Bottone and Yekelchik top Ponaganset's Class of 2020

Bottone and Yekelchik top Ponaganset's Class of 2020

Valedictorian Nicholas Bottone, left, and Salutatorian Leah Yekelchik.

The self-driven students topping Ponaganset High School Class of 2020, Valedictorian Nicholas Bottone and Salutatorian Leah Yekelchik, said they owe their success to hard work, focus and involvement in a variety of activities.

Bottone, son of David and Allyson Bottone of Greenville, is graduating at the top of the PHS Class of 2020 this year. Bottone will study computer science at Brown University this fall.

Bottone is a member of the National and Rhode Island Honor Society, and was a national Dean’s List semifinalist in the FIRST Robotics Competition. He also received the Computer Medal Award from Rochester Institute of Technology.

Bottone is also a competitive swimmer with the Smithfield YMCA and the Smithfield High School swim teams.

Bottone also competed with the Ponaganset Mathletes all four years of high school. Between all his activities, Bottone said he often sacrificed sleep to get his work done.

“It has definitely been difficult for me to juggle schoolwork and extracurriculars while still having enough time to sleep,” he said.

Bottone, an out-of-district student, studied computer science and engineering in Ponaganset High School’s Career and Technical Education pathways.

“I have had a strong interest in technology since elementary school, and began getting into software in middle school, so it was always clear to me that I wanted to continue studying computer science,” he said.

He added that joining the robotics team as a 9th-grader led him to his engineering pathway.

Bottone said he will always remember the massive scale, excitement and “nerdiness” of robotics competitions. As director of programming in the FIRST Robotics team, he led the development of robot code and construction of the electrical control systems.

Last year, Bottone founded a statewide programming competition called Code Clash.

“I led the organization, planning and hosting of the inaugural event, where 40 high school students competed on Ponaganset’s campus,” he said.

Bottone said he created an online simulated robotic championship league with hundreds of participants over the past couple months.

He said that he is a self-motivated person who is driven to do as well as possible. His parents and teachers also motivated him to excel.

For students hoping to achieve the top spot at PHS next year, he said to not lock sights on specific class rank, and instead find your passion and dive in.

“There are thousands of high schools in the country. Therefore there are thousands of valedictorians. What really sets you apart are your unique achievements and accomplishments,” he said.

Yekelchik, daughter of Kerri and Robert Yekelchik of Glocester, ranks second in this year’s class. She will attend Assumption College in the fall to study human services and rehabilitation with a concentration in communication sciences and disorders on a speech language pathology track.

Yekelchik earned the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Award, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institue Medal Award, the Rhode Island Interscholastic League Women’s Lacrosse All-Rookie Team Award and Honorable Mention for Division III, and Women’s Basketball All-State.

She is a member of the National and Spanish Honor Society, an officer for the 2020 Student Council, and a member of the Student Advisory Council for the Rhode Island Department of Education.

Yekelchik said she stayed focused and balanced by being involved in a wide variety of activities, including as a student-athlete involved in basketball and lacrosse, as well as a dancer at the Marie K. Jennison School of Dance in Greenville.

She said keeping her mind active and engaged allowed her to juggle sports, extracurricular activities and academics.

“I also had the support of my parents, friends, coaches and teachers to help guide me and stay on track,” Yekelchik said.

She said being involved with so many activities has given her outlets of support and encouragement everywhere she turned. Those bonds and connections with friends and teachers will be what she will always remember about PHS.

Growing up in the Foster-Glocester school district is a “solid foundation for me to achieve success,” she said.

Despite playing several sports, Yekelchik said she was most competitive with herself rather than focusing on achieving a top status. She said she consistently worked hard, challenged herself, and put her best foot forward.

“I was never really concerned about the grades my peers were receiving. I focused on how to improve and do the best that I personally could do,” she said.

Yekelchik’s advice to underclassmen is to always work hard but make time to have fun outside of academics.

“Persevere if times are tough because it will make you a stronger person in the end,” she said.