Senior Joe Zales is your typical high school student — except he swims 18 hours a week, takes only three classes on campus and spends his afternoons culturing cells in a college science lab.

So maybe not so typical.

Furthermore, Zales is also the first student to have lab work counting as a class rather than just an extracurricular; his internship working in Robin Altman’s Sacramento State University lab will go on his transcript as “Research and Directed Study in Alzheimer’s.”

According to head of high school Brooke Wells, it will likely be a pass-fail class.

Zales got the internship through biology teacher Kellie Whited. Before last school year ended, they discussed the possibility of continuing the internship through the school year as a class if the summer went well.

And it did: Starting June 5, Zales worked four to five days per week in the lab, learning about cells and how to culture them. 

According to Zales, the lab’s goal is to gain more understanding of the cause of Alzheimer’s by culturing human brain endothelial cells of the blood-brain barrier.

“We’re adding glucose or insulin to their media — different amounts — to see if there is an effect on their physiology or metabolism and to see if glucose or insulin affects Alzheimer’s,” he said.

Zales said he found the research “fascinating in itself.” Continuing during the school year was a must, but it would have to be done through a class, especially since lab hours are usually during school time.

Zales described the steps to getting his ideal schedule as a “longer process.”

“Sometime at the end of last year, I went and talked to Mr. Wells and (assistant head of school Tucker) Foehl, and between the two of them and (director of college counseling Jane) Bauman, I was able to get the lab as a class,” he said. 

“This isn’t something Country Day has done before, so it definitely wasn’t a short process to choose my schedule.”

According to Zales, the lab shows up as one of his courses on CavNet. Valerie Velo, assistant to the head of high school, is listed as the teacher because Altman — formerly an interim biology and chemistry teacher — no longer works for Country Day.

Wells said he was already aware that making the lab into a class was a possibility after seeing which classes Zales wanted to take senior year.

“As his course selections were coming through, we knew,” Wells said. “We just had to make sure he was taking the required classes at Country Day: U.S. History, for example.”

In addition to U.S. History, Zales is taking two other on-campus classes — AP Physics C and AP English Literature and Composition — plus an online statistics class through Laurel Springs School.

Zales is also a teacher’s assistant for Whited, which is an elective counted as a class, bringing his total course load to six.

Although his eccentric schedule works for him now, Zales said it was a struggle to make it a reality.

“It took a lot of convincing for the school to allow me to do three classes, an online class, and then to do the lab and count it as a fifth class,” he said.

Part of the difficulty was scheduling Zales’ classes consecutively so that he’d have time to go to the lab, but according to Wells, the issue was minor. 

“It’s easier to (line up) three classes than six,” Wells said.

While making the lab a class required overcoming some hurdles, now that it’s in place, Zales said everything is “working well.”

“During the summer, I was working about 12-15 hours a week,” he said. “As far as during the school year goes, my goal has been to be in the lab six hours a week — preferably two three-hour days.”

Zales has gotten close to his goal, averaging about five hours per week.  The biggest roadblock, he said, has been trying to find times both he and Altman are available to work.

“(Altman and I) had already talked about me continuing the internship during the beginning of the summer and how it was going to be hard to schedule — she’s busy with teaching classes and office hours, and I have a rotating schedule,” he said. “There are times when I have chunks of time free, but she doesn’t.” 

So to account for Altman’s teaching and Zales’ school schedule, the duo have devised a system: Zales gives Altman access to his schedule online, and each weekend, they check in over email to set up lab times for the following week that work for both of them.

Both Altman and Zales agreed that this arrangement works well given the vagaries in their schedules.

“It allows for a fair amount of flexibility,” Altman said. “(It’s) perfect given the nature of the work (Zales) does in the lab, where the time required — both how much and when — can often change quite a lot from one week to the next.”

However, getting in lab time is also difficult because of another major extracurricular taking up Zales’ time: training with Davis Arden Racing Team (DART) Swimming. He has practices every day, the norm since freshman year.

According to Zales, though, his lab work is planned so that it’s simply part of the school day, making his schedule more manageable.

“I do the internship during school when I have large breaks, so I’ll get out at 3:20 (p.m.) to make it to swim practice at 4,” he said.

But as for balancing schoolwork with swimming and the lab, Zales said he has to be particularly careful.

“I have to have better time management and use my free periods — when I have them — really well to get my homework done,” he said. 

“So far that hasn’t been an issue, though.”

As much as Zales’ new class has changed his life, it will also change the lives of future students interested in following the path he blazed. While Wells said Zales’ schedule is a “new model,” he added that it’s “going to be done again — for sure.”

Nontraditional classes such as Zales’ are part of the school’s strategic plan, and other classes are planned to follow that model, too, according to Wells.

“Computer science might go that way as well, where you can start actually doing coding in a local company or lab,” he said.

And there are already classes that students are doing outside the typical curriculum: for example, being a teacher’s assistant. Several students other than Zales are assistants, such as seniors Bella Mathisen and Yanele Ledesma for art teacher Andy Cunningham and chemistry teacher Victoria Conner, respectively.

Zales, however, is the first to have a lab internship as one of his courses.

“In a way, he’s a trendsetter,” Wells said.

Head of school Lee Thomsen said he fully supports Country Day’s direction with unconventional schedules.

“I love the idea of more students pursuing a schedule like this one because it allows students the freedom to pursue a nontraditional path in their education,” he said. “I see (Zales) as a trailblazer. Here’s a young man who knows what he is interested in, and that’s science.” 

Thomsen also approved of Zales’ push away from APs, which Thomsen said are an “arms race.”

“By creating a schedule where he’s spending time working rather than taking yet another AP course in a ‘traditional’ discipline, (Zales is) actually carving a path that, one, he will likely enjoy more and, two, that will differentiate him from other students,” Thomsen said.

When asked how he feels about being called a “trendsetter,” Zales said he was “happy” to set a path down for others to follow.

“It was definitely difficult to set up, and I wouldn’t say it was handed to me on a silver platter in any way,” he said. 

“But I think it’s a good thing for the school to have this sort of program, and it will benefit the students and the school if programs like this continue.

“It’s an experience that not many high schoolers get — to work in a lab or to do whatever internship they’re doing over the school year.”

—By Mohini Rye

Originally published in the Dec. 4 edition of the Octagon.

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