More than 180 Portland High School seniors participated in the school’s first ever drive-in graduation Wednesday night, walking one by one from their vehicles to an elevated outdoor stage on the city’s waterfront as oil tankers, ferries and tugboats chugged past.

About 160 cars filled a parking lot next to Portland’s Ocean Gateway terminal, eight rows of vehicles filled with families and friends waiting patiently as school officials and graduation speakers bid them farewell.

The ceremony was broadcast and streamed live by WMPG, the University of Southern Maine’s community radio station. When students heard their name called on the broadcast, they exited their vehicle on the right side and walked to the stage to receive their diploma. Graduates were encouraged to social distance and wear masks.

It was an unusual, but memorable ending to their high school experience, following months of pandemic-driven home-schooling and isolation.

Wednesday’s commencement was Portland High School’s 199th. Portland public schools usually hold commencement exercises at indoor venues during early June, but in a survey, class members indicated their overwhelming preference for an in-person graduation as opposed to a virtual one.

Each graduate was allowed to bring one vehicle, no larger than a minivan, filled with family members and supporters. Loud honks, rather than applause, greeted each graduate.

Steve Arsenault and his wife, Nicole Romanow, said they are proud of their daughter, 18-year-old Katie Romanow, for persevering through what became one of their family’s most challenging years. Katie’s older brother contracted COVID-19 in April, but has since recovered, Arsenault said.

Arsenault described the last five months as being both “weird and scary.” But his daughter excelled in her studies during her senior year and is considering a career with the FBI, he said.

A Portland fire boat puts on a display as graduates line up to receive their diplomas at the Portland High School graduation. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“Katie is a roll-with-the-punches type of girl,” Nicole Romanow said. “I’ve been impressed with the character of her entire class. They’ve stayed strong and they’ve persevered.”

Superintendent Xavier Botana spoke to graduates of the disappointments thrown at them during their senior year. Portland schools shut down in March, the prom and spring sports were canceled, and students took virtual classes in their living rooms and kitchens.

“You missed out on many cherished rituals that you’ve been looking forward to for four years,” Botana said. “And you had to wait two months longer than usual to celebrate your graduation in this unconventional way.”

Botana praised seniors for their resilience in the face of the global pandemic. He said that 88 percent of the graduating class will be headed off in the fall to 70 institutions of higher learning in Maine and across the country.

Portland High School Principal Sheila Jepson said the original pre-pandemic graduation plan called for members of the class of 1970 to participate in the 2020 graduation ceremony, but that idea was scrapped because of the pandemic. Instead, the 1970 graduates wrote 200 cards wishing the Class of 2020 well.

Identical twins Annika and Isabella More said Wednesday’s ceremony was unforgettable. The sisters will be separated for the first time this fall when each heads off to a different college.

“It’s pretty cool. We’ll remember this for the rest of our lives,” Annika said of the ceremony.

Clare Hannan hoists a cutout of her son, Gus Von Vogt, after he returned to the car with his diploma at the Portland High School graduation. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Isabella said she was a little sad that they were confined to a car, but praised the district for coming up with a creative way to recognize graduates.

“I don’t think anyone will forget this,” Isabella added. “They did a really good job.”

Senior Eunice Antonio, who intends to pursue a career in nursing, was accompanied by her sister and her mother. She had a message for fellow graduates.

“Keep going and never give up. I don’t want any of them to stop here,” Antonio said.

The city’s two other high schools, Deering High School and Casco Bay High School, will hold graduation ceremonies Thursday at the Ocean Gateway Terminal. Deering’s commencement will begin at 10 a.m. and Casco’s Bay at 6 p.m.

Portland public schools comprise Maine’s largest school district with more than 6,700 students. About one-third of the district’s students – 35 percent – come from homes where languages other than English are spoken. More than 60 languages are spoken by the city’s student population.


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