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Things go swimmingly for region STAR student
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While introducing herself and physics teacher Amy Durden, Emily Johnson, 18, of the Savannah Arts Academy, right, poses for a spontaneous selfie with emcee Mike Bowen during the Regional STAR Student/Teacher at Georgia Southern University Wednesday. Johnson was later announced as the winner. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

Region 8 STARs
Bryan County: Student, Robbie Hester, teacher Joseph Traywick, Richmond Hill High School.
Bulloch County: Student, Nidhi Aggarwal; teacher, Mary Adamson, Statesboro High School
Candler County: Student, Bret McGowan; teacher, Twila Durden, Metter High School.
*Chatham County: Student, Emily Johnson; teacher, Amy Durden, Savannah Arts Academy.
Effingham County: Student, Liam Bendig; teacher, Brian Witrick, South Effingham High School.
Emanuel County: Swainsboro High School, student Chris Rios-Villalobos, teacher Mac Barron. Emanuel County Institute, student Alec Hendrix, teacher Regina Tabor.
Evans County: Student, Dixie Jarriel; teacher, Susan Todd, Pinewood Christian Academy.
Liberty County: Student, Oriana Hollingsworth; teacher, Sue Bell, Liberty County High School.
Long County: Student, Brandon Abbott; teacher, Denise Montgomery, Long County High School.
Screven County: Student, Zachary Weaver; teacher, Nancy Sell, Screven County High School.
Tattnall County: Student, Sarah Fort; and teacher, Casey McNeely.
Vidalia City Schools: Student, Taylor Robins; teacher, Sandra Calloway, Vidalia High School.
Recognized but not present were Montgomery County student Ben Wilkes and teacher Janeth Coleman; and Toombs County student Sarah Payne and teacher Ann Smith. Treutlen County was also listed as a Region 8 county, but no honorees from there were listed or attended.

* Region 8 STAR Student and Teacher

At 18, Emily Johnson is a violin major at an arts high school but aced an Advanced Placement test in physics. A competitive swimmer, she started a program that is helping hundreds of children learn to swim. She has her choice of Harvard University or the University of Georgia’s Foundation Fellowship program, among other options.

Johnson, a senior at the Savannah Arts Academy, came to a banquet on the Georgia Southern University campus Wednesday as Chatham County’s STAR student and left as Georgia’s Region 8 STAR. The Exchange Club of Statesboro hosted the regional event at the GSU College of Engineering and Information Technology honoring STAR students and teachers from 15 school districts.

“Like every teacher in this room, we’re here with one student who represents a lot of talented kids that we deal with every day,” said Amy Durden, the Savannah Arts Academy physics teacher Johnson chose as her STAR teacher. “The kids in this room are amazing.”

In eighth grade, Johnson started a Savannah charity called FISHH, which stands for “Friends Introducing Swimming and Healthy Habits.” Focused on teaching underprivileged children to swim, the group trains teenagers to be swim instructors at the Horizons summer camp and raises money for other organizations, particularly the West Broad YMCA, to spend on pool maintenance and hiring swim instructors and lifeguards.

“I would estimate we’ve taught, both directly and indirectly, around 500 children to swim, which is a huge impact when you think that drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death in the United States,” Johnson said in an interview. “It feels like I’m helping to save those lives, and it’s a very gratifying feeling.”

She learned to swim as a toddler in Hawaii and began swimming in a summer league at 5, the year her family moved to Savannah and the age when she started violin lessons. She now competes as part of Savannah Arts Academy’s swim team and in a year-round league.

“That’s been really integral to teaching me the value of hard work and discipline and delayed gratification because swimming is not something where you pick a goal and you see it automatically,” she said. “It’s something where it’s gradual, you know, you drop half a second here, three one-hundredths there.”

Her parents are Dr. Stacie Wong, a clinical anesthesiologist who directs an anesthesiology instruction program at South University, and Dr. Robert Johnson, the ear, nose and throat surgeon running for the 1st Congressional District seat. Her brother, Alex Johnson, was the 2012 STAR student at Savannah’s Jenkins High School, and is now in his second year at West Point.

To obtain a STAR nomination, high school seniors must have their school’s highest score from a single test date on the three-part SAT college admissions test. Emily Johnson’s qualifying score was 2320 out of a possible 2400.

Whichever university she chooses, Johnson hopes to study international relations and economics.

“It sounds crazy, super ambitious, but one day I would love to be the secretary of state,” she said.

First, she and Durden, who has been selected as a STAR teacher twice before and is now in her 27th year teaching, will go to the statewide Student Teacher Achievement Recognition banquet April 22 in Atlanta.

Bulloch STARs
Another contender was Bulloch County STAR student Nidhi Aggarwal, whose top SAT score at a single sitting was 2280. The 17-year-old Statesboro High School senior chose her Advanced Placement government teacher, Mary Adamson, as Statesboro High’s STAR teacher, making her also a county-level STAR.

“There is this quote that the best teachers teach from the heart, not from the book. …” Aggarwal said, adding that Adamson manages to do both. “She inspired me, guided me, supported me and continues to do so, so thank you, Mrs. Adamsom.”

Aggarwal is still deciding between Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia Honors Program. She plans to study cell biology or genetics and wants to pursue a career in medicine. Her father, Dr. Sudhir Aggarwal, is an oncologist affiliated with East Georgia Regional Medical Center. Her mother, Neelam Aggarwal, is an instructor in the math department at Georgia Southern University.

The Exchange Club hosts the region banquet in cooperation with the Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce Education Committee and Georgia Southern University. The Exchange Club’s Leanne Thompson serves as region STAR program chair.

The Professional Association of Georgia Educators Foundation, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the Georgia Department of Education sponsor the statewide program. Now in its 56th year, it has recognized more than 24,000 students and the teachers they select as the most influential on their academic achievement.

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

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