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.”