Written by Karen Chenoweth, Huffington Post, The Education Trust
The graduates sat in the sports arena in their green and white gowns, looking sober and exhilarated and silly and nervous.
I went to Elmont Memorial High School’s off-campus graduation a couple of weeks ago partly to see those terrific kids graduate — but mostly to see their principal graduate.
John Capozzi, principal for the past 10 years, has been named assistant superintendent for the Sewanhaka Central High School District, Elmont’s own, and this was his last graduation as principal.
I first met John back in 2004, a few months before he became principal. As assistant principal, he and then-principal Al Harper helped me understand what made Elmont so special. In 2005, Elmont was awarded The Education Trust’s Dispelling the Myth Award, and I have visited many times since. I even tracked down the principal who catalyzed the initial improvement at Elmont, Diane Scricca, all to try to understand how Elmont has achieved what it has.
Here are a few statistics that explain what draws me to Elmont. It has had graduation rates ranging from around 92 percent to 98 percent for well over a decade. This year’s rate, calculated by the school but not yet published by the state, is 97 percent. Almost all the graduates earn what is called in New York a Regents diploma, which is the standard academic diploma, and almost half earn an “advanced designation.” Ninety-six percent of the class of 2015 is going on to college.
These statistics would be very respectable in wealthy, just about all-white Scarsdale, but it’s not Scarsdale.
Elmont’s student body is primarily African American, with some Hispanic and Asian students, and over the past decade the percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced meals has increased from around 25 percent to around 40 percent.
That is to say, the school’s demographic makeup resembles the nearby Nassau County, New York, high schools that have been disasters for decades.
And yet Elmont is a success by just about any measure. This success, as I have seen over the years, has not come about by happenstance; rather, thoughtful educators have organized the school in ways that help students overcome even significant challenges.
But there’s something else, reflected in Capozzi’s speech to the graduating class:
“Throughout your years at Elmont Memorial High School you have met and overcome every challenge. I am here to tell you that this is only the beginning. You will be faced with many more difficult challenges. Some will test your fortitude and desire to succeed. As a high school graduate, you now have the responsibility of actively becoming involved in society and being aware of local, national, and international issues. I want you to understand that events in the United States 10 miles, 100 miles, a thousand miles away will affect you. Just two weeks ago in Charleston, South Carolina, nine African Americans were murdered while praying in church. At the core of this horrific act was racism. As you move forward the sad reality is that you, too, will face racism and stereotypes.
Do not allow these evils to deter you from your dreams and goals. Instead, use your educational foundation to counter the ignorance that unfortunately still exists today. As Nelson Mandela said, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.’
The expectations that we set for you were high. But now, because you are an Elmont Memorial High School graduate, the expectations are even higher — the expectation to finish college, to get your master’s, your doctorate, to become a productive member of society and the most important one of all — to give back to your community.
It is now your responsibility to take the next generation forward with you. Teach them the importance of an education, teach them to persevere, teach them to make the right decisions, even when it is hard. Teach them to be respectful and teach them to help others.”
Capozzi’s speech was interrupted several times, with the most applause coming right after he urged the students to use their education to counter the ignorance of racism.
When Capozzi was young, he himself experienced the low expectations many teachers and others had for Italian-American boys at the time. That experience sensitized him to the magnitude of the prejudice his students face in the world and helped him shape a school that has helped prepare the students for the world.
After the ceremony, Capozzi looked like a rock star as he walked through the parking lot after the graduation ceremony. Students, former students, and families thanked him, vied to take pictures with him, and told him how important he had been to them and the school.
It took him so long to get through the parking lot that by the time he left, the next graduating high school from the same district was queuing up at the arena.
I have long known that Elmont’s district — the first district into Nassau County from Queens is highly segregated, a fact that has been documented for years. Still, it was startling to see the switchover. Families of color streaming out; white families streaming in.
The contrast was stark and disheartening, and gave real heft to Capozzi’s advice to the students to use their educational foundation “to counter the ignorance that unfortunately still exists today.”
By Karin Chenoweth