Unprecedented third straight 'F' for struggling Boys and Girls HS

Chancellor Dennis Walcott and City Councilman Al Vann joined Boys and Girls High School Principal Bernard Gassaway to honor the school’s boys basketball team for winning the city championships last year.

Brooklyn’s Boys and Girls High School earned the lowest mark on its city progress report today, making it one of just two schools ever to receive the failing grade three years in a row.

The Department of Education has closed many schools that have netted F’s since it began awarding the annual grades in 2007, but Boys and Girls has always managed to stay away from the chopping block. It will escape closure again this year, this time because the Bloomberg administration has simply run out of time to shutter any more low-performing schools.

Instead, Chancellor Dennis Walcott is scheduled to appear Thursday at Boys and Girls, not to intervene in its academic program but to join the school’s powerful supporters to cut the ribbon on a new health center there.

But while other department officials previously have supported Principal Bernard Gassaway as he has annually promised improvements that have not materialized, Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky said today that a school with Boys and Girls’ record should be “cause for serious concern.”

“I think sometimes when something’s not working you need to look at bringing in a new team of educators in that school community,” Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky of schools with a string of Fs. “It doesn’t make sense that that would be off the table, but it’s not really our decision to make.”

People close to the Bedford-Stuyvesant school said today that even though the city hasn’t closed the school, the stigma from perennially being labeled as failing is doing the same job, just slowly.

“They’ve gotten such a bad rap throughout the years that people just will not send their children there,” said Lisa Dunn, a former PTA president at the school.

Before this year, no school has ever been stuck for so long on the lowest grade in the city’s six-year history of A-F grading system. Today, both Boys and Girls and DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx received their third consecutive F’s. Both schools have strong alumni associations, long and storied histories, award-winning athletic programs, and support among local politicians.

In Boys and Girls’ case, powerful supporters — including City Councilman Al Vann and Regent Lester Young — have repeatedly convinced the Department of Education to extend the school’s lease on life while Gassaway, their hand-picked principal, could be given time and space to implement his turnaround plan. Gassaway said when he came to the school in 2009 that he needed three years to show improvement.

Gassaway would not comment on the school’s latest marks. But he publicly said last month that he might resign over the city’s proposal to install another school inside Boys and Girls’ massive Fulton Avenue building.

That building is far emptier than it used to be just a few years ago. In 2007, Boys and Girls enrolled more than 4,000 students. Following a class action lawsuit that charged Gassaway’s predecessors with warehousing disruptive students in an auditorium and the simultaneous rise of small schools in the area, enrollment plummeted. This year, fewer than 1,000 students attend the school.

And few of those students are thriving, according to city data. Daily attendance hovers around 75 percent and four-year graduation rates were just over 40 percent in recent years, about two-thirds of the citywide rate. Just one in five students met minimum academic standards necessary to move onto college or has managed to stay in college for at least two years after graduating, according to the latest city data.

Gassaway and Boys and Girls supporters have long argued that the school has been a victim of the city’s enrollment policies, which have frequently come under fire for concentrating high-needs students in struggling schools. Those policies, they have said, made it hard to attract high-performing middle-school students, though a screened program for accelerated students in partnership with Long Island University is now in its third year. Over the years, they said, students who were the farthest behind in school and with the most problems at home made up a larger proportion of the population.

The school has made several efforts to address those needs, including with the health center that Walcott is inaugurating on Thursday. Gassaway opened a highly touted “Care Center” last year and recruited a network of community-based organizations to expand social services in the school.

Sources close to the school say most of those organizations are no longer actively working with the school, with the exception of Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration, whose director Colvin Grannum is also a longtime ally.

Gassaway did not respond to requests for a list of community groups working in the center, but he said in an email that it was not diminished. And he noted the new school-based health center.

But the school’s low performance is dismal even in comparison to other struggling schools. Like all low-ranking schools that the department has opted not close, Boys and Girls has received “targeted action plans” with extra resources.

According to the department, most of those schools have improved in response to this extra help. Of all schools that had the assistance plans in 2012-2013, 37 percent improved by one grade this year, 28 percent improved by two grades, and 11 percent improved by three or more grades. A few of the schools netted lower grades. Boys and Girls was part of the 14 percent of schools to stay the same.

A few students have managed to thrive at Boys and Girls. Dunn, the PTA president, allowed her son to attend Boys and Girls to play basketball on the condition that he enroll in the Long Island University program. She estimated that he earned a dozen college credits by the end of his sophomore year.

This year, though, Dunn became part of the school’s student flight when her son transferred to a high school closer to where they live in Queens, in an effort to cut down on his commute. She said she was initially “shocked” to hear it had not improved, but added that the number of students who entered ninth grade already many years behind in reading and writing had taking up a larger share of the population.

What to do with the school, its students, and its hulking building in Bed-Stuy will be among Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s education challenges. Though de Blasio has pledged to support struggling schools rather than shut them down, Boys and Girls’ recent history suggests that extra help isn’t enough to turn the school around.

Shifting political winds in the area could also fracture the coalition that has pledged to support Boys and Girls in the past. Vann is leaving the City Council, while another longtime member of the school’s advisory group, Jitu Weusi, died this year.

And Dunn said she thought the constant negative attention that the school receives has “stigmatized” it so much that students no longer want to attend. She suggested that the school’s fate might be sealed when she recalled her experience taking her son to an enrollment center before high school so he could join Boys and Girls’ championship basketball team. She asked the department official to add Armando to the school’s register.

The response she said she got: “Why are you sending him there?”


call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”