Meet five New York high school students with fascinating stories

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No television special exploring ideas on improving education in the United States would be complete without hearing from students themselves. And so it was essential that students be able to tell their own stories during our first television special, TED Talks Education, which premiered on PBS last night.

To that end, we invited Market Road Films, the production company of two-time Emmy-winning filmmaker Tony Gerber and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright/MacArthur Genius Award-recipient Lynn Nottage, to create short documentaries about high schoolers in New York City with incredible stories. Several of these docs appeared in last night’s show, but several went unsurfaced … until now. Watch all five below.

Shahruz Ghaemi is lucky enough to attend one of the most competitive schools in the nation — but he feels that some of his best learning happens outside the classroom. While studying with his jazz piano teacher, Ghaemi is dropped into an environment where he is forced to think differently. While standardized testing can be confining, this creative outlet helps him understand concepts in new ways. “[Education] ought to be able to provide everyone in America with opportunity,” he says. “But an administrative culture that focuses on standardized testing does us no good at all.”

Two years ago, Melissa Perez didn’t have graduation on the brain at all. In fact, she barely attended classes. Then she got pregnant — and becoming a parent changed everything. Melissa wanted to be able to provide for her daughter, and with the help of her math teacher — who recognized her talent — she quickly improved her grades. Thanks to that push from her teacher, she rose to the challenge and became the first in her family to graduate high school. “She always said that she saw something in me,” Melissa says. “She was like, ‘I know there’s something inside you that wants to fight for it.’”

You can tell Julia Delmedico is sharp from the way she observes her school environment in the Bronx. But as a hands-on learner, she struggles during exam time. In this documentary, Julia is the voice of students who feel the weighty pressure of tests as something that keeps them from learning as much as they could. “I think the best kind of education is one that teaches you to speak and think for yourself,” she says. “That’s much more valuable than passing your exams.”

Shayna Cody’s work ethic is unmistakable as she competes with her twin sister to finish homework. Full of energy, she takes it upon herself to channel it towards her education by participating in a program for teenagers who hope to become doctors. For Shayna, learning isn’t about being a receptacle of knowledge, but about pursuing more. She says, “I think a fully rounded education is not just sitting there doing the work that’s required of you but actually taking the time to learn what you can’t out of your classes.”

Being young sounds carefree, but Grier Montgomery reminds us that it can be filled with anxiety. He speaks to the hard parts of being a high-schooler: the harsh bullying, the pressure to achieve and the assignments that pile up. Grier finds some relief among all of this, though, in the arts. “The arts is what I live for,” he says. “If it wasn’t for theater, I think I definitely would have dropped out of school.”