Superintendent's Notebook: Portland grads follow many paths to diplomas

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I’ve just finished my first graduation season in the Portland Public Schools. I was struck by how many paths students followed to reach the moment when they walked across the stage and received their diplomas.

Some literally crossed oceans. Arriving in Portland as immigrants, refugees or asylum seekers, they faced the challenges of learning English and acclimating to a new culture while also mastering algebra, biology, literature, U.S. history and other academic subjects.

Other students faced challenges such as serious illness, or the death of family members. They’ve shown perseverance and resilience as they pursued their education.

Many recent graduates challenged themselves by taking the most difficult courses available. The students at Portland High School, Deering High School and Casco Bay High School who completed “dual enrollment courses” earned both high school and college credit; that gives them a head start toward earning a college degree.

Students enrolled in Portland Adult Education often juggle school, work and family life. Some dropped out of school years earlier. They had to overcome fears of failure in order to earn their high school diploma or GED credential.

We have graduates who decided what they wanted to do with their lives when they were young children, and they’ve diligently pursued those goals.

One example is Alyssa Donovan, Deering’s salutatorian. As a sixth-grader at Lincoln Middle School, Alyssa began learning Korean so that she could talk to a Korean classmate. She has stuck with it ever since. In 2011, she competed against a field of native Korean speakers to win first place in the New England region Korean 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.

Alyssa shares her knowledge of Korean by teaching younger children at the Maine Korean School. Next year, she will continue her study of the Korean language as a student at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.

Jolwes Phanord, a CBHS graduate, set his sights on a career that combines performing and organic urban farming. As a high school junior, Jolwes researched ways to grow Portland’s local food economy. He attended the PATHS dance program and earned a spot in the National Technical Honor Society. When he starts Sterling College in Vermont in the fall, Jolwes will become the first person in his family to attend college.

Nick Volger is familiar to those who follow Portland High sport. His achievements on school teams and in the classroom won him spots on the All-Academic Basketball team, the All-Conference Baseball team and the “All-Conference Football team.

Nick’s father died during the middle of his junior year, but that didn’t slow him down. In addition to focusing on academics and sports, Nick taught himself guitar and volunteered regularly at a local soup kitchen. Next fall, he will attend the University of Maine. Nick plans a career as a physical therapist or athletic trainer.

Our district’s graduates are headed to Harvard, Bowdoin, Smith, Tufts, the University of Maine, Southern Maine Community College, Maine College of Art and many other fine post-secondary programs. Some are training for careers in the trades, while others prepare for jobs in health care, engineering, education, computer science and the arts.

I am truly impressed by our graduates’ accomplishments. I am even more excited about the opportunities that await them as they pursue their goals in the wider world.

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Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk writes this column monthly. He can be reached at Read his blog at