Friday, August 22, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Ronnie Polaneczky: Michelle gets to walk, but Ackerman kneecaps principal ... & principles

The superintendent of the Philadelphia School District overrode a principal´s decision and allowed Michelle Grace to walk with her graduation class.<br />(Steven M. Falk / Staff)
The superintendent of the Philadelphia School District overrode a principal's decision and allowed Michelle Grace to walk with her graduation class. (Steven M. Falk / Staff)

REMEMBER Michelle Grace, the Germantown High School senior who was to be denied participation in yesterday's commencement ceremonies because of her lateness to graduation practice?

Well, she got to walk anyway. Despite the original directive from principal Margaret Mullen, Michelle filed in with her class, sat with them, heard her name called and received her diploma, to the stomps and cheers of her family and friends.

What happened?

Basically, Arlene Ackerman kneecapped the principal

Do you agree with Ackerman's decision?
Yes
No

That's right. The superintendent of the Philadelphia School District overrode Mullen's decision. In doing so, she made a fool not only of Mullen but of staff who bust their humps to counteract a toxic culture that tells students there'll be no consequences for their actions.

So way to go, Ms. Ackerman.

Just do us a favor: Don't ever complain that no one understands how tough it is to run a big, chaotic school district. When you're part of the problem, you don't get to whine.

But, hey, at least Michelle's happy, right?

Readers met the dogged teen in my column yesterday, when I wrote about her letter-writing campaign - to the Daily News as well as to community and elected leaders - asking us to lobby Mullen to reconsider the graduation decision.

Students had been clearly warned that if they blew off practice, they could attend the ceremony, but would not be permitted to take part in its pomp and circumstance.

They'd still get their diplomas, but not until commencement concluded.

I'd argued that Michelle - who had already arrived late to school a ridiculous 40 times this year - should accept her punishment as a wake-up call about the serious ramifications of her serious lateness problem.

By attending the service and sitting gamely with her parents, she'd also present a potent image of character in action. Given that Michelle is class president, the image would deeply impact middling achievers who'd see that even good kids sometimes mess up - and that it's possible to rise to the occasion despite your own disappointment.

Ackerman, sadly, spared the teen her moment of grace.

Early yesterday morning, Michelle got a call saying that Ackerman and regional superintendent Michael Silverman had intervened on her behalf.

If the tardy teen could make it to graduation by 8:30 a.m., she could graduate with her classmates.

For once, she was early.

"The superintendent felt that Michelle's behavior wasn't egregious enough to ban her from this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to walk down the aisle and graduate with her class," said district spokesman Fernando Gallard.

"After 12 years of hard work, this is a time for Michelle and her family to come together and celebrate. If there had been egregious misbehavior, it would have been different. But there wasn't."

Ackerman also green-lighted the participation of a second student who'd been booted from graduation for lateness. The decision to prohibit a third teen was upheld, as the student had more serious behavioral issues, which Gallard didn't get into.

Mullen didn't return calls for comment yesterday. But, really, can you blame her? Standing up for what was right got her nowhere in this situation. It's hard to imagine that talking about it would get her anywhere, either.

But Germantown's teachers were fuming - although none would go on the record and, really, can you blame them?

When a decision as commonsense as Mullen's gets overturned, you lose the mettle to speak your peace publicly.

"I am so disappointed," said one disgusted teacher, who loves the staff he works with and the students he teaches. "I am disappointed for Ms. Mullen and for kids who do the right thing. This really damages our credibility with students. It handicaps us."

Mullen, it should be noted, is Germantown's fifth principal in five years - a tumultuous period during which veteran math teacher Frank Burd got his neck broken by a student. She is wrapping up her first year and will return in September - the first principal to work back-to-back years in a long time.

Earlier this week, before Michelle's story went public, Mullen spoke excitedly about some of the wonderful things her students are doing at Germantown, things that are possible only when children rise to standards that they rely upon us to set for them.

Mullen set a standard for graduating seniors, at a school that needs clear standards.

Ackerman kneecapped her.

And in doing so, she kneecapped everyone.

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217.

Ronnie Polaneczky Daily News Columnist
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