After bumpy start, Boys & Girls basketball to aid school's reform

Bernard Gassaway, Chancellor Dennis Walcott and members of the Boys & Girls High School Track & Field team at City Hall.

Heading into this season, Coach Ruth Lovelace knew her championship basketball team needed to cut down on one statistic that nothing to do with what was happening on the court.


During the 2010-2011 season Boys & Girls High School, Lovelace’s star players took home the city title. But they also incurred academic suspension after academic suspension until, when it mattered the most, she lost seven players the week before her team began the state championship tournament. They lost in the first round.

This year, as the Kangaroos entered yet another long playoff stretch, Lovelace said she made it clear in the locker room that academics remained a top priority, even above wind sprints and layup lines. Players were attending study hall all season long and Lovelace didn’t want their efforts slide now.

“We learned a lesson,” Lovelace said on Monday inside the newly renovated City Council chambers at City Hall, where she and her players were invited to celebrate their Public School Athletics League and New York State championship titles this season. The boys track and field team also received an official honor from the council for winning city, state, and national titles.

The ceremony came just days after a group of schools that Boys & Girls had been part of until January — those receiving federal School Improvement Grants — were approved for the “turnaround” form of closure. But instead of spending the spring defending their school, students at Boys & Girls were busy adapting to higher standards for student athletes set by third-year Principal Bernard Gassaway.

Before the 2010-2011 school year, Gassaway found that more than 50 percent of student athletes failed their first period, usually because they weren’t showing up or turning in their work. So Gassaway established a rule: Anyone participating in extracurricular activities must pass first period and maintain an attendance rate of at least 90 percent.

“When we talk about career readiness, let’s start with being on time,” Gassaway explained last year.

This year, Gassaway enshrined that rule into policy, calling it “Higher Standards, Higher Expectations” and toughening the requirements. Student-athletes this year were required to maintain a grade average of at least 70 percent and serve 30 hours of community service to remain eligible for participation.

It took some time for coaches and students to realize that Gassaway was serious about the policy and, for the boys basketball team, the lesson didn’t fully set in until this year. Players who played on both years’ teams said that while the policy has reinforced the importance of academics, they thought last year’s troubles had more to do with the students than the policy.

“Lovelace has always been on top of our work,” said senior Shakur Pinder. “It was really just the athletes last year who weren’t on top of their work.”

But Gassaway said that he’s already sensed that other coaches are jumping on board and he hopes the higher expectations will spread outside the school’s storied athletic program.

“Eventually, the standards that we set for the basketball team will be school-wide,” Gassaway said.

The policy is one of many new intiatives that Gassaway is overseeing at Boys & Girls as part of a multi-year plan that he has charted for the school to help it reverse years of poor performance. The school received a F, C, and D on its last three years’ report cards and its four-year graduation rate has not topped 46 percent during that time — giving it one of the lowest graduation rates of any four-year high school that it not in the process of closing.

Gassaway is just months into restructuring the school around “small learning communities” that vary depending on the type of student at the school. He said his plan also calls for a stronger honors program, a Career and Technical Education program, and a transfer school.

Gassaway has the backing from both his community and from Tweed. Boys & Girls was among the group of schools receiving federal funding earlier this year, but when Mayor Bloomberg announced the controversial “turnaround” reform strategy in January, it was not on the list. The omission that raised eyebrows among teachers and principals in other turnaround schools who said their schools were improving faster than Boys & Girls.

Supporters say the school’s struggle is linked to the uniquely challenging student population that it takes in.

“The reason they get a very low rating is because they’ve been getting a lot of students who are not prepared,” said City Councilman Al Vann. “It’s unfair to think that they can raise the level of those kids in a short period of time. It’s not possible.”

Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who popped into the council chambers to shake hands with the athletes and coaches, said Gassaway’s efforts have the city’s full support.

“Our commitment is to Boys & Girls and making sure that we help them achieve those goals that Bernard set,” said Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

“We have a hard-working principal there who is very focused on turning Boys & Girls around,” he added.

that was weird

The D.C. school system had a pitch-perfect response after John Oliver made #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter

Public education got some unexpected attention Sunday night when John Oliver asked viewers watching the Emmys to make #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter.

Oliver had been inspired by comedian Dave Chappelle, who shouted out the school system he attended before he announced an award winner. Within a minute of Oliver’s request, the hashtag was officially trending.

Most of the tweets had nothing to do with schools in Washington, D.C.

Here are a few that did, starting with this pitch-perfect one from the official D.C. Public Schools account:

Oliver’s surreal challenge was far from the first time that the late-show host has made education a centerpiece of his comedy — over time, he has pilloried standardized testing, school segregation, and charter schools.

Nor was it the first education hashtag to take center stage at an awards show: #PublicSchoolProud, which emerged as a response to new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, got a shoutout during the Oscars in February.

And it also is not the first time this year that D.C. schools have gotten a surprise burst of attention. The Oscars were just a week after DeVos drew fire for criticizing the teachers she met during her first school visit as secretary — to a D.C. public school.

Startup Support

Diverse charter schools in New York City to get boost from Walton money

PHOTO: John Bartelstone
Students at Brooklyn Prospect Charter School in 2012. The school is one of several New York City charters that aim to enroll diverse student bodies.

The Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropy governed by the family behind Walmart, pledged Tuesday to invest $2.2 million over the next two years in new charter schools in New York City that aim to be socioeconomically diverse.

Officials from the foundation expect the initiative to support the start of about seven mixed-income charter schools, which will be able to use the money to pay for anything from building space to teachers to technology.

The effort reflects a growing interest in New York and beyond in establishing charter schools that enroll students from a mix of backgrounds, which research suggests can benefit students and is considered one remedy to school segregation.

“We are excited to help educators and leaders on the front lines of solving one of today’s most pressing education challenges,” Marc Sternberg, the foundation’s K-12 education director and a former New York City education department official, said in a statement.

Walton has been a major charter school backer, pouring more than $407 million into hundreds of those schools over the past two decades. In New York, the foundation has helped fund more than 100 new charter schools. (Walton also supports Chalkbeat; read about our funding here.)

Some studies have found that black and Hispanic students in charter schools are more likely to attend predominantly nonwhite schools than their peers in traditional schools, partly because charter schools tend to be located in urban areas and are often established specifically to serve low-income students of color. In New York City, one report found that 90 percent of charter schools in 2010 were “intensely segregated,” meaning fewer than 10 percent of their students were white.

However, more recently, a small but rising number of charter schools has started to take steps to recruit and enroll a more diverse student body. Often, they do this by drawing in applicants from larger geographic areas than traditional schools can and by adjusting their admissions lotteries to reserve seats for particular groups, such as low-income students or residents of nearby housing projects.

Founded in 2014, the national Diverse Charter Schools Coalition now includes more than 100 schools in more than a dozen states. Nine New York City charter groups are part of the coalition, ranging from individual schools like Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn to larger networks, including six Success Academy schools.

“There’s been a real shift in the charter school movement to think about how they address the issue of segregation,” said Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank that promotes socioeconomic diversity.

The Century Foundation and researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University and Temple University will receive additional funding from Walton to study diverse charter schools, with the universities’ researchers conducting what Walton says is the first peer-reviewed study of those schools’ impact on student learning.