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Potomac School News

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.

Potomac Seniors Win on 'It's Academic'

Panthers for the win! Congratulations to our Potomac Upper School students for winning the high school quiz show It’s Academic on September 26. Seniors Ben Choi, Ainsley Ganti, and Hadley Husisian faced off against tough competitors from Maret School and Mt. Vernon High School. They were coached to victory by US math teacher Nicholas Tkach. 

It’s Academic, on NBC4 in Washington D.C., is in its 61st season and has been recognized as the world’s longest running quiz show by The Guinness Book of World Records.

The match aired on Saturday, November 20, at 12:00 pm on NBC4. Test your own knowledge and watch the replay.


Senior Recognized as Future Leader

Senior Kennedy Ferguson’s artistic talents, community awareness, and compassionate heart recently earned her recognition on WJLA TV’s “Future Leaders” profile series. Kennedy shared that she has turned to art as a way to communicate feelings and clear her head. "It’s really therapeutic and then it’s also like a form of expression," she said. 

Her goal is to use her talents to express, inform, and influence. "Making art to connect people to those things that I care about is something that’s really important to me," she said.

Over the summer, Kennedy interned with an illustrator and one day aspires to see her art in a museum.

In addition to drawing and painting, she crochets, runs cross country, writes and publishes poetry.  She shares that animals are another passion of hers and she “dreams to work at an elephant sanctuary in South Africa as a zoo vet or a biologist.” 

Kennedy is in good company in this year's "Fellow Leaders" cohort. Fellow Potomac Panther, junior Ben Joel, was also later recognized as a "Future Leader" for his non-profit tutoring organization, Intutorly. 

Read Kennedy’s full interview and see examples of her artwork.


Amelie McKinney Wins the Highest Business Prize

Potomac fifth grade student Amelie McKinney won the Highest Business Potential prize for the 10-11 age group at the Acton Children’s Business Fair on Sunday, September 12. This is the largest entrepreneurship event for children in North America, giving children the opportunity to showcase their very own businesses. Amelie’s venture ‘Science Power: Experiments for Kids’ included instructions and materials to complete three electrical experiments, as well as three additional bonus experiments. 

The prize is awarded to the business that the judges determine has the greatest potential outside the business fair. Originally started in Austin, Texas, the Acton Children's Business Fair has grown to over 455 fairs around the world, serving 23,022 young entrepreneurs in 206 cities and 12 countries.

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!