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On GED Exam, the Dropout Had an Answer for Everything

Times Staff Writer

Zachary Olkewicz is not your ordinary high school dropout.

During his senior year at Burbank High, Olkewicz found himself caring for his ailing father while attending school day and night to make up for classes he had failed as a freshman.

The pressures drove Olkewicz to drop out -- but he was determined to finish his education by taking the GED high school equivalency exam.

More than a year after he was supposed to graduate, Olkewicz not only aced the exam, he earned the only perfect score out of the 569,000 people who took it in California over the last decade, state officials report.

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And he was one of only six people nationwide last year to perform flawlessly on the 7 1/2-hour test of reading, writing, math, science and social studies.

Olkewicz’s perfect score in 2003 may never reclaim those precious final months of high school. But the standing ovation he received during a recent awards ceremony at the Willow Center in La Puente, where he took the test, offered sweet vindication for the quiet young man of 20, who is now attending community college and dreaming of opening his own computer software design business.

“I think a lot of people judge me just because I dropped out,” Olkewicz said. “But taking the GED and getting a perfect score redeems me somewhat.”

As far as Olkewicz’s father, Walter, is concerned, the score speaks volumes about his son’s inner strength.

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The 56-year-old Olkewicz -- a burly character actor who has appeared in a string of movies and sitcoms such as “Seinfeld” and “Grace Under Fire” -- learned in the spring of 2002 that his troublesome left knee was infected and that he might require a seventh surgery.

Walter Olkewicz had no wife and no siblings to lean on. So he sheepishly asked his son if he would consider postponing college to help out at home.

Zachary didn’t hesitate.

“He found a way to answer his heart and compassion for me, and also answer what he had to do for himself without shortchanging either one,” said the father, who has an inch-wide purplish scar down his left leg and hobbles around his modest Burbank apartment on a crutch. “There was no way I could have done it without him.”

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Zachary Olkewicz joins the 14 million people who have taken the General Educational Development test since it was introduced in 1942 for U.S. servicemen returning from World War II who wanted to go directly to college without heading back to high school.

The list of GED takers is a Who’s Who of celebrities and politicians that includes comedian Bill Cosby, actor Christian Slater, Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), according to the GED Testing Service, a private nonprofit Washington organization that runs the exam program.

The wide-ranging exam requires students to demonstrate a command of literary analysis, American history, economics, algebra, statistics, physics and other subjects. Students answer multiple-choice questions based on reading selections, solve mathematical equations and have 45 minutes to compose an essay on topics such as their goals in the coming years.

They must demonstrate an understanding of concepts from the Declaration of Independence, determine the volume of cylindrical containers, calculate simple interest on bank deposits, and answer questions about atomic structures.

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Each of the five sections is worth 800 points, and Olkewicz was the only person in California to achieve a perfect 4,000 in the last decade, according to the state Department of Education. Just two others had earned that distinction since 1990, when the state began collecting data.

The man who oversees the GED testing program at the La Puente center where Olkewicz took the exam remembers a smart and focused young man.

“A 19-year-old who has unbelievable manners, and a gentleman from the word go,” said Peter Bulza, GED chief examiner of the Hacienda La Puente Adult Education program.

In his 42 years of GED administration, Bulza had never seen a 4,000 -- until Olkewicz.

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“I stood straight up out of my chair. I asked my secretary, ‘Did you see these scores?’ ” Bulza recalled. “She said, ‘Wow.’ Everyone around here was aghast. The first time anyone had seen a perfect score.”

Olkewicz’s GED journey began shortly after the start of his junior year in his hometown of Escondido.

Olkewicz decided to leave his mother’s house to spend more time with his father. He enrolled at Burbank High School, where he had attendance problems even while earning A’s and Bs, according to the school.

But Olkewicz was leading a life in overdrive: He was cooking, cleaning and running errands for his ailing father. He also was taking a full load of classes by day and attending adult school at night to make up for classes he had failed as a freshman and sophomore in Escondido.

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The pressure boiled over in the early months of 2002. Olkewicz learned that he would not have enough credits to graduate with his class.

Meanwhile, his father was told he would need yet another knee surgery.

Olkewicz sought his parents’ advice. In Escondido, his mother, Julie Ewing Nikkel, who had taken the GED herself in her early 30s, told him the downside -- that some people might not respect a GED as much as a high school diploma. But she suggested that he consider it.

“It seemed like it made sense to drop out, take the GED and take care of my dad and have a little less pressure,” her son recalled.

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To this day, Olkewicz’s counselor at Burbank High laments his decision.

“He was a brilliant kid,” said Michelle Sparks. “I really think Zach will do fine in whatever he chooses to do because he’s so bright. But it’s my belief that he could go even further with an education.”

But Olkewicz did stick with his education, albeit on a different path. He bought GED study guides and dug into them in his father’s hospital room and back at home while the elder Olkewicz recuperated. When his father would ask if Zachary wanted to watch one of the dozens of movies on their bookshelf, he would decline, stressing that he had to study. He retook practice tests until he knew the material cold.

Finally, Olkewicz signed up to take the GED through the La Puente center -- the closest testing site open last summer. It was his first attempt. After he finished, he felt he had done well and would pass, but he had no idea he had done anything special.

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He received his numbers in the mail about six weeks later and called the testing center to decipher them. He was told of his perfect score but still had no idea how rare that was until Bulza, the testing examiner, informed him toward the end of 2003.

Bulza then nominated Olkewicz for an outstanding achievement award and invited him as a special guest to a June 11 ceremony honoring adult high school graduates.

Olkewicz, now enrolled at Palomar College in Escondido, wore a navy blue suit (with no tie). His father, walking gingerly with a crutch, attended. So did his grandmother, mother and stepfather.

A GED administrator from the California Department of Education gave a short talk about the rigors of the test and introduced Olkewicz to the audience of about 400 seated under an outdoor canopy. They then rose and gave Olkewicz a three-minute standing ovation.

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