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City banks on new leadership to transform a Brooklyn school

This school year, GothamSchools and WNYC reporters will follow three New York City high schools as they try to improve. The following is an introduction to one of those schools: William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School.

For years, Brooklyn’s William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School struggled to break free from its reputation as simply a trade school.

“The ‘vocational school’ stigma continues to be a deterrent to students who see themselves as college bound,” the school’s leadership team wrote in its educational plan for the 2008-09 school year. Staff laid out strategies to make the school more challenging — and posted some gains — but the school continued to limp academically. About a fifth of the school’s 1,300 students were absent every day last year, and at the end of the year, not even half of the school’s seniors graduated.

Now, the city is hoping that millions of dollars in federal aid and a new principal will finally jumpstart Grady’s renaissance.

Earlier this year, the city announced the school would undergo the federal “transformation” model of school improvement. That meant the city had to replace Grady’s principal — Carlston Gray, who had headed the school since 2006 — and adopt new class schedules and bonuses for teachers who help their colleagues. In exchange, Grady would get as much as $2 million in federal funds per year over the next three years.

For a new leader, the city turned to Geraldine Maione, who had been principal at Brooklyn’s 3,500-student Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School.

This was an unusual move, because FDR is also on the city’s federal revamp list, and so the city was required to replace Maione there as well. But city officials said they liked the progress Maione had made at FDR, so they reassigned her to Grady, where she had worked for seven years in the 1990s, first as a teacher and then as an assistant principal. (Another Grady teacher during that time, Michael Mulgrew, is now the current teachers union president.)

Maione is Grady’s third principal since 2004. Rather than making a large number of dramatic changes right away, she said she prefers to ease in, getting to know the students and the staff. She also said she is still working with the city and state to hammer out exactly how much she can spend of the $2 million Grady could receive as a transformation school.

But she has already started spending some of the funds, hiring one “master” and two “turnaround” teachers. Those teachers will each work more hours and mentor their colleagues in exchange for large performance bonuses.

Maione has other plans for how to use the funds. Right now, Grady runs extended-day programs, but only for students who are working on recovering credit for classes they have repeatedly failed. Maione wants to experiment with giving extra time to all students. And she said she’d like to reduce class size, but federal rules won’t allow her to use the extra money to make that happen.

Grady had seen some improvement in the years before Maione arrived. The school’s graduation rate increased nearly 9 points since 2007, and more students were passing more classes. That progress was why city officials chose the transformation option for Grady, rather than more severe federally-approved strategies that require firing teachers or shuttering the school entirely.

But some teachers at the school said the school was still floundering and welcomed a new principal. “The data indicates we haven’t gotten any better,” one teacher told GothamSchools this summer when Gray announced he would be replaced. “There should be a change.”

Despite the slight gains, more than half of Grady’s students were dropping out. Barely more than half of the school’s ninth-graders were earning enough credits to go on to tenth grade. And from 2008 and 2009, the school’s grade on the city’s progress reports dropped from a B to a C.

Students also continued to complain about safety problems, with more than half of those responding to last year’s city survey reporting gang activity in the school all or most of the time.

Even with her slowly-but-surely approach to school improvement, Maione said she has focused on changing one thing right away: a school culture where students don’t hold high expectations for themselves.

“That is my main mission for now,” Maione said. “When that happens, all the other things fall in place.”

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