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Nancy Bruni is the mother of two. Her daughter attended Nest+M and her son is a student at Bard Early College High School. She works for the Brooklyn Philharmonic.
For the last five years, my son’s schedule has been packed to the max. His extra hours were filled with extracurricular activities so that he could be that well-rounded, competitive person that top colleges seek. His every hour was accounted for, calculated, manipulated – by me.
I first noticed, and was nervous about, the competition that my son would face when I reviewed resumes for internship positions for a white-glove firm I used to work with. One student wrote a paper for NASA when he was 21, another, was a double math and chemistry major in college at age 17, and yet another, a high school senior finalist in the Intel competition who was doing research at Cooper Union. The achievements were endless and impressive. I thought to myself, how will my boy compete with that?
The tiger mom within me roared, and I threw my son into all types of activities to see which would stick. It started with my dreams of him becoming an Olympic ping-pong player. He trained, heavily and expensively, with a professional coach and entered competitions until Chinese kids half his height and age began to beat him. Then he tried basketball where he chipped a tooth. I once even claimed that he was Hispanic (he is half Chinese and half Italian) so that he could compete for a minority music scholarship at Juilliard. We backed out of the audition right before his turn, when I became ashamed of my dishonesty.
Yeah, I know, overboard. My son informed me the same.
My son's transition from The Urban Assembly Academy of Arts and Letters to Bard High School Early College was rough on us both. The homework grew exponentially from an hour a night to four-plus hours a night. Subject materials moved so fast it made him dizzy – and me desperate to help him.
Math was the subject he struggled with most, as his stellar A+ grades dipped to a solid C. The math learning gap was huge between 8th and 9th grade, with terms like the Latus Rectum likely to befuddle many parents. We knew he needed outside help by the third week of 9th grade.
Learning how to help was a process. We went to our neighborhood math guru, a friend and professor of math sciences at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, to break down mathematical terms into simple speech. We set up a schedule for my son to go to his school's math lab for help. We procured a tutor. But knowing how to utilize a tutor was also a learning experience.
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.