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Back of the Yards student among 100 in world to ace AP Spanish exam

Back of the Yards College Prep junior Arturo Ballesteros is one of 100 students across the planet who aced last years AP Spanish Language and Culture exam. | Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

At the call of “pencils down,” Arturo Ballesteros certainly wasn’t feeling world-class.

Most high school sophomores don’t after the grind of the Advanced Placement Spanish Language and Culture exam, a nearly three-hour academic obstacle course parsing the college-level proficiency of teen Spanish speakers around the globe.

“On some of the sections, I felt like I could’ve done better,” the 17-year-old Back of the Yards College Prep standout recalled last week.

Chalk it up to phantom post-test jitters, because Ballesteros literally couldn’t have improved on his performance — and no one else in the world could’ve topped him either.

The Southwest Sider was one of just 100 students on Earth to notch a perfect score on the exam administered last May, a College Board spokeswoman confirmed. That’s out of 189,658 students who took the test.

A school math club member like Ballesteros could tell you that his ace job put him in the top 0.053 percent of last year’s exam takers to earn every single point possible on the rigorous assessment.

That’s what Ballesteros could tell you, not that he would.

When the College Board passed along the news this spring of his perfect score to Back of the Yards College Prep Principal Patricia Brekke and his teacher Benita Arguellez, they were sure he’d be floored. Instead, he nonchalantly replied that he’d gotten word of his rare achievement at home weeks earlier.

“He has an incredible level of humility,” Brekke says. “Yes, he’s incredibly smart, we all know that. But he’s a really good person, and that’s what makes him great.”

From left: Back of the Yards College Prep teacher Benita Arguellez, student Arturo Ballesteros, guidance counselor Juan Carlos Salinas and Principal Patricia Brekke. | Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times
From left: Back of the Yards College Prep teacher Benita Arguellez, student Arturo Ballesteros, guidance counselor Juan Carlos Salinas and Principal Patricia Brekke. | Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

He also probably wouldn’t point out that to ace the test — which he took as a sophomore — Ballesteros had to nail 65 multiple choice questions; write a persuasive essay in which he outlined the value of digital library resources over physical texts; respond to a sample business email; deliver an impromptu two-minute presentation comparing the cultural norms around keeping pets in Mexico and the United States; and discuss the merits of a career in law with a hypothetical acquaintance. All in conversational, college-level Spanish.

“Sometimes you internalize things like that that, and you say, ‘Oh, I got a perfect score,'” Ballesteros says. “But when I go back and think about it, I can’t believe it.”

It was the first year AP Spanish Language and Culture was offered at Back of the Yards, and the first go-round for Arguellez.

“Everything comes natural to him. He’s able to elaborate with the richest vocabulary,” the teacher says.

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Many of those skilled were gleaned as Ballesteros grew up in Pilsen speaking Spanish at home with his parents, who hail from Mexico, and his younger sister.

When he’s not studying, Ballesteros can be found playing on the Back of the Yards’ volleyball team, keeping pace with the running club, writing for the school newspaper and performing with its folklorico group.

“I have to keep a very organized schedule,” he says.

And with a world-class score in his back pocket, he’s hardly phoning it in as he wraps up his junior year. Ballesteros is in the thick of the Diploma Programme — seven college-level courses at once in the IB program at Back of the Yards.

“He’s that dream student. I told him, colleges are going to be knocking down your door,” guidance counselor Juan Carlos Salinas says. The University of Chicago and University of Michigan are high on the list.

After that? Ballesteros says he’d like to come back to teach at a high school much like his own, serving a largely low-income community.

“I reflect on all my teachers and how they’ve influenced my life, and I definitely don’t think I’d be where I am without any of my teachers,” he says. “I want to do that too. I want to have a positive influence on other’s people’s lives.”