Calling it Quits

Departing leader of Boys and Girls HS: City's turnaround plan 'doomed to fail'

Bernard Gassaway, the principal of Boys and Girls High School, said he is resigning because he does not think the city's plan to improve the school will work.

The outspoken principal of Brooklyn’s troubled Boys and Girls High School said he is stepping down because he believes the plan the city is developing to turn around the school is “doomed to fail.”

Bernard Gassaway for several months has complained that the education department has not worked with him or shown him its completed improvement plan for the school, which the state requires because Boys and Girls has performed dismally for years. Last month, Gassaway refused to sign off on the plan because officials did not present him the full document, he said.

“Whatever it is they say they’re planning is doomed to fail,” said Gassaway, who has led the Bedford-Stuyvesant school since 2009 and has opposed the city’s intervention efforts before. “And the fall guy will always be the principal.”

Gassaway’s resignation brings his tumultuous tenure at Boys and Girls to an end, and adds to the growing pressure on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration to describe in detail how it will prop up such struggling schools. De Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have said that, unlike the previous administration, they will only close such schools as a last resort after offering them robust support. But principals at troubled schools said they have been given minimal guidance so far, and the city has asked for an extension to submit its improvement plans to the state.

Though Gassaway has loudly criticized the education department for years, saying it has failed to offer him the tools he needs to turn around the school, he has attracted his own share of critics who say he has not done enough to move Boys and Girls forward. He has presided over the school as it has hemorrhaged students, maintained a graduation rate nearly 20 points below the city average, and earned an unprecedented three straight F’s on the Bloomberg-era school progress reports.

Many observers have pointed out that the Bloomberg administration shuttered schools with better records than that of Boys and Girls, suggesting that the main reason it remained open and Gassaway kept his job is the school’s alliance of politically connected backers.

“The history of the school is that the leader has figured out how to drum up the political support necessary to isolate it from any efforts by central to do something different there,” said Eric Nadelstern, a Bloomberg administration official who championed its policy of closing the lowest performing schools.

Former Chancellor Joel Klein handpicked Gassaway, a former superintendent, to try to rescue Boys and Girls. But as the school continued to struggle, Gassaway routinely criticized the department and threatened to resign, most recently after the city revealed plans to open a small high school inside the Boys and Girls building.

While Gassaway insisted that his departure was “100 percent voluntary,” he also said officials made clear that he needed to get “on board” with the city’s plan for his school. A source close to department officials said Gassaway was pressured to leave.

Department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said the city had “regularly engaged” with Gassaway since the spring as it created a plan for the school, and suggested that his departure could benefit Boys and Girls.

“A change in leadership means a new opportunity to turn around this school,” Kaye said, adding that an interim principal will take over while the city finds a permanent replacement.

Gassaway has attracted his share of critics, who say he has not done enough to improve the school during the five years he has led it.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Gassaway has attracted his share of critics, who say he has not done enough to improve the school during the five years he has led it.

Boys and Girls is one of about 30 bottom-ranked city schools that has yet to submit a mandated improvement plan to the state. Those plans were due in July, but the city has asked for an extension until the end of this month to file them — a delay that critics and some principals say will make it more difficult to turn around the most troubled schools.

State Education Commissioner John King said this week that the delay was “understandable” since the administration had to negotiate a new teachers contract, but that city officials must now turn their attention to the poorest performing schools.

“I expect them to have detailed plans later this fall and to move quickly to support schools in implementing those plans,” King said during a school visit in the Bronx.

Boys and Girls and one other chronically low-performing Brooklyn school, Automotive High School in Williamsburg, have been designated by the state as “out of time.” The state gave districts a short menu of intensive interventions for such schools. The city chose to put them under an “alternate governance structure,” which has involved assigning them a special superintendent who is also overseeing several other troubled high schools.

The city has also taken the unusual step of promising not to send latecomer students, who often pose extra challenges, to the two schools.

The schools are also part of a so-far unpublicized intensive-support program for 23 struggling schools that has been dubbed the “School Achievement Initiative.” While even some principals are still uncertain what sort of support the program will entail, it has involved assigning the schools “redesign” teams.

Gassaway said the team assigned to his school includes a former principal and a math and English coach, who are also responsible for three other struggling schools. The team is only able to visit each school about once a week, and it’s not clear if they have any other resources to offer, Gassaway said, adding that such support is not enough to set a seriously challenged school on a new course.

“It’s like we’re getting ready to play basketball and you’re sending me a hockey team,” Gassaway said.

Meanwhile, neither Fariña nor any of her top deputies has visited Boys and Girls this year, according to Gassaway and his brother, Caster Hall, the president of Boys and Girls’s parent association whose son attends the school.

“I emailed Ms. Fariña,” Hall said, “and I told her she needs to come out to Boys and Girls High School.”

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