CapFed Best News: She’s best in nation

Todd Fertig
Special to The Capital-Journal
Allison Reed, Washburn Rural Middle School eighth grader, holds up materials Tuesday from her presentation entitled "All the World Loves a Baby: Breaking the Two Pound Barrier," which placed first at National History Day in the Individual Documentary competition.

Topeka students and their teachers are keeping history alive, and winning state and national awards for their effort.

Washburn Rural Middle School eighth-grader Allison Reed claimed first prize at National History Day in the Individual Documentary competition for her presentation entitled “All the World Loves a Baby: Breaking the Two Pound Barrier.”

Reed took the national award for her presentation featuring the groundbreaking work of Martin Couney. To generate support for his innovations, Couney turned baby incubation into attractions at multiple world’s fairs and at Coney Island amusement park around the beginning of the 20th century. Using the incubators as side-show attractions, Couney demonstrated the capability of incubators and raised money to further his research.

Unfortunately, Reed missed the announcement of the award.

“I got an email from the National History Day telling me when the award ceremony was going to be (broadcast virtually), but I forgot to watch it,” Reed said. “I got on halfway through, and then I got an email from the Kansas History Day Foundation saying: ‘Congratulations! First in the nation!’ So I started freaking out. I didn’t think I could possibly win. We never even talked about ‘What happens if you win?’

“At first I just couldn’t believe it. But I felt proud, because I did do a lot of hard work. I’m glad they thought well of what I did.”

As part of her research, Reed interviewed Dawn Raffel, author of “The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies.”

She also interviewed Beth Allen, who was born three months premature in 1941 and was cared for by Couney. Reed said that interviewing Allen was one of the highlights of the project.

“That was just crazy to interview someone who was in a side show,” Reed said. “Her cousins actually paid to come see her.”

“The work Allison put into it is really impressive,” said WRMS Gifted Program teacher Lindsey Dowell. “Allison is an incredibly hard worker. She is driven and motivated to do her best. She’s a student you really don’t have to encourage. Whatever she’s supposed to do, she does above and beyond that.”

Traditionally, the National History Day competition brings hundreds of participants from across the U.S. and even from other countries to the University of Maryland. Held virtually this year, the competition highlighted the work of not just Reed, but another WRMS student. Seventh-grader Kaitlin Jackson claimed 10th place in the Historical Paper category with her paper “The Struggle to Break the Sound Barrier.”

“I’m really proud of Kaitlin because it was her first time to compete in History Day,” said Dowell. “To place at the national level as a seventh grader is a really incredible accomplishment, and it speaks to the type of student she is.”

While her students were winning awards, Dowell earned some special recognition, as well. Dowell was recently named the Kansas History Day Teacher of the Year.

“It’s an outstanding recognition — something well deserved,” said WRMS principal Mark Koepsel. “She works hard to promote her program and is dedicated to this project in particular.”

Koepsel credited former teacher Alice Bertels with building a tradition of excellence in the History Day completion. He said Dowell worked alongside Bertels and is carrying on the tradition.

“The state of Kansas has some really incredible teachers who do this project, so to be recognized for the work I do with these students really means a lot to me,” Dowell said. “It is really nice to know that what I’m doing is a good reflection on our school and on our students.”

Dowell said she meets with the students once a week to go over their progress, but the work is actually done outside of school. She described her role as that of a guide and facilitator. Dowell said that while students often receive praise for skills in the arts and athletics, and while subjects like math and science are often emphasized, the study of history is important.

“The different lens of studying history gives them an advantage,” Dowell said of students who participate in History Day. “It’s an entire year-long project. They are learning about things that they would never learn about in a regular classroom. And they do such in-depth research. It really broadens their perspective on our world’s history and how to connect that to what’s happening in our world now.”

Washburn Rural Middle School was not the only Topeka school to demonstrate its prowess at the National History Day competition. Seaman High School junior Kaya Pyle placed fourth in senior level of the History Paper competition for her paper “Introducing Color to the World of Ballet,” about African-American dancer Raven Wilkinson.

Nathan McAlister, history teacher at Seaman High, said the quality of research and writing in the top submissions in the History Paper category are comparable to what would be expected of a junior in college.

“I am so proud and impressed by what Kaya has been able to achieve through her research paper,” McAlister said. “Research papers are difficult to do well. It took an incredible amount of research and writing. To place in the top five in the nation … I’m just blown away.”

Pyle also received one of the Outstanding State Awards in the Senior Division. Two Seaman Middle School students, Adyson Cashman and Allie Jones, received Outstanding State Awards in the Junior Division.

Griffin Reiff in Junior Individual Performance: "Breaking Down the Stonewall: The Riot that Changed the World." Kaitlin Jackson in Junior Historical Paper: "The Struggle to Break the Sound Barrier." Audrey Caleb in Junior Individual Website: "Shattering the Glass Ceiling: Three Barriers, One Woman." Allison Reed in Junior Individual Documentary: "All the World Loves a Baby: Breaking the Two Pound Barrier."