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.

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”