Elle Shirah, Southeast Whitfield High School's 2020-21 STAR student, has varied interests, from journalism and literature to history and political science, but nothing lights her internal flame like environmental education, advocacy and action.
"I love nature, the environment, and the word I keep coming back to is 'passion,'" said the member of Southeast's class of 2021. "The environment is something I'm really passionate about, and I'm really lucky to know my calling."
"I want to educate others so they can know more about the environment and their impact on it, (then) make changes," Shirah said. "Being outside is my favorite place to be, and for me, the environment is the most pressing issue."
The STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Recognition) program is sponsored by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators (PAGE) and the PAGE Foundation. Each STAR student chooses a STAR teacher to share in the recognition, and Shirah chose Alison Hunt, a science teacher at the school.
"I was grateful, because it's like my hard work paid off, and excited to shine a light on one of my favorite teachers," Shirah said. "I put a lot of thought into this pick, and it was a struggle to choose, but (Hunt) is the most compassionate and caring teacher I've known."
"She's kind, understanding and puts herself in the shoes of her students," Shirah added. "She picks up on things when kids are going through stuff, and she truly cares, which makes a big difference."
It's "the biggest blessing to be involved with a student like Elle, and I've never gotten an award in my 17 years of teaching as meaningful as this," said Hunt, who taught Shirah her freshman and junior years. "It's tremendous for me that I've had a small part in the (development) of such a successful (student), and I find my younger self in Elle in a lot of ways."
High school seniors must have the highest score on a single test date on the SAT and be in the top 10% or top 10 students of their class based on grade point average to qualify for a STAR nomination, according to Kris Horsley, communications specialist for Whitfield County Schools.
Students compete for school system recognition as the top STAR student, and those winners compete for region honors; region winners contend for the honor of being named state PAGE STAR students, while STAR teachers continue on with their STAR students at every level of the program.
Shirah "gets nervous on tests, but she always does so well, and her passion is even more amazing than her grades," said Hunt, who taught Shirah in AP (Advanced Placement) biology and AP environmental science, the only two AP science classes offered at Southeast. "She just has the biggest heart, and she's doing what we all wish we could do: making a difference."
"Even when I was little, like 6 or 7, I would tell my mom to slow down the car so I could open the window and yell, 'Stop cutting down the trees,'" Shirah recalled with a bashful giggle. "I know, now, it's not the fault of (those people), but, the point is, I've always had that passion."
Her mother, Rae, has been "amazing, pushing her to do her best," Hunt said. "She raised a girl with a go-getter attitude."
"My mom has always supported my interests, and she's even there to listen to my 30-minute environmental rants," Shirah said with a chuckle. "She wants me to have a job and a life that makes me happy."
In middle school, Shirah's concentration "drifted," but Hunt helped her refocus on her key interests in high school, one of the reasons she picked her as her STAR teacher, she said.
"I took a lesson from her, took a step back, and decided to focus my energy on what I'm really passionate about."
"You can only do what you can do," Hunt said. "You can't be perfect at everything, and Elle takes a very mature look at everything."
Shirah practices what she preaches, which is why she's been able to inspire so many others.
"I'm a vegetarian, and sometimes my mom will get annoyed because we'll be in the grocery store and I'll say we shouldn't buy something because I read the ingredients and it's bad for the environment," she said with a laugh. "I try to take little extra steps to educate and model (the right behavior) in my own life."
A couple of years ago, Shirah was looking to do more for the environment locally, so she collaborated with classmate Mario Alfaro, a fellow environmentalist, and Hunt on a project to create a garden outside the school, near the tennis courts.
"It had to be submitted by a teacher, so I put my name on it, but Elle did all the work" for the Dalton-Whitfield Solid Waste Authority School Betterment Grant, Hunt said.
"She did all the research, talked to numerous people, came up with a budget and wrote the proposal."
The school won the $500 grant and started a garden, which will likely ultimately become an orchard, perhaps an apple orchard, Hunt said. Shirah also persuaded her fellow students to spend weeks working in the burgeoning garden.
Putting together the grant "took me out of my comfort zone, and it was a lot of grit, hard work and determination, but it was great to see my peers collaborating together out there in a hands-on learning environment," Shirah said. "Hopefully, in the future, more students will learn about the environment through the garden."
"We'd like to add apple trees every year to make it a real apple orchard," Hunt said. "We have a lot of apple eaters here, and how neat would it be for cross country (runners) to run through there, pick an apple and eat it?"
For Earth Day this year, Shirah organized several of her classmates for a highway cleanup near her school, and she hopes future classes will follow the example and adopt sections of road, then keep them clean.
"You can't force something on someone," Shirah said. "All you can do is educate them and model it the best way you can."
She's also a regular at the annual Conasauga River Watershed Cleanup.
"I never leave trash anywhere, and I pick it up wherever I go," she said. It can be frustrating, because, "I want to enjoy being at a park, but I can't because of all the trash I see."
She was a Raider Ambassador for two years, a member of the Key Club since her sophomore year, and a member of DECA all four years.
"She did a ton of volunteer work in Raider Ambassadors, and that program helps kids learn how to be leaders," Hunt said. "She got the confidence to do more through Raider Ambassadors."
In Raider Ambassadors, "I learned I have to speak up when I need to, but also to listen when I need to," and all the community service work in the Key Club was "one of the best things" during her time in high school, Shirah said. She was first in the region in all of her events all four years of DECA, qualified for international competition three years, and once "placed second in the state for business management services."
Shirah received Georgia State University's presidential scholarship, "the biggest scholarship on campus, (which includes) a full ride, a stipend and (money) to eventually study abroad," she said. She also received a phone call from the science department's dean personally inviting her to attend the school, which was "definitely exciting."
She'd like to study in Europe at some point, as several of those countries have commendable renewable energy programs, she said.
"I want to study their models and how they've implemented them in their societies."
She plans to major in environmental science and minor in journalism, then attend law school to obtain an environmental policy degree. She hopes for a career devoted to environmental science, advocacy and field research.
Shirah "will be outstanding in whatever she does," Hunt said. "She's just the best."