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.”

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.