SCH student Zach Schapiro and his math teacher, Andrew Wolf.

by Brendan Sample

For most eighth graders, spring represents a time of looking back on their time in grade school as they begin to look ahead to the start of their high school career. One eighth grader at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, however, has needed to keep his focus on his 11th grade-level classes and participating in math and science competitions across the state.

SCH student Zach Schapiro has been at the school since fifth grade, but has shown signs of being a gifted student since he first started to read. When he initially came to SCH, he was placed in seventh grade classes, but even then his teachers quickly realized how he wasn’t going to be challenged quite enough by classes even two years above his grade level.

In addition to his high school-level classes, Schapiro is also coming off of significant achievements in the state Mathcounts competition and the city-wide George Washington Carver Science Fair. After being selected from thousands of middle school students across Pennsylvania to participate in Mathcounts, Schapiro finished eighth out of 143 students, which is the best finish of any SCH student in the school’s history, dating back to both Springside School and Chestnut Hill Academy.

Schapiro also earned a first place medal at the Fair for his project, “Influenza Vaccination and its Outcomes,” which also led to a Drexel University Public Health Award of $100 and a Philadelphia Association of Critical Thinking Award of $50.

From the start of his time in school, Schapiro has worked with his teachers to further challenge himself beyond the usual coursework for his grade, beginning with having a specific teacher helper in pre-K. Working with a gifted student like Schapiro has opened up opportunities to guide him in unique ways, including and even subtly encouraging a level of failure.

“As a parent, it’s really hard to let your kid fail,” said Donna Schapiro, Zach’s mother. “It’s hard to find the right balance between supporting them and letting them stumble so that they can learn critical thinking skills, which is incredibly important.”

One teacher at SCH who has seen Schapiro’s development firsthand is Andrew Wolf, a math teacher in the boys’ middle school faculty. Wolf has taught Schapiro in two classes – first when he was in fifth grade taking seventh grade math, and then when he was in seventh grade taking 10th grade math – and has worked with him one-on-one for all four of his years at SCH in training for Mathcounts.

In nearly 15 years of being a math teacher for the school, Wolf admits that Schapiro is a truly unique student. While there are exceptionally bright students at SCH that the school is sometimes able to reach within their grade level, Wolf saw from the beginning that the only way to keep him consistently challenged was to skip him up three grade levels from the outset. Though it’s certainly a lot different from what most students his age are accustomed to, not only has Schapiro managed to succeed at a high school level, but he has even managed to educate his own teachers as well.

“It’s been a lot of fun over the past four years because Zach has challenged me so much,” Wolf explained. “I’ve simply never had a student like this. He’s pushing me to be challenged and I often learn a lot of things from him as well. It’s just been fun to have that regular give and take.”

Although he fell just short of qualifying for the national competition, Wolf still expressed plenty of excitement and gratitude at Schapiro’s finish at the recent Mathcounts. For him, it feels like the culmination of not only the four years he’s been working with Schapiro but also the decades that he’s been part of the program dating back to participating as an eighth grader himself in the early 1990s.

“This felt like where we were trying to get the whole time,” Wolf said. This program has been around since the early 1980s, and having gone through it myself I know what a great program it is. When I started teaching at SCH and led the program as a coach, that just made it really fun for me and extra special.”

The school’s willingness to work with Schapiro and provide him with the challenges he’s needed was something that stood out to him and his family from the beginning. When looking for schools, his mother recalled that other schools were not willing to be quite as flexible as SCH, which meant a lot to them in making a decision.

“SCH wants to teach students how to fail,” Donna Schapiro said. “With very smart kids, sometimes they don’t face many challenges until they get to college, and they may just quit because they’ve never faced challenges. We want Zach to learn to pick himself back up. He doesn’t always win in the math competitions, but you have to suffer through a lot of failures to get to the next level. It was definitely important for me that he values these challenges and not just getting the ‘A’ grade.”

While he’s certainly done a lot of work to get to this point, it’s all been Schapiro’s decision to pursue this advanced learning and nobody else’s. In addition to his coursework, he also does chess, debate, golf, tennis and plays the trumpet. With plenty of new, upcoming programs and competitions to look forward to as he approaches high school, Schapiro will continue to anticipate everything with open arms.

“It’s nice to be rewarded for all the work,” said Schapiro of his recent accomplishments. “There are always more competitions in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math], and fortunately, SCH has great teachers and coaches to offer support. The kids here are smart and competitive, so for next year, I’m looking forward to having my friends join me.”

In addition to Schapiro’s first place finish, 18 of 24 SCH students that participated in the Science Fair also won honors, which included first place, second place, third place and honorable mention recognitions. Eleven students, not including Schapiro, are set to move on to the regional Delaware Valley Science Fair held from April 3-5.

“What’s great is that these students were working on their projects before they even started entering science fairs,” said Scott Stein, head of the Science Department for SCH. “They’ve had a lot of success at that particular fair, as someone from SCH has won best in fair for five of the past seven years. The students genuinely do all of their own research, and we’re also lucky to have college-level facilities and equipment, so our kids can do some really interesting projects.”