Ida B. Wells-Barnett High marks historic graduation with class of 2021
In an historic evening at Providence Park Monday, June 7, 378 seniors graduated from Ida B. Wells-Barnett High School. The 65th ceremony marked the first under the new moniker. The school formerly known as Wilson High school, renamed itself earlier in the year after a historic Black journalist.
"This is an important part in our school's history and you are all part of it," Ken Muraoka, the evening's faculty speaker, told the graduates. He touched on the student and community efforts that led to the school being renamed.
"You collectively found your voice and harnessed your power," Muraoka said.
In all, 38 valedictorians graduated from Wells-Barnett High School and 202 students graduated with honors. Another 158 students graduated with Career and Technical Education, or CTE, recognition.
The Class of 2021 endured two academic years marked by distance learning, social isolation, a world gripped by a deadly virus and frequent social and political unrest. Many Portland students have been impacted by or taken part in protests calling for police reform in the wake of several officer-involved killings across the United States.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett High School was one of two schools in the Portland Public Schools system to rebrand itself after a notable African American figure this year. The other, Leodis V. McDaniel High School — formerly James Madison High — was named after a notable Portland educator.
While the changes afoot within Portland Public Schools are emblematic of a larger societal shift, the sentiment fell short for some students.
For Myriah Washington, Monday's ceremony was bittersweet. Her father, Jason Washington, was shot and killed by Portland State University police in 2018 outside a bar near the college campus. Pinned to her green graduation gown Monday was her late father's photo on a 2.5-inch button worn close to her heart.
"I don't feel anything has changed," Washington said of the overall social and political climate. "My father was killed by PSU campus police and I don't remember them doing anything to help me."
PSU later agreed to a $1 million settlement with the Washington family and the university has also created a memorial scholarship and art installation in Jason Washington's name. Myriah Washington said she was sad her dad couldn't be there to watch her graduate and was "overwhelmed" by the mix of emotions Monday night. She plans to head to Portland Community College after high school.
This year's graduation events looked markedly different from last year's. Guests and grads still had to don masks for the duration of the outdoor ceremony, but it was a departure from 2020, when local COVID-19 restrictions were in full effect. Southwest Portland grads received their diplomas at a drive-thru graduation ceremony at the high school's parking lot in 2020.
One grad, Mauel Rios-Fitim, had more than 20 family members attend the ceremony. Some of them held up a life-sized cutout of the grad and greeting him with dozens of leis made from candy and money after the ceremony.
Other students said the long slog of distance learning diluted some of the pomp and circumstance of this year's ceremony, but nonetheless, it was better than another Zoom class or meeting.
"It is nice to get some closure, to get something tangible," Paul Simko said, noting what felt like the loss of an academic year due to COVID-19. "It feels more like the end of junior year, though."
Still, others looked forward to the journey ahead.
Adia Jones said she was feeling "all the emotions" Monday as she and hundreds of peers waited to pour into Providence Park for their last moments as high schoolers.
Jones will attend Lewis & Clarke College this fall as she pursues a teaching career.
"I got accepted into their teacher education program," Jones said. Later that evening, she was announced as the winner of a Portland Public Schools scholarship.
Student speaker Mia Sedory reminded her peers that while they still have a lifetime of learning and growth ahead, their resolve and strength is undeniable.
"I still don't know how to do taxes or start a 401(k)," Sedory acknowledged, pivoting to what she did know. "I learned that life is hard, but not as scary as it seems. I learned that people are pieces of who they are, were and hope to be and I learned that we can get through anything. …Together we found resilience and I found resilience through you. This world's problems are far from gone but I have no doubt we can take them on."
Officials said the Portland school district expects to resume in-person learning full-time next year, with opportunities available for students who want to remain in the distance learning model.
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