junior is required to take a practice ACT, however, Elkhorn South has stumbled upon another way to compete with other schools — and win.
Eighty percent of ESHS juniors met ACT benchmarks for college readiness in English last spring, 61% in science and 62% in math. This is the highest out of all the schools in the Omaha metro. With these results, why would anyone ask if Elkhorn is doing the right thing when the answer seems so obvious?
“No one’s ever asked me my ACT score, I probably couldn’t even tell you what it is. If they were going to hire me just on my ACT score I probably wouldn’t be hired here. But they hired me on my ability to teach, and I think they did a good job,” Fauss said.
But even if the ACT doesn’t go much farther than college, it still carries students that far. This is something Fauss acknowledges.
“I don’t like the ACT, but I try to alleviate stress so my students can do well. Every school you go to needs it. So why not make us better?” Fauss said.
Some of the things South is implementing to make students better is molding existing classes. Kalvoda believes embedding ACT prep questions or concepts to existing lectures is what needs to be done to up scores even further. But designing classes to help students on the test while also ensuring they keep learning other material requires striking a difficult balance.
“We don’t want to become an ACT prep factory. We don’t want you to go to chem and all you do is study how to take the ACT,” Kalvoda said.
Regardless of beliefs, it’s obvious the measures taken involving the test have benefited a lot of students. Senior Bennett Wright is a prominent example. With a 36 on his ACT, he claims the reason he did so well was because he simply took it over and over again. Including the test he took in seventh grade, and the practice test required by Elkhorn South, Wright has taken the ACT a total of six times. This last June, he finally received the score he wanted.
“It was just like, oh thank God, I don’t have to take it anymore. Even if I didn’t get the 36 I might have stopped there, but the fact that I got the 36 was a solid yes,” Wright said.
But the ACT isn’t Wright’s only field of success. An active member of Quiz Bowl, robotics, varsity show choir, Olympus Club, math club, drama, and NHS, Wright juggles more than the average student all while maintaining over a 4.0. His classmates are quick to pinpoint him as a “tryhard”, but Wright’s mentality is different from Via’s. An ex-wrestler himself, Wright’s learned to make sacrifices. He quit wrestling after his sophomore year, and quit doing his AP Stats homework after about a week into this one.
“Freshman year without exception I would always do my homework. Now senioritis has kicked in and I’ve realized I can get by on less, so I don’t put in as much,” Wright said.
Still, his effort surpasses a lot of other students. He’s changed his approach to school in the last four years, but not by much. One of the reasons he is still his own biggest motivator is an uncommon one: guilt.
“I know I have a lot of talent, and I know I don’t want to waste that. I want to get as much as I can get out of it,” Wright said.
In stark contrast to Wright, sophomore Ellie Akough has two years ahead of her to hit her streak of senioritis, and she isn’t about to quit now. She is one of two members of Elkhorn South’s brand new policy debate team, in fact, she pushed to get it started last year. In addition to debate, she works 20 hours per week and misses a ton of school — for track.
Akough throws shot put, discus, and hammer throw. Nationally ranked, Akough plans to take State track this year and go to Nationals again. She claims that working to get to Nationals was the hardest she’s worked in her life:heading to the gym three times a week outside of practice and traveling constantly to different states for meets.
But the hard work paid off. Because Akough placed 15th in discus, 26th in shot put, and 30th in the hammer throw. The high ranking as a freshman mattered to Akough, but not as much as the connotations that came with it. The better she did, the closer she was to her ultimate goal.
“I really want to beat the statistic. That’s a big thing for me,” Akough said.
A study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that 62% of white college students complete their degree within six years while only 38% of blacks graduate within the same time span. Akough has made it her mission to go to a four year college and graduate with a far higher GPA than her brothers before her, all while pushing through what it means to go to school at ESHS.
“A couple months ago someone called me an ape. For like no reason, I was just sitting and eating lunch. And when we’re reading To Kill a Mockingbird and the N-word comes up everyone will turn around and look at me. It’s just weird stuff that can’t really be categorized as racism, but none of the rest of the kids have to go through it,” Akough said.
Part of the grit that makes her such a great debater she carries with her every day, to a point where the comments don’t even bother her that much.
“At the end of the day I’m getting some of the best education in the state and using some of the most expensive education facilities in the state, and I’m really lucky to have that, just by being born, just by living here,” Akough said.
According to Kalvoda, that grit is a characteristic that a lot of students at Elkhorn South possess.
“I think most of our kids are pretty driven and pretty focused, especially by the time they get to be juniors and seniors. They know how to focus their efforts on things that are going to lead to success in the future,” Kalvoda said.
And success is in the future.
Elkhorn South is undoubtedly competing on a global scale, and the necessity of competition is more apparent than ever. Over the next few years, the number of high school graduates is projected to rise by 10 percent, and so is the amount of kids applying to college. That means thousands more applicants in the admissions pool, and the need to stand out greater than ever.
Continue standing out.
If Elkhorn South wants to keep its graduation to college ratio at 95%, it needs to keep its students at a 95% mentally. With 71% of seniors taking at least one AP class and 72% of juniors doing the same, any other principal might be satisfied with the abnormally large number. But not Kalvoda; no matter how many Elkhorn South students excel, there are always more who could be doing the same. To him, success isn’t for success’s sake, it’s for the positivity of a student’s future.
“I don’t struggle with the term perfect, because I know we’re never going to be. But I like to pursue perfection, because we are never good enough. Good is the enemy of great. I don’t want us to be lulled to sleep and say, we’re good enough,” Kalvoda said.
Fauss agrees. To him, not pursuing perfection is criminal. The chance to become even better than you are lies within chasing after perfection, and Fauss is an avid proponent of that; in and out of the classroom.
“Perfection isn’t really a destination. You don’t get there. It’s a journey. And some parts of those journeys are awesome, and some parts suck. Nobody will ever be perfect. If you understand that, it’s good to work for perfection,” Fauss said.
Whether preparing for college with the ACT, or preparing for life with astronomical work ethic and commitments, it’s clear that Elkhorn South pushes its students to be the best they can be. However, there’s only so much a school can do. At the end of the day, it comes down to individual grit, a student or athlete’s ability to lock into their intrinsic motivation and achieve only what they know is possible.
This is what makes Josh Via ready.
“It’s easy to go with the flow. Life’s not always easy. Sometimes you have to go against it,” Via said. “Why would I want to be like everybody else?”