Calling it Quits

Departing leader of Boys and Girls HS: City's turnaround plan 'doomed to fail'

Bernard Gassaway, the principal of Boys and Girls High School, said he is resigning because he does not think the city's plan to improve the school will work.

The outspoken principal of Brooklyn’s troubled Boys and Girls High School said he is stepping down because he believes the plan the city is developing to turn around the school is “doomed to fail.”

Bernard Gassaway for several months has complained that the education department has not worked with him or shown him its completed improvement plan for the school, which the state requires because Boys and Girls has performed dismally for years. Last month, Gassaway refused to sign off on the plan because officials did not present him the full document, he said.

“Whatever it is they say they’re planning is doomed to fail,” said Gassaway, who has led the Bedford-Stuyvesant school since 2009 and has opposed the city’s intervention efforts before. “And the fall guy will always be the principal.”

Gassaway’s resignation brings his tumultuous tenure at Boys and Girls to an end, and adds to the growing pressure on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration to describe in detail how it will prop up such struggling schools. De Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have said that, unlike the previous administration, they will only close such schools as a last resort after offering them robust support. But principals at troubled schools said they have been given minimal guidance so far, and the city has asked for an extension to submit its improvement plans to the state.

Though Gassaway has loudly criticized the education department for years, saying it has failed to offer him the tools he needs to turn around the school, he has attracted his own share of critics who say he has not done enough to move Boys and Girls forward. He has presided over the school as it has hemorrhaged students, maintained a graduation rate nearly 20 points below the city average, and earned an unprecedented three straight F’s on the Bloomberg-era school progress reports.

Many observers have pointed out that the Bloomberg administration shuttered schools with better records than that of Boys and Girls, suggesting that the main reason it remained open and Gassaway kept his job is the school’s alliance of politically connected backers.

“The history of the school is that the leader has figured out how to drum up the political support necessary to isolate it from any efforts by central to do something different there,” said Eric Nadelstern, a Bloomberg administration official who championed its policy of closing the lowest performing schools.

Former Chancellor Joel Klein handpicked Gassaway, a former superintendent, to try to rescue Boys and Girls. But as the school continued to struggle, Gassaway routinely criticized the department and threatened to resign, most recently after the city revealed plans to open a small high school inside the Boys and Girls building.

While Gassaway insisted that his departure was “100 percent voluntary,” he also said officials made clear that he needed to get “on board” with the city’s plan for his school. A source close to department officials said Gassaway was pressured to leave.

Department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said the city had “regularly engaged” with Gassaway since the spring as it created a plan for the school, and suggested that his departure could benefit Boys and Girls.

“A change in leadership means a new opportunity to turn around this school,” Kaye said, adding that an interim principal will take over while the city finds a permanent replacement.

Gassaway has attracted his share of critics, who say he has not done enough to improve the school during the five years he has led it.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Gassaway has attracted his share of critics, who say he has not done enough to improve the school during the five years he has led it.

Boys and Girls is one of about 30 bottom-ranked city schools that has yet to submit a mandated improvement plan to the state. Those plans were due in July, but the city has asked for an extension until the end of this month to file them — a delay that critics and some principals say will make it more difficult to turn around the most troubled schools.

State Education Commissioner John King said this week that the delay was “understandable” since the administration had to negotiate a new teachers contract, but that city officials must now turn their attention to the poorest performing schools.

“I expect them to have detailed plans later this fall and to move quickly to support schools in implementing those plans,” King said during a school visit in the Bronx.

Boys and Girls and one other chronically low-performing Brooklyn school, Automotive High School in Williamsburg, have been designated by the state as “out of time.” The state gave districts a short menu of intensive interventions for such schools. The city chose to put them under an “alternate governance structure,” which has involved assigning them a special superintendent who is also overseeing several other troubled high schools.

The city has also taken the unusual step of promising not to send latecomer students, who often pose extra challenges, to the two schools.

The schools are also part of a so-far unpublicized intensive-support program for 23 struggling schools that has been dubbed the “School Achievement Initiative.” While even some principals are still uncertain what sort of support the program will entail, it has involved assigning the schools “redesign” teams.

Gassaway said the team assigned to his school includes a former principal and a math and English coach, who are also responsible for three other struggling schools. The team is only able to visit each school about once a week, and it’s not clear if they have any other resources to offer, Gassaway said, adding that such support is not enough to set a seriously challenged school on a new course.

“It’s like we’re getting ready to play basketball and you’re sending me a hockey team,” Gassaway said.

Meanwhile, neither Fariña nor any of her top deputies has visited Boys and Girls this year, according to Gassaway and his brother, Caster Hall, the president of Boys and Girls’s parent association whose son attends the school.

“I emailed Ms. Fariña,” Hall said, “and I told her she needs to come out to Boys and Girls High School.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.