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Mila Koumpilova, Published May 05 2009

Shanley, Moorhead High seniors named Presidential Scholars

A multitalented standout from Fargo Shanley High School and a versatile actress from Moorhead High were named Presidential Scholars, the highest-profile national honor for graduating seniors.

The pair – John B. Kenney and Rachel Clausen – will join 139 fellow winners from across the country in a late June White House ceremony with President Barack Obama. Clausen, one of 20 Presidential Scholars in the arts category, will also perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

“I am ecstatic,” said Kenney, who also won a National Merit Scholarship this spring. “It’s an incredible honor to be recognized by your country as one of the top young scholars in the United States.”

Along with roughly 3,000 seniors out of about 3 million slated to graduate this year, Kenney became eligible for the award based on his ACT score, just shy of a perfect 36. He had to submit teacher recommendations, several essays, a transcript and more.

Kenney is a four-time state debate champion, the captain of the Shanley soccer team, the lead in a couple of recent theater productions, a soloist in the choir and, said Principal Sean Safranski, “academically one of the top students we’ve had here.”

Kenney always brings a book to school to read during downtime, said Shanley religion teacher Mike Hagstrom. On the first day of a freshman religion class, that happened to be “Inferno,” by Dante.

Clausen was one of only three winners in the theater category, out of more than 6,000 young actors, dancers, writers and other artists who applied.

An alumna of both Gooseberry Park Players and Trollwood Performing Arts School, she is among a handful of Moorhead High students to score a lead part as a freshman.

Last year, Clausen drew major laughs as whimsical drama teacher Ms. Darbus in the Moorhead High production of “High School Musical,” which took her to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Clausen, an honor student, is also the first Moorhead High speech team member to make it to the state competition four years in a row.

“I am scared, anxious and really, really excited,” Clausen said about performing for Obama at the Kennedy Center.

The two winners listed Hagstrom and theater director Rebecca Meyer-Larson as their most influential teachers, earning them Teacher Recognition Awards from the U.S. Department of Education.

Clausen plans to go to Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., which boasts a high-ranked musical theater program. Kenney is likely headed to Columbia University in New York City, where he plans to study economics or political science.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529