After bumpy start, Boys & Girls basketball to aid school's reform

Bernard Gassaway, Chancellor Dennis Walcott and members of the Boys & Girls High School Track & Field team at City Hall.

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.

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Week In Review

Week In Review: A new board takes on ‘awesome responsibility’ as Detroit school lawsuits advance

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The new Detroit school board took the oath and took on the 'awesome responsibility' of Detroit's children

It’s been a busy week for local education news with a settlement in one Detroit schools lawsuit, a combative new filing in another, a push by a lawmaker to overhaul school closings, a new ranking of state high schools, and the swearing in of the first empowered school board in Detroit has 2009.

“And with that, you are imbued with the awesome responsibility of the children of the city of Detroit.”

—    Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens, after administering the oath to the seven new members of the new Detroit school board

Read on for details on these stories plus the latest on the sparring over Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. Here’s the headlines:


The board

The first meeting of the new Detroit school board had a celebratory air to it, with little of the raucous heckling that was common during school meetings in the emergency manager era. The board, which put in “significant time and effort” preparing to take office, is focused on building trust with Detroiters. But the meeting was not without controversy.

One of the board’s first acts was to settle a lawsuit that was filed by teachers last year over the conditions of school buildings. The settlement calls for the creation of a five-person board that will oversee school repairs.

The lawyers behind another Detroit schools lawsuit, meanwhile, filed a motion in federal court blasting Gov. Rick Snyder for evading responsibility for the condition of Detroit schools. That suit alleges that deplorable conditions in Detroit schools have compromised childrens’ constitutional right to literacy — a notion Snyder has rejected.


In Lansing

On DeVos

In other news