Camas-Washougal high schools celebrate graduating seniors

Class of 2024 graduates recall pandemic’s impacts, memorialize lost classmates

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Doug Flanagan/Post-Record Washougal High School valedictorian Claire Zakovics speaks during the school's Class of 2024 graduation ceremony on June 8, 2024, at Fishback Stadium.

Camas-Washougal celebrated its class of 2024 high school graduates last week, with five commencement ceremonies held at Doc Harris Stadium, Garver Theater and Discovery High School in Camas and Fishback Stadium in Washougal.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered school buildings and shifted students to online learning during the class of 2024’s first year of high school, played a big role in this year’s commencement speeches.

“We found ourselves in the grip of uncertainty and our traditional expectations for high school were turned upside down,” said Addison Williams, student speaker for the Camas School District’s online Camas Connect Academy, which celebrated its graduates June 5, at Garver Theater. “Instead of bustling hallways and crowded cafeterias, we found ourselves logging into virtual classrooms from our homes and adapting to a new way of learning that none of us had anticipated. … We had to learn how to navigate online platforms, manage our schedules independently and stay motivated without the immediate presence of teachers and classmates. It was a challenging transition, but it also brought out the best in us. We learned to be adaptable and resilient — qualities that will serve us well into any future endeavor.”

Williams said the students learned a new way of doing things — and didn’t “just adapt,” to online learning, but thrived.

“We found ways to connect, to support one another and to learn in circumstances no one had ever faced before. We turned our bedrooms into classrooms, our dining tables into desks and our screens into windows to new knowledge. Despite the physical distance between us, we have forged connections through our screens. We have supported each other in discussion forums, collaborated on virtual projects and found creative ways to stay connected,” Williams said. “We’ve learned that community is not defined by proximity but by the relationships we build with each other and the support we offer each other. CCA has taught us resilience, flexibility and the power of community, even when that community is virtual.”

Students at other Camas schools shared similar sentiments.

“When the COVID pandemic closed down the world, it shut so many doors in our faces. We lost experiences that our predecessors reminisce about to this day,” said Sage Edwards, one of the student speakers for Hayes Freedom High School in Camas, which celebrated its class of 2024 graduates Saturday, June 8. “Through the struggles of online learning, a mental health crisis and the world dissolving around us, our class fell away from perfection. Perfection, we realized, would destroy us. We had to survive. So we did. The Zoom meetings became our lunch breaks. And homework became our screen time.”

Edwards said the pandemic was a turning point at home.

“My own family struggled before the pandemic. We were constantly shut down and preferred the safety of our own rooms to other people,” Edwards said. “The pandemic — which was seen as a curse and the end of days — for us was a blessing. Slowly, we ventured out of our safe haven and into the world together. For the first time in a very long time, we could be a family without fearing the complexity of being perfect for the world. There was never a perfect day when, suddenly, everything was fine again. We had to work on it — work on not being perfect. On embracing our mistakes. I still have to remind myself every day to take risks and not try to be perfect.”

Discovery High School’s senior class president, Jack Harding, said they remembered that first day of high school in 2020.

“Four years ago, logging on to Zoom for my very first high school class, fighting the constant battle of disconnecting wifi and unintentionally pressing the ‘unmute’ button,” Harding recalled during Discovery High’s commencement ceremony, held Thursday, June 6, outside the project-based learning high school. “It wasn’t for another six months that I saw my classmates in person, face to face — or at least part of their faces. … Over the last four years, the class of 2024 has pushed their way through a global pandemic, mask mandates … budget cuts and so much more — just to make it to this point.”

Simone Callan, Discovery’s associated student body (ASB) president during the 2023-24 school year, spoke about how grateful they were to return to in-person school toward the end of their freshman year.

“No high school is perfect but Discovery was perfect for me,” Callan said. “Freshman year, we were online, (and) I didn’t make many new friends because of the isolation but kept in touch with old friends.”

When students came back to school buildings later that year, Callan said, they were relieved to “get back to normal — or kind of normal.”

The small choice school has been a refuge for Callan. When her younger brother had open-heart surgery, Callan went to Discovery High at 7 a.m. after pacing through her house for more than an hour, waiting to hear news from her parents.

“(The Discovery High) building is a place where I know I belong,” Callan said. “On my worst days … on my best days, when I can throw together a good essay in half an hour, and at 7 in the morning, when my brother’s in surgery and I have nowhere else to go. Discovery will always be my home, and I’m proud to be a Phoenix.”

Williams, the CCA student speaker, added that the unique high school experience shared by the class of 2024 graduates — especially those who chose to continue with the remote learning model at CCA after students returned to in-person high schools across the region — has instilled a sense of independence and resilience in this group of young adults.

“Despite the physical distance between us, we have forged connections through our screens. We have supported each other in discussion forums, collaborated on virtual projects and found creative ways to stay connected. We’ve learned that community is not defined by proximity but by the relationships we build with each other and the support we offer each other,” Williams said. “CCA has taught us resilience, flexibility and the power of community, even when that community is virtual. Our time at Camas Connect Academy has fostered a profound sense of independence. Learning online has required us to take charge of our education, manage our time effectively and stay motivated without the physical structure of a physical classroom. We’ve become self-starters, developing skills that will be invaluable in our future endeavors … We’ve developed skills that will serve us well into the future — adaptability, perseverance and a deep appreciation for the connections we make with others.”

Camas High School ceremony remembers teens who died in 2021

This year’s Camas High School commencement ceremony, which took place Friday, June 7, was, in many ways, similar to past years’ graduation celebrations — complete with entertainment by high school musicians, an array of student and educator speakers and proud family members squeezed into the Doc Harris Stadium bleachers.

This year’s ceremony, however, was also marked by tragedy.

“We have seen incredible success within our student body. We have seen state championships from our girls basketball, girls soccer, girls golf and tennis teams. We just had our choir program put on a performance in New York City. Our DECA team has consistently placed on the international stage. And we continue to uphold a standard of excellence both inside and outside the classroom,” Camas High’s class of 2024 student speaker Savannah Kvistad said during her commencement address. “Tragically, this class has (also) endured something unimaginable: the loss of two amazing young boys, two classmates and two friends. Today was supposed to be Troy Pace and Grayson Kennedy’s day as well. And though they are not with us, their memories and the years they shared with all of you, will forever be remembered.”

Both members of the Camas High School football team, Pace and Kennedy died within a few months of each other during the first few months of their sophomore year of high school in 2021 — Pace, who had been fighting a rare spinal cancer, died in Sept. 25, 2021, and Kennedy died Dec. 14, 2021, in a car crash on his way to school.

“I will always remember what Troy said to my dad as he bravely fought a disease that, in the end, ultimately took his life. In the midst of his sickness, he stated, ‘If you get dealt a bad hand, you just have to play what you’ve got and hope for better next time,’” Anneliese Pace, Troy Pace’s younger sister, said during the Camas High commencement ceremony. “This brought me to the realization that everyone will eventually get dealt a bad hand. … But, with that, everyone also gets dealt a good hand — from hanging out with your friends at a football game to when you first discover the freedom of graduating and living your own life. If you believe that something good may come your way again, it allows you to push through all the hard times. My only wish is that Troy could be here tonight, graduating with his friends, celebrating with our family and being the amazing big brother that he always found time to be.”

Kennedy’s uncle, Bronk Williams, also remembered Kennedy during the ceremony.

“Today is a day of celebration, a day to congratulate yourself for working so hard through some really tough years and making it to graduation,” Williams said. “If Grayson were here, as you all know, he would have been the loudest kid out here tonight, hooting and hollering, congratulating you all and most likely telling you how he loved each and every one of you.”

Camas High Principal Kelly O’Rourke encouraged the new graduates to explore their post-high school world without feeling like they have to have a set plan.

“As we progress through life, there’s often this pressure to have a clear and definitive plan — a roadmap if you will — but the truth is, it’s entirely OK to reassess and change the trajectory of your life goals and plans,” O’Rourke said. The world is ever evolving … The experiences, opportunities and even setbacks we encounter are what shape us into the people that we are meant to be.”

O’Rourke added that students should explore “without having a precise direction.”

“This summer, as you explore new possibilities, remember that it’s a time for discovery and growth and reflection. Please don’t feel burdened by the expectation of having to have a precise direction. Instead, embrace the uncertainty and the opportunity that it will bring. Life is not a straight path but an ever-changing journey with twists and turns,” O’Rourke said. “Allow yourself the freedom to explore different avenues, learn new things and be open to a little bit of change. Furthermore, while degrees, certifications and pay checks are significant accomplishments, they are only as valuable as the character you attach to them. Success is not solely defined by accolades and earnings, but by the integrity, the kindness and the empathy you demonstrate in your daily life, every day. In your pursuit of excellence, always remember to nurture those qualities. Don’t forget them. Your character is what will leave a lasting impact and truly define your legacy.”

 Washougal valedictorians recall high school in the time of COVID

On Sept. 2, 2020, the first day of Washougal School District’s 2020-21 school year, then-Washougal High School freshman Samantha Jackson decided to write down her feelings about starting high school at home in front of a screen instead of in a building surrounded by her friends.

“Never take high school for granted,” she wrote in a note to herself. “I did, and now my experience will be through a laptop. Embrace the bad days just as you would the good days. I can’t believe I’m writing this, but I would give anything to go back to school.”

Jackson read the note to her fellow graduates during her commencement speech at Washougal High’s Class of 2024 graduation ceremony, held June 8, at Fishback Stadium, encouraging them to embrace every day, no matter how good or bad, as a privilege and an opportunity to make lasting memories.

“I read this as a reminder to appreciate moments while they’re here and not after they’ve already left,” Jackson said. “Most days, many of us would step into this building already looking forward to hearing that last bell ring. Maybe going out with friends, participating in clubs and sports, going to dances, and dressing up for Spirit Week really isn’t worth it, but I can tell you confidently that my freshman self would disagree. Yes, high school was hard and frustrating at times, but nonetheless, I can say that it was a privilege to get to experience the ups and downs of high school, and it should not be taken for granted.”

The Washougal High Class of 2024 featured 250 graduates, including valedictorians Ireland Albaugh, Jordan Stepp, Jonathan Arnot, Avis Berg, Emily Wade, Jackson, Claire Zakovics, and Carson Kanzler, and salutatorian Danica Stinchfield.

Principal Mark Castle told the crowd that the class is “full of quiet leaders (who) have led by example and worked to make their community a better place” before giving them a few words of advice.

“First, you don’t know everything,” he said. “I know that’s hard to hear at 18 years old when you think you do, but you don’t know everything, and guess what? You never will. So embrace being a lifelong learner, not because you have a test, but because the math and science that makes the world work is pretty cool stuff; because music, art and literature create beauty in an often ugly world; and social studies —well, based on the number of tardies (that were given out) and the times (security officer) Tony (Harris) and I said, ‘Let’s go to class,’ you know how to socialize. But continuing to learn how our communities interact, both past and present, is what helps us respect each other’s experiences and strengthens our humanity.”

Jackson and six other student speakers commended their fellow graduates for the resiliency and determination they showed during their high-school careers, which began in the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic. The speakers also emphasized the importance of community support; shared their thoughts on navigating life’s uncertainties with tenacity and purpose; and encouraged their classmates to make their mark on the world and excel in their chosen fields.

Zakovics encouraged her classmates to embrace their individual paths and try new things while also acknowledging the inevitability of failure.

“While this moment is bittersweet, it is important we recognize just how fortunate we all are to have such a strong community here at WHS that allows us to find this goodbye so difficult,” Zakovics said. “We have faced adversity, change and hardship, and while our circumstances weren’t always ideal, the one thing that remained consistent was this group’s tenacity and support for one another. One of my favorite sayings is ‘No rain, no flowers.’ I firmly believe the Washougal community, especially this class, stood together through the storm of COVID isolation and flourished because of it. While we were lonely, we were never truly alone.”

Stepp used her own story as an example (her father passed away earlier this year) to illustrate how overcoming adversity at a young age can strengthen resolve and boost confidence. 

“All of us have experienced hardship in life,” Stepp said. “Choosing to continue on, choosing to persevere, reveals our inner strength. High school, senior stress, COVID, decisions for the future — it’s all been weighing on us, but we’ve made it to the end. Although I cannot say that you’ll never face more adversity after you walk across the stage, I can assure you that you all have the strength to get through it. Our highs and lows have conditioned us and helped prepare us for our future. Wherever your future may lead you, just remember — you persevered before and you can do it again.”

Arnot told his fellow graduates to “do everything (they) can to avoid failing,” but when they do fail, “don’t let it decide the success which is about to be succeeded.”

“Some people find success as being (named) valedictorian. To others, it’s keeping food on the table,” Arnot said. “But no matter what you struggle with, success is really never out of reach. I am living proof of that. I have spent the majority of my life going from therapist to therapist, desperately trying to figure out how I fit into the puzzle we call life. I hated math, I refused to read, and I still suck at writing, and somehow I ended up on this stage tonight speaking as one of your valedictorians.”

Wade said that friendships helped her overcome the challenges of the past four years, and encouraged her fellow graduates to “find their community.”

“Ultimately, I survived high school because I had such an amazing community to rely on,” said Wade, a member of the school’s drama department. “Many of you understand that you would not be walking across the stage if it were not for your community. Having people to support, care and love you is irreplaceable. I was once told by a friend of mine that everyone deserves to have at least one friend. It was something I was told a long time ago, but I still think about every once in a while. And of course, it is true that humans are very social beings, so find that one friend, or find that small community, find anyone, and I believe that you’ll be more likely to thrive in this world.”

Before the students received their diplomas, several Washougal High staff members announced the winners of the class’ Senior Awards. 

Jordan Perry and Lance Westerdahl were chosen for the Fran McCarty Award, which goes to the senior “who has remained persistent in their course to graduate in spite of difficulties, obstacles or discouragement,” and have “demonstrated perseverance, grit and determination,” according to American Sign Language teacher Tami Grant.

Gracie Miller was selected as the winner of the Citizenship Award, which is given to the senior that “through their acts of service has (made) a positive impact on their classmates, school and community,” according to language arts teacher Elise Piet.

And Jose Alvarez-Cruze was selected for the school’s Black and Orange Award, which goes to the senior “who has shown through their actions that they’re proud to be a Panther, consistently represents the WHS community with dignity and pride, seeks to improve the school culture, and proudly and honorably leads with the Panther spirit,” according to math teacher Kevin Reilly.

Photo by Doreen McKercher, courtesy of the Camas School District 
 Camas High School 2024 graduate Sophia Wade receives her diploma during the school's commencement ceremony at Doc Harris Stadium, Friday, June 7, 2024. (Photo by Doreen McKercher, courtesy of the Camas School District)
Photo by Doreen McKercher, courtesy of the Camas School District Camas High School 2024 graduate Sophia Wade receives her diploma during the school's commencement ceremony at Doc Harris Stadium, Friday, June 7, 2024. (Photo by Doreen McKercher, courtesy of the Camas School District) Photo