Casco Bay High School held its 15th graduation exercises on Thursday, June 8, at Merrill Auditorium. CBHS commencement ceremonies stand out each year in combining the unconventional with traditional graduation pomp and circumstance. This year’s evening event for the 92 members of the Class of 2023 was no exception.
The ceremony included multiple good-natured jokes about beloved Principal Derek Pierce and class speaker Lionel Celestino interrupting his remarks, doffing his cap and gown and performing an acrobatic street dance demonstration across the stage. It also included remarks by Interim Co-Superintendents Melea Nalli and Aaron Townsend and as well as speeches by school staff and graduates, student musical performances and the presentation of diplomas.
Remarks by social studies teacher Mark Ford, emcee of the event, started off the evening. He said that teachers struggled to find their footing after the learning disruptions caused by the COVID pandemic, but that the Class of 2023 helped shore up teachers by their positive attitude and their concerns for community and social justice around such issues as climate change. “Most of all,” Ford said, “they came together,” caring for one another and motivating each other to succeed. “They included teachers in that circle of care,” he added. “Class of 2023, you arrived just when we needed you most. You have helped us to heal. We are stronger because of you.”
Co-Superintendents Townsend and Nalli spoke next.
“Each of Portland’s three high schools is unique and their graduation ceremonies each year reflect the characteristics of the schools themselves,” Townsend said. “Your school is our smallest – intentionally so that teachers can get to know each student more deeply – so it’s not surprising that your ceremony is the most intimate.” Casco, founded in 2005, is part of the EL Education network and students engage in project-based learning expeditions.
The co-superintendents noted that this year’s class was the first since the pandemic to have a full Casco Bay High School learning experience for their senior year. For example, this class was able to do such things as participate in a full-length Senior Quest of overnight kayaking in Casco Bay or hiking in the White Mountains; docent underclassmen through their Art in Action pop-up museum they created at the culmination of their study of Israel and Palestine; and give Casco Talks presentations to grades 9-11 on their Senior Expedition topics, which ranged from environmental racism to treatment for eating disorders.
The co-superintendents also listed some of the Class of 2023’s accomplishments. That included 16 students graduating with STEM diploma endorsements recognizing their extensive work in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. A total of 22 students earned the Seal of Biliteracy for having attained mastery of English and at least one other world language. “And we have to shout out your classmate – Marwa Aslami – who earned the seal for proficiency in a record-breaking six languages in addition to English! The ability to speak multiple languages is an undeniable asset in the increasingly global world we live in today,” Nalli said.
In addition, 100 percent of the class was accepted to college, with 36 percent of the graduates being the first generation of their families to attend college. Also, Nalli said, “An impressive 62 percent of you have already gotten a head start on your postsecondary education by earning college credits while in high school.” She also noted that the class collectively has been awarded more than $2 million in scholarships and grants. “These are truly amazing accomplishments!” she said.
The co-superintendents also recognized the Casco administrators, teachers and all the other school staff who helped the students succeed, as well as the family members and other supporters who nurtured and encouraged the Class of 2023 along the way. Additionally, they thanked the Board of Public Education and City Council and mayor for their support of public education.
Ford next introduced Principal Pierce. While Pierce had spruced up with a suit coat and tie for graduation, his clothing and curly hair often look rumpled. Ford recounted some good-natured jokes class members have made about his appearance. While Ford said that Pierce is the “gift that keeps on giving” as a source of humor, he said that Casco’s founding principal has been “a gift to this community in countless ways and nobody gives more than he does. We simply wouldn’t be here without him.”
The theme of Pierce’s remarks was “hope.” He began by making fun of himself, showing a picture of himself in bathing trunks when he was a very tall but skinny sophomore in boarding school. He said it was a time “when I suddenly lost all hope.”
He got up his courage to ask a girl to a dance but when she accepted, he was so nervous he didn’t talk to his date for two weeks before the dance and after, he stumbled through an awkward slow dance with her at the event, she left and went back to her dorm. She said she had to fix a button on her dress and would be back in five minutes, but he ended up waiting outside her dorm for hours in the snow before her friend stuck her head out the window and said she wasn’t going to come out. “It was suddenly clear that I would never have a girlfriend, that I would never find love,” Pierce said.
He compared that time of youthful despair to the COVID disruptions faced by the Class of 2023 in their first two years of high school. He said the class “had to become inured to disappointment and things not working out.”
Pierce said he was worried at the time that their experiences would lead to “the muting of one of youth’s great superpowers: hope.” Instead, he said, the class revived hope not only within themselves but also in the school through their learning and accomplishments. In fact, the Class of 2023’s gift to the school is a colorful mural students painted on a wall that depicts multiple symbols of hope. Pierce said the graduates are “now primed to be super-spreaders of hope within this world.”
He concluded by saying that as a college sophomore, he met Anja Hanson, to whom he now has been married for 37 years. Hanson works for Portland Adult Education. “If Anja is possible for me, then anything is possible for you!” Pierce told the graduates.
Class writers Ahmed Hassan and Ahmin Mohamed delivered a poetic presentation that ended with the words: “Defeat the undefeatable, and never stop until you’re Unstoppable.”
Ford introduced the class speaker, Lionel Celestino, by saying, “If you need exuberance, call Lionel!”
Celestino said classmates have been very supportive of his street dance performances at school. In his recent final performance at Casco, Celestino said, “I felt I was contributing to the community because I brought joy.” He then stopped speaking so he could give a demonstration across the stage, which earned him a standing ovation.
Celestino told his classmates that after his time at Casco, “now I truly know what building community is…To everyone up here on this stage – you are my community.”
Before diplomas were awarded, each member of the class came to the microphone to share their “Final Word,” a sentence or two on topics such as life and their school experience.
As the graduates received their diplomas, a large screen displayed their future college and career plans and what they’ll be remembered for – attributes both funny and serious.
The Portland Public Schools is Maine’s largest school district, with approximately 6,500 students, and is 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 more than 50 languages. 49.8 percent of the district’s students are white and 50.2 percent are students of color. Approximately half of PPS students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.