Heading into this season, Coach Ruth Lovelace knew her championship basketball team needed to cut down on one statistic that nothing to do with what was happening on the court.
During the 2010-2011 season Boys & Girls High School, Lovelace’s star players took home the city title. But they also incurred academic suspension after academic suspension until, when it mattered the most, she lost seven players the week before her team began the state championship tournament. They lost in the first round.
This year, as the Kangaroos entered yet another long playoff stretch, Lovelace said she made it clear in the locker room that academics remained a top priority, even above wind sprints and layup lines. Players were attending study hall all season long and Lovelace didn’t want their efforts slide now.
“We learned a lesson,” Lovelace said on Monday inside the newly renovated City Council chambers at City Hall, where she and her players were invited to celebrate their Public School Athletics League and New York State championship titles this season. The boys track and field team also received an official honor from the council for winning city, state, and national titles.
The ceremony came just days after a group of schools that Boys & Girls had been part of until January — those receiving federal School Improvement Grants — were approved for the “turnaround” form of closure. But instead of spending the spring defending their school, students at Boys & Girls were busy adapting to higher standards for student athletes set by third-year Principal Bernard Gassaway.
Before the 2010-2011 school year, Gassaway found that more than 50 percent of student athletes failed their first period, usually because they weren’t showing up or turning in their work. So Gassaway established a rule: Anyone participating in extracurricular activities must pass first period and maintain an attendance rate of at least 90 percent.
“When we talk about career readiness, let’s start with being on time,” Gassaway explained last year.
This year, Gassaway enshrined that rule into policy, calling it “Higher Standards, Higher Expectations” and toughening the requirements. Student-athletes this year were required to maintain a grade average of at least 70 percent and serve 30 hours of community service to remain eligible for participation.
It took some time for coaches and students to realize that Gassaway was serious about the policy and, for the boys basketball team, the lesson didn’t fully set in until this year. Players who played on both years’ teams said that while the policy has reinforced the importance of academics, they thought last year’s troubles had more to do with the students than the policy.
“Lovelace has always been on top of our work,” said senior Shakur Pinder. “It was really just the athletes last year who weren’t on top of their work.”
But Gassaway said that he’s already sensed that other coaches are jumping on board and he hopes the higher expectations will spread outside the school’s storied athletic program.
“Eventually, the standards that we set for the basketball team will be school-wide,” Gassaway said.
The policy is one of many new intiatives that Gassaway is overseeing at Boys & Girls as part of a multi-year plan that he has charted for the school to help it reverse years of poor performance. The school received a F, C, and D on its last three years’ report cards and its four-year graduation rate has not topped 46 percent during that time — giving it one of the lowest graduation rates of any four-year high school that it not in the process of closing.
Gassaway is just months into restructuring the school around “small learning communities” that vary depending on the type of student at the school. He said his plan also calls for a stronger honors program, a Career and Technical Education program, and a transfer school.
Gassaway has the backing from both his community and from Tweed. Boys & Girls was among the group of schools receiving federal funding earlier this year, but when Mayor Bloomberg announced the controversial “turnaround” reform strategy in January, it was not on the list. The omission that raised eyebrows among teachers and principals in other turnaround schools who said their schools were improving faster than Boys & Girls.
Supporters say the school’s struggle is linked to the uniquely challenging student population that it takes in.
“The reason they get a very low rating is because they’ve been getting a lot of students who are not prepared,” said City Councilman Al Vann. “It’s unfair to think that they can raise the level of those kids in a short period of time. It’s not possible.”
Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who popped into the council chambers to shake hands with the athletes and coaches, said Gassaway’s efforts have the city’s full support.
“Our commitment is to Boys & Girls and making sure that we help them achieve those goals that Bernard set,” said Chancellor Dennis Walcott.
“We have a hard-working principal there who is very focused on turning Boys & Girls around,” he added.