Boys and Girls High School is a failing school by many standards. The New York City Department of Education gave it a grade of “F” on its 2011 Progress Report. Only 45.7% of students graduate in four years and just 19.7% of them enroll in college. Out of those, 4.2% of students are considered ready for college. On any given day, a quarter of students are missing from school. Those that show up pass through a metal detector so sensitive, a shoelace grommet can set it off. Once inside, they are met by a small army of uniformed security guards before heading to class. But, do grades, data and scanners tell the real story? Is the “Pride and Joy of Bed Stuy” really failing?
Just last week the Panel on Education Policy voted to close 18 schools they deemed to be failing. Boys and Girls was not on that list. I sat down with Principal Bernard Gassaway to get an update on Boys and Girls High School, and to get his thoughts about school closures.
Gassaway came to Boys and Girls in 2009 and found a school he says was populated with incompetent teachers and staff, where cheating was commonplace and violence and gang activity were rampant. He has an uphill battle. Here's a condensed version of our conversation.
NB: It was really intimidating to enter the school this morning with all the security measures. Don’t you think it is demoralizing for the students?
BG: No. It is necessary. The third day into my work at Boys and Girls High school, there was a fight in the girls locker-room where one girl sliced another down her chest with a razor. The safety measures in place have reduced violent incidents, and it gives students and staff protection and a sense of security. We want to err on the side of caution. Until we can solve the issues that cause violence, the guards and metal detector will stay in place.
Also, don’t forget schools like Brooklyn Tech and other selective schools also have incidents where students carry weapons. The difference is no one hears about it because they can kick out students and then Department of Education assign those students to schools such as ours.
NB: Boys and Girls received an F for last year’s performance. Are you afraid this school will be on the closure list?
BG: When I was recruited as principal for Boys and Girls High School, I asked Joel Klein to give me three years to turn around the school. But, the reality is that it takes time to reorganize a school that needs so much. I started by whittling down the number of assistant principals had from 12 to two; that is, two competent administrators. I looked at the teaching staff to determine who was ineffective and kept only those who are capable and creative in teaching. We came a long way and we are still working on that. I put in programs to address students’ academic, behavioral, social and personal concerns. And, all of us are working hard to court the corporate, not-for-profit organization, and inside and outside community to support our work and students. Everyone’s involvement is critical in students’ success.
The first part is coming together in spite of the teacher union protest. It is important to have teachers who can teach and it is equally important for us to get rid of those who can’t.
The Department of Education and others also have to understand the population of students we serve. We have students that come to our school barely ready for high school work. We have to re-educate them in what they should already know before high school. Part of our job is to undo some of the damage caused by other schools and undo bad habits. We also have to consider students home and community environment. We do not have the luxury of picking students that selective schools have, but we still have to educate them, and educate is what we are doing regardless of what they know or don’t know and where they come from and what their needs are.
So you tell me: is it fair to use the same standard of achievement placed on school such as ours and others when there are many variables to consider?
NB: What about your parents? Are they supportive?
They are supportive, and more parents are coming on board. They are helping us the best way they know how. We are trying to show them that we are not the enemies but partners. So often the only communication between parents and school administration is when their children have done something bad. We are changing that. We also brought in programs to support our parents, such as GED classes and other certification so that they can be work-ready.
NB: In a perfect world, how would you fix a school like Boys and Girls and other schools that are considered “failures?”
BG: I am currently working on my doctorate at Teachers College and my dissertation is on what 21st century urban high schools look like.
We all know that college is not for every child. Urban schools should take the best practices of all schools and bring them under one roof. We need to provide opportunities for students to succeed outside of academics. This include vocational and technological training, transfer school within the school to help them to acquire the GED and be work ready, and of course, a regular high school where it can serve students who are academic-ready. This way, we can address students on all levels.
Urban students also must have opportunities to interact with other race and communities. I took a group of kids on a field trip to Manhattan last year. Quite a few of them have never even been to the City! Quite a few more had never had the chance to speak to a “white” person. We must create opportunities so that urban students can take advantage of what cities can offer and to interact with others who look and think different from them.
NB: How do you think closing “failing” schools affect struggling students?
BG: The student achievement question is not being answered by shuffling kids around. Let me turn the question to you. Do you think students magically succeed if they are moved to a new environment without addressing their social and academic needs? Right now there are no comprehensive Department of Education plans to help students on that front.
NB: Any final thoughts?
BG: Don’t judge us on data. Schools like ours serve a purpose and that is we have to continue to try and try until our kids get it.