Graduation marks the end of South Philadelphia High's "year after"

Valedictorian Duong Nghe Ly (right) praised principal Otis Hackney for "showing everyone we are more than victims."
Valedictorian Duong Nghe Ly (right) praised principal Otis Hackney for "showing everyone we are more than victims." (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 15, 2011

It looked like any other graduation, but for South Philadelphia High School, the pomp marked a celebratory end to "the year after" - a time in which a school rocked by anti-Asian violence took a step forward.

"We made it," senior class president Melanie Grimes exulted from the stage, bringing cheers from about 1,000 graduates, friends, and family in Irvine Auditorium at the University of Pennsylvania.

First-year principal Otis Hackney conferred diplomas - and hugs and handshakes - upon seniors whose final year became a testing ground for how a failing school might be saved.

"Change," said class vice president Christina Cherry. "In one word, change."

In July, Hackney took over a school reeling from the events of Dec. 3, 2009, when groups of mostly African American students attacked 30 Asian classmates, sending seven to hospitals. A subsequent federal inquiry found that the district was "deliberately indifferent" to violence and harassment of Asian students, who make up 22 percent of the school.

Dismal academics at Southern, as the school is known, led to its designation as a Renaissance school, to operate with longer days, Saturday classes, and more money. Half the teachers will be new next fall.

"It was a tough year, but a good year," said Grimes, 19, the class president and prom queen.

Her mother graduated from Southern, and she wants her 17-month-old daughter, Azonii Reese, to be a third-generation graduate.

Grimes is heading to Community College of Philadelphia, then hopes to transfer to Temple University. She wants to be a lawyer, like Hackney's wife, La-Toya, who worked with Grimes and other young mothers at Southern.

During the ceremony, Grimes thanked the principal, who has been credited with easing tensions.

"Our school needed good leadership, and now we have it," Grimes said.

Of the 292 seniors who began the school year, 223 made it to graduation. Of the graduates, 54 are going to four-year colleges and 85 to two-year or technical schools.

"Life is all about planting seeds," graduation speaker Solomon Jones, an author and former Philadelphia Daily News columnist, told students. "You are the seeds, and we want to see you grow."

This year the ceremony moved from a Temple University gym to Irvine, partly to add dignity and decorum. Still, Jones had to halt his speech, and another speaker delayed his remarks, because of ceaseless shouting and cheering from the audience.

Class valedictorian Duong Nghe Ly, 19, thanked his parents "for sacrificing everything they had to bring me to this country," and thanked Hackney for "believing in us and showing everyone we are more than victims of the perpetrators of school violence. We are leaders."

This school year, Ly cofounded the Asian Student Association of Philadelphia - and in April received the Princeton Prize in Race Relations from Princeton University for exploring solutions to racial violence.

"I've been living with school violence for three years," he said. "I hope by the work I've done with my friends, I can minimize the impact of school violence, and maybe get to where school violence is eliminated."

Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or


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