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The Student News Site of Rock Ridge High School


The Student News Site of Rock Ridge High School


The Student News Site of Rock Ridge High School


Phoenix Soar to Education Excellence

On Dec. 4, the top five percent of the class of 2024 gathered with their families and teacher honorees for the annual Excellence in Education Banquet to celebrate their successes.
Aarohi Motwani
Lining up with their teacher honorees, the celebrated students pose for a group picture.

Kindness. Hard work. Honesty. Drive. Ambition. These are four of the many qualities that chemistry teacher Mithra Marcus saw in the class of 2024 and in the students honored at the Excellence in Education banquet that took place on Dec. 4. 

Aarohi Motwani

Four years worth of AP courses, hours of PSAT prep, and an endless number of essays: 26 students from the Class of 2024 worked tirelessly inside and out of school, balancing academics and countless extracurricular activities to make their way to the top five percent of their class. Now, their portraits hang at the school entrance, where their names will leave a lasting legacy on future Phoenix. 

The first Excellence in Education banquet, sponsored by retired Loudoun County Public Schools teacher Alvin Sowards, was in 1983 held in the Leesburg Baptist Church. He and his wife invited 18 high school students, and the teacher who most influenced their academic lives, to honor. As more schools were added to the county, this event grew in scale, becoming a two-day event involving 17 high schools and honoring nearly 400 students. 

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After the online year, the banquet became a smaller, individual event in each high school. Most families and teachers appreciated the change, as it created a smaller crowd and increased individual recognition for each student.

Kicking off the dinner, Principal John Duellman gives a speech to welcome the teachers and families. “I am humbled and honored to serve these students,” Duellman said. “As we move through their senior year together, I will continue to involve and engage these students in order to further mold our mission and vision.” (Aarohi Motwani)

In preparation for the banquet, Principal John Duellman spoke to each student individually to learn more about these representations of the senior class. Every year, he comes up with a word that adequately describes the graduating class, labeling the class of 2024 as “committed.”

Senior Sanjana Rao reflects on her time in high school with her parents and teacher honoree, English teacher Samuel Colston. Colston was the teacher honoree for four students at the banquet. “I know that every single one of the kids up there is going to be successful, and they’re going to work to make the world a better place, and that gives me such joy and such hope knowing that there’s even a small part of me that could have worked to help them in some way along their journey,” Colston said. (Aarohi Motwani)

Throughout the past four years, the top of the graduating class showed resilience, hard work, and a dedication to success. “[This class has grown] a willingness to take on challenges that I was so proud of,” Marcus said. “[They had] a willingness to work through things that were hard and then see the fruits of their labor come to fruition.”

After starting their freshman year online, the senior class has almost reached the end of their high school career. “Follow your passion even when it’s tough, and keep going, as long as it’s fun,” Marcus said as a word of advice for the class of 2024 as they prepare to move out of high school.

“Follow your passion even when it’s tough, and keep going, as long as it’s fun.”

— Mithra Marcus

Leslie Champion

Senior Leslie Champion converses with her teacher honoree, English teacher Jessica Berg. (Aarohi Motwani)

After moving schools for the first two years of her high school career, senior Leslie Champion didn’t expect to see her picture on the wall with the rest of the top five percent of the class. “I felt very surprised; I didn’t expect to be up there, and it was a nice celebration,” Champion said. 

Champion lived in Indonesia in her freshman year and moved to Texas before the start of her sophomore year. “Moving [a lot] was the hardest part of high school,” she said. “I would’ve preferred to stay in Indonesia or Texas because it was still early enough to fit in. In junior year, people already have their friends, so I was just getting used to being by myself.”

When she first moved to Rock Ridge, Champion hated writing; she credits her newfound love for the subject to English teacher Jessica Berg. “Ms. Berg inspired me to find a passion for reading and a love for writing,” Champion said. “I hated writing before moving, and now I’m a Writing Center tutor. She really helped me during my move here.”

Champion overcame any tiredness or laziness that she faced, knowing she had to sit down and work to be successful. “Keep your future in mind and put in the work,” Champion said as a word of advice to underclassmen. “If it’s something you want, you just have to work for it.”

Sanjana Rao

Senior Sanjana Rao smiles as Principal John Duellman discusses her interests, like watching “Friends” and “Hamilton.” (Ananya Karthik)

Rao’s parents are her biggest inspiration; they taught her important values like risk-taking and work ethic. They have always been there for her whenever she needs someone to talk to — whether it was deep or lighthearted. Throughout her years in high school, she found that her English teacher Samuel Colston instilled perseverance and confidence that would carry her through her junior year and beyond. 

Rao also found that her habit of doing work at the last minute was challenging for her throughout high school. “I’m a big procrastinator, so [leaving assignments] till the last minute was definitely an issue, but being around people who push me and also excel in academics really motivated me to keep up with [schoolwork],” Rao said. 

Rao is also a member of the Student Council Association (SCA) and found that planning and executing the events were her favorite part of her school years. “Planning events like hallway decoration, Homecoming, Frost Fest, and pep rallies were so fun to plan and be a part of,” she said. 

Being in the top five percent is no easy feat, and Rao is well aware of that. “I’m very proud of myself; I never thought it would happen, but it makes me really happy [that it did],” Rao said. She plans to go to college in-state and ultimately become a physician in the medical field, where she hopes to incorporate technology into patient care.

Emily Dabre

Senior Emily Dabre laughs with her parents during dinner as they make small talk. (Aarohi Motwani)

Every student honored during the banquet holds different stories as to how they made their way to the top of the school. Dabre’s parents traveled across the world to create a new life for themselves and their family. Dabre respects their bravery, sacrifice, and courage and finds it motivating. 

Her teacher honoree was social studies teacher Meghan Adair, who was Dabre’s AP World History teacher in her sophomore year. To Dabre, Adair was not just a teacher of history, but a teacher of life. She taught her to stop worrying and to follow the passions of her choosing.

Jagadeepram Maddipatla

Senior Jagadeepram Maddipatla shakes hands with Principal John Duellman, thanking him for the honor. (Aarohi Motwani)

Maddipatla, the senior class president and valedictorian, has shown all the qualities of leadership that Duellman hoped to see in his students. “It is our collective goal at Rock Ridge to ensure that these students are leaders wherever their journey takes them and that they are equipped with skills and empathy to contribute and make the world better,” Duellman said. 

His list of accomplishments is diverse and incredibly long. Through his journey, he co-founded Procyon Photonics (startup dedicated to reinventing the computer with a focus on optical computing), made cooking videos with his mom, became Senior Class President in the student council, and found peace in playing ping pong with his younger brother. 

When Duellman interviewed him for the banquet, Maddipatla revealed that his hidden talent was overcoming incredible disorganization. “[I] still stuff everything into a single folder, and it is a mess,” Maddipatla said.

His sophomore year English teacher, Samuel Colston, was his teacher honoree. Maddipatla felt that sophomore year was his first real English class because he realized he had a lot to learn from the literary perspective. He appreciated that Colston never handed out good grades for free, and instead, he maintained high expectations and standards. “I am so proud of the hard work that [he] consistently put in,” Colston said. “One of the things that sets [him] apart from so many other people is [his] genuine desire to learn more and to grow more as a person. It’s not just about grades; it’s about understanding and growth and pushing [himself] to become more excellent while also finding balance in [his life].”

“It is our collective goal at Rock Ridge to ensure that these students are leaders wherever their journey takes them and that they are equipped with skills and empathy to contribute and make the world better.”

— Principal John Duellman

Graphic By: Aarohi Motwani

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About the Contributors
Aarohi Motwani, Editor In Chief
Aarohi Motwani is a senior and an Editor in Chief for The Blaze. This is her third year on staff, and she loves to take pictures and interview people in the student body. In her free time, she enjoys reading, listening to music on her roof, and watching movies with her friends.
Ananya Karthik, Arts & Entertainment Editor
Ananya is a junior, and joined The Blaze staff  in her sophomore year. She is currently the Arts and Entertainment Editor, and she loves writing articles about events occurring in Rock Ridge. Her love of reading and writing, which began when she was little, only grew as she got older, and she quickly gained an interest in writing reviews. Now, she hopes to pursue a career or profession in journalism. In her free time, Ananya likes to watch TV shows, her favorite being Gilmore Girls, listen to Harry styles, and keep up with pop culture news on Instagram and Facebook.

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