Port Chester High School holds hybrid graduation ceremonies for second year in a row
By John Donegan
This story originally appeared in the 7/2/21 edition of the Westmore News. For the original article, follow the link.
The tense emotions hanging over Port Chester High School’s 137th graduation were the culmination of 15 grueling months of COVID and 360 seniors finally able to move past them.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the 2020-2021 school year has been a challenging one to say the least,” said Port Chester High School Principal Luke Sotherden. “Despite that, we’ve endured. We are once again able to come together and celebrate one of life’s great milestones: graduation from high school.”
Two ceremonies took place at the new John Wynne Ryan Memorial Stadium in front of the high school building on Friday, June 25. Between contentious construction and the pandemic, this was the first time graduates received their diplomas on the football field since 2018. Last year, citing COVID, the school held nine different ceremonies for its 386 graduates. Students signed up for different time slots in groups of 44. In front of the dais, countless 15 by 15-foot boxes were painted on the grass—one box per graduate and their family.
Sotherden, who advanced to the role of principal in the summer of 2020, remembers well that strange experience.
“For the first time ever, these 360 students will graduate from Port Chester High School on our brand new track and field, where the ceremony traditionally takes place,” he said on Friday, officiating at his first ceremony as principal. “And, God willing, will continue to take place for many years to come.”
The school conducted a hybrid model this year consisting of two ceremonies: one at 11 a.m. and the other at 1 p.m. Aside from a brief address by Sotherden, traditional commencement speeches were pre-recorded for an online presentation, which was published the day after the ceremonies concluded.
The national anthem was performed by the Port Chester High School a cappella group The Port Chester Sound. Reverend Gerald Washington gave his reflections on the year, commending Port Chester parents for ensuring the safety of their children who, Washington pointed out, get to look back on the school and see only their accomplishments. Quoting The Supremes former frontwoman Diana Ross’ 1970 hit, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Washington exchanged the chorus line for “to keep you away from a better education” to further his point.
“As you leave and go on your journey to your different goals, remember this,” Washington said. “Good, better, best. May you never rest until your good is better and your better is best.”
The crowd in the stands eschewed the customary poise associated with the day with vuvuzelas, air horns and wild jeers. Families and friends swelled out of the packed bleachers. Onlookers laughed, cried and screamed as their graduates walked, one at a time, to receive their diploma and stroll between the twin rows of white daisies. Some walked tall and proud. Some skipped. Some even danced. There is no rubric on how one celebrates their graduation, a refreshing reminder for any of these students so excited to finally be finished.
Courage, determination and perseverance were the themes echoed in the speeches.
Class President Rahsheek Hill expounded on the power of hard work in the face of challenging tasks, specifically through three words of his own: vision, courage and adversity. He highlighted these three before circling back to a reflection on the year.
“Over the course of the last 15 months, each day brought us new challenges,” Hill said. “No one said it would be easy; we’ve endured circumstances that only few high school classes in human history have ever had to go through, and yet we made it out the other side. It’s been an honor to be your class president in such a unique and unexpected year.”
Salutatorian Paola Torres and valedictorian Thomas Ross both offered differing perspectives on COVID’s impact; Torres began with how it affected her home life and what graduation means to a first-generation immigrant.
“For many of us, our first challenge began when we started kindergarten; our English skills only allowed us to greet and ask for the bathroom,” she said. “I struggled to remember and pronounce my words. My mom reassured me that I would overcome this obstacle. These words may not have meant much to her, but they meant the world to me.”
The salutatorian’s story begins much like many of the immigrant students that enter the school district. Their challenges started in kindergarten and often never relented. They faced financial disparities and attended an historically underfunded school district. Many of them work jobs after class. Many live as second parents to their siblings. Torres said she was motivated by her classmates who faced similar obstacles—those who found time to study, complete homework, work jobs and look after their siblings.
This was where she found her strength to persevere through the pandemic.
In his time at the podium, Ross agreed that the school and its students did the best with what they had available. He also pointed out that the pandemic unveiled inequities between Port Chester and other districts.
“For the past 15 months, we’ve all been desperate for a return to normal,” Ross began. “But as we keep referring to a societal state as being normal, it begs the question: what is normal?”
The district started the school year remote and remained that way until October, when it attempted its first return through a hybrid model. A few weeks later, in November, state officials declared Port Chester an Orange Zone through the governor’s micro-cluster initiative and schools were forced to shut down.
Educators were forced to continue teaching remotely until the number of cases, which sat at around a 10 percent positivity rate at the time, saw a drastic decrease. Schools were closed. Businesses were shuttered. It wouldn’t be until January that students would return to the hybrid model.
“This past year, Port Chester suffered tremendous academic turmoil,” Ross said. “Following the state’s introduction of the micro-cluster strategy, Port Chester was put under strict restrictions that limited our capacity to reopen for in-person instruction.”
He pivoted the end of his speech to speak on the future, as well as how Port Chester’s experience of the last 15 months—and its increasing reliance on virtual learning—had only prepared its graduates for a post-pandemic world.
“COVID has rapidly propelled technological innovation as we all felt dependent on it,” Ross said. “The fact that Port Chester stayed remote longer than most neighboring districts may have been a disadvantage in the short term, but the technology lessons we’ve learned and the practice we’ve been able to receive will prove invaluable.”
Exiting Port Chester Superintendent of Schools Dr. Edward Kliszus also spoke to students as his last public address before his June 30 retirement. His replacement, Dr. Aurelia Henriquez, started on July 1.
“It is with great pleasure and pride that I provide some final words to the Port Chester High School Class of 2021,” he began. “There in these times of high school where we shared experiences and memories to cherish for a lifetime, we also learned some new vocabulary. Some of you will again chat with your high school friends about Excelsior or vaccine passes, N95 masks, coronavirus, super spreader events, social distancing, herd immunity, flattening the curve, congregate settings, pandemic, PPE and presumptive positive cases. But what is most important is that you faced the challenges and overcame them.”
“Today we celebrate your hopes and dreams while enjoying this final time at our beautiful campus and our field emblazoned with colors, spirit, history and honor of your alma mater,” Kliszus continued. “I wish you all health, contentment and achievement and a life in which you have mastered the transcendent artistry of diligence, compassion, integrity, kindness, empathy and love. You will shape the future of our great nation and its place in the world. Congratulations.”