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Portland schools highlight outstanding graduates

Community

Portland schools highlight outstanding graduates

Deering High School

Alyssa Donovan began learning Korean in sixth grade to be able to talk to a Korean classmate, and she has stuck with it ever since. In 2011, she was the only non-Korean participant in both categories of the New England region Korean writing and speech competition and won first place in the speech contest. That year, she was the only non-Korean student to ever compete in the national competition in San Francisco, and she won second place.

Donovan has undertaken the most rigorous curriculum available at Deering. Outside of school, she works with children on their language skills at the Maine Korean School and formerly at a Portland elementary school. She served for three years in Deering’s student Senate and she plays alto sax in the school’s band and jazz ensemble.

Next year, Donovan will attend the University of Hawaii-Manoa, where she plans to study the Korean language.

Asisa Isack spoke only Somali when she began second grade in the Portland Public Schools. By fifth grade, she no longer needed the support of classes for English language learners. At Deering, Isack has undertaken rigorous honors and advanced placement classes. She ranks in the top quarter of her senior class. Isack is involved in Deering’s Environmental Club. Every day after school, she dons plastic gloves and goes through the school trash and recycling bins to find misplaced items.

"I find Asisa to be an outstanding person with solid values and an excellent moral compass," said Tracey Moore, her guidance counselor. "She is a touchingly dedicated daughter who is vocal about her appreciation for the numerous sacrifices her parents made in leaving their home to come to the United States so their children would have the chance to live in a safe environment as well as pursue an education."

Next year, Isack will attend Brandeis University.

Doris Juarez was born in Connecticut but moved to Guatemala with her mother as a baby. Her mother died when she was 5, and Juarez returned to the United States to live with her father. She moved from coast to coast before the family settled in Portland when she was in sixth grade.

While at Deering, Juarez maintained a rigorous academic schedule, volunteered with kindergartners at nearby Longfellow Elementary School as a member of Deering’s Future Teachers of America, played on the school’s lacrosse team and was a leader in Deering’s Unity Project and Spanish Club.

Juarez will be the first person in her family to attend college when she begins Smith College.

Mohamed Sharif was born in Kenya after his family fled the war in their native Somalia. In ninth grade, he helped design Community Hope Through Education Empowerment Training and Action, also known as CHEETA, a project that connects immigrant youth and empowers them to take action about common concerns.

Sharif is one of 16 students nationwide appointed to College Board’s National Panel of Student Opportunities. In Portland, he has hosted high-profile events such as the celebration for Portland Public Schools’ Make It Happen! program and the Kindred Spirits Cultural Celebration. He is president of Deering’s Model United Nations Club, a participant in the Anatomy of Leadership program and a member of the lacrosse and track and field teams. He served on a panel that gave school administrators and school board members recommendations for improving the district’s program for English language learners.

Sharif has been accepted to several colleges, including the University of Maine, and he is weighing his choices.

Portland High School

Jake Katsiaficas has been on the Portland Math Team, Key Club and a Student Council representative all four years and served on the Executive Board for three years. He currently is Student Council vice president and the Key Club’s treasurer. Academically, he ranks near the top of his class. He was chosen for the National Honor Society and received the Dartmouth Book Award. Katsiaficas has volunteered doing for trail maintenance for Portland Trails and as a greeter at Mercy Hospital. He plays guitar in a band and writes metal rock album reviews on a weekly basis for the music magazine Hails and Horns. He has worked as a cashier at local stores.

Katsificas was hospitalized for several weeks last winter. While he was recuperating at home, he and his family worked with his teachers so that his classes could be Skyped. “When he returned to school, Jake was eager to get back to his friends and routine,” said guidance counselor Sue Mullen. “He took his AP tests in three subjects in May and received scores of 4 and 5 (the top score). Throughout the experience, Jake showed much flexibility and strength in character.”

In the fall, he will study computer science at Tufts University.

As a freshman, Carissa Porcaro would argue with any teacher who she felt was singling her out, just to prove a point. Those conflicts continued into her sophomore year, and even spilled over into her participation on the school’s field hockey team. During this time, Porcaro’s grandparents’ health was failing. Her grandmother was in and out of the hospital and her grandfather was experiencing Alzheimer’s symptoms. That impacted her life in more ways than she realized. Once she began to understand this connection, her attitude and everyday choices became more positive, said Katie Small, a school social worker. “Carissa became calmer and turned her energy into being a caretaker and role model for others,” Small said. “Carissa has matured and become a responsible person as she is often called on to support her grandparents.”

Porcaro plans to attend the University of Maine at Farmington in hopes to pursue a career in education.

Michee Runyambo's parents were killed in Rwanda’s civil war, and he fled the country with his adoptive family, including 22 children. Since arriving in the United States at age 14, he has made remarkable progress.

Runyambo began his freshman year taking English language learner classes and moved quickly into mainstream classes by the spring. Since then, he has taken increasingly more challenging classes and was selected for all honors and an advanced placement calculus class this year. He also enrolled in an online AP French course, an undertaking that required much self-discipline and independence.

Runyambo participates in the school’s Environmental Club and the International Club. He also volunteers at his church and with the local YMCA. He works part-time to help support his family. In the fall, he will study engineering at the University of Maine. His dream is to become a pilot.

Nick Volger is a strong student and a four-star athlete at Portland High who excels in baseball, basketball and football. He was elected to the all-academic basketball team, the all conference baseball team and the all conference football team.

“Although Nick's father passed away during the middle of Nick's junior year, Nick never let himself be defined by his loss,” said guidance counselor Sue Mullen. “Instead, he came back to school after only a week, and immersed himself in his studies and activities.” 

Volger has volunteered for the past four years on a regular basis at the local soup kitchen. Next fall, he will attend the University of Maine. He plans a career as a physical therapist or athletic trainer.

Casco Bay High School

Sydney Kucine made the Casco Bay honor roll every trimester, won the Classical National Association of Teachers of Singing competition five years in a row (in addition to several other awards and scholarships), earned a state track record for the 400-meter dash, participated in many musical theater productions and operas, coached middle school basketball, was named to the National Honor Society, participated in many district and all-state music festivals, sang in the Musica de Filia chorus, interned at the Portland Conservatory of Music, participated in Boston University’s acclaimed Tanglewood Institute summer music program and was chosen as a prestigious Karger's music scholar.

Kucine will attend the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in the fall.

As a sophomore, Jolwes Phanord crafted a grant proposal to help improve labor practices in China. As a junior, he researched and advocated before a panel of experts about ways to grow Portland’s local food economy. Last spring, Phanord completed a multi-media oral history about a formerly homeless Vietnam vet who he met while building Habitat for Humanity houses with Casco Bay students in West Virginia.

Phanord routinely earned places on the honor roll and the Habits of Work honor roll. For his excellence in the Portland Arts and Technology High School dance program, he earned a spot in the National Technical Honor Society. In the past year, he won the Rotary Scholarship and was named the Boys & Girls Club Member of the Year.

Principal Derek Pierce described Phanord as “an eloquent, passionate public speaker and charismatic entertainer,” but said he is most impressed by Jolwes’ quiet service. “Jolwes washes dishes at the soup kitchen and weeds our school garden,” Pierce said. “After school dances, Jolwes inevitably stays to help with clean up.”

Phanord's aspirations include organic urban farming and performance. He will become the first person in his family to attend college when he starts Sterling College in Vermont in the fall.

Nadia Umwali was born in Rwanda one year after genocide killed as many as one million Rwandans, including many of her extended family. She moved to the United States four years ago, speaking little to no English, and transferred to Casco Bay at the beginning of her junior year.

Umwali spent much of last summer in Appalachia, learning about coal mining. She is part of school Model United Nations team, a peer tutor and a writer and leader for The Telling Room and she performs with Abeza b'inganzo, a Portland-based Rwandan dance troop. During her senior year, she was inducted into the National Honor Society and received the Maine Principal Association Award.

Next fall, she will attend Husson University.