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PHS Holds 203rd Commencement Ceremony

Portland High School, one of the oldest operating public high schools in the United States, held its 203rd graduation exercises on Wednesday, June 5, at Merrill Auditorium. The late morning ceremony included remarks by Portland Superintendent Ryan Scallon and Portland High Principal Sheila Jepson, speeches and musical performances by students and the presentation of awards and diplomas.

In his address, Scallon noted that the 194 members of the Class of 2024 started their freshman year in the fall of 2020 “just as education in ​Maine and around the nation was massively disrupted by the pandemic.” Hybrid learning, masks, social distancing and quarantines became part of their everyday experience. Even when in-person learning returned, students had to take on the normal rigors of high school while “a number of you graduates also confronted additional challenges, such as acclimating to a new country and language, experiencing homelessness and working jobs and taking on extra responsibilities to help support your family,” the superintendent said.

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

He said the class stood out in many ways. For example, he said, three graduates were named as Semifinalists in the 2024 National Merit Scholarship Program, which honors students who show exceptional academic ability. One of those same students also was one of just six Maine students named a semifinalist in the U.S. Presidential Scholars Program, which recognizes the nation's most distinguished graduating high school seniors.

Also, Scallon continued, "Members of your class engaged in impressive scientific research while still in high school.” He cited examples of a student working with the Maine Space Grant Consortium, programming software to predict tides, configuring resin 3D printers to be able to rapidly prototype different shapes of hydrofoils, and creating the electrical schematics for a hardware prototype of a RivGen generator; another student doing independent research with a University of Southern Maine biology professor on skin cells; and still another doing genetics research with geckos.

“Seniors also played a role in helping the Bulldogs’ amazing successes on the field this year,” the superintendent said. Those included winning the boys’ cross country Class A state championship meet, the first time Portland has won the state title in 45 years; winning the Class A North football championship at Fitzpatrick Stadium; and helping the the Deering/Portland cooperative RamDogs girls’ swimming team bring home the Class A state championship this year.

Scallon also said the Class of 2024 produced strong musicians, excellent leaders in the classroom and incredible volunteers who logged hundreds of hours of community service.

“Now you are eager to grab your diplomas and face new challenges of college, career and life,” he said. “We feel confident that the education you have received at the Portland Public Schools has prepared and empowered you to do that.”

Valedictorian Caden Hemond referenced the Latin he learned in high school by beginning his speech with the phrase “carpe diem.” Hemond said that phrase is typically translated as “seize the day,” and interpreted to mean one should hurry to accomplish future goals. But he said that the phrase, from a poem by Horace, is better translated as “pluck the day” and is followed by the line “trusting as little as possible in the next.”

Hemond urged his classmates not to focus so much on the future that they forget to appreciate what they have and experience today. He concluded his speech by saying “memento vivere,” which translates to “remember to live,” and added, “Don’t forget to stop and smell the roses.”

Salutatorian Benjamin Prestes said that although he was excited for the future, he felt trepidation about leaving the familiarity of high school. However, he said he has learned that courage is not the absence of fear but triumphing over it. Prestes urged his classmates: “Use what you have learned here as the foundation for the rest of your life.”

Principal Sheila Jepson described the Class of 2024 as “fine young adults,” and said: “I’m proud to be your principal. She said she looked forward to seeing how their lives would unfold.                                      

Jepson also announced the winners of the prestigious Brown Memorial Medal, which is unique to Portland High School. The silver medal was established in the 1864 will of Portland businessman J.B. Brown to honor his son. The award goes to students who are the top 10 academically in their class. This year’s Brown Medal awardees are Caden Hemond, Benjamin Prestes, Hannah Hawkes, Chae-Hee Park, Phoebe Magoon, Ainsley McCrum, Eliot Tenenbaum, George Ayer, Nathan Blades and Emanuella Nicholas.

View a Portland Press Herald story on the graduation ceremony, with photos. View a WGME-Channel 13 TV story.

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.