PORTLAND — Seniors at Casco Bay High School are used to setting precedents.

They were the first group of students to test an innovative expeditionary high school learning model for the city schools – a model that focuses on interdisciplinary, project-based learning that often occurs outside of the traditional classroom.

They were the first class to devise and experience Junior Journey, where CBHS juniors have traveled within the United States to assist Habitat For Humanities in building affordable housing for low-income families.

The students also set the standard for mini-expeditions, known as intensives, which pairs students with professionals in a variety of fields, from marketing to videography.   

Now, CBHS seniors are setting another first – the first to graduate.

Along with that comes an opportunity to establish what will likely become enduring traditions for future classes to follow. 

Those new traditions include a series called “Final Words,” where each graduating senior is given five minutes to speak before a panel of teachers and administrators about who they are, where they come from, their reflections on high school and where they’re would like life to take them.

The entire senior class is also contributing a send-off poem and another group of students is working on a graduation anthem. The final products will be debuted at graduation on June 4 at 6:30 p.m. at Merill Auditorium.

CBHS Principal Derek Pierce said the new traditions are the result of a collaborative process between students, staff and parents. Over the last few years, new the traditions have been presented to the outgoing senior class, which voted on the proposals to make them a reality.  

“It has been a great process,” Pierce said. “We have come up with some things that we are very excited about.”

Senior Olivia Barber, who has been actively involved in molding CBHS traditions, said graduating is bitter sweet because of the relationships she has made with teachers and students. Barber said the “Final Words” presentations really show how much students have changed.

“It’s been heart-wrenching,” said Barber, who is going to Ireland next year to volunteer on an organic farm.
“These are some of the best pieces of writing I have seen from my classmates,”

Barber said she transferred to CBHS from Portland High School during her sophomore year, because of the small class sizes, which have allowed her to excel. “This school really pushes you to do your best and not just skate by,” she said. 

As a gift to the school, the senior class is working on a mural that will be placed in the main hallway.

English teacher Susan McCray, who is overseeing the art project, said the senior mural seeks to be a metaphor for the CBHS experience. The painting starts with an outline of a person getting ready to take the leap into a body of water. Under the surface is an underwater wonder-world, with an explorer digging into a cliff, inside of which is a globe. 

McCray said there is a collage within the globe of various policy and research projects conducted by students, from world hunger to human rights issues. On top of the globe is the proverbial thinker. The point of the mural, she said, is to send a message to future classes.

“You must be willing to look at these issues deeply, think about them and then do something with that knowledge,” McCray said. “It’s something visual and it’s something beautiful.”

The success of CBHS, which was started in 2004 with a $600,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, goes beyond the fact that precedents are being set, but that the precedents are being set to a pretty high standard. 

As of May 13, 54 of CBHS’s 55 graduating seniors, or 98 percent, have been accepted to college. In addition to public colleges and universities, students have been accepted to private colleges like Smith College in Massachusetts, Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, Clark College in Washington, Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, Boston College and the New England Conservatory of Music. 

Four students have qualified to be national merit scholars. 

There are 232 students currently enrolled at CBHS, about 40 percent of which qualify for free and reduced lunch. The number of students at each grade level is capped at 70 students and, for the first time ever, there is a waiting list for Portland students. A second list has been created for out-of-district students, a demographic that makes up 11 percent of the student body.

A facilities report that is scheduled to be accepted by the School Committee on Wednesday suggests relocating the expeditionary high school from its Allen Avenue location to Portland High School. However, Pierce noted several ways the school has settled into its home, which also houses Portland Arts and Technology High School. 

This year, the school added a new classroom and a library, which is shared with PATHS students. It also has an operational ropes course in the woods, which was funded by grants. More importantly, however, Pierce highlights the “synergistic collaborations” with PATHS in areas including video productions, graphic design, dance and welding.

“In general, our community is not eager to revisit the issue of moving to Portland High in the short term,” Pierce wrote to the School Committee.

Meanwhile, CBHS is seeking accreditation from the New England Association of School and Colleges. Pierce said the school has submitted a 19-page preliminary report to the association and plans on completing its self-study next school year.

But Pierce indicated the school’s successes are immeasurable. 

“What’s more important is the adults they have become,” Pierce said. “They have exceed my expectations and hopes.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected] 

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