By ARDEN BASTIA Staying true to their Warwick roots, students from Pilgrim and Toll Gate High Schools celebrated their academic achievements with an outdoor graduation at the Aldrich Mansion yesterday. Students from the class of 2021 were among the last
Staying true to their Warwick roots, students from Pilgrim and Toll Gate High Schools celebrated their academic achievements with an outdoor graduation at the Aldrich Mansion yesterday.
Students from the class of 2021 were among the last to walk the halls of Aldrich Junior High School, and had the opportunity to end their Warwick academic careers at another Aldrich location.
Postponed from Tuesday, Pilgrim and Toll Gate grads had all the traditional graduation pomp and circumstance under a warm, blue sky with a sparkling backdrop of Narragansett Bay.
In attendance were special guests Warwick Mayor Frank Picozzi, school committee members Judy Cobden, Nathan Cornell and David Testa, Superintendent Lynn Dambruch, and Assistant Superintendent William McCaffrey.
Toll Gate faculty, including Darlene Netcoh, Toll Gate English teacher and Warwick Teachers Union President, arrived at 7:30 Wednesday morning to set up decorations, like a large lawn sign that read “Congratulations” and balloons billowing along the long driveway to the lawn.
Toll Gate students were the first to graduate. Toll Gate Principal Candace Calouri addressed students and families spread out on the fields. With picnic blankets and lawn chairs, big screens and stages, the event looked more like an outdoor music festival than a graduation.
“As the saying goes, what a difference a year makes,” said Calouri. “I would like to concentrate on the positives of the past year. We were able to come back to in-person learning. You had the opportunity to spend more time with your family, whether you wanted to or not. You were able to participate in sports. Most of all, you needed to take responsibility for yourself and were supported by those who care about your success, family, teachers, counselors, and administration.”
Calouri reminded students that they “could have chosen between bitter and better” and is proud of Toll Gate students who “made the best out of a difficult situation.”
“Simply, be good people. Be considerate people. Be responsible people. Be loving people. Be good to others,” said Calouri. “I promise you, if you do these things it will come back to you tenfold. You have made me very proud to be your principal for the past four years.”
Toll Gate Class of 2021 Valedictorian Jessica Joubert addressed her peers.
“Nothing is guaranteed and we can’t take anything for granted,” she said. “Even the most everyday parts of our lives are important.”
To Joubert, her class will forever be defined by their “resilience as a class and community” as students “gracefully paved the ways to solutions.”
“We’ve grown taller, well, some of us, but more importantly, we’ve grown stronger, smarter, and better,” said Joubert.
Nathan Cornell, a graduate of Toll Gate, addressed students on Wednesday via a prerecorded message, reminding them to “try new things, travel, seek new challenges, and plot your own course.”
“Do not confuse opinion and fact,” said Cornell in his virtual address. “You are your own person.”
In his virtual address to graduates, Warwick Mayor Frank Picozzi acknowledged the unconventional year students endured.
“In recent years, I’ve heard misguided people criticize your generation, calling you soft, weak, the participation trophy kids,” he said. “I say to them, what do you think now? While a pandemic brought this country to its knees, you stood strong.”
“It’s your world now,” Picozzi encouraged students. “Change it. Shape it. Make it all that it should be.”
Toll Gate Class of 2021 President Sara Rhodes presented the Class of 2022 President William Beagan with the class gift: an outdoor projector and screen for future events.
Family members marveled at the unique ceremony, and according Rob Mouritsen, father of Toll Gate student Max Mouritsen, “Graduation should never go back to CCRI. This is the best location.”
Rob says his son’s plans for post graduation are “to take over the world.”
“It’s been a tough year, but they made it through. They’ve made the most of it, and now they’re moving on,” shared Jean Davoren, grandmother to Toll Gate student Cassie Cirella and former student Gianna Cirella, who died from sepsis in 2017. “Cassie made the most of it, and came out stronger.”
Cassie is looking forward to studying medicine at Coastal Carolina University in the fall.
After a rapid set change, blue and red were replaced with black and white as Pilgrim students and families descended upon the Aldrich Mansion grounds for the afternoon’s ceremony.
In his speech to students, families, and faculty, Pilgrim principal Gerald Habershaw reminded students to “thank your parents…especially this year as we experienced distance learning, many parents became tutors and teachers to help you succeed in school. They are a major reason why you achieved this goal this afternoon.”
Habershaw reflected on the “most bizarre” school year, one he said he hadn’t seen in his 16 years of being a school administrator.
“I always take pride in getting to know every student in the school and building positive relationships with them over a four year period,” he said. “Since the lockdown last March, I feel that I lost a space in time where I could not build those relationships with our students as I normally do. At senior prom, I saw some students for the first time since last March.”
Despite the challenges of the year, Habershaw reflected on what the school could do, like sidewalk chalk in the parking lot, cornhole tournaments during spirit week, and an outdoor prom under the stars.
“I would like to thank this group of seniors,” said Habershaw, as he shared a few words about Michael Batalon, the “great teacher, coach, friend, and colleague” who passed in late May.
“When I returned to my office on the Monday morning after his services, I had a message from a woman who attended the funeral. She felt compelled to contact me to let me know how impressed she was with our students who attended the services…I am extremely proud of the students in the Pilgrim High School Class of 2021. You have overcome tremendous adversity to get to this point.”
The class essayist, Olivia Doyle, had the chance to address her peers yesterday.
“We don’t grow when things are easy, we grow when we face challenges, and I think this is the perfect quote for the Pilgrim High School Class of 2021,” she said.
Doyle acknowledged that while things may not have been easy for this class, between school consolidations and the pandemic, “we are ready for whatever the next chapter throws at us. We are a group of determined, strong, and successful individuals that can overcome any obstacle.”
“We are all proud of every single one of you,” said Kyle Adams, clerk of the School Committee. Adams, who graduated from Pilgrim in 2010, shared words of wisdom to the current students.
“Encourage yourself with the achievements you have already made, as what you were able to do this year has not been done in over a century. As you move on from your high school days, don’t forget the relationships you made, all the experiences both good and bad, and how you proved yourself in hard times.”
“It’s an emotional day,” said Pilgrim parent Karen Ramsden, who’s daughter, Lydia, graduated yesterday. “This is a beautiful location, it’s something different and new.”
Lydia is planning on continuing her education at Springfield College in the fall.
Superintendent Lynn Dambruch shared her words of wisdom with graduates via a virtual address.
“Through it all, I believe that while overcoming these hurdles that seemed insurmountable, you became strong and resilient adults,” she said. “You persevered and learned one of life’s most challenging lesson: to look for a silver lining in even the darkest storms.”