Calling it Quits

Departing leader of Boys and Girls HS: City's turnaround plan 'doomed to fail'

Bernard Gassaway, the principal of Boys and Girls High School, said he is resigning because he does not think the city's plan to improve the school will work.

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.

Gassaway has attracted his share of critics, who say he has not done enough to improve the school during the five years he has led it.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Gassaway has attracted his share of critics, who say he has not done enough to improve the school during the five years he has led it.

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.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.