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December 12, 2012

Boys and Girls High School: A View from a Parent Leader

It was a moment many had expected for years, ever since Boys and Girls High School had begun receiving poor and failing marks on its progress reports from the Department of Education: An auditorium full of parents and community stakeholders making the case to Department of Education officials as to why the venerable Bed-Stuy institution should not be closed. The meeting, held this past Tuesday, December 4th, was part of the process that the DOE uses to help decide the fate of failing schools.

And while much of the press attention was on the human lighting rod in room, the stoic Principal Bernard Gassaway, it was PTA leader Lisa Dunn and her fellow parent leaders who were probably most responsible for the impressively large turnout, leaving little doubt that parents were willing to go toe-to-toe with the DOE in order to save their beloved school.


“We must have called at least 250 people for this event,” Dunn said with an instinctive understanding of how to effectively mobilize people.

 

A Failing District


Lisa Dunn, and what threatened to be a pre-closure meeting at Boys and Girls, both help illustrate what is both promising and challenging about trying to make change in Community School District 16, the district that covers the eastern section of Bedford-Stuyvesant , including Boys and Girls High, and a little bit of Crown Heights.


Yes, the PTA was able to help generate great turnout. And yes, DOE got an earful, as reported in many publications like Gotham Schools and the Amsterdam News.


However, it was all a little too familiar: Angry people of color, talking about the historic importance of a school and how their educational system was under attack. Considering that this kind of event rarely results in changing the minds of DOE officials intent on closing a school, it’s not clear whether the community’s power or our powerlessness was on display.


Conspicuously absent from the exchange were some cold hard facts. For instance, District 16 has the lowest College and Career Readiness scores in the entire City, according to the Schott Foundation. In two of the district’s four high schools with graduating classes in 2012, merely five percent of the graduates were considered college and career ready over a four year period. For Boys and Girls, the biggest high school in the district, the figure was three percent. In the fourth high school, 0.0% met the mark.


Meanwhile, at a meeting held on Wednesday, November 28th, one in which Chancellor Walcott was scheduled to preside over a town hall-style discussion with the entire District 16 community (he ended up being a no-show), only about 100 people attended, roughly one third of the crowd who attended the Boys and Girls meeting a week later.  And although both events were big on emotion, speeches and theater, no one attempted to walk parents or DOE officials through a plan on how either Boys or Girls stakeholders or District 16 schools in general were going to reverse these abysmal “achievement” results. The closest thing was a one page handout diagramming Boys and Girls’ support programs (the diagram is a graphic outline of a more in-depth plan developed by the Boys and Girls’ administration).



Ms. Dunn harbors no illusions about the complexity and gravity of the problems at Boys and Girls. She also is the first to admit that while it’s one thing to turn out hundreds of parents when a school is facing impending doom, it’s quite another thing to get parents, particularly at a high school level, to participate regularly in PTA meetings and in the running of the school.



“Trying to get parents involved is difficult,” Dunn lamented, saying that in a school of about 1500 students, 25 parents, on average, have been coming out to PTA meetings this year. “Parents are out there struggling, working two and three jobs. When your child is not doing well, some parents think that the school is supposed to fix everything.”

 

Picking Sides

One of the allegations leveled against DOE by advocates of Boys and Girls is that low-performing students are consistently steered towards the school, while high-performing ones are advised against attending. This was expressed repeatedly, in less diplomatic terms, at Tuesday’s meeting. In fact, one of Dunn’s plans is to have B&G parents talk to parents at area middle schools and help them prepare academically for what they are about to face in high school.


But Dunn’s own personal experiences belie the school’s image as a warehouse for struggling students.And as an unabashed advocate for Bernard Gassaway, she’s a countervailing force to former and present B&G teachers who regularly attack Gassaway in the blogsphere and blame him for the school’s failures. These indictments from teachers are mostly in response to Gassaway’s very public and explicit campaign to drive what he considers to be bad teachers from the school.


For instance, Dunn describes her son, a sophomore at Boys and Girls, as having excelled in several gifted programs in lower and middle school before entering Boys and Girls as an A+ student. When he approached her about attending Boys and Girls, mostly because of its strong basketball program, Dunn was initially adamantly against it, she says, because she read that it was a school in distress. It was only after talking to Gassaway for “two hours in one meeting, and an hour and a half in other” did she allow her son to attend.


Since then, Dunn says, Gassaway has been the PTA’s biggest advocate and gives her team all the support they could hope for. And she talks proudly of her son’s participation in a program at Long Island University where he and other students are receiving intense academic support and test prep designed to make them very ready for college.


Dunn, who is acutely aware of the war between Gassaway and Boys and Girls’ disenchanted teachers, pledges her support for Gassaway, but is unwilling at this point to cast blame on the teachers. She reserves the right to form her own opinion.



“One day I’m going to just walk the hallways,” Dunn insists. “I’m going to visit classrooms, without announcing it or asking anyone to take me. I want to see for myself what’s really going on inside the school.”

 

About this author

Mark Winston Griffith

Mark Winston Griffith

Prior to coming on staff at the Brooklyn Movement Center, Mark was on the Faculty of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and was most recently the field organizer for the MOVE NY campaign. A Central Brooklyn native, Mark Winston Griffith is the former Executive Director and Senior Fellow for Economic Justice at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, and the former co-director of the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project. In the early nineties he co-founded the Central Brooklyn Partnership and Central Brooklyn Federal Credit Union. He currently serves on the boards of the Brooklyn Cooperative Federal Credit Union, Center for an Urban Future, the Center for Working Families, Little Sun People and Free Speech TV. Mark loves spending time with his family, running the streets of New York like a steeplechase, and describing how he acquired the 18 inch scar that runs the length of his spine.

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