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From snow angels to support groups, school chief wraps a 50-year career

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Making a snow angel to announce a snow day on social media or dressing up in a gorilla suit to read to elementary children are not acts typically performed by the boss of a major Michigan school district.

Marion Ginopolis, superintendent of Lake Orion Community Schools, makes snow angels as part of her snow day announcement last winter.

But anyone who knows Marion Ginopolis understands these gestures are how the superintendent of Lake Orion Community Schools connects with her students and staff — no matter how perilous getting off the ground may be when you're 76.

Ginopolis, the first-generation daughter of Greek immigrants, started a 50-year career in public education as a school secretary in a special education office and worked her way up to superintendent in Lake Orion schools, where she will retire on June 30.

During her five-decade tenure, Ginopolis was a classroom teacher for students with special needs, a staff development trainer, principal, human resources director and assistant superintendent. She was first superintendent at Oxford Public Schools, then Lake Orion starting in 2010.

Marion Ginopolis, superintendent of Lake Orion Public Schools, continues working from her West Bloomfield home on Wednesday, June 17, 2020.  Marion Ginopolis started a 50 year career in education as a secretary in a Michigan school district and worked her way up to superintendent of Lake Orion Public Schools, where she will retire on June 30.

But no matter where she worked or what position she held, Ginopolis said developing relationships with students is what made her thrive. Being a principal at an elementary school in Birmingham was one of the best posts she ever had, Ginopolis said, because of the kids.

"I knew every kid in the school. Parents still remember me as principal. You have the ability to make a difference with teachers. There are rewards, little kids hug, they love you, the emulate you, you wear fun earrings and they draw pictures of you," Ginopolis said. "I did an HR job. I hated it. I was so removed from the kids."

Ginopolis became superintendent of Oxford Public Schools in 1993, making her among a few female superintendents at the time. 

Ginopolis said her approach to the job and focus on children has made her successful and her career fulfilling.

"I stood my own ground. I always speak my mind. It's about being confident," she said. "If your bottom line is what is best for kids, it sounds like a cliche, then I think people respect that."

Ginopolis's appeal, colleagues said, is her human touch with people, including dressing up last year as a gorilla for March is Reading Month and laying down in the snow for a snow day splash at Lake Orion schools.

Marion Ginopolis, superintendent of Lake Orion Community Schools, wears a gorilla costume to read to elementary students as part of a special reading event in the district last school year.

Michelle Cureton, a teacher in Lake Orion and the district's diversity and equity coordinator, said Ginopolis was always approachable, forward thinking and people were drawn to her literally — there were always students coming back after graduation to see her.

"She was on a first-name basis with everyone. I never felt like she was boss, there never was an intimidation factor, we were always equals," said Michelle Cureton, a teacher in Lake Orion and the district's diversity and equity coordinator. "You knew you were talking to someone intelligent and at the same time she was your grandmother and mother wrapped up into one."

And the kids loved Ginopolis back. They made her Lake Orion homecoming queen in 2019.

Student McKenna Mardlin said Ginopolis was an incredible person who made a point to be personable with not just the staff, but with the students too.

"I saw her several times in the high school throughout my four years. She always made a point to acknowledge me by name, always chatted with me, and made a point to remember what activities and clubs I was involved with so she could ask me about them," Mardlin said.

When Ginopolis announced her retirement, Mardlin said she jokingly made a tweet about her graduating with the seniors this year because they were the best class, and she went with it.  

"Not only did she retweet it, she got a senior ladies shirt, she wore the homecoming queen crown during the parade, and she even was on the senior side for most of powder-puff, cheering us on," Mardlin said. "She was such a phenomenal superintendent because she truly cared about every single student and got as involved as she could be."

Marion Ginopolis, superintendent of Lake Orion Public Schools, relaxes at her West Bloomfield home on Wednesday, June 17, 2020.  Marion Ginopolis started a 50 year career in education as a secretary in a Michigan school district and worked her way up to superintendent of Lake Orion Public Schools, where she will retire on June 30.

As for the snow angel stunt, Ginopolis said she saw other superintendents singing songs to announce snow days but she had something better in mind that winter.

"Snow days are crazy. My Twitter account t would go crazy if I didn't call one. If I did, they would praise me," Ginopolis said. "I said I would do something different. I am going outside, I laid down in the snow. ... It took five people to get me up."

Julie Olko, who is Ginopolis's executive assistant, Ginopolis visited schools regularly to spend time with students. Sometimes she would randomly pick a table in the cafeteria and sit down and talk with kids at lunch, Olko said.

"When we were visiting schools together, I would always be amazed at how many students would approach her to say hello and chat," Olko said. "She also often receives emails and letters from former students thanking her for making a difference in their lives. It is evident that her focus has always been on kids throughout her career."

Bob Maxfield hired Ginopolis to work for the Berkley School District as an assistant superintendent in 1988. Maxfield said Ginopolis stood out from the list of candidates and and never disappointed him with her work ethic and dedication.

He described Ginopolis's style as a merry prankster. He left her in charge during a big superintendent's conference and Ginopolis moved out all of his office furniture and moved hers in.

"She put up a sign on the door with a nameplate with her name," Maxfield says laughing. "We had this wonderful working relationship and it really popped with the students. She was a natural working with kids."

"It's what she loves doing. She was good at it, she is a born connector," Maxfield said. "She had an impact on people everywhere."

Ginopolis arrived in the Lake Orion district at a time when it was experiencing an epidemic of teen suicides. During her tenure, the district built a schoolwide mental health approach that reaches across grades, ages, genders and economic status.

It hosts an annual event called Real Talk at which students and adult volunteers gather for a day of open dialogue and discussion around mental health. The district also created the Students Offering Support organization and a Bully Busters program that helps younger students.

Last fall, the district dedicated an entire week to mental health. Lake Orion teacher Amy Redman said Ginopolis recognizes the fact that if the district has students suffering from mental health issues like depression, all the teaching and testing and work put into helping them learn won’t be effective if educators don’t take care of those suffering from a mental health crisis.

"Without her vision and leadership to make mental health awareness a priority and using valuable and scarce resources to address it, we couldn’t have helped as many kids or brought such awareness," Redman said. "She helped to make our district a leader in this curriculum in our county and state. I will forever appreciate her for this."

Retiring during a pandemic is tough, Ginopolis says, but she made the decision last year to leave this June and her husband John Ginopolis, sold his namesake restaurant Ginopolis BBQ Smokehouse in Farmington Hills earlier this year. They are ready.

"We will see where we go. I have been doing this my whole life and who knows," Ginopolis said.

Ginopolis, who has two adult children and one child who died at age 4 of a rare blood disease, says she hopes the pandemic has taught the public the value of educators.

"This could be a blessing in disguise for teachers," Ginopolis said. "No one understands the work and time that goes into teaching. The value of our teachers, that is what I want people to understand."

jchambers@detroitnews.com