Graduating with Greatness

The Class of 2017 is yet another group of standout students all with their own stories

By Dillon Tabish
Grace Pirrie hugs Jesse Rumsey after walking across the stage at the Flathead High School commencement ceremony on June 2, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Presidential scholars. Perfect 4.0 students. Persevering young people who have overcome sizable hurdles.

The Class of 2017 is yet another collective of young men and women who have made the Flathead Valley proud. Last weekend saw the latest group of high school graduates receive their hard-earned diplomas and toss their caps into the air in celebration, marking the beginning of an exciting new chapter. They all have their own unique stories to tell.

For example, Columbia Falls is home to Montana’s two recipients of the U.S. Presidential Scholarship, one of the country’s highest honors for graduating seniors. Colin Norick and Annabel Conger, who were also state champion debate partners this winter, emerged as Montana’s best and brightest, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The duo will both attend Stanford University.

There’s Sophia Skwarchuk, a standout at Flathead who developed her own smartphone application to help connect Montana families struggling with food insecurity. Skwarchuk spent long hours at the library teaching herself how to develop the technology, which became the app, “Montana Eats.” Last week Skwarchuk, who is attending the Ivy League school Brown University, received 15 scholarship awards at Flathead’s Red Carpet Scholarship event. Altogether, Flathead seniors received more than $1 million in scholarship funds.

Across the valley, students with similarly remarkable stories celebrated the completion of their high school journeys.


Stillwater Christian High School valedictorians Darren Kauffman and Haleigh Schwartz, pictured on May 25, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Shining in the Classroom

Hard work and passion helped Stillwater Christian School graduates Haleigh Schwartz and Darren Kauffman achieve excellence

Hours of research, thousands of pages of reading and four years of classes culminated in 20-minute presentations at Stillwater Christian School. The top seniors shined as they explained and defended their thesis statements, semester-long projects that ranged in complicated and contentious topics, including the use of nuclear weapons and the difference between secular dating and Christian dating.

The presentations were opportunities to generate interesting discussion and showcase two of Stillwater’s top students: Haleigh Schwartz and Darren Kauffman.

Schwartz and Kauffman were part of the latest class of graduates at Stillwater Christian, and both bid farewell with 4.0 GPAs and shining examples of academic excellence.

For both students, high school was an opportunity to push themselves to become the best versions of themselves, both in the classroom and outside of it.

“Who are we to not try our best to achieve?” Kauffman said. “Putting my best effort into everything I do has become my focus. It’s humbling to think about how far it could take me.”

As Schwartz says, “I feel like I should use the talent that God has given me to its fullest potential. It would be a shortcoming not to do so.”

Top students at Stillwater participate in a senior seminar course that involves the entire spring and requires months of work. The students choose a topic and research it extensively. Just before graduating, they present it and defend it before a panel.

“They helped bring other kids along, and you really want those influences in class,” Stillwater teacher Micah Tinkham said of Schwartz and Kauffman.

“Both are great representatives of what we want Stillwater graduates to be, and I’m really proud of them.”

For his senior thesis, Kauffman chose a subject that fascinates him: Since the Founding Fathers established the U.S. government, including the judicial branch, growth in power and influence has led to changes that were potentially never intended in the beginning.

“I know some people find the government to be monotonous, but I find it fascinating, especially with the election year and how much controversy there is with politics,” he said.

In his research, Kauffman developed a newfound appreciation for the architects of the U.S.

“We should have a lot of appreciation for the Founding Fathers and the framers of the Constitution, and what a marvelous system they implemented,” he said.

Schwartz focused on the important distinctions between somatic and germline gene therapy. Somatic gene therapy is when cells are used to fix or replace genes in one person, while germline gene therapy is when DNA is transferred into cells, sometimes to correct a disease-causing gene variant that could be passed down from generation to generation. Schwartz determined that it could be problematic when humans manipulate the natural world.

“It’s amazing to think about what we might be able to do with the intelligence we’ve been gifted with by God,” she said. “It’s amazing to think about what we might do in the future. But of course we need to keep our morality in check.”

Both Schwartz and Kauffman appreciated the challenging courses at Stillwater, such as the senior seminar, which they say will prepare them for the next academic arena.

Schwartz is attending Northwest University in Washington and Kauffman is attending Montana State University.


Glacier High School senior Silas Schwarz on May 24, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Montana’s Standout Mathlete

Glacier senior Silas Schwarz is a leader in performing feats of mental strength in competitive settings

Janet Espeseth, a math teacher at Glacier High School, remembers when she first met Silas Schwarz. He was a junior high student who would go on to complete every possible high school math course, including AP calculus, by eighth grade. By the time he was in high school, he was conquering elite equations at a national level. Twice he advanced through the American Math Competition, a challenging screening for the U.S. International Mathematical Olympiad team. He also became a member of the first Montana team to compete in the prestigious Harvard-MIT Math Tournament in Boston.

As Espeseth says, Schwarz’s math skills are as uncommon as they are amazing.

Last weekend Schwarz, a 4.0 GPA student all four years, was among the class of 2017 to graduate from Glacier High School. He was also part of a standout group of “mathletes” who have proudly represented the Flathead Valley in local, statewide and national contests.

Traditional athletes, such as basketball and football players, are easily distinguishable for their feats of fitness, but mathletes are just as impressive with their mental strength. Mathletes are gaining more opportunities for individual and team competitions, and the Flathead Valley is home to two especially talented math clubs at Glacier and Flathead. The clubs meet before or after school and practice challenging equations the same way hurdlers run through training maneuvers on the track. At Glacier, Silas and his brother, Michael, a freshman, both shine in math competitions.

The brothers come from a family that excels in math and has a passion for solving equations. As kids, the brothers’ parents, John and Molly, would play games with the boys at breakfast, rewarding correct math answers with cinnamon roll treats.

Through Math Counts Montana, the brothers put their talents to the test through the Glacier math club, and success has followed.

Schwarz is taking his talents to the University of Montana and will study computer science and physics.


Sue Brown, right, chats with Katherine Maxwell, center, and Catheryn McDevitt during a celebration of the International Baccalaureate Program at Flathead High School on Dec. 18, 2014. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Flathead’s Tireless Academic Advocate Bids Farewell

A conversation with Sue Brown, a revered and respected educator who is retiring after 40 years

The Class of 2017 was not just made up of remarkable students bidding farewell to our local high schools. Many teachers and staff are also saying goodbye after years of helping shape young minds and establishing the Flathead Valley’s rich academic tradition.

At Flathead High School, one particularly noteworthy educator is ending her remarkable tenure in the classroom. Sue Brown, an English teacher and local academic icon who spearheaded the creation of Flathead’s International Baccalaureate Programme, is retiring after 40 years. Brown arrived at Flathead in the fall of 1977 and guided generations of students as a passionate and tireless educational advocate, as well as a selfless mentor.

The Flathead Beacon was able to catch up with the beloved teacher in between her final classes. Here is an edited version of that conversation:

Flathead Beacon: What’s been your driving force over the last 40 years? How did you sustain that impressive run?

Sue Brown: I love young people and to watch them have such amazing ideas and interesting insights, and to grow with them. I’ve said before, I learn so much from kids … I love to learn. I’m a pretty eclectic learner. I love learning about almost everything, so you combine those together, what a great place to be.

FB: What do you hope you’ve accomplished over your tenure? How will you grade yourself?

Brown: More than anything: empowerment. The idea of helping kids believe they can do and be whatever they want to be … I’ve gotten a lot of notes from kids. I have boxes that I’ve saved over the years but this year in particular. For a student to say, ‘No one ever thought of me as having anything to offer.’ To somehow have the blessing of connecting in a way that can help a student feel like they are a valued human being.

FB: The International Baccalaureate Programme (which made its debut in Montana when it was first established at Flathead in 2004) is a big part of your legacy.

Brown: I don’t know if it’s my legacy. There were a number of people along the way to make it possible … I think it’s really helped to create opportunities for our students, certainly at the college level but also in terms of becoming that world citizen that we talk about as part of the objective of the program. I’m excited that it’s so firmly rooted.

FB: What will you do now? Any hobbies you’ll be taking up?

Brown: My husband and I will do some traveling … And, of course, there are all those projects you left behind and haven’t been able to finish. There’s no excuse now. And (husband Bob Brown) and I are volunteers, so we will be involved. My husband quotes my father, who said that community service is your way of paying your debt to the human race and civilization.

A celebration for Brown’s retirement is being held in the commons at Flathead High School on Saturday, June 10, 2-4 p.m. The entire community is invited.


Class of 2017

Graduating classes and top honors at each Flathead County high school

Glacier High School

254 graduates

Summa Cum Laude (4.0 cumulative GPA for 8 semesters)

Brock Adkins

Anna Cecil

Kajia Coziahr

Graham Friedman

Justin Gibson

Brynn McChesney

Erin McHugh

Silas Schwarz

McKenna Tinseth

Kendall Warner

Maxima Cum Laude (4.0 GPA cumulative GPA for 7 semesters)

Nicole Marshall

Sarah Stern

Flathead High School

303 graduates

Summa Cum Laude (4.0 cumulative GPA for 8 semesters)

Charlotte Mack

Hanna Maxwell

Krystal Sutton

Logan Thurston

Cassidy Wiley

International Baccalaureate

Nicole Bouma

Carolyn Brosten

Rebecca Knutson

Alex Naglich

Riley Odom

Sophia Skwarchuk

Lauren Vance

Nicholas Buenz

Savannah Cheff

Carolina Sierra-Correa

Isabelle Cuthbertson

Wyatt Shriver

Tommy Diegel

Bigfork High School

55 graduates

4.0 GPA students

Wilson Vogt

Julia Saunders

Columbia Falls High School

163 graduates

4.0 GPA students

Ali Gould

Anna Nicosia

Anna Schmidt

Annabel Conger

Tyler Sharpton

Tya Bonawitz

Alyssa Nelson

Colton Babcock

Colin Norick

Cydney Finberg

Mikayla Thomas

Hannah Freeman

Haylie Peacock

Kaylene Volkman

Kiara Burlage

Mary Ward

Sage Wanner

Kassidy Schweikert

Chloe Foster

Whitefish High School

115 graduates

4.0 GPA students

Emma Claire Spring

Julia Houston

Kate Doorn

Melissa Pollard

Mirielle Kruger

Jeffrey Hyer

Travis Catina

Kess Nelson

Haley Nicholson

Stillwater Christian School

19 graduates

4.0 GPA students

Abigail Boll

Haleigh Schwartz

Darren Kauffman

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