Potomac School News

Seniors Achieve National Merit and College Board Success

Congratulations to seniors Ariana Ghafouri, Christopher Joe, Christopher Kang, Katherine Rebhan, and Ryan Selig, who were named National Merit Semifinalists in the 2020 National Merit Scholarship Program. They were among 16,000 semifinalists nationwide, representing less than 1% of the students who took the PSAT/NMSQT in their junior year. Of these 16,000 semifinalists, 90% are expected to go on to attain finalist standing, and about half of the finalists will win a National Merit Scholarship.

In addition, Potomac is proud to recognize 26 seniors who were named National Merit Commended Students. These honorees are Andrew Bernstein, Rocco Bognet, Carl Brinkman, Kalani Chan, Dana Christopher, Maxwell Cristinzio, Sophia Egge, Elizabeth Egger, Isabel Engel, Michael Fields, Isabell Friedrich, Jordan Greenslade, Patrick Hullman, Elena Huppe, Julia Jackson, Alexander Joel, Damien Kanner-Bitetti, Caleb Kassaye, Saif Nasr, Elisabeth Oskoui, Avery Richardson, Katherine Rollins, Evelina Swigart, Charlotte Thompson, Alexandra Vuono, and Tessa Weinreich.

Additionally, the College Board has recognized Andrew Bernstein, Elena Huppe, and Matthew Granovsky as Hispanic Recognition Program winners; Kalani Chan as an Indigenous Recognition Program winner; and Christian Herald as an African American Recognition Program winner. Congratulations to all!

Dr. Sandra Heard Receives Excellent Teaching Award

Potomac began the 2020-21 school year with its traditional Opening Assembly, held in an untraditional way. A small group of masked and socially distanced school leaders were on campus to host the ceremony, which members of the Potomac community watched via live stream. The program began with visual presentations featuring the students at both ends of Potomac’s K-12 spectrum – this year’s kindergartners and seniors.

Setting the tone for the year ahead, Head of School John Kowalik, Student Government Association President Will Fearey ’21, and Senior Class President Ariana Ghafouri ’21 shared thoughts about the importance of community, Potomac’s core values, and each individual's power to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Mr. Kowalik reflected on the fact that Potomac was beginning the year with virtual learning, noting, “Being physically separated is hard, but our identity as members of the Potomac community – as classmates and friends, teachers and learners, and people who take pride in our school – will unite and sustain us no matter where we are.”

The ceremony concluded with the presentation of Potomac’s Bill Cook Excellent Teaching Award, given annually to a faculty member who exemplifies the commitment to excellence and love of learning that define a Potomac School education. This year’s recipient was Upper School History Teacher and Grade 10 Dean Dr. Sandra Heard, who has been a member of Potomac’s faculty since 2012.

Presenting the award, Mr. Kowalik observed, “All who know Dr. Heard attest to her intellect, her moral conviction, her empathic nature, and her passion for teaching. A colleague recently told me, ‘She pours every ounce of herself into her classes and her students, who then respond in kind.’ …While her intellectual prowess is enormous, Dr. Heard has range and the ability to always meet people where they are in any conversation.”

Dr. Heard holds a Bachelor of Architecture from Mississippi State University, a Master of Theology from Xavier University of Louisiana, and a Ph.D. in American Studies from The George Washington University. She has lived in Mississippi, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and – as a young member of the Peace Corps – in the Dominican Republic.

She reflects, “I was after knowledge – I just wanted to learn. While I was in the Peace Corps, I had a lot of time to reflect on what path I wanted to take, and I realized that I wanted to pursue education – but I didn’t know what that looked like yet.”

Upon returning to the U.S., she worked as an architect and studied theology at the graduate level, with a focus on Afrocentricity in sociological and historical contexts. “That experience had a huge impact on me,” she recalls. “I really grew in terms of how I wanted to approach sources, literature, and being in the classroom. And those studies prompted me to question everything I thought I knew about American society.”

After earning her doctorate and teaching at the university level for a time, Sandra Heard arrived at The Potomac School. Within a couple of years, her dynamic, engaging teaching style made her a favorite among Upper School students looking for thought-provoking, discussion-based classes.

“I set a high bar for myself and push myself to be a better teacher every day,” she says. “But I also don’t use a lot of bells and whistles. Teaching is about going on a journey with students and discovering new ideas; it’s about showing students things they haven’t seen before.”

Dr. Heard adds, “I’m also not just teaching them – they’re teaching me, too. I haven’t stopped learning; my work is a constant exchange of ideas and engagement around interesting topics. And that’s why I love it.”

A Commencement to Remember

On the morning of July 24, after extensive planning, careful attention to safety protocols, and a rain delay, The Potomac School hosted an on-campus Commencement celebration for its Class of 2020. Each of the 111 graduates was permitted to bring two guests, while other family members and friends watched the ceremony via live stream. Potomac’s originally scheduled Commencement date was June 5, but the ceremony was postponed to allow additional time after the end of the academic year to work out the details of a safe, socially distanced celebration.

With the graduates and their guests gathered outdoors on the Upper School Quad, Head of School John Kowalik, Head of Upper School Doug McLane, and Senior Class President Kat Plaza ‘20 offered words of welcome. Faculty members Dr. Giovanna Bello and Torrye Parker then shared inspiring readings. William Bailey ’20 was selected by his peers to give the senior address, and Dr. Giorgio Secondi spoke for the faculty.

While acknowledging the serious challenges that the Class of 2020, America, and the world face, Bailey also highlighted many positive developments that have taken place during the graduates’ lifetimes. He observed, “I think we have tremendous reason for hope and excitement about what lies ahead. I recognize that some might find it odd to find positive impacts from recent tragedy, but I think it is important to be an optimist, perhaps now more than ever.”

Secondi’s address, laced with humor, focused on the importance of thoughtful decision making. He concluded, “Let me express the hope that, at least in some parts of your life, you will focus on something that challenges you. Things that come easy tend to be those that we already know; you need to take on hard things if you want to learn something new and grow as a person. And growth is what makes life a rewarding journey.”

As the graduates came forward one-by-one to accept their diplomas, Board of Trustees Chair Sameer Bhargava, John Kowalik, Doug McLane, and K-12 Academic Director Juna Kim McDaid greeted them with smiles and applause.

In his closing remarks, Kowalik offered the graduates some valuable advice: “It has been observed that ‘nothing in nature blooms all year round.’ Life, like nature, has its cycles. Knowing this, I strongly advocate optimism; it’s a mindset that we can cultivate if we try. By looking for the bright side of situations, by being grateful for what we have rather than focusing on what we lack, and by remembering that things do, inevitably, change – often for the better – we can keep our own spirits up and continue to move in a positive direction, even in the toughest of times.”

He also assured the graduates that they are well prepared for the next stage of their lives, noting, “As you leave Potomac, you take with you all that you have learned here. You also take our admiration, appreciation, and affection. We know that you will do great things.”

Senior Named "Extraordinary Teen"

Arlington Magazine recently named Natalie Martin ’20 as one of their “Extraordinary Teens” for 2020. This is the seventh consecutive year that a Potomac student has received this honor. Natalie was recognized for her commitment to scientific research, her acts of service, her athletic participation, and the way she has contributed to the Potomac community as a whole. Potomac congratulates her on this incredible achievement.

One way Natalie is particularly extraordinary involves the research she has done in the Science and Engineering Research Center (SERC) program. Arlington Magazine details the way that she fell in love with battery science and began work on ways to make battery systems safer. She dreams of one day running her own lab, featuring scientists with a wide variety of perspectives.

To read more about Natalie and her accomplishments, click here.

Photo credit: Arlington Magazine

A Message from the Board Chair and the Head of School

Dear Potomac School Community,

As the Fourth of July approaches, America is grappling with serious challenges. Along with the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are confronting the consequences of a long history of systemic racism. Civil unrest is shaking our country out of complacency, compelling us to take a hard look at ourselves and the communities of which we are a part.

Some calls for change are hitting very close to home. You may have seen recent articles in the media about manifestations of racism at independent schools, including Potomac. You are probably also aware of the surge in social media activity around these topics, as Black students, alumni, parents, and faculty from various schools speak out about their experiences and concerns.

We are listening to all that is being said, particularly the stories shared by members of the Potomac community. Hearing these stories is painful and difficult. But how much more painful and difficult must it be to live such experiences? On behalf of The Potomac School, we offer a heartfelt apology for the ways in which we have failed our Black students, and we pledge to do better. We ask the members of our community to partner with us as we work to make Potomac a place where every individual feels respected and valued.

We want to assure you that Potomac is committed to creating an inclusive environment and that we are focused on moving from intention to action. To support our efforts, we have been preparing to host a series of listening sessions with alumni, students, and parents, the first of which will be held later this month. We will create opportunities to hear from all members of our community, beginning with those who identify as Black, to ensure that we are centering their voices in the conversation about race and racism. Our faculty are also engaged in discussion on these critical topics and are reviewing our curriculum in this light. Additionally, over the past two years, our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, which includes trustees, administrators, and faculty, has been leading Potomac’s efforts to focus more purposefully on the areas of enrollment, hiring, and campus life. While we have made progress, we know that there is more that we can, and must, do.

We will continue to share information about this ongoing work and our plans to engage the many voices within the Potomac community to inform our efforts and propel them forward. For now, we wish you and your families a restful and enjoyable Fourth of July. May this holiday afford us an opportunity to reflect on how the principles of liberty, equality, and justice can be realized for all.


John Kowalik
Sameer Bhargava
Chair, Board of Trustees
John Kowalik
Head of School


For more information on Potomac's ongoing work to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, please visit https://www.potomacschool.org/about-us/diversity

Debate Team Scores Huge Success at Tournament of Champions – Rollins Excels

Led by junior Kay Rollins, Potomac’s speech and debate team turned in an impressive performance at the annual Tournament of Champions (TOC) National Championship, hosted virtually by the University of Kentucky last weekend. To be eligible to compete in the TOC, a student must have placed in the final rounds at two national circuit qualifying events during the regular season. Potomac had eight students qualify in nine events as part of the 1,100-student field. 

Head Coach Harry Strong notes, “Our team achieved incredible results this year. Just making the TOC field is a big deal, let alone winning at this level. And to perform so well when the game was changed to a virtual format says a lot about our students.”

Kay Rollins won not one, but two individual national championships at the tournament, adding to her rapidly growing trophy case. She ranked first in the nation in extemporaneous speaking and original oratory. Last year, Kay ranked first in extemporaneous speaking. Additionally, as an eighth grader, she won the extemporaneous speaking category at the NSDA Middle School Championship and accomplished a dual win in the TOC Middle School Championship. Her extraordinary career now includes six individual national titles, with three of them won as an Upper School team member. She is the only “extemper” ever to win two TOC championships in a row, and the second-ever person to win two TOC championships in a single year.

Competing alongside Kay in the original oratory category were two impressive Potomac quarterfinalists: Samira Abbasi ’22 and Christian Herald ’21. Maryam Abbasi ’20 (public forum debate), Sara Abbasi ’20 (public forum debate), and Valentina Raghib ’22 (original oratory) also gave strong performances.

In addition, Kaitlyn Maher ’21 achieved a phenomenal third-place finish in congressional debate. Alex Joel ’21 was a semifinalist in the same event. Both Kaitlyn and Alex finished significantly better than the tournament seeding that they began with.

Reflecting on her performance at the TOC, Kay notes, “My big goal this year was to do as well in extemp as I did last year – I was really proud of last year’s speech, and I wanted to do that well again. Meanwhile, my oratory is very special to me; it expresses what I wish someone had told me as a middle schooler and as a freshman.” Coach Strong observes, “Kay is one of those special students who are both talented and driven to succeed. No one is going to outwork her; she is always well prepared!” 

He concludes, “Potomac’s performance at the TOC was really remarkable – the best we’ve ever done at the national championship level. I am so proud of our entire team.”

To view videos of Kay’s and Kaitlyn’s speeches from the TOC, click here.

Junior Honored by Princeton Prize in Race Relations Committee

Alejandra Monzon ’21 was recently awarded a Certificate of Accomplishment by the Washington, DC, Princeton Prize in Race Relations Committee. She is one of only 12 Washington-area high school students to receive this honor, which was given to her in recognition of her work leading Potomac’s Hispanic Student Alliance and serving as a member of the Representation and Equity at Potomac Committee. The selection committee was impressed to learn that Alejandra is expanding the HSA for Intermediate School students and that, along with other volunteers, she helps to host an annual picnic for Potomac’s Hispanic families. Congratulations!

Seven Potomac School Students Named National Merit Finalists

All seven of the Potomac School seniors who qualified as semifinalists in the 65th annual National Merit Scholarship Program in the fall have been named as finalists. Only 15,000 students in the United States receive this honor each year. The finalists then compete for 7,600 National Merit Scholarships, worth more than $31 million in total.

The Potomac School finalists are Dan Alexander, Courtney Brandt, Christopher Gaston, Jodie Kuo, Addison Marin, Katherine Plaza, and Caroline Semel.

Doug McLane, head of Potomac’s Upper School, notes, “I am incredibly proud of these students and impressed by their dedication to academic excellence. I’m also happy to know that The Potomac School encourages and empowers students to achieve at this level.”

Photo: The Potomac School’s 2020 National Merit finalists. From left: Chris Gaston, Addison Marin, Courtney Brandt, Katherine Plaza, Jodie Kuo, Caroline Semel, and Dan Alexander.

SERC Students Named Regeneron Scholars

Kat Plaza ’20 and Evrim Ozcan ’20, seniors in Potomac's Science and Engineering Research Center (SERC) program, have been named Top 300 Scholars in the 79th Regeneron Science Talent Search, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and mathematics competition for high school seniors. This year, 1,993 students nationwide entered the competition. Scholars were chosen based on their exceptional research skills, commitment to academics, innovative thinking, and promise as scientists. Being selected as one of the top 300 is a significant honor.

Kat set out to study the effects of long- and short-term exposure of microplastics on coral species. She was mentored by Dr. Jessica Reichert, a professor of animal ecology and zoology at Justus-Liebig University in Gießen, Germany, where Kat spent several months doing research. She found that different coral species react in different ways to microplastics.

Evrim’s research focuses on whether oxidative stress – a condition in which there is an electron deficiency in the body – can be measured through sweat rather than through blood. He worked with Dr. Gregory Payne, a bioscience professor at the University of Maryland, to test his ideas. Ultimately, Evrim’s research showed that it is indeed possible to quantify the amount of oxidative stress in the body through sweat. 

As a result of being named Top 300 Scholars, Evrim and Kat will each receive a $2,000 award. The Potomac School will also receive two $2,000 awards to be used in support of STEM-related activities. Later this month, the Regeneron Science Talent Search will name this year’s top 40 finalists, who will then compete in Washington, DC. We congratulate Evrim and Kat on their accomplishments and wish them continued success!

Debate Team Now Ranked #1 in Virginia

After another strong performance at the Patriot Games tournament at George Mason University, the Potomac School debate team jumped to the #1 slot in the Virginia state rankings. Kay Rollins ’21 led the way, winning extemporaneous speaking and placing third in oratory. Christian Herald ’21 took fourth place in oratory for the team. Anna Lerner ’20 semifinaled in congressional debate. Charlie Judd ’21 and Alex Joel ’21 quarterfinaled in debate, while Maryam Abbasi ’20 and Sara Abbasi ’20 finished in the field of 16. A number of Potomac students advanced into speech quarterfinals, allowing the team to finish eighth in a national field of competitors. 

Additionally, the team reached a goal it has had for four years: to move ahead of Thomas Jefferson High School in the Virginia debate power rankings. Thomas Jefferson’s program is a much larger one than Potomac’s and has many years of success under its belt. This was a well-earned reward for our hardworking students!