When Danny Li started preschool in the Petal School District 14 years ago, he spoke no English.
On Thursday, he will graduate as valedictorian of the Petal High School Class of 2018. Not bad for someone whose native tongue is Fujianese, a dialect of the area in China where his parents come from, and a little bit of Mandarin.
What makes it even more amazing is, his sister did the same thing last year. Sandy Li, a member of the PHS Class of 2017, was also a non-English speaking student who finished as class valedictorian.
She is finishing up her freshman year as an economics major at Stanford University in California, just a hop and a skip from Silicon Valley.
Come August, Li will be heading to Yale, his first college choice. He submitted 14 college applications and was accepted to all but Harvard and was wait-listed by Princeton and Stanford. He said he did enjoy touring the various college campuses. He received his notification of acceptance from Yale in December, just prior to the holidays.
With his final day of class on Wednesday of last week, Li has been wrapping up his education with the Panther nation by taking an AP Government final last Thursday and AP Calculus and AP Economics this week.
Li has lived in Petal since he was 5. Born in New York, he was sent to live with his grandparents in China while his parents started their restaurant, New China, in the Friendly City.
Li and his sister started in the Head Start program unable to communicate with others.
“Sandy was in my first little group of three kindergarten ELs (a program which helps narrow the gap between two cultures by overcoming linguistic barriers) my first year in Petal in 2004,” said Claudia Smith, a National Board Certified Teacher in English as a New Language at Petal.
“She was always bright and quick to get anything related to literacy. Her spoken language took longer to develop because she was so shy. Danny came the following summer. He was very alert and had the same great smile he still has. He was not shy at all, but had just returned from China. So, he didn't speak English at all.”
According to Smith, Danny started in the program in the summer before Kindergarten,. “He was allowed to participate in the Project TEAM Summer Program, so he would build some language before starting school.”
Smith said both the Li students wanted to please their teachers and parents. “They were rule followers and worked hard,” she said. “I felt I couldn't read Sandy. She was too quiet, but she observed and absorbed every piece of new information really fast. So did Danny, but he was all boy. Language never was a problem for him to make friends. “
Li remembers little from those first years, but he does remember building puppets as part of a class activity.
He also remembers learning the letter “k.” “There was a big poster board in our kindergarten classroom with a big letter ‘k’ on it,” he said.
In first grade he remembers his teacher asking him to pose for a picture – pretending like he was drawing with a marker. His mother still has the photo hanging on the wall. If you look closely, you’ll notice the top still on his closed marker.
In the EL and ESL programs, “they understood that I didn’t speak English and started me in classes,” Li said. The program continued through the fourth or fifth grade whe, Li said he continued to learn on his own.
“They were both quick learners, but the last two grades in the program they were just being monitored,” said Smith.
Their cousin and little brother are now in the monitored stages of the program.
“I knew enough vocabulary to get by and through classes at school. I continued to learn and study hard.”
He admits the language barrier was daunting at times.
“In kindergarten I didn’t know how to ask to go to the restroom,” he remembers. “There were other times I didn’t understand how to do assignments, but I couldn’t communicate that.”
When he got to Petal Upper Elementary, Li was tested for the gifted program, which he described as “a program for a community of learners who think differently.”
From there, participating in clubs/organizations and extracurricular activities helped to develop Li’s language skills. In middle school, Li participated with the science olympiad and student council and in high school he joined the band, where he played the marimba and oboe.
Still being kind of shy at the time, Li said his participation in front of so many people brought him out of his shell.
At home and at their business, his parents continue to speak Chinese and limited English. Li and his sister serve as interpreters for the family. Their younger brother, a fifth-grade student, has gone through the ESL program as well, but also has gained help from his brother and sister.
Li is not completely sure what career path he wants to follow, but will be majoring in political science at the Ivy League university located in New Haven, Conn.
Interested in politics and reform, Li has considered the possibility of going to back to China, “but I’m also interested in fixing the stuff here.”
Li admits that both he and his sister are quite competitive when it comes to education. With a 35 on his ACT, Li scored higher than his sister. “If she did something, I tried to outdo her,” she said. “The same with her.”
When Li texted her that he was named valedictorian, he said she didn’t believe him. “We had to Facetime so she could see my face and know I was telling the truth,” he said.
“I remember last year, after my sister was named valedictorian and got into Stanford, there was so much pressure,” he said. “I was so nervous (about following in her footsteps). I can’t imagine doing that for seven years like my brother Steven.”
Because Stanford doesn’t end the semester until some time in June, she won’t be making the trip home for Li’s graduation.
Besides his scholarship offered by Yale, Li also received a Petal Education Foundation scholarship and an American Legion Boys State program scholarship.
Li feels it will be hard being away from his family, but says he’s been away from them a lot with school trips and such. “But this will be the first time I’ve ever lived away from them.”
Complimentary of the Petal School District and all it has offered him, Li feels like he has the necessary skills to succeed in life.
“I’m not sure how it works in other school districts, but the Petal community is really involved (with the school district),” he said. “Teachers really care about you. Seeing teachers who have made an impact, that’s really special.” And he has a lot of favorites.
He noted the Petal Panther spirit is also important to school life and things like Relay for Life, where the community astmosphere abounds, as well as other activities. He said the Head Start program he attended was near the Center for Families and Children, so that was also a positive in his learning process..
As a member of FBLA (Future Business Leaders of America), Li enjoyed competing as a member of the group at national competitions in Chicago, Atlanta and Anaheim, Calif. through the program.
Li is also a member of the Petal Ambassadors, a group of high school students who assist with a variety of school and community-related events, such as orientation for freshmen and Chamber of Commerce events.
“It’s nice to give back to the community,” he said.
Li recently took part in Literacy Night, and has helped out at the Center for Families and Children. “It’s nice to go back and help other students with the program that helped me so much,” he said. This year he was invited to speak during two of the meetings.
As Li talks about school, the school librarian comes around and thanks him for the help with the plastic bottles, complimenting him on the great job he did. It seems that after visiting his aunt in New York City, where he said they do a really good job of recycling, he came back home wanting to continue being earth-friendly.
“I helped expand the school’s recycling program after talking with the principal,” Li said. “I did it through the Beta Club and want to talk to them about expanding the program even more and get people to recycle at home.”
Li has always enjoyed attending school, except for the latest bout of senioritis.
A self-proclaimed Star Wars hater, he was pushed by a group of friends to watch the movies. “I’m a big Star Wars fan now,” he said.
During Thursday night’s graduation at Reed Green Coliseum, Li will be addressing his fellow classmates, family and friends during a speech he’s prepared on a variety of topics.
Following graduation, Li is thinking about traveling to China to see family before college starts in mid-August. And there will probably be some days and night working in the restaurant, which he and his siblings have been doing since they were 10.