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.
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.”