A close-up look at NYC education policy, politics,and the people who have been, are now, or will be affected by acts of corruption and fraud. ATR CONNECT assists individuals who suddenly find themselves in the ATR ("Absent Teacher Reserve") pool and are the "new" rubber roomers, and re-assigned. The terms "rubber room" and "ATR" mean that you or any person has been targeted for removal from your job. A "Rubber Room" is not a place, but a process.
Boys and Girls HS: Rated Bottom In NYC, Keeps Bernie Gassaway Anyway
Today The Daily News published a puff piece about Bernie Gassaway and his F-rated school, Boys and Girls High School. What is not mentioned is that teachers are up in arms against Gassaway, students have no illusions about graduating and are trying to transfer out, and teachers are being sent to the rubber room as fast as possible. It's a real shame that the reporter didn't really examine what is going on. Bernie Gassaway says it's all the teachers' fault. And I have a bridge to sell you.
Principal Bernard Gassaway inside Boys and Girls High School in Bedford Stuyvesant. The school received its second F in its yearly evaluation. (Anthony Lanzilote for/New York Daily News)
“The Pride of Bed-Stuy” isn’t going down without a fight.
Boys and Girls High School on Fulton St. landed on the city’s list earlier this week of 24 schools that could be closed following its second F rating in a row.
Education Dept. officials are headed to the school next Tuesday for a meeting in what could mean the end of the school - a move many parents, teachers and administrators are determined to stop.
“Grades don’t go from an F to an A overnight,” said embattled principal Bernard Gassaway. “It’s going to be a struggle.”
Gassaway took over the fabled high school in 2009 after longtime principal Frank Mickens retired and asked him to run the struggling institution.
Since then, he has introduced a slew of new programs - but the big numbers don’t point to much change and have become ammunition for Gassaway’s critics:
* Just 71% of the 1631 students at the school showed up for class during the 2011-12 school year - well below the city average of 85.4%.
* Boys and Girls had a 39% graduation rate - also dramatically below the city-wide average of 65.5%.
* Only 21% of the 2012 graduating class went on to either a two or a four-year college - also far below the city’s 49% mark.
The numbers were so low that the school was ranked one of the worst in the city on Monday.
“I could say we’re not going to accept [disabled students] or [struggling students] and our grades would rise. But then we would be trying to keep students out,” said Gassaway, who insisted new programs have brought small changes to the school. rked to
As many as 70 students are part of an honors program earning college credit at Long Island University.
Last week the school cut the ribbon on a newly-renovated library that now has new computers for students to use.
Gassaway has also beefed-up security by having students swipe cards to get into the cafeteria to cut down on loitering after lunch - a problem that led to safety concerns and class cutting.
Despite the changes, teachers said it was Gassaway’s crusade to get rid of long time instructors that put the school in danger of closure.
Teachers say positions haven’t been filled and inexperienced substitutes have been used to fill permanent slots.
“Mr. Gassaway is pointing to the school’s poor performance as evidence that the teachers are incompetent, but many of these kids have not had a consistent teacher,” said one instructor. .
“The school will get another F under Gassaway,” said another.
Parents said the principal is the least of the problems.
“He’s a strong principal. It’s probably more resources that’s needed for the school,” said Cassandra Thomas, 39.
Gassaway points to a conversation he had with former Chancellor Joel Klein in 2009 where he told him that turning the school around would take time.
“I said I want to come in and stop the hemorrhaging and I did,” said Gassaway. “Now it’s time to build.”
Fear of School Closure Is Personal for This Principal
Whether Bed-Stuy's Boys and Girls High School—with its declining enrollment and F ratings—survives is not just a professional concern for PrincipalBernard Gassaway. His classroom roots, his former marriage, his career ambitions are all tied to the building on Fulton Street.
On a recent weekday morning, Bernard Gassaway, principal of Boys and Girls High School, bounced casually down the stairs while giving a tour of the building to a new guidance counselor. As the tour was coming to a close, the atmosphere along the path he took back toward his office was suddenly ripe for a fight: In a busy stairwell, an agitated guard had tried to stop an angry student for some offense. Gassaway watched the boy jerk his backpack away from the guard and retreat up the stairs, his face full of rage.
Gassaway casually made his way toward the student, grabbed him and put him in a playful headlock, an ironic demur of the aggressive manner in which the guard seemed to be handling the situation.
"Did you grab him like this?"
Unable to maneuver, the kid just smiled.
"I didn't donothingto him," barked the guard, who, for his part, was still irritated. As if to stick up for his friend, another student then stepped to Gassaway.
"What, I grab him and you show up? I got people, too." He winked at his new hire.
He disguised it with playful banter, but Gassaway was in a solemn mood. Earlier that morning, rising before the sun, he stopped by the Jamaica, Queens home he once lived in with his ex-wife, Traci, and daughter, Atiya. There are still pieces of his life there, loose ends that need tying. The home is in contract to be sold. "I'm not going to fool myself," he replied when asked how he was doing personally. "I think I'm OK. I know that you've got to take care of yourself before you take care of others. And I haven't always done that."
It was during the first school days of September of 2009 that Gassaway and his ex-wife began their difficult separation. The freshman class that arrived then will be seniors when the 2012-2013 school year begins in September. And yet, while his tenure reaches what he says is an emotional milestone, there's a growing weight to the long-held fear that the Department of Education could elect to phase-out or close the school. This worry has tempered Gassaway's anticipation of his personal landmark and even cast a pall over efforts to save the school.
In a city where DOE brass have made a practice of closing large high schools and replacing them with smaller ones, the pressure to avoid a fate similar to, say, nearby Paul Robeson, is intense. In a system where principals have been given increased authority and accountability, Gassaway will get much of the the credit or the blame if Bed-Stuy's Boys and Girls survives—or fails.
"The weight of it [possibly] closing is tremendous," Gassaway said, alluding to the rich history of noted physicians, attorneys, politicians and athletes that the school has produced. "You're not closing down a new school. Boys and Girls High is more than just an institution. But the more imminent weight I feel is when it comes to dealing with the children day-to-day: Dealing with their concerns, their issues, their aspirations … and asking ourselves how we help create the future doctors and lawyers, and [figuring out] what role we play in that."
Despite history, challenges abound
That Gassaway would use a headlock, of all devices, to defuse a potentially volatile situation illustrates his deep ties to two generations of students: Gassaway taught that angry boy's father as a young English teacher at Boys and Girls from 1988 to 1991 under his late mentor, the legendary principal Frank Mickens. In fact, Gassaway's 2009 return modeled his mentor's legacy; Mickens, too, left Boys and Girls in 1982, only to return as principal in 1986. Both sons of Brooklyn, each also received their bachelor's degree upstate.
Boys and Girls' condition is viewed by many as critical. One out of every four Boys and Girls students receives special education services. The school's graduation rate is about 45 percent, and school-wide attendance stands 71.2 percent as of May 7. It also received an ‘F' in every major category on its most recent Dept. of Education Progress Report. Once brimming with as many as 5,000 students, the school now has just over 1,500 students. School spirit is in short supply, but not for lack of trying on the part of its boys Kangaroos boys basketball team. Led bycoachRuth Lovelace (the first female coach to win a boys state title), the team won both the PSAL and New York State Federation titles in March. The headline of an article in the New York Daily News read, ‘ROOS RULE'. It hangs in Gassaway's office.
"The culture of the kids is different," said staff member Katrina Brown, a 2008 graduate of Boys and Girls and aspiring principal who arrived at Boys and Girls the year after Mickens retired. An assistant to assistant principal Bridget Carrington, Brown was a part of an incoming class of 1,500. But the number of students isn't the only thing that's changed, she says. "When I was a student, the kids wanted to do better. They wanted to graduate. A lot of these kids don't care. Theirmakeupis different. They don't want to be involved in school sports or activities. Now? They hardly want even come in the morning. I used to dread going home – and not because I had a bad home life. I was just so involved in what was going on here."
A family grows in Brooklyn
Many students are not as fortunate as Brown. Gassaway believes he could solve most of the school's problem's if he could strengthen the family. That would seem an impossible duty, or at least one not a fit for a principal. But while Gassaway has not been able to repair each of his students' home lives, the school itself—as it has gotten smaller—has actually become a family.
There's Constancia Simpson-Hayes, whose room on the second floor has a lounge area where students can read orchatquietly. A product of and staunch believer in the public school system who for years worked in college administration, Simpson-Hayes arrived last November as the school's new director of college and career services, and casually refers to her appointment as coming "back home." The lab had five working computers when she got there; it now has 16.
"We have a new family member," was how Gassaway introduced Aja Brown, the new guidance counselor whom he was showing around the building the morning the fight almost broke out. Staff in the Hub, the office that serves as a central processing unit for everything from incoming calls to faxes and guests, fawned over her as if she had walked through a church office.
Since then, in just a couple of weeks on thejob, she's already begun the arduous task of placing students with little chance of earning ahigh school diplomafrom Boys and Girls in alternative schools. Others she will prepare for job training or other essential services. No matter their path, her bosses' mandate is to monitor their progress as far as she can.
"I feel like this is where I'm supposed to be," Brown said.
That sense of belonging permeates the school's culture, now. As a pillar in the community, Boys and Girls—a zoned school which serves numerous area housing projects—prides itself on not giving up on any of its students, especially the most needy. "We believe students achieve success and embrace learning when they feel safe and are supported by competent and caring adults," reads the school's vision statement.
Coming up with resources hasn't been easy, but expanded offerings give the most vulnerable students access to services for which there is dire need. As many as 250 boys participate in an empowerment program titled Boys II Men. At night once a quarter, Gassaway opens the school for the boys to play sports and participate in workshops and character building. Many of his staff members volunteer.
Students now have access to health services,interventionspecialists and counselors on-site.
Perhaps Gassaway's most public battles over the course of the past three years played out when he began to suspend athletes from contests if they didn't pass their first period class because of poor attendance. The policy kept star players out of keygames, especially in basketball, and there was little if any budging on the principal's behalf. This year, athletes are to maintain a 70 average and are also required to do 30 hours of community service. The PSAL recently adopted a similar policy for student athletes.
Outlined in a memo made available toBrooklyn Bureau, Boys and Girls' Comprehensive Education Plan for the 2011-12 school year underline high expectations for students:
70 percent of students will have at least 11 credits by June 2012 (Just 40 percent had at least 5.5 credits as of last February
70 percent of students who sit for any Regents exam will pass with at least a 65 by the end of the school year (28.6 percent of students who sat last year passed with at least a 65)
Boys and Girls will achieve a graduation rate of 65 percent by August 2012 (Just 30 percent of the junior class are on track to graduate).
Measured against the performance of the school to date, the goals are ambitious. But Gassaway thinks changes in the school's atmosphere make them attainable.
"Two years ago, I was putting out the fires," Gassaway starts. "So they'd say, ‘Mr. Gassaway, the building's rocking.' And you can feel it, anyway. ‘Mr. Gassaway, there's was a fight on the third, fight on the second, fight on the first.' And I'm, like, ‘Shit.' So I'd say, ‘O.K., time to put on the Superman cape.' So I'd have to go out and make the hard decisions, getting students out of the building."
A personal stake
It's tough to determine how, in the next 18 months, the school will perform, how Gassaway and his staff will frame that record and how the DOE will interpret it. What is clear is that the results, and Tweed's reaction to them, will affect students, teachers, the institution and its principal.
At just 51, Gassaway is a man conscientious, if not obsessed, with legacy. He wrote a memoir, Reflections of an Urban High School Principal, in his mid-forties. This concern is part of the reason why the uncertain future of Boys and Girls unsettles him so.
Ironically, this is not because he knows he wants to spend the rest of his career in urban high schools. Gassaway has other aspirations. He has talked openly about one day soon finishing his coursework for his Ph.D. at Columbia Teacher's College and becoming a professor. But if he makes that move, the manner of making it matters. Will he walk out the door, run—or get chased?
"My field is education," he said. "If I'm going to be a tenured professor at some college, what am I going to profess? That I was in an urban high school [that] failed, so I can talk to you about failing, but I can't talk to you about success?"
As the clock ticks down on the fate of Boys & Girls High School, PrincipalBernard Gassawayvowed to steer a new course for the pride and joy of Bed-Stuy.
Now if he can only get the city’s Department of Education (DOE) and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) to join together in embracing his plan to turn the school around.
“I will work with every fiber in my being to keep Boys & Girls from closing,” Gassaway promised a packed Community Board 3 meeting earlier this week at Restoration Plaza.
Gassaway said while some in the DOE are trying to close the school and turn it into four smaller schools, he sees it becoming one of the city’s larger schools that works much like Bayside High School in Queens.
In order to do this Gassaway wants the power to get rid of as much as fifty percent of the staff through a federally funded “turn around” model of academic change.
About 25 percent of the staff is stellar and another 25 percent are competent and want to improve, but the other 50 percent need to be replaced and the principal needs the authority to remove them, he said.
Under Gassaway’s plan, he would turn the roughly 2,000 student body school into four small academies under one roof as opposed to the DOE’s often-used plan to actually break Boys & Girls up into four small separate schools.
In order for Gassaway’s plan to succeed the DOE needs to file an application with the state by April 30 to access federal money and implement the ‘‘turn around” model for change. The model is one of four the Obama Administration uses under its improvement grants. Boys & Girls also fits the urban school criteria to being eligible for the program.
The rub is the DOE and UFT are at odds on how to remove 50 percent of the staff.
“We’re working with the union and that’s where we are now, but the deadline is approaching,” said DOE spokesman Jack Zarin-Rosenfield. “Our primary interest is to make sure these struggling schools have the best chance of success, but the UFT is not working with us and there’s no question on who is dragging their feet here.”
Several calls and e-mails to the UFT were not returned at press time.
But Gassaway and others in the community also dispute many of the DOE’s claims that Boys & Girls is such a struggling school.
“The DOE is sending us (at-risk) kids from outside the district which is weighing down the school,” said Gassaway. “Not only did we win the city boys basketball title but we also have one of the better robotic teams in the city.”
Also standing firmly behind the school is City Councilman Al Vann.
“I fully support Principal Gassaway and believe that, if provided with the necessary support from the DOE and all stakeholders, he can return Boys & Girls High School to academic prominence.”