Aiding Boys and Girls High's survival are powerful political allies

Among the dozen high schools the city spared from closure this week despite lagging scores, one stands out as lower-performing than almost all of the rest.

It also stands out for having an unusually powerful set of political allies.

Brooklyn’s Boys and Girls High School has poor student performance, an abysmal graduation rate — 38.6 percent last year  — and few applicants.

“If one looks at the data and the metrics by which all principals and schools are graded, it is very apparent that we are all not measured by the same yardstick,” said Geraldine Maione, the principal of William E. Grady Career and Technical High School, a higher-performing school that the city briefly proposed for closure last year.

It’s a fact that Principal Bernard Gassaway has acknowledged. “Statistically, they’ve closed schools that have better stats,” he told community members at an event in June, before the city’s latest round of performance data.

The secret to the school’s survival, people inside and outside the school say, appears to be a tight-knit advisory board of political and community heavyweights from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn who say they have pulled strings at the school for years.

“There’s no way that Boys and Girls High School as you know it today would still be in existence if it were not for the advisors,” Gassaway said in June. He declined to comment for this story; his comments all come from public appearances and previous interviews with GothamSchools.

The supporters include Regent Lester Young, City Councilman Al Vann, Assemblywoman Annette Robinson, State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, and Adelaide Sanford, the vice chancellor emeritus of the Board of Regents. Conrad Tillard, a pastor at Nazarene Congregational Church, and Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Chief Executive Officer Colvin Grannum are also members of the advisory board, which meets monthly at the school.

The civic leaders of Bed-Stuy, which has long had one of the city’s most vibrant black communities, say keeping Boys & Girls open is crucial to maintaining the neighborhood’s identity.

“There’s a lot of history here. This is part of who we are as a community and a people,” Vann told GothamSchools last month at a meeting held to weigh the school’s future. “You can’t close that.”

Board members have raised money for the school, including through a private foundation they helped set up this year; coordinated events to bring in the local community; and met with top Department of Education officials to secure funds for a new library. They also said they have influenced the Department of Education’s hiring decisions at the school, and Gassaway has said they encouraged him to seek immunity from being ousted even if the school got worse.

The advisory board’s goal is to restore Boys and Girls High School as the school of choice for students in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The school was nicknamed the “Pride and Joy of Bed-Stuy” during its heyday in the 1990s, when more than 4,000 students crowded into its halls and performance skyrocketed.

But even though the moniker still rolls off many local residents’ tongues, few want to send their children to Boys and Girls. Last year, enrollment was down to 1,470 — and only about 450 students came from five zip codes closest to Bedford-Stuyvesant, according to data provided by the school. This year, only about 1,200 students are enrolled.

The decline began after the retirement of Frank Mickens, a brash but beloved principal who brought order and boosted graduation rates during the 1980’s and 1990’s. Mickens’ tough disciplinary tactics earned him praise, but he also warehoused disruptive students in the school’s auditorium until they dropped out, according to a class-action lawsuit filed by former students that the city settled in 2008. Vann and Young told GothamSchools last year that they were not familiar with the lawsuit.

The advisory board formed in 2007, shortly after Mickens retired and was replaced by a protégé, Spencer Holder, who was later named in the lawsuit.

Members said they were not satisfied with Holder’s leadership in part because he did not solicit input from local leaders the way Mickens had. “His plans were not based on the community,” Jitu Weusi, a longtime community activist and advisory board member, told GothamSchools in May. “He never once came to the community to say look, I want you all to give me some help, some advice.”

The city replaced Holder in 2009 with Gassaway, who had also worked under Mickens. Gassaway had recently retired as superintendent of the city’s alternative schools district, a job he had gotten with Young’s endorsement.

“I weighed in on Gassaway, let them know that we strongly support him,” Vann said of conversations he and other members had with city officials, including then-chancellor Joel Klein, about the school’s leadership. Young declined to comment on what he discussed with city officials in private meetings about the school.

The advisory board directed Gassaway to meet with Klein and ask for sufficient time to turn the school around before being ousted or installing another school in the building — at least three years.

“Klein’s commitment was that he’d give them whatever resources he needed to get the job done,” Vann said.

Gassaway said he also told Klein he would have to make things worse at Boys and Girls before they could get better.

Last year, the school’s 38.6 percent four-year graduation rate was 15 points below the average rate for the nine other high schools the department wants to close this year and 25 points below the city rate. Just 3 percent of students graduated ready for college, compared to 30 percent citywide. And student and staff satisfaction has fallen sharply, according to city surveys.

Department of Education officials say many factors go into the decision to close a school, with academic achievement the most important. Former Chief Schools Officer Eric Nadelstern said one reason the city might hold back on phasing out a comprehensive high school is that it might have trouble finding enough seats in other schools for the hundreds of students who would normally enroll there.

That’s not the case for Boys and Girls. The school’s enrollment has plummeted by 40 percent since Gassaway took over, and the city says at least half of the school’s redbrick building on Fulton Street is going unused.

“Without a doubt, you could fit another school here,” Gassaway, who has been more outspoken than many principals, said last year.

Nadelstern, who has criticized the Department of Education since he left in 2011 but supports its policy of closing low-performing schools, said a school’s historical significance can also keep it off the chopping block. Besides Boys and Girls, the only other school that the department awarded two straight F grades but did not propose closing was DeWitt Clinton High School, which also has a robust alumni association and top-flight sports program.

But Boys and Girls might well have a stronger political edge, Nadelstern said.

“It could just be that Vann and Young and the advisory group got to Dennis [Walcott],” he said. “It could be that simple.”

Department officials did not respond to requests to explain why they decided not to add Boys and Girls to the year’s closure list.

Walcott, the city’s schools chancellor, is among the department officials who have defended the school under Gassaway’s leadership. Gassaway was allowed to remove Boys and Girls from the roster of schools that faced a controversial overhaul strategy known as “turnaround” last year, something principals at other schools tried but failed to do. Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg has praised Gassaway’s leadership multiple times. And last year, asked about the school’s low scores, Walcott said the department would stand behind Gassaway as the principal worked to implement a plan to serve the school’s many high-need students.

“Our commitment is to Boys and Girls and making sure that we help them achieve those goals that Bernard set,” Walcott said.

Having strong allies has helped schools evade closure before. Last year, the city withdrew its proposal to shrink Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Arts after influential politicians in Harlem sprung to the school’s defense. It also withdrew plans to close and reopen Grover Cleveland High School, which State Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan attended and defended.

And even though Wadleigh and Grover Cleveland stayed open, the city replaced both of their principals. Boys and Girls’ backers said this week that they expect to see Gassaway still at the school next September.

“I’d say he absolutely still has confidence from us,” Vann said.

But Young, the advisory board member, could have to contend with colleagues on the State Board of Regents, who say they do not understand why the city has not applied the same standards universally. “Everybody should be treated equitably with the same metrics,” said Regent Kathleen Cashin, a former Brooklyn school superintendent.

Outside Boys and Girls this week, students and residents from Bedford-Stuyvesant were split over the school’s quality. But no one denied the significance that the school has to the neighborhood.

“Boys and Girls is synonymous with Bed-Stuy. It’s a landmark. People say, ‘I live this far from Boys and Girls,’” said Damien Brown, a longtime resident. “Generations of people have gone to school here.”

Lisa Jones said she would be happy to send her young child to the school. “It’s an excellent school,” she said. “I have two family members who went there.”

Jahquan Williams, a junior at the school, said academics weren’t up to par for most students but he doubted that the school would be closed. Asked why, Williams said, “Boys and Girls is the pride and joy of Bed-Stuy. That’s a known nickname.”

Additional reporting contributed by Rachel Cromidas and Emma Sokoloff-Rubin