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Grady seniors, principal leave together after stormy reform effort

In an emotional goodbye to teachers and graduating seniors at William Grady Career & Technical High School on Tuesday, Principal Geraldine Maione disclosed — for the first time, she said — how she landed on her feet at the school three years ago.

“The only reason I’m here at Grady is because of your president, my president, and my friend: Michael Mulgrew,” Maione said, referring to the head of the United Federation of Teachers union. She was speaking under a tent set up on Grady’s football field, which overflowed with family members of the more than 150 students who walked in the graduation ceremony.

The event marked the end of school not only for seniors at Grady, but for Maione, too. After 20 years as a history teacher and principal, Maione is retiring, having spent three years as Grady’s leader. The event also capped a tumultuous period for the Brighton Beach school, which was caught in the middle of a lengthy labor fight that ended with student enrollment down significantly.

“Please know that you gave so much back to me,” Maione told the students while giving out awards she created more than a decade ago in memory of her two sons, who died in 1999. “I would have never been able to live these last 14 years if it wasn’t for all the thousands of children that I have.”

Mulgrew had just been elected United Federation of Teachers President in 2010 when Maione lost her job at Franklin D. Roosevelt High School, one of 11 city schools initially picked to share a $19 million federal grant designed to improve the country’s lowest-performing schools. To qualify, the school had to replace its principal if she had been there for more than three years, and Maione had been there one year too many.

But Maione, with Mulgrew’s help, was quickly hired at Grady, where they had taught together years earlier. Over the next three years, Maione extended the school day and upgraded the school cosmetically with student art installations. She also said she removed a small number of teachers who she thought didn’t fit her vision for the school.

Teachers weary of change said that Maione’s constant presence in the hallways stabilized the school and elevated expectations. She eliminated the widespread use of credit recovery, making grade promotion more difficult. Still, Maione said students earned 10 percent more credits on average, propelling a graduation rate increase from 42 percent in 2010 to 62 percent in 2012.

The last two years have been more destabilizing. After improving its progress report grade from a “D” to a “B,” the school lost its federal funding in December 2011 after the city and the UFT failed to agree on new teacher evaluations. Mayor Bloomberg promptly announced that the schools would be closed and reopened, but then pulled Grady from that list because of its academic gains.

The school’s uncertain status seems to have affected its ability to recruit new students. Enrollment exceeded 1,300 in 2010 but has fallen to 715, according to the Department of Education.

And Maione said she expected this year’s graduation rates to dip. There were 597 students in the 2009 cohort, but just half of them were promoted to 10th grade at the school a year later. About 150 students participated in the graduation ceremony, but Maione said 18 were still waiting to find out whether they had passed the Regents exams required to get a diploma.

The experience left Maione frustrated as the Bloomberg administration implemented high-stakes accountability measures. She said schools such as hers, with many high-need students, had conflicting interests: They are under pressure to boost their four-year graduation rates, but they also must help students who are several grades behind in reading and math and need more time than that to earn their diploma.

“It’s not about progress reports,” Maine said during her speech, to loud applause. “It’s not about a test!”

After the event, Mulgrew, who didn’t speak, said he hoped that someone from within the school would be chosen to take over for Maione, but he said she’d be difficult to replace.

“This is somebody who’s made a big difference in thousands of kids lives,” Mulgrew said. “She’s somebody who’s very, very special.”