Outstanding Graduates of the Portland Public Schools
Jesse Connolly (Portland High 1997) Serves as Congressional Chief of Staff
Jesse Connolly says he felt a strong sense of community growing up in the Portland Public Schools, and that made a big difference in his life.
When he was in second grade at Reiche Elementary School, his father, State Representative Laurence Connolly, died of heart failure. A Reiche gym teacher, Michael Caiola, helped Jesse Connolly through that difficult period.
Connolly remembers Mr. Caiola “taking an interest in me and checking in on me when I was coming back from that pretty traumatic event. And (I) will always remember his support and guidance.”
The school district’s diversity also made a big impact on Connolly. Many of his classmates came from Southeast Asia. At Portland High School, he played on a championship-winning soccer team with students who had immigrated from several countries. Connolly says those early experiences helped him understand that “there’s a great big world out there.”
After graduating in 1997, Connolly studied political science at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. By his mid-20s, he was launched on a career in politics and government. He served as state director for Senator John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, which resulted in Kerry winning Maine. Connolly also managed Governor John Baldacci’s successful reelection campaign.
More than three decades after his father co-sponsored the first bill in the Maine Legislature that would protect gays and lesbians from discrimination, Connolly led the 2005 referendum campaign that finally resulted in passage of the law. He also managed the 2009 referendum campaign to approve gay marriage in Maine.
“I’ve had all sorts of different positions over the course of the last 10-12 years but have been really excited to have them build off each other,” said Connolly. He now serves as chief of staff for Maine’s First District congresswoman, Chellie Pingree, at her offices in Maine and Washington, D.C.
Connolly lives with his wife and young son in South Portland. “I’ve really wanted to try to stay in Maine,” he said. Connolly says he is not interested in running for office, but rather prefers to work behind the scenes.
In his free time, Connolly goes fishing with his son and plays on a beer league softball team.
“I’m still very close with numerous friends from my high school days,” he says. “Many of them were in my wedding….We see them every few months. So there’s still a strong connection, which I think is a great thing.”
Jessica Corey (Portland High and PATHS 2006) Pursues Career in Beauty Industry
Jessica Corey grew up in Portland, attending Presumpscot Elementary School and Lyman Moore Middle School. She discovered her interest in fashion while a student at Portland High School.
Amanda Pendleton, Portland High’s journalism teacher, noticed that Corey chose fashion as the topic for all of her articles. Pendleton suggested that she consider enrolling in the fashion marketing program at Portland Arts and Technology High School (PATHS).
Corey took full advantage of the opportunities provided by the PATHS program. She worked with a partner to design a handbag that was produced and sold by stores in the Old Port. She also created and sold T-shirts as a fundraiser for the Cancer Community Center in South Portland. That project won her a state award and the opportunity to travel to a national conference in Dallas, Texas.
“We felt like we were doing something good for the community and, at the same time, learning a segment of marketing,” Corey said.
She credits her PATHS teacher, Jane Krasnow, with encouraging her to be creative and to express herself through fashion while also giving her real-world experience. At the end of the year, Corey had the opportunity to model several of her original designs at the PATHS fashion show.
After graduating from Portland High and PATHS in 2006, Corey studied fashion merchandising management at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. During college, she lined up internships with Cynthia Rose New York, a small luxury designer, Simple Silhouettes, a bridesmaid dress company, and Limited Brands, owner of Victoria Secrets and Bath and Body Works.
Corey worked as a jewelry product assistant for Alfani private label at Macy’s after college. She then was hired by Limited Brands as a research and development lab coordinator. “I’m learning the technical side of product development,” she says.
Corey plans to continue developing her olfactory skills and knowledge of global beauty as she pursues a master’s in cosmetics and fragrance marketing and management.
“I’m just trying to …learn as much as I can about the beauty industry and get myself to that next level so I can hopefully be a leader one day,” she says. Eventually, she’d like to become a product developer and then a vice president of a beauty company. See a video about Jessica Corey.
Ryan Flaherty (Deering 2005) Makes It to the Major Leagues
Ryan Flaherty, a standout athlete at Deering High School, completed his journey to the Major Leagues in 2012 when he made the Baltimore Orioles' Opening Day roster.
Flaherty grew up in North Deering, attending Lyseth Elementary School and Lyman Moore Middle School. He forged a special relationship with one of his Lyseth teachers, Ron Penney. “He would always talk baseball with me,” Flaherty recalled. “And I just related to him really well and I respected the man a lot.”
From a young age, Flaherty’s athletic abilities drew plenty of attention. But his ed tech teacher at Moore saw more possibilities in him. “He believed I could not only do that but other things,” said Flaherty, who won the eighth grade tech ed award. “…That meant a lot to me.”
At Deering, Flaherty lettered in three sports - football, basketball and baseball - and he captained the 2005 football team. He was on one football team and two Deering baseball teams that won state championships, and he helped lead Nova Seafood to the 2004 American Legion World Series Championship.
Flaherty was a finalist for the Fitzpatrick award, given to Maine’s best high school football player. He was named the Gatorade Maine High School Player of the Year and the state’s Mr. Baseball Player of the Year. He describes his time with the Deering Rams as the most fun he's ever had playing baseball.
After his graduation in 2005, Flaherty attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He played shortstop on Vanderbilt’sCommodores baseball team during its ascension to the number one spot in the country. At one point, he had a 33-game hitting streak.
Flaherty left Vanderbilt in 2008 to play in the Minor Leagues for the Chicago Cubs. After three years, he was chosen as the Orioles’ Rule 5 draft pick. Flaherty, who bats left-handed and pitches right-handed, made his Major League debut at second base. In his first month with the Orioles, he also played first base, third base, right field and left field.
Looking back at his time in the Portland Public Schools, Flaherty said he benefited from getting to know students from diverse backgrounds. “It really helped shape me into who I’ve become today,” he said, adding that the experience prepared him to interact with people from many different cultures as a baseball player.
“The bonds and relationships that I built in school are something that remain today,” Flaherty said. “My best friends still remain my best friends, all the way from Lyseth to Lyman Moore to Deering… It’s something that you can’t trade in for anything… The friends from your hometown is everything you have. When you need something, those are the people I go back to still today.” See a video about Ryan Flaherty.
Tommy Pelletier (Portland High 2001) Parlays Math Skills to Financial Success
Tommy Pelletier, a 2001 graduate of Portland High School, has parlayed his math skills into a successful career as a currency trader. After college, he worked for one of the world’s largest financial services companies, then moved to a private equity firm in the wealthy community of Greenwich, Connecticut.
“I really love my job,” says Pelletier, who is raising two children as a single father. “…I work my own hours. I manage my own trading book. I can dress how I want and take vacation when I want.”
Pelletier describes his childhood as “pretty turbulent.” He survived an abusive stepfather and lived in foster care for several years before moving to Portland in seventh grade and enrolling in the Portland Public Schools.
Teachers at King Middle School helped him recognize his math ability. His math teacher at Portland High School encouraged him to join the school’s math team. “Teachers really challenged me,” he recalled. But he also received lots of support and mentoring from the Portland High faculty.
As a junior, Pelletier was chosen to represent Portland High at the National Young Leaders Conference in Washington, D.C. Coming from a welfare home, he couldn’t afford to buy a ticket there or to cover the other travel costs. His mentor, a staff member at Portland High, helped him raise the money. That was just one example of the “awesome sense of community” that Pelletier said he experienced growing up in Portland.
Salutatorian of his Portland High class, Pelletier won admittance and scholarships to attend his first college choice, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. TV personality Rosie O’Donnell featured him on her show as a “SuperKid.” She gave him a $75,000 trust fund to pay for any expenses not covered by the scholarships.
“I didn’t have the traditional college experience,” Pelletier says. “My daughter was born my sophomore year. My son was born right after I graduated.” But Pelletier stayed on track academically, graduating with a 4.7 grade point average (out of 5).
Offered many jobs in the financial field, he decided to work for London-based Barclay’s Capital as their Canadian currency trader in New York City. Pelletier thrived in what he describes as a “big risk-taking environment.” He now works for a smaller company, Gelber Group, and trades his own positions.
“I work hard,” he says. But the job’s flexibility allows him to participate actively in his church and the wider community while caring for his children, now eight and five.
“They are doing very well,” he says. “And I am very blessed.” See a video about Tommy Pelletier.
Hamid Karimian (Deering and PATHS 2007) Builds Successful Arts Career
Hamid Karimian arrived in Portland from Kurdish Iran at age 12. He spoke several languages, but not English. “The only word that I knew was ‘hello,’” he recalled.
Karimian enrolled at King Middle School. “With the ESL (English as a Second Language) classes and all of the help that I got,” he says, “I picked up English pretty quickly.”
While at King, Karimian was assigned to document a class field trip to the Maine Historical Society. He took footage and edited the piece with music underneath. “The teachers were encouraging me, telling me that I did a great job and building up my confidence,” he says with a smile. “…I made my decision at that point that music and film are what I want to do.”
Karimian leaped at the opportunity to study video technology at Portland Arts and Technology High School. There, he made music videos, public service announcements and other short pieces. Karimian also produced a hard-hitting documentary about the 1988 slaughter by Saddam Hussein’s regime of thousands of Kurdish civilians in Halabja, Iraq.
“Being in the video tech program really developed my director’s eye,” Karimian says. “It allowed me to experiment, take out the camera and make mistakes while I was in high school.”
Karimian recently graduated from the prestigious film program at Columbia College Hollywood. His studies were interrupted by many opportunities to work on film and music projects. He scored a documentary, “Punch Drunk,” that won the Southwest Film Festival and he made music videos such as “On the Air” for the performer, K-Dean LeSean. He also has recorded his own music.
Karimian said he benefited by having teachers in the Portland Public Schools who believed in him. “I’m not going to let them down,” he says with conviction. “I will be the person that they think I will be.” See a video about Hamid Karimian.
Elizabeth Russell (Deering 1997) Researches AIDS at Harvard
Elizabeth Russell, a 1997 graduate of Deering High School, is researching the transmission of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) from mother to child as part of a project at the Harvard School of Public Health. Her interest in scientific research and the effort to curb AIDS began as a student at Deering High School.
Russell gravitated toward math and science classes. One of her Deering teachers had earned a doctorate. “He definitely helped me realize that science isn’t just about memorizing,” she said. “You learn all these analytical skills to apply them creatively.”
Russell took a special class at Deering that combined calculus, physics and computer programming. “We were able to design our own science project,” she recalled. “That’s where I first realized that science is really interesting. You get to use your mind to look at a problem, any problem that you want in any way that you want.”
While at Deering, Russell and her friends started an AIDS Awareness Group. The school nurse became an important mentor, helping them brainstorm ideas for how they could make a difference. They provided information to their classmates about how HIV is transmitted and how to protect themselves.
Russell earned her undergraduate degree at Tufts University. After two years of working for a biotechnology company, she returned to school to earn a doctorate in microbiology and immunology at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. She’s now a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, doing HIV research as part of the Botswana-Harvard project.
Russell plans to continue her research on HIV transmission, and hopes someday to work for a governmental agency or a nongovernmental organization. She enjoys talking to young people about her career and spreading the message that “science doesn’t have to be boring.” See a video about Elizabeth Russell.