flat-lined

Unprecedented third straight 'F' for struggling Boys and Girls HS

Chancellor Dennis Walcott and City Councilman Al Vann joined Boys and Girls High School Principal Bernard Gassaway to honor the school’s boys basketball team for winning the city championships last year.

Brooklyn’s Boys and Girls High School earned the lowest mark on its city progress report today, making it one of just two schools ever to receive the failing grade three years in a row.

The Department of Education has closed many schools that have netted F’s since it began awarding the annual grades in 2007, but Boys and Girls has always managed to stay away from the chopping block. It will escape closure again this year, this time because the Bloomberg administration has simply run out of time to shutter any more low-performing schools.

Instead, Chancellor Dennis Walcott is scheduled to appear Thursday at Boys and Girls, not to intervene in its academic program but to join the school’s powerful supporters to cut the ribbon on a new health center there.

But while other department officials previously have supported Principal Bernard Gassaway as he has annually promised improvements that have not materialized, Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky said today that a school with Boys and Girls’ record should be “cause for serious concern.”

“I think sometimes when something’s not working you need to look at bringing in a new team of educators in that school community,” Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky of schools with a string of Fs. “It doesn’t make sense that that would be off the table, but it’s not really our decision to make.”

People close to the Bedford-Stuyvesant school said today that even though the city hasn’t closed the school, the stigma from perennially being labeled as failing is doing the same job, just slowly.

“They’ve gotten such a bad rap throughout the years that people just will not send their children there,” said Lisa Dunn, a former PTA president at the school.

Before this year, no school has ever been stuck for so long on the lowest grade in the city’s six-year history of A-F grading system. Today, both Boys and Girls and DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx received their third consecutive F’s. Both schools have strong alumni associations, long and storied histories, award-winning athletic programs, and support among local politicians.

In Boys and Girls’ case, powerful supporters — including City Councilman Al Vann and Regent Lester Young — have repeatedly convinced the Department of Education to extend the school’s lease on life while Gassaway, their hand-picked principal, could be given time and space to implement his turnaround plan. Gassaway said when he came to the school in 2009 that he needed three years to show improvement.

Gassaway would not comment on the school’s latest marks. But he publicly said last month that he might resign over the city’s proposal to install another school inside Boys and Girls’ massive Fulton Avenue building.

That building is far emptier than it used to be just a few years ago. In 2007, Boys and Girls enrolled more than 4,000 students. Following a class action lawsuit that charged Gassaway’s predecessors with warehousing disruptive students in an auditorium and the simultaneous rise of small schools in the area, enrollment plummeted. This year, fewer than 1,000 students attend the school.

And few of those students are thriving, according to city data. Daily attendance hovers around 75 percent and four-year graduation rates were just over 40 percent in recent years, about two-thirds of the citywide rate. Just one in five students met minimum academic standards necessary to move onto college or has managed to stay in college for at least two years after graduating, according to the latest city data.

Gassaway and Boys and Girls supporters have long argued that the school has been a victim of the city’s enrollment policies, which have frequently come under fire for concentrating high-needs students in struggling schools. Those policies, they have said, made it hard to attract high-performing middle-school students, though a screened program for accelerated students in partnership with Long Island University is now in its third year. Over the years, they said, students who were the farthest behind in school and with the most problems at home made up a larger proportion of the population.

The school has made several efforts to address those needs, including with the health center that Walcott is inaugurating on Thursday. Gassaway opened a highly touted “Care Center” last year and recruited a network of community-based organizations to expand social services in the school.

Sources close to the school say most of those organizations are no longer actively working with the school, with the exception of Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration, whose director Colvin Grannum is also a longtime ally.

Gassaway did not respond to requests for a list of community groups working in the center, but he said in an email that it was not diminished. And he noted the new school-based health center.

But the school’s low performance is dismal even in comparison to other struggling schools. Like all low-ranking schools that the department has opted not close, Boys and Girls has received “targeted action plans” with extra resources.

According to the department, most of those schools have improved in response to this extra help. Of all schools that had the assistance plans in 2012-2013, 37 percent improved by one grade this year, 28 percent improved by two grades, and 11 percent improved by three or more grades. A few of the schools netted lower grades. Boys and Girls was part of the 14 percent of schools to stay the same.

A few students have managed to thrive at Boys and Girls. Dunn, the PTA president, allowed her son to attend Boys and Girls to play basketball on the condition that he enroll in the Long Island University program. She estimated that he earned a dozen college credits by the end of his sophomore year.

This year, though, Dunn became part of the school’s student flight when her son transferred to a high school closer to where they live in Queens, in an effort to cut down on his commute. She said she was initially “shocked” to hear it had not improved, but added that the number of students who entered ninth grade already many years behind in reading and writing had taking up a larger share of the population.

What to do with the school, its students, and its hulking building in Bed-Stuy will be among Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s education challenges. Though de Blasio has pledged to support struggling schools rather than shut them down, Boys and Girls’ recent history suggests that extra help isn’t enough to turn the school around.

Shifting political winds in the area could also fracture the coalition that has pledged to support Boys and Girls in the past. Vann is leaving the City Council, while another longtime member of the school’s advisory group, Jitu Weusi, died this year.

And Dunn said she thought the constant negative attention that the school receives has “stigmatized” it so much that students no longer want to attend. She suggested that the school’s fate might be sealed when she recalled her experience taking her son to an enrollment center before high school so he could join Boys and Girls’ championship basketball team. She asked the department official to add Armando to the school’s register.

The response she said she got: “Why are you sending him there?”

 

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede