flat-lined

Second straight F puts Boys & Girls High's future on the line

Boys and Girls High School is one of 24 schools that now face closure.

Boys and Girls High School’s latest progress report grade — an F, its second in a row — came as no surprise to its principal, Bernard Gassaway.

“We definitely fell short,” Gassaway said in a phone interview today. “When you get the progress report and you are surprised by it, that means you haven’t been looking at the numbers all along.”

But even though it is one of just four schools to score a second straight failing grade, Gassaway said he is not concerned about the future of the school, a Bedford-Stuyvesant institution revered by some neighborhood leaders despite posting graduation rates well below the city average in recent years.

“Closure is not an option,” he said. “I don’t think that’s an option that’s on the table. … I’m not entertaining any conversations about closure.”

Department of Education officials said they remain confident in Gassaway’s leadership. But at the same time, they are making Boys and Girls the subject of a formal conversation about closure for the first time.

The department has informed Gassaway that the high school is among 24 that will undergo “early engagement,” a process through which officials meet with community members to assess whether struggling schools are likely to improve or should be closed.

Last year, Boys and Girls was one of just three F-rated schools that did not undergo the early engagement process, even though its performance on some measures ranked near the lowest citywide. Department officials also considered closing the school through an atypical federal reform process called turnaround earlier this year, but quickly abandoned the plan.

Gassaway said he has already prepared his strategy to defend the school. He will argue that the city and union have not worked together to give him enough authority over his staff, and that new programs to help the school’s many high-need students cannot be expected to pay off right away.

“[The] case that I made last year is the same case I’ll make this year,” he said. “If you ask yourself honestly, what has changed as it relates to, let’s say, the makeup of the staff from last year to this year, the plan that everyone agrees is a good idea has not been implemented.”

Since Gassaway came on as principal in 2009, he has pressed department and union officials for the power to overhaul his staff, charging that as many as half the teachers aren’t equipped to address the school’s many challenges. The city’s contract with the teachers union precludes principals from sending teachers away in most cases.

He has also maintained that the school needs new services to address students’ health and emotional needs, and special programs for the many under-credited and overage students who make their way to Boys and Girls after spending parts of high school outside the city or in jail. With new programs only starting to get underway, Gassaway said today, it will be years before the school begins to reap their benefits on paper.

Gassaway said he asked teachers, administrators, and support staff to take a hard look at the school’s performance data last week when he shared the preliminary progress report data.

“We basically looked at the different data sets: credit accumulation, Regents pass rates, the graduation rate, [students in] the bottom third,” he said. He added, “The primary focus is on instruction. There’s no magic bullet other than hard work.”

Despite concerns over the numbers, Gassaway may continue to find the support from top department officials he needs to keep the school afloat.

“We have a very high opinion of Bernard Gassaway,” Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg told reporters earlier today. “We’re going to take the time to go out to the school and talk with Bernard, talk with parents and students and teachers, and a group of community organizations that have deep roots in support that school, and ask that same question about Boys and Girls as we will about the others: Is there a capacity to improve?”

Sternberg said it is possible the early engagement team will find that the school has its best chance of succeeding if it has more time to see Gassaway’s vision through.

“If a principal is saying they want more flexibility to get the right adults in a building so they can improve their capacity to execute on a good plan, I would, as a former principal, I would say I agree with that,” Sternberg said. “The question is whether there is the right plan…and that’s what we’ll explore.”

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.