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Potomac School News

Potomac Begins New Academic Year, Honors Outstanding Teachers

The Potomac School began the 2022-23 academic year on September 7, with a record 1,069 students enrolled in grades K-12. On Friday the 9th, the Potomac community gathered outdoors for the school’s annual Opening Assembly, an event that sets the tone for the year ahead.

The celebration began with a procession of the school’s oldest and youngest students, as the members of the Class of 2023 escorted the kindergartners into their first Potomac assembly. Inspiring remarks followed, with Head of School John Kowalik reflecting on the meaning and importance of generosity of spirit, and Student Government Association President Yabby Maelaf ’23 urging her fellow students to follow their passions and persevere as they pursue their goals.

A highlight of the assembly was the presentation of Potomac’s 2022 Bill Cook Award for Excellent Teaching. Named in honor of beloved teacher and assistant head of school Bill Cook, who passed away in 2016, the award is presented annually to teachers “who exemplify the commitment to excellence and love of learning that define a Potomac School education.” This year there were two honorees: Shefali Sardar and Nick Hanson.

In nearly 25 years at Potomac, Shefali Sardar has held a number of classroom and administrative positions. She began as a Middle School (grades 4-6) teaching intern, then served as a sixth grade teacher, a language arts resource teacher, and the Middle School’s language arts and humanities coordinator. In 2016, Ms. Sardar was named the Middle School’s first academic dean; she continues in that role today, while also serving as a language arts specialist, working primarily with sixth graders.

John Kowalik observes, “Shefali Sardar is known for her incredible work ethic and uncanny ability to address specific student learning needs. She devotes time before, during, and after school to work with students who need extra support, talk with parents, assist her colleagues, and strengthen our Middle School curriculum. She leads by example, consistently going above and beyond to support our students’ learning and our teachers’ success.”

He continues, “Ms. Sardar embodies the Potomac ideal of lifelong learning, both in her efforts to expand her own knowledge and skills and in her focus on helping her fellow teachers grow and excel. She is a dedicated teacher, a collegial leader, and a tremendous asset to our school.”

Nick Hanson joined Potomac’s Music Department in 2006. Through his efforts, the school’s handbell program has grown to include five ensembles, featuring 139 students in grades 5 through 12.

John Kowalik says, “Mr. Hanson is a passionate, engaging, and very talented teacher. Thanks to his expert instruction, Potomac handbell performances showcase the most advanced and current techniques in ringing. And, to the delight of student performers and audiences alike, the music often includes chart-topping popular songs that Mr. Hanson has arranged himself.”

In addition to leading Potomac’s program, Nick Hanson has spoken at music conventions and conducted at handbell festivals throughout the United States and in England, China, and Singapore. Many of his handbell compositions and arrangements have been published.

John Kowalik concludes, “Along with his work as a music teacher, Mr. Hanson serves as a seventh grade advisor and sponsors our Intermediate School (grades 7 and 8) Anime Club. He is an enthusiastic educator, respected by students and colleagues alike for his skill, generosity, and unwavering dedication to excellence.”    

Nobel laureate Maria Ressa visits Potomac and meets with students

Journalist Maria Ressa, recipient of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, visited The Potomac School on March 31, one day after testifying to the U.S. Senate about the state of freedom of expression in Asia.

Ressa spoke to students, faculty, and staff at an Upper School assembly and met with a Global Perspectives and Citizenship class.

She covered a wide range of issues, touching on freedom of the press, social media manipulation, moral integrity, surveillance capitalism, and emergent human behavior. Her remarks included candid stories about her experience moving from the Philippines to the US as a child, an interview that she conducted with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and the 10 arrest warrants outstanding against her in her native country.

Discussing ethics and journalism, Ressa spoke about the importance of “holding your moral line.” She told the students, “As you all move on to take leadership positions, situational ethics will make it seem harder. Know where your integrity lies, and where your North Star is.”

Maria Ressa was one of two journalists awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2021, in recognition of her “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.” In addition to her work as a journalist and author, Ressa is the CEO of Rappler, a digital-only news site that is leading the fight for press freedom in the Philippines, where she now resides. In 2018, she was named to Time Magazine's “Person of the Year” list. The themes of her work – integrity in journalism, courage in the face of disinformation and authoritarian rule, the fight for democracy, freedom of expression, and the push for human rights – provide compelling fuel for thought and action. 

Head of School John Kowalik notes, “Ms. Ressa’s presentation was an incredibly exciting and enriching learning experience for Potomac’s Upper School community. We are grateful to her for sharing her time and insights with us.”

Senior is state winner for Doodle for Google contest

Kennedy Ferguson, a senior at The Potomac School, has been selected as the Virginia state winner in the 14th annual Doodle for Google contest. Her artwork is now eligible to be included on the Google homepage for hundreds of millions to see. Doodle for Google is an annual contest where K-12 students create their own versions of the Google logo, and Ferguson is one of the 54 state and territorial nominees whose work was selected. This year the theme for the competition was "I care for myself by..."

Ferguson explains, “My Doodle represents the ways I care for myself. My self-love language is self-expression, pampering, and indulging in things that make me the most happy and hopeful version of myself.”

A student in Potomac’s selective Visual and Performing Arts Concentration program’s fine arts track, Ferguson shares, “I have been fascinated with art since I was a child, and my passion has pushed me to always study, watch art tutorials, fill sketchbooks, and make insultingly bad crayon portraits of my family. This recognition means so much to me, and I am thankful for the opportunity to share my art with a larger audience.”

The judges for this year’s Doodle for Google contest are the 2021 National Teacher of the Year, Juliana Urtubey; director, model, and mental health activist Elyse Fox; and artist, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Selena Gomez.

The national winner will take home a $30,000 college scholarship, and their school will receive a $50,000 tech package toward the establishment or improvement of a computer lab or technology program.

Google has postponed public voting because of the tragedy in Uvalde, Texas. Once it resumes, this link (https://doodles.google.com/d4g) will direct voters to all the state and territory winners. Five national finalists will be announced once the voting closes, and the winning Doodle will be featured on the Google homepage for one day.

A community that cares - supporting Ukrainians in need

On April 26, Convoy of Hope, an international relief agency, picked up more than 21,000 meals that were assembled by members of the Potomac School community the previous weekend. The relief agency will distribute the rice and bean meals to displaced Ukrainian families throughout border countries. 

This service initiative was organized by Potomac’s Parent Association Service Learning Committee (PASLC) and Upper School students in the school’s Global Perspectives and Citizenship (GPAC) program, who have been studying food insecurity around the world. With events in Ukraine top of mind, the parents and students took action to lead the meal-packing event in partnership with The Outreach Program, a nonprofit organization. 

Potomac’s director of K-12 service learning, ACE Everett, observes, “Our volunteers spoke about feeling a sense of community and purpose in being able to play a small part in addressing the critical needs faced by the Ukrainian people.” She adds, “It was also wonderful for everyone to see the sophomores and juniors from the GPAC program serving as such terrific role models for our community.”

Potomac’s two-year Global Perspectives and Citizenship concentration is a selective program that enables motivated Upper School students to take a deep dive into global issues, ultimately helping them understand the dynamic relationships between communities, cultures, and civilizations worldwide.

“This event is particularly meaningful for those of us in GPAC because we have examined case studies about food insecurity and researched transnational organizations such as NATO and the UN, often seeing things from a statistical perspective. But this event gives us an opportunity to think about the people behind the numbers, the people this food will help,” reflects Ali O’Brien, a junior at The Potomac School.

We thank Potomac parents Kristin Jensen, Katy Moser, and Gretchen Speigel and GPAC students O’Brien, Nuna Endale ’24, Arya Kumar ’23, Madeline Magielnicki ’24, Grace McMiller ’23, Alex Meek ’23, Ayanna Nayar ’24, Clay Turner ’24, and Abigail Woldgebriel ’24 for their leadership. View photos here.

Nine speech and debate students named Academic All-Americans

In April, the school honored nine Potomac Speech and Debate Academic All-Americans at a special lunch hosted by John Kowalik and Doug McLane. The four seniors and five juniors were presented with their certificates. For Potomac to have so many Speech and Debate Academic All-Americans is an impressive achievement: only about 1.5% of the 150,000 student members of the National Speech and Debate Association are named Academic All-Americans during their high school careers.

Pictured above: (front row) Shelby Willcox ’23, Samira Abbasi ’22, Olivia Eads ’23, Isabel Brittin ’22, Pippa Westland ’23, and Coach Kayla Williamson; (backrow) Mr. Kowalik, Ben Joel ’23, Connor Rooney ’22, Natalie Roots-Nowakowski ’23, Genevieve Evans ’22, Mr. McLane, Head Coach Harry Strong, and Coach Jeremy Metz

Potomac girls varsity basketball team wins ISL A division

Congratulations to Potomac’s girls varsity basketball team, who recently finished one of the strongest seasons in program history (21-2, 11-1 ISL). The highlight was a 62-40 defeat of Georgetown Day School in the ISL A Division championship game. The only loss up to that point was to GDS in overtime earlier in the season. In the championship game, Catherine Letendre ’25, Kayla Rolph ’22, and Zora Burrell ’25 each scored in double figures (15,13, and 12 respectively).

Nobel laureate Maria Ressa visits Potomac and meets with students

Journalist Maria Ressa, recipient of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, visited The Potomac School on March 31, one day after testifying to the U.S. Senate about the state of freedom of expression in Asia.

Ressa spoke to students, faculty, and staff at an Upper School assembly and met with a Global Perspectives and Citizenship class.

She covered a wide range of issues, touching on freedom of the press, social media manipulation, moral integrity, surveillance capitalism, and emergent human behavior. Her remarks included candid stories about her experience moving from the Philippines to the US as a child, an interview that she conducted with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and the 10 arrest warrants outstanding against her in her native country.

Discussing ethics and journalism, Ressa spoke about the importance of “holding your moral line.” She told the students, “As you all move on to take leadership positions, situational ethics will make it seem harder. Know where your integrity lies, and where your North Star is.”

Maria Ressa was one of two journalists awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2021, in recognition of her “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.” In addition to her work as a journalist and author, Ressa is the CEO of Rappler, a digital-only news site that is leading the fight for press freedom in the Philippines, where she now resides. In 2018, she was named to Time Magazine's “Person of the Year” list. The themes of her work – integrity in journalism, courage in the face of disinformation and authoritarian rule, the fight for democracy, freedom of expression, and the push for human rights – provide compelling fuel for thought and action. 

Head of School John Kowalik notes, “Ms. Ressa’s presentation was an incredibly exciting and enriching learning experience for Potomac’s Upper School community. We are grateful to her for sharing her time and insights with us.”

Potomac student's mind-controlled 3D arm design earns him top honors

Potomac senior Ben Choi has been named a Top 40 Scholar in the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2022, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and mathematics competition for high school seniors. Chosen from a pool of more than 1,800 highly qualified entrants from across the nation, Choi will participate in the final weeklong competition in Washington, DC, this March.

According to Regeneron, Choi was selected based on the “scientific rigor of his project” – An Ultra-Low Cost, Mind-Controlled Transhumeral Prosthesis Operated via a Novel Artificial Intelligence-Driven Brainwave Interpretation Algorithm – and his “potential to become a world-changing scientist and leader.”

Choi is a student in Potomac’s selective Science and Engineering Research Center (SERC) program, which offers students the opportunity to do high-level independent research projects. He says that he was initially inspired to develop his non-invasive, low-cost 3D prosthetic solution after watching a documentary about neural interfaces being used to control prosthetic limbs. Choi explains, “I was really impressed by the applications and the technology, but I was also alarmed that these implants required risky open-brain surgery and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I thought it could be possible to develop a less invasive and more cost-effective approach.”

Choi says his ultimate goal is to make his prosthesis “accessible to all” – a driving factor in his decision to use 3D printing technology when developing the initial prototype, which he began working on in fall 2020. Since then, he has continued to make advancements to the 3D printed prosthetic arm that he developed. The arm, controlled by a brainwave-detecting headband placed on the forehead, has moved out of the prototype phase and will soon enter clinical trials.

Over the past year, Choi’s focus has been on fine-tuning the device. His work has included assessing volunteers, collecting data, and creating neural networks – systems that use AI algorithms to make predictions – to input and verify the data. Through trial and error, he has been able to improve the arm’s accuracy of movement to 95% as compared to a natural human arm. Choi works with mentors Dr. Isabelle Cohen, Upper School science teacher at The Potomac School, and Dr. Ji Liu, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Stony Brook University in New York.

In addition to advancing to the Regeneron Top 40, Choi has earned a variety of national and international awards for his research and work. They include winning runner-up in the PolySpectra "Make It Real" Global Design Challenge (December 2020); MIT THINK Scholar Award (January 2021); U.S. Air Force Special Award for Research (March 2021); IEEE Innovation Award (March 2021); and being named a Microsoft Imagine Cup World Finalist (April 2021).

Regeneron Science Talent Search alumni include winners of 13 Nobel Prizes, 11 National Medals of Science, six Breakthrough Prizes, 22 MacArthur Foundation Fellowships, and two Fields Medals. The full list of Top 40 scholars selected by Regeneron and Society for Science can be viewed here.

Potomac Presents Inaugural Service Award to Habitat for Humanity Volunteer

On January 14, The Potomac School announced the recipient of its inaugural Potomac School Award for Exemplary Service, designed to recognize individuals in the wider community who are making an important difference through service to others. Ericc Powell, a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity Metro Maryland, received the award during a school-wide assembly honoring the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Powell’s time with Habitat for Humanity has spanned nearly two decades and given him opportunities to serve international, national, and local communities. He volunteers as a skilled craftsman on Habitat construction sites and supports the organization’s ReStores, where donated items are sold to support Habitat’s mission. 

The Potomac School Award for Exemplary Service honors an individual outside the school community whose efforts reflect the school’s core values, demonstrates generosity of spirit, and can serve to inspire Potomac’s students.

Head of School John Kowalik notes, “Ericc Powell has devoted his life to service. After college, he cycled across the country to raise money and awareness for affordable housing – a cause that he remains passionate about today.” Kowalik adds, “In discussing his commitment to volunteerism, Ericc asserts that ‘meaningful service is not working for others, but working with others in partnership.’ That’s something we want our students to understand – the importance of building relationships and working together to effect positive change.

Powell has been employed with AmeriCorps, the federal agency for volunteerism and national service, since 2009. As a training specialist, he currently trains AmeriCorps members and supervisors in the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program, which fights poverty in the United States.

Upon receiving the award, Powell said, “I am grateful that through my friendships, through my education, through my work with Habitat, I’ve been able not just to build houses and homes, but also to build relationships and communities, and be part of something greater.” 

Candidates for the new award were nominated by members of the Potomac School community and vetted by a nine-person selection committee that included parent, student, faculty, alumni, and trustee representation. 

Two Potomac Seniors Named Regeneron Science Scholars

Yanna Bravewolf ’22 and Ben Choi ’22 have been named Top 300 Scholars in the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2022, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and mathematics competition for high school seniors. This year, 1,804 students from 603 high schools across 46 states, Washington, DC, Puerto Rico, and eight countries entered the competition. 

“Selected not only for their research skills and commitment to academics, our two scholars presented innovative projects that set them apart as promising young scientists in the years to come,” said Dr. Isabelle Cohen, Upper School science teacher and advisor. “While both students truly enjoy the scientific process that led them to these amazing results, they are equally motivated by the notion that their work might benefit others in the future.” 

Continuing his work, which began in fall 2020, Ben sought to make further advancements to the 3D printed prosthetic arm he developed. The arm, controlled by a brainwave-detecting headband placed on the forehead, has moved out of the prototype phase and will soon enter clinical trials. Over the past year, Ben’s focus has been on fine-tuning the brain-controlled prosthesis. His work included assessing volunteers, collecting data, and creating neural networks – systems that use AI algorithms to make predictions – to input and verify the data. Through trial and error, he was able to successfully improve accuracy and movement to 95%, as compared to a normal arm. Ultimately, Ben’s goal is to make his “prosthesis accessible to all” – a driving factor in his decision to use 3D printing technology when developing his initial prototype.

Yanna is fascinated with both the field of bioengineering and using technology to serve the greater good. She was mentored by University of Pennsylvania professor Saar Gill and spent the summer before her senior year working in his lab, becoming immersed in her research. The idea behind her project was to develop a potential therapeutic approach to treating Alzheimer’s disease. Using immune system cells that she genetically engineered, Yanna found that the modified cells were able to remove the amyloid-beta protein, a destructive molecule that contributes to memory loss in the brain. The use of such modified immune system cells could have therapeutic benefits in treating Alzheimer’s. 

Both Yanna and Ben are part of Potomac’s Science and Engineering Research Center (SERC), a program that provides students with the opportunity to do high-level, independent research projects.

As a result of being named Top 300 Scholars, Yanna and Ben 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. On January 20, the Regeneron Science Talent Search will name this year’s top 40 finalists, who will then compete in Washington, DC, for more than $1.8 million in awards during a week-long event in March. We congratulate Yanna and Ben on their accomplishments and wish them continued success!

The full list of scholars can be viewed here.