—by Liam Knox & David Yaffe-Bellany—
A July Student Council campaign to prevent the involuntary transfer of North vice principal Melissa Levine generated a groundswell of community support, including hundreds of petition signatures and emails protesting the move, as students and teachers united around a popular administrator known for her helpfulness and flexibility.
The weekend before the July 22 WW-P Board of Education meeting at which Superintendent David Aderhold planned to formally request Levine’s transfer, Student Council gathered 230 signatures on an Internet petition calling for Levine to continue as North’s vice principal. In a Facebook post, Student Council Executive Board President Ambika Nair, a senior, urged students to email Aderhold and the school board with their concerns about the impending transfer.
Although Aderhold maintains that the campaign played no role in his decision to abandon the transfer plan, Levine said she believes it was a contributing factor.
Levine declined to say why Aderhold wanted her transferred, and Aderhold said he could not comment on a personnel matter. Levine said her annual salary would not have changed.
The response to the campaign was more enthusiastic than Nair had anticipated. “I received a lot of chats that day asking, ‘Is there anything I can do?’” she said. Nair estimated that students, parents and faculty members sent a total of at least 150 emails.
Levine serves as a liaison between Student Council and administration. She helps organize school events and advises students hoping to start new clubs.
“Mrs. Levine is a can-do person,” said Student Council advisor Carl Romero. “Whenever we come to her, it’s never, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ It’s always, ‘Let’s figure out a way to get it done.’ If we could do anything to keep her, we would do everything we reasonably could.”
“She has a respect for the student leaders that is hard to find,” said senior Shreya Sunderram, who participates in several clubs, including Model Congress and Model United Nations.
Levine is also a regular visitor to the LARKS classroom, where she converses with students and participates in an annual fundraiser. “Everyone’s glad she’s still here,” LARKS teacher Brian Gould said.
In early July, Aderhold told Levine she would be moved across town to fill the vacant vice principal position at Grover Middle School. “You could say that I was upset,” Levine said. “I’ve been here since the building opened” in 1997. But the day of the school board meeting, Aderhold met with Levine to tell her that she would remain at North after all.
“I don’t think anyone should be forced to leave something they put so much time and effort into,” said senior Sarah Carlen, who wrote a letter to the school board in support of Levine. “Some people just see her as the person who gets everyone in trouble, but she does a lot for us that we don’t see or notice.”
The Friday before the board meeting, Levine telephoned Student Council advisor Donna Ritz simply to tell her about the transfer, Levine said–not to request any kind of formal support. Ritz passed the news along to Romero, and the two emailed Aderhold requesting a meeting to discuss Levine’s future. “This was not a rebellion,” Romero said. “We just wanted to let them know what Mrs. Levine does for us and how her move would, in all likelihood, negatively impact us.”
But Aderhold turned the offer down, saying he could not discuss personnel matters.
The next day, Romero and Ritz emailed the five E-Board members to encourage them to rally the student body behind Levine. “Here’s your leadership opportunity if you want it. It’s in your hands,” Romero recalled writing.
“It was an opportunity for them to exercise the very things they were taught,” Ritz added.
The day before the school board meeting, Levine sent an email to North’s entire faculty explaining that Aderhold planned to seek board approval for her transfer to Grover. “I’ve thought long and hard about this decision and don’t believe it’s in the best interest for me professionally or for the students of HSN,” she wrote. “My heart and soul will always be a Northern Knight.”
Levine said she did not know about the Internet campaign until Aderhold mentioned the petition when they spoke a few hours before the school board meeting. She added that, although it may not have been the only reason he changed his mind, she was sure the campaign influenced Aderhold’s decision to keep her at North.
But Aderhold said it would be “misleading” to claim that a student campaign affected his decision. He declined to comment further on the abortive transfer.
The school board votes on all personnel transfers proposed by the superintendent; Aderhold never submitted Levine’s transfer for board approval. In September, Aderhold hired Lisa Grippo, an administrator in the Pemberton Township school district, as Grover’s vice principal.
At its July 22 meeting, the school board announced a new policy concerning online interaction between students and teachers. The policy, written in accordance with a state mandate, stipulates that teachers are not permitted to share “personal or confidential” information about other staff members in emails to students. School board President Anthony Fleres said that Ritz and Romero’s email to the E-Board did not influence the policy and that news of a possible transfer is not considered personal or confidential.
Romero said he was relieved that Aderhold decided to keep Levine at North. To explain the inner workings of Student Council to a new administrator, he said, “would be like a nightmare process for us.”
“Institutional knowledge, institutional memory, cannot be quantified,” Ritz added. “It’s an experiential asset that translates to dollars and cents.”
Sunderram said she believes the campaign’s success demonstrates the power of social media. “If a large enough group of people gets passionate about any issue, they have the ability to effect change,” she said.
Ritz said she was proud of her students’ work and hopes that Nair and the rest of Student Council will remain civically active after they graduate from high school. “We worked really hard to train leaders,” she said. “And when you train leaders, they lead.”