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Signs of optimism at Boys and Girls High School, but challenges lie ahead

A community member speaks at public hearing at Brooklyn's Boys and Girls High School.
A community member speaks at public hearing at Brooklyn's Boys and Girls High School.
Alex Zimmerman

Last year was a tumultuous one at Boys and Girls High School. Its former Principal Michael Wiltshire ran two schools at once, eschewed the city’s high-profile turnaround program, and threatened to dissolve a relationship with its nonprofit social service provider. But now, with a new principal in place, there is a sense of optimism at the Bedford-Stuyvesant school.

At least, that was the sentiment at a modestly attended community meeting Monday evening, whose purpose was to explain Boys and Girls’ status as a member of the state’s receivership program for low-performing schools.

In a presentation, the Brooklyn school’s newly appointed principal, Grecian Harrison, ticked off increases in enrollment, attendance, and reductions in violent incidents as signs the school — which is ranked among the lowest five percent across the state — is on the right track.

Boys and Girls is one of 27 schools across the city that are in the state’s receivership program and are under pressure to show improvement. The school has one more year to meet a range benchmarks before the state could theoretically force Chancellor Carmen Fariña to appoint an independent entity to oversee to school.

In her presentation on its status, Harrison noted the school posted an 82.3 percent attendance rate last year, exceeding its state target by slightly less than one percentage point — and met its four-year graduation target of 45 percent.

And enrollment, she added, hit 412 students this year, up from 269 at the end of last school year.

“As you know, we’ve had the opportunity to have some of the most dedicated and supportive alumni, I think, in the tri-state area,” Harrison said, while touting the school’s enrollment gains. “We also have our elected officials, who support Boys and Girls High School to no end.”

But she also acknowledged the school’s struggles in meeting some of its benchmarks, including its success in preparing students for college and careers, and turning around perceptions of safety. She also noted that the school has struggled to get the state to certify its two career and technical education programs, a challenge faced by schools across the city.

The meeting’s subtext, though, was dominated by the school’s embattled former Principal Michael Wiltshire.

Wiltshire took the helm at Boys and Girls in 2014 after city officials let him run the troubled school without giving up his post leading the higher-performing Medgar Evers College Preparatory School. And while Boys and Girls saw gains in attendance and graduation rates under Wiltshire, that high-stakes experiment fell apart last year, and he returned to Medgar Evers full-time.

His tenure was marked by a public clash with nonprofit partner Good Shepherd Services, which provides students with counseling and other supports, and threatened to leave the school last year.

And while she didn’t address that controversy, Harrison’s presentation noted that Good Shepherd is the “lead CBO” and is “at the heart of our school.” When approached by a reporter after the meeting, Harrison referred all questions to the city education department’s press office, which confirmed Good Shepherd will remain at the school this year.

The tone at Monday’s meeting was largely optimistic, even as some parents were confused by the presentation on the school’s status in the state’s receivership program.

“It’s very, very refreshing to have a dedicated principal — that’s not something we’ve had for a long time,” one of the school’s graduates said during the public comment period, a reference to Wiltshire’s tenure.

“We’re right behind you,” echoed PTA President Doratta Smith. “I’m behind any progression, any positive movement for the children.”

Another speaker, Al Vann, a former state assemblyman, said Wiltshire deserved more of the credit.

“Ms. Harrison has only been here a few weeks, and the fact that this school has exceeded the benchmarks to move them towards and out of receivership was done by another principal whose name has not been mentioned,” he said. “Whatever we think of the man, he has a hell of a track record.”

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