Two years ago, Boys and Girls High School got a D on its annual progress report. Soon after, the state and city sent the sprawling Bedford-Stuyvesant institution a clear message: raise your grade – or else.
Thousands of parents, teachers and students caught a glimpse of the “or else” earlier this month when the city’s Department of Education (DOE) voted to close 22 schools. Boys and Girls wasn’t on this year’s list of schools to close, but it could be next year. If it’s to survive, Boys and Girls will need to show serious improvements soon – a tall order for a large school with a new principal and many struggling students.
“It’s a greater challenge than I ever imagined,” said Bernard Gassaway, who took over as principal last school year. Since then, he’s worked at the school from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. most weekdays, and has come in most weekends too. “It’s insane,” he said
during a recent phone interview. “But it’s the only way I can see it getting done.”
Boys and Girls High School, which is a merger of two historic city schools, moved into its current 386,000 square foot complex at 1700 Fulton Street in 1975. It enrolls around 2,000 students and employs close to 135 staff members. The DOE estimates that up to 80 percent of Boys and Girls students come from families that receive public assistance.
“The school is such an important institution,” said Amelia Thompson, who graduated from Boys and Girls in 2002 and now runs High Impact Alliance, a group of Boys and Girls alumni who mentor current students. She said that the high school also serves as a community center, providing after-school programming for children and civic events for
In 2009, the school was added to the state’s list of “persistently lowest-achieving” schools. The state Education Department compiles its struggling schools lists using students’ Regents exam scores and graduation rates.The city meanwhile looks at its annual school progress reports to target low-performing schools. Those grades are based on student attendance, graduation rates, Regents scores and several other factors. Students at Boys and Girls did poorly on the 2008-2009 Regents tests, which is the latest year for which scores are available. In that year, only 23 percent of Boys and Girls students passed the Algebra portion of the exam, compared to a city average of 58 percent. Sixty percent of Boys and Girls students passed the English test, compared to 70 percent citywide.
The school also struggled on its most recent progress report. Though Gassaway helped push the overall grade up from a D to a C last year, the school still received an F for its graduation rate. At 44 percent, the school’s rate is well below the citywide average of 63 percent.
Seeing Boys and Girls struggle, the DOE has made efforts to help. Over the past few years, the city has spent around $1 million per year on professional development, consultants, before- and afterschool programs and other improvement strategies.
But many critics say that this support – whether in the form of training or funding – is too little, too late.
“No school with a terrible graduation rate is going to turn around because you gave it money for an afterschool program,” said Megan Hester, a policy and research coordinator at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.
Gassaway said that the money for training and consulting could have been put to better use. To him the problem is not untrained staff, but unmotivated staff. “I can lead you to water,” said Gassaway, a former teacher and educational consultant, “but if you don’t want to drink it, you’re not going to teach it.” Though Gassaway praised many of his teachers, he said that others weren’t up to the challenge of turning around the school. “You know there are certain students who will be shortchanged when they get certain teachers,” Gassaway said. “That makes the difference. Period.”
He has asked the DOE to let him try a federal turnaround model that calls for replacing half of a struggling school’s staff. Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld, a DOE spokesman, said that the department is currently negotiating with the city’s teachers unions about putting that model into practice. Besides hiring new teachers, Gassaway said the school needs to beef up its counseling services and update its learning facilities, particularly its science labs and library.
Gassaway recently found a picture of himself from the 1990s when he was a teacher at Boys and Girls. In the picture, he stood in the school’s library. It looked exactly the same as it does today, he said.
Education reformers say that urban schools like Boys and Girls need the essentials – strong leaders, highly qualified teachers and funding for art programs and technology – before they begin to flounder. Once they do, the DOE needs a clear, aggressive strategy for getting schools back on track. “There’s no one thing that’s going to turn a school around,” Hester said. “It has to be a comprehensive plan.”
But for many struggling schools, the DOE’s intervention efforts turn out to be the beginning of the end.
Since 2002 when Mayor Bloomberg gained control of the school system, the DOE has shut down around 100 schools, many of them large high schools like Boys and Girls. Often they have been replaced with smaller themed schools or charters.
Opponents of school closings cite many problems with this approach.They say that the schools being shuttered tend to serve more high-needs students. A recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office confirms this. The report shows that schools on this year’s closure list taught more special education students, students from low-income families and overage students than the city average.
Data analysis by Annenberg Institute for School Reform
Critics also say there’s no guarantee the small schools and charters that the city favors will succeed where larger schools have failed. In fact, eight of the schools that the DOE voted to close this year are small schools – though this is a fraction of the city’s 400 or so small schools.
As for charters, they are a notoriously mixed bag. A recent study by Stanford researchers found that only 30 percent of students in New York City’s charters did better on reading tests than their peers in traditional schools. About half of the charter students outperformed their regular public school counterparts in math.
For now, the leaders at Boys and Girls are trying to fix the school before it’s too late. Gassaway has drawn on his decades of educational experience to implement many of the changes recommended by the DOE. He’s helped divide the school into five smaller units, or “learning communities,” added extra math and English periods and started new after-school, weekend and summer learning programs. “He’s the right man at the right time,” said Stanley Kinard, who works in the new College and Career Center at Boys and Girls, where he’s been active for 20 years. Gassaway says that, so far, the DOE hasn’t given him a deadline to make certain improvements or face closure. Zarin-Rosenfeld, the DOE spokesman, said the department is still deciding how to deal with Boys and Girls and several other struggling schools.
Tandi Mitchell, a senior at the school, hopes closing isn’t an option for Boys and Girls.
“I really like this school,” said Mitchell, who has an A average and hopes to study pharmacy or pediatrics in college. “They need to give it a chance.”