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CBHS Holds 16th Graduation Exercises

Casco Bay High School held its 16th graduation exercises on Thursday, June 6, at Merrill Auditorium. Casco’s commencement ceremonies are known for mixing traditional graduation pomp and circumstance with the unconventional, such as good-natured jokes interspersing heartfelt personal testimonies. This year’s evening ceremony for the Class of 2024 was no exception.

This commencement stood out, however, because it also marked the final ceremony at which the school’s beloved founding principal, Derek Pierce, was presiding. Pierce is retiring at the end of this month after 19 years leading the school. Speakers choked back tears as they described his tenure, but there was also plenty of levity and the overall mood was one of celebration for the 86 members of the Class of 2024.

The event included remarks by Superintendent Ryan Scallon and as well as from school faculty and graduates, student musical performances and the presentation of diplomas.

Adjectives that faculty used to describe the graduates included “ambitious,” “inquisitive,” “thoughtful of others” and “appreciative.”

Scallon also praised the Class of 2024 for overcoming many challenges, including starting high school in the fall of 2020 with hybrid learning at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Once regular in-person learning resumed, students successfully tackled the rigorous demands of high school, and some also had to cope with acclimating to a new country and language, experiencing homelessness and working jobs and taking on extra responsibilities to help support their families.

“We give great credit to you, Class of 2024, for the tremendous resilience you have shown in overcoming obstacles, managing responsibilities and persevering to reach this graduation milestone today,” Scallon said. “Today you are prepared and empowered for college and career.”

He highlighted a few of the impressive achievements of the class.

“One hundred percent of you have been accepted to college. Amazing!,” Scallon said.  While some students are taking a gap year or working, many are headed to a variety of institutions of higher learning, including highly competitive colleges and universities all across the country and in Maine. The class also won nearly $2 million dollars in scholarships and grants to help them attend college.

This year, 15 class members graduated with STEM diploma endorsements, recognizing their extensive work in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Also,

15 seniors graduated with the Seal of Biliteracy, for having attained mastery of English and at least one other world language. Also, Scallon said, “each of you designed and actualized your own Senior Expedition at the intersection of a personal passion and a need in the world. You completed a research paper, delivered a ‘Casco Talk’ to underclassmen and took action to further your cause, enacting your own ‘slice of the solution.’”

He said that the achievements of the Class of 2024 were instrumental in Casco recently being named one of Maine’s top 5 high schools by U.S. News & World Report – and also for Casco being selected as a model high school by Edutopia for their "Schools that Work" series.

Scallon also recognized Casco Assistant Principal Priya Natarajan, who will officially take on the principal role at the school next month. “She has pledged her commitment to celebrating and deepening the traditions that make Casco a special place to learn and teach,” Scallon said. “We’re confident that she is the right new leader to help your school continue to be the amazing place it is.”

Casco Bay High School is the district’s newest school, founded in 2005. It is part of the EL Education (formerly known as Expeditionary Learning) network and is deliberately small, with each class limited to a maximum of 100 students.

In an introduction to remarks by Pierce, English teachers Leslie Appelbaum and Susan McCray recalled the early days of the school. Appelbaum said Casco’s experiential learning approach provided “a new way of teaching and learning” for Portland students. They described Pierce as a charismatic leader for the school. McCray said he unwaveringly believes “in the potential of every single human being.” Following his example, she said the school will continue to inspire students “to create joy and change the world.”

A Casco graduation tradition entails each member of the class coming to the microphone on the stage to share their “Final Word,” a sentence or two on topics such as life and their school experience. Pierce choked up as he stood to deliver what he referred to as his “Final Word.”

But as his voice wavered, loud music blared out and Class of 2024 member Ben Medd leapt from his seat on the stage and did what Pierce called a “spontaneous booty shaking.” Pierce said Ben would continue to dance throughout his comments “if I get blubbery,” in order to distract everyone.

Pierce joked that “over the last 19 years Casco Bay has almost killed me several times.” Staff accompany students on outdoor learning expeditions that involve camping and kayaking, and Pierce cited instances when he got lost in the woods one night when trying to find the outhouse and flipping his kayak over and panicking. However, he concluded, “Casco Bay didn’t almost kill me – it rescued me.” He said that with the help of his crew (crews at Casco are groups of students led by a faculty member that create tight-knit bonds throughout high school), he figured out how to get out of both those situations safely.

In those instances and overall, he said, Casco helped him “activate the courage in me and slay my self-doubt and go ‘there.’” He urged the Class of 2024 to do likewise and “go to the ‘there’ that is not yet known, that is beyond the horizon.” 

Pierce’s address was interrupted several times by students playing the roles of “ghosts” of Casco’s past, present and future. The ghost from the past was a 2013 graduate who just finished law school, the ghost from the future was a rising ninth-grader who will enter Casco in the fall, and the ghost from Casco present was a graduate who urged Pierce to hurry up and finish his speech so the class could get their diplomas.

Pierce concluded that there is “one final lesson you’ve taught me: Casco education is as much about growing your heart as expanding your mind…Casco Bay, I love you.”

Other highlights of the evening included class speaker Askar Azeez. He began speaking in Arabic with a fond salutation to his parents in the audience. He expressed his gratitude to them and faculty and staff and his classmates. “Casco molded me into a young man who is getting smart to do good in the world,” Azeez said. 

He recounted times in elementary school when he was sent to the principal’s office for talking too much in class, but now he urged the Class of 2024 to not let anyone stifle who they are. He told them to “use your voices and speak up,” but added that they should also remember to listen to others. “Listening is just as important as using your voice,” Azeez said.

Class writer Olivia Chong read a poem focused on how the graduates’ time in school had flown by. “Time is running out,” she observed. But she said no matter the divergent paths members of class take, “we will always be behind you.”

The Class of 2024’s gift to the school was painting several parking spaces in the parking lot the school shares with the Portland Arts and Technology High School (PATHS). The bright colors and designs are intended “to bring a little bit more color and whimsy to the Casco Bay community.”

The Portland Public Schools is Maine’s largest school district, with more than 6,600 students, and it’s also the most diverse. About one-third of the district’s students come from homes where languages other than English are spoken—a total of 53 languages. Approximately 48 percent of the district’s students are white and 52 percent are students of color. Nearly half of PPS students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.