Operation Graduation: Language barrier didn't stop student from graduating near top of class

Operation Graduation: Language barrier didn't stop student from graduating near top of class

JEFFERSON PARISH, LA (WVUE) - Imagine starting high school in a foreign country without being able to speak the language.

For 18-year-old Disha Shah, it was reality, but she refused to let it hold her back.

Shah was happy with her life in India, when in 2012, her family packed up and moved to Louisiana. She knew starting over in a new country would be a challenge.

"It was really scary because at my house we don't speak English," Shah says. "So I never talked to people in English. I never listened either, so I just came here and everyone speaks English!"

She enrolled at Grace King High School in Metairie, where, for many of the students, English is their second language. Since Shah didn't speak any English, the school placed her in 9th grade.

"I felt really bad when they put me two years behind. I was frustrated, wondering why did I come here?" Shah says. "In India, everyone knew me. Here, no one knew me and they put me behind."

Shah says within about two months, she learned enough English for people to understand her.

By her senior year, it was as if she'd known English her entire life.

"She was probably light years ahead of even the native speakers in the class," says Katrina Torrado, an English teacher at Grace King. "Very few students make As in my class, and Disha was one of a few who consistently earned an A in English class."

Shah's determination took shape and teachers took note.

"About halfway through the year, I noticed she always finished classwork and homework ahead of schedule, before I was even done teaching the lesson for the day, says Emmy Watt, her chemistry teacher this year.

Watt started giving her advanced placement chemistry work in hopes that she could take the advanced placement chemistry exam before graduating.

"And she said 'okay, that's great, and if it's alright with you, I would like to come after school so I can learn more and really be prepared for it,'" says Watt. "And that just doesn't happen! No kid volunteers to take an AP exam for a class they didn't take and volunteers to learn extra work."

Her teachers say if Shah struggles, it's hard to tell.

"I think Disha in a struggle situation looks a lot different than other students in a struggle situation," says Brittany Stanford, who teaches Advanced Placement Statistics at Grace King. "She's calm and composed. You don't see her get frustrated or irritated."

Disha's guidance counselor, Katrina Thomas, says Shah never stopped asking how she could get ahead. She eventually made up for lost time.

On May 16, Shah graduated with honors, and she did it in just three years. Because she was a three-year high schooler, district policy said she wasn't eligible for a class ranking. Had she been eligible in her senior class of 230 students, she would have gradated near the top of the class.

"She would've finished third," Thomas says. "But actually, she wasn't concerned about that. She didn't care about being top of class, 1,2,3,or 4."

Every one of her teachers describes Disha as being focused only on learning.

Her physics teacher, Eric Schwartz says, "She didn't care about the grades. Before tests, other students would come in and say they wanted to make sure they would get an A. She would come in and say I want to make sure I understand momentum."

Because of her love for science and math, Shah plans to major in mechanical engineering at LSU. She says her family may eventually move back to India, but she wants to stay in the U.S.

"They're thinking about going back after some years, but I'm not," Shah says. "I started studying here, so my degree is more valuable here."

She made quite an impression at Grace King, where teachers will be singing her praises for some time.

"You don't meet that many students with an innate desire to learn," Watt says. "She's extremely gifted in math and science. She's extremely hard working. I just love her. I adore this child."

Once a scared student, Shah now has so much she can teach others.

"She has a quiet dignity other people can learn from," Torrado says. "She listens first, then thinks and processes things before speaking out. Also, her work ethic is unparalleled. I know adults who don't work nearly as hard as Disha does."

Shah received the principal's award for having a 4.0 grade point average. She received the most outstanding calculus student award, and she attended the state literary rally for calculus this year.

Grace King says Shah was chosen for state rally because she was among the top three students in the entire Jefferson Parish School district, which included private schools as well.

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