Hands off Boys and Girls High: Another Threat Looms to Close Down Boys & Girls High in Brooklyn, NY - USA
by Gloria Dulan-Wilson
THE FOLLOWING IS MY COMMENTARY IN RESPONSE TO AN ARTICLE THAT RECENTLY APPEARED IN CITILIMITS MAGAZINE. PLEASE READ IT AND THE ARTICLE THAT FOLLOWS BELOW. IT APPEARS THAT BOYS AND GIRLS HIGH SCHOOL IS BEING TARGETED FOR CLOSING AGAIN. IT'S TIME TO SOUND THE ALL ALERT SIGNAL - SO THE PREDATORS DON'T DESTROY THE SCHOOL UNDER THE GUISE OF TRANSFORMATION.
I've met Dr. Gassaway, principle of Boys and Girls High School, and am impressed with his dedication to the Boys and Girls High school students. Given the detached demeanor of so many of our current administrators, his hands on, can do and will be done attitude is a pleasant and necessary change. As a parent, a guidance counselor, and former director of student activities at City College's SEEK program, I also have seen a decided difference in where our youth are today as compared to where they were a few decades ago, when we were students.
Those of us from another generation had parents who taught us that "education was the key;" there were no excuses for bad grades or poor deportment. There was no such thing as being culturally deprived, coming from a single parent home, living in a "bad" neighborhood, poverty, wellfare, or anything else. Your job, your responsibility was to go to school, get the best education possible, and make something of yourself. With the further expectation that you would then help your family and your community
The parents of today are products of poorly functioning families and equally poorly functioning schools, and a society that has largely written them off; they are marginalized. They were not taught the value of a good education; instead, they were more or less taught that education was not relevant, or, worse yet: that it was "white." Now these same parents, who are either stuck in mediocre jobs, or on public assistance, have communicated those same negative values to their children. Some of whom are at Boys & Girls; others are in schools throughout the 5 boroughs.
The legendary reputation and tradition of Boys High (a/k/a Boys and Girls High) is both national and international in scope. My former husband and his 4 brothers all graduated from there. There are other entertainers, artists, legislators, doctors, lawyers, sports figures, trailblazers, who have gotten their start at Boys High. They speak fondly of their days there, and what it has done for them as adults. Where are they, now that their alma mater is facing the ax? Will they stand for their school in its hour of need, and bring the resources necessary to return to greatness?
The set up of the current public school system in New York City (in most of the US, as well) does not adequately or appropriately serve the needs of our youth, and hasn't for some time. The dumbing down of the curricula began in the mid-70's, right under the noses of most Black parents, in the guise of "progressive", "modern" techniques. The result of the new methodology is methodically dis-educating and mis-educating our youth. Most can't read above a 6th grade level. Can't correctly pronounce simple words, or make a coherent, and grammatically correct sentence. Now, instead of the tri-level program - academic, vocational and commercial, students are forced into one major modality. And it's not working.
Boys & Girls would do well to consider the return -either fully or partially - to such a modality. Not every kid who graduates is going to college; not every child is going to be computer literate. There are people coming to New York to fill trade jobs we used to be able to fill from the population right here - they are from other countries - where they still understand the value of having a skill. Many of the entrepreneurs we have among us learned via a commercial - or business - curriculum.
Instead of closing Boys & Girls High, it needs to be retooled and refocused not closed and decimated.
Like President Obama stated, crucial jobs have to be brought back to America. Well, so do the skills. The concept of New York's major "industries" being FIRE - FINANCE, INSURANCE, REAL ESTATE, is due in large part to the closing of our manufacturing plants and shipping lines. It was a deliberate move as these jobs were exported over seas for cheaper labor. When they come back, there should be high school grads with the skills and abilities to fill those jobs, just as there should be college bound students pursuing other career goals.
I urge/insist that our Black elected officials get involved on an integral level in the development of ongoing resources to expand Dr. Gassaway's and the faculty and staff's capacities to transform the students so they break that chain of poverty mentality and hostility.
I also recommend that those who have graduated from "The High" come back and spend some time mentoring a guiding the present day student to success. If anyone should adopt a school - it's them, the doctors, lawyers, sports figures, entertainers, and parents - who got their values from a school that would not quit or give up on them.
Just so you know, however - the Bed-Stuy Brooklyn Community will do every thing in our power to make sure that BOYS & GIRLS HIGH is not closed- by any means necessary. The mis-education division of the City of New York needs to find some other target to do their hatchet job on. HANDS OFF THE HIGH!!! - GDW
The following is from the May 2012 edition of CITILIMITS MAGAZINE:
Fear of School Closure Is Personal for This Principal (from CitiLimits MagazineBrooklyn Bureau)
Story By Darren Sands.
Photo By Adi Talwar.
Bernard Gassaway is in his third year as principal at Boys and Girls. He was a teacher there from 1988 to 1991. Whether Bed-Stuy's Boys and Girls High School—with its declining enrollment and F ratings—survives is not just a professional concern for Principal Bernard Gassaway. His classroom roots, his former marriage, his career ambitions are all tied to the building on Fulton Street.
On a recent weekday morning, Bernard Gassaway, principal of Boys and Girls High School, bounced casually down the stairs while giving a tour of the building to a new guidance counselor. As the tour was coming to a close, the atmosphere along the path he took back toward his office was suddenly ripe for a fight: In a busy stairwell, an agitated guard had tried to stop an angry student for some offense. Gassaway watched the boy jerk his backpack away from the guard and retreat up the stairs, his face full of rage.
Gassaway casually made his way toward the student, grabbed him and put him in a playful headlock, an ironic demur of the aggressive manner in which the guard seemed to be handling the situation.
"Did you grab him like this?"
Unable to maneuver, the kid just smiled.
"I didn't do nothing to him," barked the guard, who, for his part, was still irritated. As if to stick up for his friend, another student then stepped to Gassaway.
"What, I grab him and you show up? I got people, too." He winked at his new hire.
He disguised it with playful banter, but Gassaway was in a solemn mood. Earlier that morning, rising before the sun, he stopped by the Jamaica, Queens home he once lived in with his ex-wife, Traci, and daughter, Atiya. There are still pieces of his life there, loose ends that need tying. The home is in contract to be sold. "I'm not going to fool myself," he replied when asked how he was doing personally. "I think I'm OK. I know that you've got to take care of yourself before you take care of others. And I haven't always done that."
It was during the first school days of September of 2009 that Gassaway and his ex-wife began their difficult separation. The freshman class that arrived then will be seniors when the 2012-2013 school year begins in September. And yet, while his tenure reaches what he says is an emotional milestone, there's a growing weight to the long-held fear that the Department of Education could elect to phase-out or close the school. This worry has tempered Gassaway's anticipation of his personal landmark and even cast a pall over efforts to save the school.
In a city where DOE brass have made a practice of closing large high schools and replacing them with smaller ones, the pressure to avoid a fate similar to, say, nearby Paul Robeson, is intense. In a system where principals have been given increased authority and accountability, Gassaway will get much of the the credit or the blame if Bed-Stuy's Boys and Girls survives—or fails.
"The weight of it [possibly] closing is tremendous," Gassaway said, alluding to the rich history of noted physicians, attorneys, politicians and athletes that the school has produced. "You're not closing down a new school. Boys and Girls High is more than just an institution. But the more imminent weight I feel is when it comes to dealing with the children day-to-day: Dealing with their concerns, their issues, their aspirations … and asking ourselves how we help create the future doctors and lawyers, and [figuring out] what role we play in that.
That Gassaway would use a headlock, of all devices, to defuse a potentially volatile situation illustrates his deep ties to two generations of students: Gassaway taught that angry boy's father as a young English teacher at Boys and Girls from 1988 to 1991 under his late mentor, the legendary principal Frank Mickens. In fact, Gassaway's 2009 return modeled his mentor's legacy; Mickens, too, left Boys and Girls in 1982, only to return as principal in 1986. Both sons of Brooklyn, each also received their bachelor's degree upstate.
Boys and Girls' condition is viewed by many as critical. One out of every four Boys and Girls students receives special education services. The school's graduation rate is about 45 percent, and school-wide attendance stands 71.2 percent as of May 7. It also received an ‘F' in every major category on its most recent Dept. of Education Progress Report. Once brimming with as many as 5,000 students, the school now has just over 1,500 students. School spirit is in short supply, but not for lack of trying on the part of its boys Kangaroos boys basketball team. Led by coach Ruth Lovelace (the first female coach to win a boys state title), the team won both the PSAL and New York State Federation titles in March. The headline of an article in the New York Daily News read, ‘ROOS RULE'. It hangs in Gassaway's office.
"The culture of the kids is different," said staff member Katrina Brown, a 2008 graduate of Boys and Girls and aspiring principal who arrived at Boys and Girls the year after Mickens retired. An assistant to assistant principal Bridget Carrington, Brown was a part of an incoming class of 1,500. But the number of students isn't the only thing that's changed, she says. "When I was a student, the kids wanted to do better. They wanted to graduate. A lot of these kids don't care. Their makeup is different. They don't want to be involved in school sports or activities. Now? They hardly want even come in the morning. I used to dread going home – and not because I had a bad home life. I was just so involved in what was going on here."
Many students are not as fortunate as Brown. Gassaway believes he could solve most of the school's problem's if he could strengthen the family. That would seem an impossible duty, or at least one not a fit for a principal. But while Gassaway has not been able to repair each of his students' home lives, the school itself—as it has gotten smaller—has actually become a family.
There's Constancia Simpson-Hayes, whose room on the second floor has a lounge area where students can read or chat quietly. A product of and staunch believer in the public school system who for years worked in college administration, Simpson-Hayes arrived last November as the school's new director of college and career services, and casually refers to her appointment as coming "back home." The lab had five working computers when she got there; it now has 16.
"We have a new family member," was how Gassaway introduced Aja Brown, the new guidance counselor whom he was showing around the building the morning the fight almost broke out. Staff in the Hub, the office that serves as a central processing unit for everything from incoming calls to faxes and guests, fawned over her as if she had walked through a church office.
Since then, in just a couple of weeks on the job, she's already begun the arduous task of placing students with little chance of earning a high school diploma from Boys and Girls in alternative schools. Others she will prepare for job training or other essential services. No matter their path, her bosses' mandate is to monitor their progress as far as she can. "I feel like this is where I'm supposed to be," Brown said.
That sense of belonging permeates the school's culture, now. As a pillar in the community, Boys and Girls—a zoned school which serves numerous area housing projects—prides itself on not giving up on any of its students, especially the most needy. "We believe students achieve success and embrace learning when they feel safe and are supported by competent and caring adults," reads the school's vision statement.
Coming up with resources hasn't been easy, but expanded offerings give the most vulnerable students access to services for which there is dire need. As many as 250 boys participate in an empowerment program titled Boys II Men. At night once a quarter, Gassaway opens the school for the boys to play sports and participate in workshops and character building. Many of his staff members volunteer. Students now have access to health services, intervention specialists and counselors on-site.
Perhaps Gassaway's most public battles over the course of the past three years played out when he began to suspend athletes from contests if they didn't pass their first period class because of poor attendance. The policy kept star players out of key games, especially in basketball, and there was little if any budging on the principal's behalf. This year, athletes are to maintain a 70 average and are also required to do 30 hours of community service. The PSAL recently adopted a similar policy for student athletes.
Outlined in a memo made available to Brooklyn Bureau, Boys and Girls' Comprehensive Education Plan for the 2011-12 school year underline high expectations for students:
--70 percent of students will have at least 11 credits by June 2012 (Just 40 percent had at least 5.5 credits as of last February
--70 percent of students who sit for any Regents exam will pass with at least a 65 by the end of the school year (28.6 percent of students who sat last year passed with at least a 65)
-Boys and Girls will achieve a graduation rate of 65 percent by August 2012 (Just 30 percent of the junior class are on track to graduate).
Measured against the performance of the school to date, the goals are ambitious. But Gassaway thinks changes in the school's atmosphere make them attainable.
"Two years ago, I was putting out the fires," Gassaway starts. "So they'd say, ‘Mr. Gassaway, the building's rocking.' And you can feel it, anyway. ‘Mr. Gassaway, there's was a fight on the third, fight on the second, fight on the first.' And I'm, like, ‘Shit.' So I'd say, ‘O.K., time to put on the Superman cape.' So I'd have to go out and make the hard decisions, getting students out of the building."
It's tough to determine how, in the next 18 months, the school will perform, how Gassaway and his staff will frame that record and how the DOE will interpret it. What is clear is that the results, and Tweed's reaction to them, will affect students, teachers, the institution and its principal.
At just 51, Gassaway is a man conscientious, if not obsessed, with legacy. He wrote a memoir, Reflections of an Urban High School Principal, in his mid-forties. This concern is part of the reason why the uncertain future of Boys and Girls unsettles him so.
Ironically, this is not because he knows he wants to spend the rest of his career in urban high schools. Gassaway has other aspirations. He has talked openly about one day soon finishing his coursework for his Ph.D. at Columbia Teacher's College and becoming a professor. But if he makes that move, the manner of making it matters. Will he walk out the door, run—or get chased?
"My field is education," he said. "If I'm going to be a tenured professor at some college, what am I going to profess? That I was in an urban high school [that] failed, so I can talk to you about failing, but I can't talk to you about success?"###
As I mentioned earlier, Boys High, and Boys and Girls High have a list of illustrious graduates a mile long. If they are as fond of the school as they say they are, they'll pull together their considerable influence and be the support it needs now and in the future. And send a clear signal to the youth who currently attend that they can be as great, if not greater than their predecessors. That they are not alone or abandoned. They will likewise join with so many Brooklynites who have stood together in the face of previous attempts to close the legendary school and say: "HANDS OFF THE HIGH!!"
Former New Yorker, and activist/entrepreneur Dorothy Pitman-Hughes just penned a book entitled: "I'm Just Saying, It Looks Like Ethnic Cleansing - the Gentrification of Harlem," which will be featured at the African American Pavillion at the BookExpo America exhibit at Jacob Javits Center, June 5 - 7th (private signing at the Cotton Club in Harlem, on June 4).
Make no mistake about it, the dumbing down of our educational centers, the staffing with mediocre teachers, and the supplanting of ernest, competent administrators, as in the case of Medgar Evers College; or the demolishing of schools, hospitals, community based centers as in the case of Paul Robeson High school, and other facilities; along with massive foreclosures - all look like ETHNIC CLEANSING to me! And it has to be halted in its tracks, by any means necessary. Those of you who think that the sale of Inner City Broadcasting, the discontinuation of Like It Is on ABC-TV; the sudden sale of WRKS (KISS) FM, the cancellation of Michael Baisden (who is no longer heard in New York) is merely a business transaction, have been drinking way too much of the wrong flavored Kool-Aid. Wake up and smell the new sulphurated stench of psycho-sociological, educational, economic and environmental genocide, big city style.
Draw a line in the concrete now, of the next to go will be you. HANDS OFF THE HIGH!! And all of our other Black institutions.###GDW
Stay Blessed &