Portland High School, one of the oldest operating public high schools in the United States, held its 202nd graduation exercises on Wednesday, June 7, at Merrill Auditorium. The late morning ceremony included remarks by Portland Interim Co-Superintendents Aaron Townsend and Melea Nalli and Portland High Principal Sheila Jepson, speeches and musical performances by students and the presentation of awards and diplomas.
Class president Gabriela Membreno told the Class of 2023: “Big congratulations to us! We worked so hard to get here and we made it.”
She said the class struggled through the COVID-19 pandemic, which cut short students’ freshman year and disrupted their sophomore experience. It seemed that they were in a dark tunnel with no end in sight, Membreno said. But they grew stronger in the face of adversity and now, “we are in the light and we look good,” she said.
Membreno compared the Class of 2023’s high school experiences to a huge oak tree. “We are the acorns ready to be dropped from this wonderful place that has been our home for so long,” she said. She assured class members they would build strong new roots and urged them to retain the connections they made in high school. “Please do not let this be the goodbye that it is not,” she said.
Co-Superintendent Townsend spoke next, noting the 225-member Class of 2023 is one of the largest classes at the school in a decade. “This is a class that represents the best of the traditions at Portland High while also making unique contributions that have helped the school continue to thrive as a community,” he said. “While it may be hard to have perspective on how special your high school experience has been today, we can assure you that your experiences learning and building relationships in such a diverse and rigorous context have truly prepared you to go forth into this complex world to make your mark and to stay grounded in who you are.”
He and Co-Superintendent Nalli said the Class of 2023 stands out in many ways, with students showing they care about social justice and volunteerism, clocking in more than 1,000 hours of community service, and excelling in academics, athletics, and the arts.
For example, 19 class members graduated with STEM diploma endorsements that recognize their extensive work in STEM, science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Another classmate curated an exhibit of student artwork from all four Portland Public Schools high schools at the Portland Public Library’s Lewis Gallery – showcasing student artwork skills in a public space, celebrating young artists and cultivating creativity. In addition, 35 class members earned the Seal of Biliteracy for having attained mastery of English and at least one other world language – “an undeniable asset in the increasingly global world we live in today,” Nalli said.
“And, of course,” she added, “the eight seniors on the Boys Basketball Team made it to the Class AA State Final, exemplifying some of the exceptional athleticism in this class while pulling so many of this community together around a common goal. It was fun to cheer you on!”
Valedictorian Elizabeth Littell offered her classmates two key ways to improve the world they live in: Be kind and have an open mind.
She recounted how, when she was a sophomore riding the bus home from a lacrosse game, another student went out of her way to include her during a singalong when Littell was feeling excluded. Although the gesture was small, Littell said, “this act of kindness has stayed with me since then.”
She shared the incident to show that “we all have the immense power to impact someone’s life… I ask each of you to choose kindness and maybe you’ll inspire someone else to do the same.” She also asked classmates to have an open mind. “Take a step back and have a conversation with those you disagree with, just as you did in your ninth-grade English class,” she said.
Salutatorian Hannah Smart recalled being told by seniors when she was a freshman how the next four years would fly by. “They were right, but it also took a lifetime,” she said. She said she now realizes how much impact high school has had on her. Smart said the teachers, friends and experiences the class has had over the years, “have all shaped us.”
Principal Sheila Jepson thanked parents and families “for always being the advocate and cheerleader for your students,” and expressed her gratitude to teachers and staff “for preparing this class for the next step in their lives.”
She noted all the changes the Class of 2023 has experienced since being born in 2004 and 2005 – including the creation of Facebook, of YouTube, the iPhone and then a pandemic disrupting their high school years. “But you made it,” Jepson said. She told the Class of 2023 that the “the world will throw you curves as it has to this point, but keep learning and keep loving.”
Jepson also announced the winners of the prestigious Brown Memorial Medal, 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 now goes to students who are the top 10 academically in their class. This year’s winners who received the award were Elizabeth Littell, Hannah Smart, Alyson Mina, Aoife Mahoney, Lilah Green, Liam Fay-LeBlanc, Benjamin DiYenno, Cassandra Lerch, Sage Kuchta and Nausica Ferros.
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.