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Potomac School News

Senior Is U.S. Presidential Scholar

Potomac senior Tess Weinreich is among just 161 seniors nationwide to be recognized as 2021 U.S. Presidential Scholars. This is a very significant achievement: Of the 3.6 million students expected to graduate from high school this year, only about 6,000 were considered for the award. Successful candidates are chosen based on their academic success, SAT or ACT performance, character, excellence in their areas of interest, and/or community service and leadership. The Presidential Scholars Class of 2021 will be recognized for their outstanding achievement this summer.

Tess reflects, “It’s nice to be recognized for the work I’ve done so far, but I’m most excited to take that work and carry it into the next four years. I’m eager to use the intellectual curiosity that Potomac has instilled in me in new ways.” She will attend Princeton University in the fall, where she hopes to study English, French, or sociology while working toward a journalism career.

Incredible Victories for Potomac Debate

The Potomac School debaters competed in two major events in April – with some spectacular results. Kay Rollins ’21 won her third consecutive Tournament of Champions (TOC) national title in extemporaneous speaking. In doing so, she set two TOC records: her three consecutive national titles are a first for the tournament, and she has now won a total of six TOC championships. Kay wrote her name in the history books of American high school speech and debate with her victory.

The tournament also resulted in amazing outcomes for three other students. Both Christian Herald ’21 and Samira Abbasi ’22 semifinaled in original oratory. Thus, two of the top 12 orators in the country are right here at The Potomac School. In addition, Kaitlyn Maher ’21 advanced to quarterfinals in congressional debate.

While the TOC was underway, Potomac debaters were also competing in the Virginia National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) state qualifiers. Potomac finished first in speech and second overall. Two of our debate students advance to the NSDA nationals in June: Kaitlyn in senate debate and Olivia Eads ’23 in house debate. Additionally, the event determined that all three Virginia teams permitted in the worlds schools tournament will be from Potomac. With those who previously qualified in March, a total of 25 Potomac students will compete at the NSDA national tournament.

Photo, clockwise from top left: Samira, Christian, Kaitlyn, and Kay.

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