RICHLAND — The young woman at the center of Richland School District's discussions over valedictorian eligibility says she's moved past her disappointment over missing out on the prestigious designation as top scholar of her class.
In the end, said Ellen Bengtson, she realizes it's more about what she learned and less about the external rewards.
After all, she's now attending her first-choice school, Yale University, and said she was well prepared for college because of the classes she took. Many of those were AP, or advanced placement, classes designed to prepare students for more rigorous college classes.
But it was one of the classes that Bengtson chose to take while in high school -- an online multivariable calculus course through Stanford University -- that caused her to miss out on being class valedictorian.
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She earned a B in that class, knocking her down to the title of salutatorian.
That left many people, including some of her teachers, feeling Bengtson had been penalized for taking chances and they complained to the school board. The board is still reviewing the district's policy to consider if classes should be weighted for difficulty.
Bengtson said she knows some other school districts weight classes for difficulty when determining the class valedictorian. Having such a policy in Richland would provide an incentive for students to challenge themselves, she said.
But Bengtson, the daughter of Peter and JoAnn Bengtson of Richland, hasn't stopped challenging herself because of her missed valedictorian title.
The 19-year-old recently was recognized as a National AP Scholar after scoring 5 on all nine AP exams she took during her sophomore through senior years of high school. A 5 is the highest score possible on an AP exam, and the national award, given to about 15,000 students this year, requires a student to score an average of at least 4 on all AP exams taken, and to have scores of 4 or higher on eight or more exams.
Richland High teacher Sandra Stroup isn't surprised, as she's convinced Bengtson may be the smartest student she's ever taught.
"This kid's going to have an impact," she said.
Stroup, who had Bengtson for AP English and Knowledge Bowl, said when she and other faculty members found out Bengtson wasn't going to be valedictorian, they sent letters to the school board saying it needs to weight classes for difficulty.
"I always got the feeling that Ellen learned because she really loved learning," Stroup said.
Bengtson is brilliant but is humble about it, Stroup said. She has a depth of knowledge that Stroup describes as amazing.
"It was a lot like being in the room with Bill Gates," she said.
Bengtson, who intends to major in biomedical engineering, said she took AP courses in high school because they were good preparation for college and she liked her teachers.
The AP exams she took were in chemistry, two in physics, biology, two in calculus, Latin, English language and composition and European history.
In high school, Bengtson was involved with Knowledge Bowl, Mock Trial, Math Club, the school orchestra and Mid-Columbia Orchestra. She plays the string bass.
She also was on the varsity swim team for three years and played tennis for two years.
Rich McDonald, a RHS teacher who had Bengtson for Mock Trial, said Bengtson is one of the top students he's had in 35 years of teaching. He noted she was commended at district Mock Trial competitions each year.
"She's such a read person," he said. "She devours novels and books."
McDonald said Bengtson also helped other students, and helped them accomplish things at a higher standard than they may have thought possible.
Bengtson said Yale is going well. Midterms are on the horizon, and she's still playing string bass, although now as a member of the Yale Symphony Orchestra. She plans to try out for the school's water polo club and get involved with the Refugee Project.