Potomac School News

Anne Gao '28 Helps Potomac Mask Up

Sincere thanks go to fifth grader Anne Gao and her family for donating 36,000 single-use face masks to the Potomac community. This was Anne’s brainchild, and she designed the masks herself. Just before Thanksgiving Break, Anne did some research and discovered that three-layer single-use masks can sometimes be more effective than simple cloth masks.

She explains, “I learned that a lot of fabric masks get thinner and less protective after they’ve been washed. I thought about what I could do to help people stay safe, and that’s when I got the idea.”

Anne developed the design for her mask – Potomac panther paws and the letter “P” on a blue background – and then her family arranged to have a generous supply of them produced.

The masks, which come in both child and adult sizes, were delivered to Potomac in late December. Some were distributed to families, faculty, and staff during the community-wide COVID-19 testing that occurred after Winter Break. Additional masks will be available around campus. Anne notes, “Whenever someone needs a mask, they will be able to grab one.”

Ultimately, Anne says, her wish is that “everyone in the Potomac community will stay safe and healthy.” Potomac thanks Anne’s for her creativity and thoughtfulness and the Gao family for their generosity. 

Kay Rollins '21 Ranked #1 in Nation in Extemporaneous Speaking

Big congratulations are in order for Kay Rollins ’21 on her debate success this past weekend. Kay competed virtually in the Billy Tate Southern Bell Montgomery Bell Academy (MBA) Tournament, which is only open to the top 16 high school extemporaneous speakers in the nation. This was Kay’s fourth year competing in this event. She remains the only freshman ever invited, returned for her sophomore and junior years, and swept the competition this year, earning first place and officially ranking #1 in the nation in extemporaneous speaking.

“This is a student who puts in the work when nobody’s paying attention,” reflects Potomac Speech and Debate Coach Harry Strong. “Winning a championship is not luck; it’s always won on work, and Kay works. She knows how to do it productively and she does it well beyond practice time. She is exceptionally well prepared, and it shows.”

Kay says, “I remember attending this tournament to watch my peers compete when I was in eighth grade, and I looked up to those students for so long. It is surreal to be one of those people now. Neither I nor my coaches have had a real winter break for years because we spend the time doing tournament prep, so it has been incredibly rewarding to see those sacrifices pay off.”

She is now looking forward to four National Championship events in April, May, and June. This includes the Tournament of Champions, which she has won for two consecutive years.

Kay has been involved in Potomac speech and debate for five years and competes in original oratory and public forum debate as well as extemporaneous speaking. At college next year, she plans to “continue debate in some capacity, maybe as a college-level competitor in parliamentary debate or by coaching high schoolers.” She hopes to major in either government studies or international relations.

Generosity of Spirit Award Recipients Named

Ordinarily, only one Generosity of Spirit Award is presented to a faculty or staff member at Potomac’s annual Thanksgiving Assembly – but 2020 has been an unusual year in several ways. New challenges have meant new reasons to recognize Potomac employees for their selflessness, flexibility, kindness, and resilience – all qualities that help their students thrive. In that spirit, the school recently honored two exceptional educators with its 2020 Generosity of Spirit Award: Grades K-8 Physical Education Teacher Carol Hilderbrand and Grades 6-12 Technology and Innovation Coach Jenni Ashley.

Ms. Hilderbrand has taught at Potomac for 25 years. In presenting her award, Head of School John Kowalik noted her “commitment to excellence, keen sense of humor, and humility.” He also observed that Ms. Hilderbrand “has been a positive spirit during the pandemic and a source of strength for her colleagues,” adding, “Carol Hilderbrand exhibits our core values each and every day. She is never too busy to have an important conversation with a student, a parent, or a fellow teacher.”

For her part, Ms. Hilderbrand says she is “honored to have been selected for this award.” She adds, “It’s really about character to me. This award speaks to how you treat other people, how you behave as a member of this community, and I’ve said before that there are so many role models of generosity here on this campus. So to be recognized by my colleagues in this way was truly overwhelming!”

Asked about her educational philosophy, Ms. Hilderbrand says, “The most important thing to me is not only that the students are moving and getting healthy exercise, but that they’re feeling supported and safe. I want them to feel trust in me and my class; it’s never about competition. P.E. is about trying new things, finding out what you like and are good at, and building the foundations for a lifetime of good health.”

Of the second honoree, Jenni Ashley, Mr. Kowalik noted, “She is patient, selfless, and gracious. Ms. Ashley’s generosity knows no bounds, whether she’s filling in for a class, mentoring a new colleague, or standing by a camera at graduation just to make sure it doesn’t get knocked over.” He also observed, “Jenni is excited about showing students and teachers how to optimize new technology tools. She will patiently coach a struggling colleague and is willing to reteach a skill as often as needed. Even more importantly, she cares about our faculty and students, providing an ear to listen and offering a kind word when needed.”

Jenni Ashley responds, “I work with such amazing teachers and students that, to me, it’s very easy to be generous with my time and thoughtful in my interactions. Everyone is so gracious and appreciative of what I can bring to them and to their classrooms.” She adds, “I’ve established some great relationships with my colleagues and students, and I always say that Potomac is a great place to work – and it’s the people who make it so.”

Congratulations, Ms. Hilderbrand and Ms. Ashley!

Ben Choi '22 Wins Second Place in 3-D Printing Contest

Congratulations to Ben Choi ’22, who was just named the second-place winner in the Polyspectra Make It Real 3-D Printing Challenge! This competition examines entrants’ 3-D printing designs and provides finalists with the materials to make their dreams a reality.

Ben, a junior in Potomac’s SERC program, became the challenge’s youngest finalist for his prototype of a prosthetic arm, controlled by a neural electrode placed on the scalp. Ben explains, “My initial inspiration came from watching a documentary about neural interfaces being used to control prosthetic limbs. A lot of them cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and require risky open-brain surgery, so I thought if I could make it less invasive and less expensive, that would result in prosthetic limbs being much more accessible.”

As the second-place winner, Ben has won $5,000 worth of materials, product testing, and other services that will help him move his project out of the prototype phase. Click here to learn more about Ben and the competition.

This has been a great year for Ben so far. In addition to this honor, he was named a 2019-20 U.S. Squash Scholar, and he was also selected for the highly competitive 2020 Northern Virginia Senior Regional Orchestra.

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.