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Salute to Education

Senior High students Paloma and Sophia Whitworth, left, and Sophie and Maddie Randak, pictured May 2, 2018.

Imagine how many times a second-grade teacher wondered who was who with two sets of identical twins in her classroom at Poly Drive Elementary. That was 10 years ago — the year that Paloma Whitworth, Sophia Whitworth, Maddie Randak and Sophie Randak became good friends.

On May 27, all four will graduate from Billings Senior High as valedictorians. They will be moving to college in August — the Randaks to Montana State University in Bozeman, the Whitworths to Gonzaga University in Spokane.

Fortunately for Billings, all four of these high-achieving students see themselves returning to their hometown after completing their education.

“As time goes on, I can see myself landing in Billings more and more,” Paloma said. Billings doesn’t have big city traffic, yet still had shopping and things to do.

“I want to work in Billings whatever I’m doing,” said Sophie, who enjoys spending time at the family cabin on the Boulder. “I want to come back to Montana.”

“We’ve been lucky to grow up so close to the outdoors and Yellowstone Park,” added Sophia.

The students talked with The Gazette last week at a luncheon honoring all valedictorians and platinum grads from Senior, West, Skyview and Central high schools. The Salute to Education is a tremendously uplifting annual event, combining honors for Billings’ top high school grads with recognition of more than 60 local businesses that partner with K-12 public schools. The Partners in Education program, sponsored by the Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools, connects volunteers from businesses and civic organizations to schools who need help with everything from elementary reading tutors to high school job shadows.

As the Partners in Education give back to the community, they are helping to build their future workforce. Yellowstone County is projected to have 30,000 job openings in the next decade, including 20,000 from retirements. To meet that big recruiting and retention goal, Billings must be the kind of hometown that provides the opportunities bright, young people want.

The valedictorian twins give us hope that our community will succeed. Not only are they looking to return to their hometown, each is considering a career in medicine. Almost every place in America needs more doctors, nurses, therapists and other health care professionals. Billings must compete nationally. As the specialty medical center serving Montana’s largest city and a vast region spanning parts of three states, Billings has great and growing health care workforce needs.

Sophie and Maddie’s father is an anesthesiologist at Billings Clinic, so they grew up knowing something of how hospitals and doctors operate. If they go into health care — possibly as a doctor, physician assistant or pharmacist — Sophie and Maddie would want to work at Billings Clinic.

“We’d be the fourth generation working there,” said Sophie, noting that her grandfather and great-grandfather also were Billings physicians.

Paloma and Sophia’s dad is a psychiatrist. The twins are interested in pediatrics.

“I’m passionate about serving people and leading people to wellness,” said Paloma.

Sophia found her interest in science leading her toward medicine when she researched high school science fair projects that evaluated the antibiotic effect of essential oils and colloidal silver.

Among 30 valedictorians in the class of 2018, just about half have said they are considering health care careers. Among other Senior High valedictorians, Benjamin LeBeau hopes to be an orthopedic surgeon; Madelyn King plans on nursing school; Bailey Volbrecht looks forward to medical school; and Ashton Albright will attend Rocky Mountain College before heading to veterinary school.

Central High valedictorian Maia Ragar plans to study biomedical engineering.

Skyview valedictorian Taylor Griffin plans to study nursing at MSU. Skyview’s Justine Roe aims to be a dental hygienist.

West High valedictorian Brin Purdy is considering pre-law or pre-medicine studies. West High valedictorian Madison Gosch plans to earn degrees in economics and psychology “with an overall goal of getting a job where I can help others.”

While we commend all these students for their academic success, we note that they have excelled outside the classroom, too. The valedictorians and platinum scholars run track, play volleyball, basketball, football, perform in band and orchestra and volunteer for an amazing variety of community service.

Billings has great reasons to be proud of its K-12 schools — public and parochial. Congratulations to the class of 2018. We know many of these grads will choose to study away from Billings for a time. They will be welcomed back home again any time.