4:28 pm Jun. 21, 2011
It was the first school graduation Dennis Walcott attended as New York City schools chancellor, and already the second time he'd jumped off the stage.
“You know what? I’m going to do things differently,” Walcott said, as he dismounted. “I don’t do things the traditional way.”
He was the keynote speaker at 811K, a public school in Sheepshead Bay, and had dismounted in order to get closer to the students as he handed out awards. But his statement about doing things differently seemed to have a broader meaning than that.
Since replacing Cathie Black as head of the city’s public school system, Walcott has played the role of conciliator, in marked contrast to his controversial predecessor.
His appointment was greeted with relief both by the teachers union and education-reform advocates. And although he has aggressively defended the administration’s position in the face of a lawsuit by the NAACP and the UFT to prevent the closure of poor-performing public schools, likely teacher layoffs and a mixed progress report on city schools, he has so far managed to avoid becoming the lightning rod that Black was, or that former chancellor Joel Klein had been before her.
Walcott had entered the auditorium just before 10:30 a.m., as graduates sang “God Bless America.” It was the first of Walcott’s 15 scheduled graduation ceremonies over nine days.
He spoke to an audience of 150 people, including the 47 graduates. The graduates of the school, part of a city-wide special-education district, are developmentally disabled; most are 21 years old. Many of them are going to enter work programs or day habilitation after they leave.
“It’s really a pleasure to be here this afternoon, and I want to share a secret with you,” said Walcott, as he casually untangled the microphone from a flower pot.
“This is my first graduation speech. And so I think it’s really important for me to be here and say to the graduates, all of you look fantastic. You look marvelous and we are so proud of you. To all the parents and family members who are here, we’re proud of you as well.”
Strolling in front of the seated students, he said, “In addition to your accomplishment today, we expect great things from all of you as you move on to your next step in life. And to the principal, and to the teachers, to the superintendent, but especially to the family members out here, we think you have worked marvelously with all of us to make sure that our children—and I consider these our children—have reached this milestone today.
“But as we all know it doesn’t stop with today’s graduation. Today is a celebration of a milestone. Today is the celebration of a major accomplishment in all of your lives. But we, all of us, expect to do even more with you as you move forward. We expect that you are going to be full members of our society. We expect that you’re going to make the life better for people throughout this great city with what you do next. And we will be there for you. We will be there to support you. We will be there to work with you as you take that next step forward in your life.”
He told the audience they deserved to brag about their accomplishments, and that they reminded him what’s possible in life.
“It’s not an accident that I’m here. It’s a design for me to say that we are here together to make sure that all of our students—and I mean all of our students—are college- and career-ready. And what has happened here today is a testament to that: all of our students are here to reach that goal.”
After he was done, two students sang a rendition of Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone.” Forty minutes after he had arrived, Walcott quietly shook hands with the school’s principal, briefly posed for pictures with teachers outside the school, then got into his car and drove away down Haring Street.
Marcia Cacaci, one of the teachers who had talked to Walcott on his way out, said afterward that the school doesn’t often receive visitors of his caliber.
“It was heartwarming to see him come,” she said.
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