Welcome friends, family, faculty and fellow graduates to the graduation ceremony of the class of 2014. Today marks our last day in high school, and in my case, the last day in public school as well. After 12 years of being in an “everyman’s school,” an experience I’ve found invaluable, I’ll be heading to private school for the first time this August. While I’m extremely excited about this next step in my life, the transition has made me stop and consider what this change from public to private means, and what an extraordinary thing free public education actually is.

Those of you who know me know I can’t help doing some research when I’m thinking about something. So in good, old academic fashion I did some research on the public school system, starting with a few tidbits I remembered from Mr. Houghton’s U.S. history class.

Here’s what I found out:

Massachusetts has been a leader in universal public education since colonial times. The first public school in the country was founded in Boston in 1635. The first education law, enacted in Massachusetts in 1642, required that parents “make certain that their charges could read.” The school system and education philosophy that we know and take for granted today also originated in Massachusetts. In the 1830s and 40s, New Englanders were lamenting the seeming ignorance of the masses. Many people believed school reform was the only way to correct this problem. One such person was Horace Mann, a Massachusetts state senator and leader of the school reform movement. Mann established the Massachusetts Board of Education to improve Massachusetts schools. He had six core beliefs driving the changes in education, which he called his Six Propositions. They were:

One, that citizens cannot maintain both ignorance and freedom; therefore, universal education is necessary for a country to remain free.

Two, that education should be paid for, controlled, and maintained by the public; making education a community affair in which everyone has a vested interest.

Three, that education should be provided in schools that embrace children from varying backgrounds, because only then will complete learning take place.

Four, that education must be nonsectarian, or secular.

Five, that education must be taught using the tenets of a free society.

And six, that education must be provided by well-trained, professional teachers.

I think Horace Mann would be very pleased by the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. MVRHS embodies all of his principles. The school is free and open to all, ensuring that all children have an equal opportunity to become informed citizens. Our towns spend more money on education than on anything else. Many individual members of the community volunteer their time and resources; people serve as mentors, share their expertise through workshops and businesses sponsor sports teams. The whole community turns out for school events: plays, Evening of the Arts, sports games, you name it. Individuals and organizations give thousands of dollars each year in scholarships to help students continue their education. On Martha’s Vineyard, education is truly a community endeavor.

MVRHS boasts an amazingly diverse student body. Students come from all seven continents except Antarctica. Students come from all regions of the United States, as well, joining Wampanoags who’ve been here for thousands of years and descendants of the first English colonists. Students come from all kinds of cultures and traditions. Because of this mix, we are given a cultural and social education as well as an academic one. But we are all Islanders and this unites us.

No one point of view dominates MVRHS. Though we live in a liberal state, liberal influences are hardly the only ones. Each political side, each point of view, is represented. And represented loudly. We live in a place that is open and tolerant to all ways of being and all ways of thinking. For this we are incredibly lucky.

And finally, completing Mann’s six propositions, MVRHS has teachers educated extensively in their fields and committed to sharing their knowledge. Teachers arrive at school early and leave late. They organize clubs and trips and provide moral and academic support. Without the teachers, we graduates would not be here today.

Though education has always been important, it has certainly changed over time. The founders of universal public education might be a bit surprised to see a girl giving this speech. Girls are now entitled to public education as well as boys and we’ve moved a long way from just learning how to read. MVRHS students take classes in all sorts of things, ranging from drama to calculus to horticulture. Our school attempts to teach each student as much as possible, no matter their learning style.

Now, fellow graduates, we’re done. Classes are finished, exams are over. In one more hour, high school will be officially behind us. You should all be proud of this accomplishment, especially those of you for whom school was a struggle. Sitting in a classroom was easy for me, but for those of you for whom this wasn’t the case, graduating represents much more work and discipline, and is therefore a much greater achievement. You can go forward into the world knowing that you are capable of success.

To all graduates: mandatory school and mandatory subjects are over, but in our excitement over this fact, don’t forget that there are still so many things to learn. As Thomas Jefferson said, “He who knows best knows how little he knows.”

Wherever you go, I hope you will seek out new knowledge and new experiences and never close your minds to learning.

Barra Peak is the salutatorian of the class of 2014. She will attend Harvard University in the fall.