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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, August 28, 2008
Making the grade?
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND The Tawasentha Chapter of the National Honor Society, which serves Guilderland High School students, is going to “review and enhance” its procedure for admitting members, said Superintendent John McGuire.
“There are some procedural pieces we need to revise,” he said. These came to light this year after a student was not admitted. That decision was reversed after his parents objected. The parents declined comment for this story.
However, a 2007 Guilderland graduate, Erica Quinn, was willing to speak about not being admitted to the society. She had written a letter to the Enterprise editor, published this week, in the wake of student protests over two popular high school teachers Matthew Nelligan and Ann Marie McManus being involuntarily transferred to the middle school.
Quinn says she applied to the honor society her junior year with a grade-point average of about 94, had volunteered at various charities, and had established leadership qualities. What stained her record, she says, is being an outspoken conservative Republican.
She says the Guilderland schools try “to stifle, bully, and unfairly punish students and teachers based on their beliefs,” and links her situation to that of Nelligan and McManus.
Nelligan has cited his conservative views and criticism of the teachers’ union leadership, and said of the transfer, “It’s a witch hunt and a punishment.”
McGuire, however, has said a consultant’s report showed a hostile work environment in the social studies department, which needs a “fresh lease on life.” The transfers, the superintendent has said, were not punitive but based on “experience and expertise.”
Quinn told The Enterprise this week, “Mr. Nelligan called me when everything was going on and asked me to write...He thought it was relevant to his situation. I talked to radio shows about it.”
“I do not believe that there is any type of bias within the faculty council or our administration against conservative students or any other students,” said Marilyn Davis, one of the honor society’s advisors. She and Colleen Petroff, both high school science teachers, have been co-advisors of the society for a half-dozen years.
“I became involved,” said Davis, answering Enterprise questions via e-mail, “because I believe in the four pillars of National Honor Society scholarship, service, leadership, and character. It is a pleasure to work with students who exemplify these characteristics. What keeps me at it is a continued belief in encouraging and promoting these qualities in students.”
“No decision was ever overturned in the chapter’s history until two years ago,” said Davis. “These decisions have become more contentious in recent years. I think this is primarily because of the perceived value of having National Honor Society membership on college applications.”
Davis described the current admission process. “Academically eligible students are invited to submit an information packet for consideration in the spring of their junior year,” she said. They can also do so in the fall of their senior year. Candidates must have a grade-point average of at least 90 and must have completed at least 20 hours of service.
“They also must exhibit the pillars of leadership and character,” she says. “As required by the national constitution, the faculty council develops and revises the selection process, which must meet national standards and guidelines.”
The faculty council is made up of five faculty members appointed by the principal; chapter advisors are non-voting members of the council. If a student is not selected, Davis said, the faculty council can be asked to reconsider only in the case of a procedural error. Beyond that, any appeals would be made to the principal and then to the superintendent.
Davis said, “The faculty council members give a lot of thought, time, and discussion to each decision when non-selection is being considered. They actively pursue additional information when in doubt and also give the benefit of the doubt to candidates.”
She said the job of upholding the standards of exemplary leadership and character is a difficult one and asked, “Without those, where is the ‘honor’ in National Honor Society?”
While the criteria for service and scholarship are easily established and clear-cut, Davis said, “I don’t think that you can avoid subjectivity when evaluating criteria of leadership and character.”
The revisions to admission procedures, McGuire said, will involve “eligibility and selection criteria,” which he called “highly subjective.”
He said of evaluating leadership and character, “Those are tough.”
Davis said, “I think our selection process has been very fair and that every effort has always been made to maintain the high standards that are expected of all members.”
Asked if the process needs to be changed, she said she knows that it does because of information “that we were recently made aware of” about the state’s Freedom Of Information Law and the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act guidelines.
“It seems that National Honor Society at the national level is still unsure about the status of some of their recommended procedures in light of FERPA and FOIL,” said Davis. “The district is consulting with its lawyer and we are going to follow those recommendations....The decisions regarding these changes will involve input from administration, faculty council and advisors.”
She concluded, “I think we all share the goals of making the process more transparent and also maintaining the standards within the society.”
Quinn was informed by letter that she was not accepted in the society because she lacked character and leadership skills, she says. When her parents objected, they were shown a paper saying she was racist and intolerant, says Quinn. McManus, she said, told her the real reason she wasn’t admitted was because of her political beliefs and advised her to fight it and keep speaking her opinions.
Two years later, she said, Nelligan, who was on the faculty council, told her “what actually occurred at the meeting”: “They said I think the United States should secure her borders and all who live in the United States should speak English. They viewed this as racist and intolerant. It is neither. It simply is a common view shared by many Americans who want to protect their country and unite their country through a common language.”
Asked if she thought not being admitted to honor society made a difference in where she is today, Quinn said, “The honor society looks good on your application for college.” She was admitted to all the schools to which she applied Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, West Virginia, The College of Saint Rose, Oneonta, and Siena except Binghamton. After spending her first year at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, she has transferred to Siena and will start there soon in a pre-law political science program, Quinn said.
The effects of rejection at the time, she said, were devastating. “It made me sick,” said Quinn. “I got terrible headaches. I had x-rays on my head...As a 16-year-old, being told by my school I didn’t have character was terrible.”
Quinn says she really depended on McManus and Nelligan. “Sometimes, they were the reason I went to school,” she said. “They were so energetic, so funny. They developed my way of thinking.”
Referring to McManus by her name before marriage, Quinn said, “I had Ms. Springsteen junior year for American history. She helped me develop my ideas. I learned how to write papers in her class.”
Quinn had Nelligan in her senior year for two semester-long courses in foreign policy and public policy. “He showed you how to better argue the points you were making,” she said.
Reflecting on her rejection by the honor society, Quinn concluded, “I should have made a bigger deal out of it...Now looking back, I think it’s a bigger problem of making empty accusations.”