Cambridge, Massachusetts, is known for its cool arts scene, historic architecture and top colleges, but as much as Lucia Couto loves the scenic city that sits on the banks of the Charles River, she hopes for the opportunity to one day return home to Newark.
Couto, who recently graduated from Newark’s Arts High School and will be attending Harvard University on a full scholarship this fall, says that she wants to give back to the city that helped her prosper.
And prosper she did.
Couto, who is the valedictorian of her graduating class and will be pursuing medical physics at Harvard, grew up in Newark's North Ward, the daughter of parents--both from Portugal--who never had the opportunity to pursue their own educational aspirations but who pushed their children to aim for the top.
“My mother always tells us the story of how she wished to go to school every single year,” said Couto, who attended First Avenue Elementary school. “She wanted to learn, wanted to be in an environment where someone could show her something she did not know yesterday. She only got to complete one year in elementary school and because of this, she would never let us give anything less than the absolute best we could produce. To my parents, messing around in school was something that would really disappoint them, which is not something that my siblings and I ever wanted to do.”
Couto is one of seven graduates from Newark Public Schools this year who will be attending Ivy League schools on a full scholarship. More than 75 percent of NPS seniors will be attending two or four year colleges or universities. In addition, 71 students will be graduating from high school with Associate's degrees.
In 2016, Newark's high school graduation rate increased to 73.5 percent, up four percentage points from 2015, according to data released by the New Jersey Department of Education. The data also shows that there has been a steady increase in graduation rates for four consecutive years, up 15 percentage points since 2011.
Early projections show that NPS will once again increase its high school graduation rate this year.
Newark Public Schools Superintendent Christopher Cerf said Couto represents the many success stories of Newark school students.
“Our school community is so proud of the accomplishments of our seniors and wishes each of them success as they continue to advance toward their college, career, and life goals," Cerf said. "As we celebrate our graduates’ achievements, I would also like to thank their committed parents and families, along with our teachers and community members who are so instrumental in supporting and shaping them into the brilliant young men and women they are today."
To those who view Newark in a negative light, Couto responds with citing the many successes that Newark has helped create.
“I would say that there are a lot of different people and things--amazing things--that come out of my city,” she said. “I feel like society has made us so aware of the negatives that people sometimes only focus on the negative things that they hear. They don’t realize how many truly amazing people have come from the same schools as me."
Couto said she is optimistic that the city's reputation will soon come to an end.
"The reputation about the strong people and hard workers that make up this city, will soon come to light," she said.
Throughout her school years, Couto stood out as a leader, an accomplished athlete and dancer and as a member of the National Honor Society.
At Arts High School, Couto was a peer leader to incoming freshmen, the captain of both the soccer and volleyball teams, and has acted as something of an ambassador to her school.
“One thing that my siblings and I were instilled with was the idea that there was a possibility to learn in every moment of every day, whether it be in class or in a practical situation, which is something we are extremely grateful for,” Couto said. “It means the world to me that despite not having the full experience for themselves, my parents pushed my siblings and I as far as we could go.”
Couto says that the diversity at Arts High School helped her learn some lifelong lessons.
“The most valuable lesson I learned from attending a school as diverse as my class at Arts High School was to understand that different circumstances lead to very different viewpoints from different people, and while some people believe that there is a right answer to everything, everything should be considered through multiple perspectives before arriving at a conclusion,” she said.
Though she is entering the STEM field, which is fact-based, she said she always loved the Socratic Seminars.
"It really shows you that one thing can be interpreted so many different ways and you understand something so much more when you can take a step back and look at it from every angle possible," Couto said.
"Being able to go to a school where that diversity of opinion existed helped me to have such a better understanding of not only the topics that we were studying, but also how people understand and feel about what is happening today in 2017.”
Ricardo Pedro, principal at Arts High School said he noticed Couto’s talent, leadership skills and discipline from the beginning.
“From Day One, Lucia exhibited leadership amongst her peers,” Pedro said. “As a dancer, Lucia’s teacher noticed she had the discipline to follow direction. She has a strong personality and she is very much a leader, very much of an ambassador. She will be an ambassador and leader wherever she goes.”
Arts High School Vice Principal Diane Delrusso chalks up Couto’s success to one standout quality.
“She has grit,” Delrusso said. “She just has it. She’s determined to succeed. She’s always smiling, always positive and always comfortable with herself. She was an exemplar student in the classroom; it’s just amazing how she applies herself. She’s a perfectionist.”
Arts High School Vice Principal Antonio Lopes recalls Couto as a high achiever who handled her rigorous academic workload with discipline and equanimity.
“In her senior year, she had four AP classes,” Lopes said. “She was one of those kids who could handle it. We need more Lucias.”
Couto said the city she calls home has had a major impact on the person she has become.
“I was born and raised in a city that, to most people, was a city with a very negative reputation,” Couto says. “It was this preconceived notion of my home that helped shape the person I have become. The city made me a strong fighter, a person who would go down kicking and screaming, and would do everything she could to prove that the reputation that preceded her city was not a reputation that would continue long."
Couto, who arrived in Cambridge just days ago, says that although she is having a great time in her new college city, there is still no place like home.
"I do believe that, if the opportunity presents itself and I would be able to return to Newark once I complete school, I would definitely take it for a few reasons," she said. "Newark has been my home for my entire life, and if I had the opportunity to give back to the community that helped make me me, which I fully intend to do, I would love the chance to go back, be close to all of my family and friends, and helped the city that helped me prosper.”