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Alison Gerber

For more than two decades, Chattanooga's newspapers have recognized area valedictorians.

The valedictorian project started with the Chattanooga Times and continued when the Times and Chattanooga Free Press merged in 1999.

We continue that graduation-season tradition this year, but have expanded it — and polished it up, too. On Monday, we launch "Top of the Class," a seven-day print and digital tribute to the best and brightest members of the high school class of 2018.

Twenty reporters and editors worked to assemble the report, our most ambitious salute to Chattanooga area academic excellence ever. This project will feature more than 50 Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia valedictorians and includes public and private schools.

Stories and short profiles of the valedictorians will publish Monday through Saturday and culminate on June 17 in a design featuring thumbnail photos of all of the valedictorians.

We shot color portraits of most of the valedictorians in our newsroom studio and asked them to fill out an extensive survey detailing their accomplishments. The surveys also asked about the teacher who most inspired them, and how; what their school most needs; and what today's adults don't get about young people.

"Top of the Class" will include daily feature articles about some of the valedictorians, daily capsules of 12 valedictorians, along with their college plans and survey responses. You can find longer profiles of the honorees, with a design optimized for social-media sharing, at timesfreepress.com/topoftheclass.

These valedictorians are an impressive group of young women and men. They will attend colleges as close as the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Lee University and as far away as Texas A&M University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Many will attend state universities; some will attend schools with extraordinarily low acceptance rates, such as Duke and Princeton universities.

The valedictorians have selected college majors covering a broad spectrum of interests: exercise science, animal science, neuroscience and aerospace engineering. They were all active members of their high school communities. The list includes a chess player, a violinist, a wide receiver on the varsity football team, a Future Farmers of America member and a National Merit Finalist.

One valedictorian has already earned 18 credits through an early college program; another holds her school's record for the most career RBIs in softball; another was a medalist in the U.S. Physics and Chemistry Olympiad. (Warning: Reading answers to the survey can make one feel like an underachiever).

The survey asked the students to give us their favorite motivational quotes.

The highest number of quotes came from Winston Churchill, followed by the Bible. Others chose memorable quotes from people ranging from RuPaul to Ronald Reagan.

One valedictorian selected this Walt Disney quote: "All your dreams can come true if you have the courage to pursue it."

Whatever their dreams, I have no doubt these valedictorians have the determination, work ethic and ability to successfully pursue them.

Good luck, graduates.

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