By Seth Daniel
A lot of valedictorians leave their high school experience every spring with grand plans, college scholarships, and not much thought of their home towns.
In fact, more often than not, those big plans are in far away places.
That’s not the case for Chelsea High Valedictorian Katherine Barnes – who won the honor on June 1 in a very close race with Salutatorian William Estrada – who bucks all such trends and has focused her future plans squarely in Chelsea.
“I want to come back to Chelsea,” the Clinton Street resident said. “My mom’s side came here off the boat. We’ve been here forever. It’s home. You can’t just abandon it and leave it behind. If you’re going to complain about something and want to change something, then you should do something. Trying to find a better place to live isn’t going to help anyone. You should want to make it a better place for everyone. For me, I want to make Chelsea a better place for my siblings, other people’s children and my children if I have them. My house is the first house my grandparents owned when they came from Italy. There’s a very strong family connection here for me. I could never leave it all behind.”
And her love of Chelsea comes from having grown up for many years outside of Chelsea.
Having been born here, Barnes’ family moved to Florida for several years. She attended elementary and 7th grade in Florida and then the family moved back just in time for her to attend 8th grade at the Clark Avenue School.
“I really was so happy to be returning here,” she said. “All my family lived here and I did not have the best experience at the schools in Florida. I wasn’t challenged and wasn’t the most popular kid. I went to the Clark and everyone was so nice and friendly. I had never had the experience where people appreciated me for what I knew instead of picking on me for what I knew.”
That year at the Clark, she said, was a complete turnaround for her – as she was chosen Student of the Year for the Clark Ave Middle School.
From there, she said she gained confidence and pivoted into a new direction.
In high school, she became an advocate – much like her mother, Christine Barnes, who is a frequent attendee at civic meetings in Chelsea and is outspoken on many issues.
Barnes said she created what is now known as the Handbook Committee when she championed opposition to the school dress code.
“We wanted to get more student say in the handbook policies,” she said. “It started with the dress code and soon we realized there were a lot of things that need to be changed or updated…That committee will continue into next year and I’m excited about that because there will be more student say and more parent say in the school handbook.”
She was also active as president of the Book Club, a member of InterACT and National Honor Society.
Barnes has a full scholarship to attend Hamilton College in New York as part of the Posse Foundation Program – which provides scholarships and a support/mentoring network for inner city students who want to attend private schools outside of their region.
Barnes said she almost didn’t participate in the exclusive Posse Scholar program because she didn’t want to leave home. However, once visiting the campus, she knew she had to go there.
Still, she said it’s only a prelude to coming back to Chelsea for her larger goals.
“My mom says I will be president and my grandmother says I’ll be the city manager,” she laughed. “I want to come back to help change things in Chelsea. I think there are a lot of different things, but the biggest thing is the education.”
And while away from Chelsea, what will she miss the most besides her family?
The 111 bus.
“The biggest thing I’ll miss when I’m gone is boarding the 111 bus and going into Boston,” she said. “I always say I hate that bus and it can be frustrating at times, but getting on in Bellingham Square and meeting people and seeing friends – there’s just an excitement that builds as you anticipate something big that is coming as you go over the Bridge. You want to hate the 111, but you know it brings you to such good things.”
Barnes celebrated her top honors last Sunday, June 5, at graduation exercises, and said she’s not one for speeches, but was grateful to have been chosen and recognized.
“The goal wasn’t to be valedictorian, but it is nice to be recognized,” she said. “A lot of hard work went into it.”
Barnes is the daughter of John and Christine Barnes. Her siblings are Sarah, Chelsea and Jillian.