Bernard Gassaway: New Leader at Boys and Girls High

0
315

 There are several fine high schools around Bed-Stuy, but Boys and Girls is unique. Not only for the sheer size of the student body, but they do not have the legacy that “The High” carries with it.

And because of the number of students attending, how lives are shaped here has a penetrating effect on the economic and social fabric of the community and will determine what kind of community, if any we’ll have in the future.

When Bernard Gassaway was appointed we wrote, “The Gassaway Era begins in a hyper-competitive, globalized, technological world, where back office operations are moved from Brooklyn to Bombay, and where the ability to think, as opposed to taking a test, reigns supreme in a global economy. In an age of less, young people want more and Gassaway’s challenge will be to have his students focus on their studies as the path to their goals. He has his work cut out for him and judging by the hours he’s keeping early on, he’s working the mission with gusto.

Speaking with Bernard Gassaway now is to understand that he is the mayor of a city of teenagers and he and his staff have to keep track of each of them while instilling a culture of learning. It’s no wonder he’s still keeping those hours. DG

OTP: How has the experience as Principal at Boys & Girls High School affected your perception of the students and their parents and guardians, middle schools, social technology, pop culture, union regulations and school bureaucracy in which instances were you confirmed and in which were you surprised and how?

Gassaway: I’m not necessarily surprised by anything I’m finding at this stage, only 3 months into the job. I do know I have high expectations of the students and staff and I find the students and the parents expect a lot of me and staff as well.

  My perception, which matches the reality, is that we have a long way to go as it relates to teaching young people to appreciate learning, that’s one of the most difficult challenges. Another difficult challenge is getting teachers to raise their level of expectations as well as their level of performance. Because if the instruction is poor, that’s going to turn children off to learning and I’ve found elements of that here. I’ve also found elements of high-quality instruction, and I’ve found students who respond to that as well.

In terms of instruction, it’s a mixed bag. One thing I must say I have been surprised by, is what they call Instructional Support Services, generally known as Special Education. They have a little under five hundred students who have IEPs, Individualized Education Plans. These are what we call “high need” students. And I found the instruction in these areas to lack in quality as compared to the general education population, which in schools I’ve worked in the past, was generally the opposite. The Instructional Support Services staff in those schools was the most creative in terms of their delivery of instruction. And that has not been the case here at Boys and Girls to date and that’s something I’m looking to change. I’ve hired a new coordinator for this department, she is very student-centered, and has a strong instructional background. Unlike the former person who really dealt with compliance issues rather than instruction.

 OTP: What about the middle schools, the feeder schools and the preparation that your student body is getting?

Gassaway: Traditionally, the feeder schools have been lower-performing, so that even in those schools where you have students who are scoring well on examinations, they may go to other schools simply because they have more choices than students who score what is commonly called Level 1 and Level 2. So many of the students who come here would fall in the Level 1 or Level 2 category, so the challenge is greater at Boys and Girls High than it would be at a smaller high school where the numbers are more proportionate with threes and fours, on Level or above Level, versus being at the low Level or basic.

And because of the number of students attending, how lives are shaped here has a penetrating effect on the economic and social fabric of the community and will determine what kind of community, if any we’ll have in the future.

When Bernard Gassoway was appointed we wrote, “The Gassaway Era begins in a hyper-competitive, globalized, technological world, where back office operations are moved from Brooklyn to Bombay, and where the ability to think, as opposed to taking a test, reigns supreme in a global economy. In an age of less, young people want more and Gassaway’s challenge will be to have his students focus on their studies as the path to their goals. He has his work cut out for him and judging by the hours he’s keeping early on, he’s working the mission with gusto.

Speaking with Bernard Gassaway now is to understand that he is the mayor of a city of teenagers and he and his staff have to keep track of each of them while instilling a culture of learning. It’s no wonder he’s still keeping those hours. DG

 

OTP: And yet you have some high-performing students, how do you go from one to the other?

 Gassaway: Some of it has been that even though some come in at Level 1 and Level 2, they have parental support and will take advantage of some of the services that are offered here. We have tutoring and other extracurricular activities such as clubs and athletics that keep the young people involved in school. I believe that any young person willing to put in the time can succeed in almost any place they attend.

 As I said to the staff here, I’m not interested in Boys and Girls being the best high school in the city or the best high school in Brooklyn, I think the goal is to be the best in the country. That’s going to take a lot of work to truly believe that it’s possible and that’s for all the stakeholders: the parents, the students, the teachers and the community.

 OTP: Speaking of the parents, how has social technology, text messaging and the cell phone affected the educational environment?

Gassaway: That’s interesting. Since we started scanning in the school in October, students are not allowed to bring in cell phones. Because cell phones were seen as in this school as a major distraction from learning. So we basically followed the chancellor in that regard. So any cell phones that are brought in here are confiscated until a parent or guardian can come up and retrieve it and for the most part that policy works. There are some students who seek to evade scanning with that, but it has been minimized as a distraction in the school. So that’s on the one hand.

 On the other hand, as it relates to social technology, we are looking to increase our effectiveness in communicating with parents by using e-mail addresses, Twitter, as well as text messaging we believe we can use it to our advantage. We probably have several hundred e-mail addresses, and at the end of January my goal is to have at least a thousand. We’ve found it to be very quick and effective way of communicating with parents. Many parents have cell phones and often on the cell phones you have e-mail or web-based services. It also allows us to participate in the “go green” movement in terms of efficiency and saving resources.

OTP: What about pop culture? What role do you see that playing in the school?

Gassaway: In pop culture, one of the things that come to mind is how young people dress. I’m not pleased with the way young men attempt to wear their pants. I’m also not pleased, and it’s not as widespread in this case, with some of the young ladies’ choices to be too revealing. Those are two parts of the pop culture that I don’t think will advance us and these are things we seek to work on. Here at the school we address this by the staff modeling for the young people appropriately, because it would not be tolerated if staff were to come dressed in this manner. So we want to serve as role models in that regard. We have also implemented a voluntary, because we cannot mandate it, dress code of khaki pants and a solid blouse or shirt. We’ve had limited success with that to date but there are students and parents who are behind it 100% so we want to encourage that more. And we also will eventually go on a belt campaign to encourage young men and young ladies to wear belts so they can keep their pants where they belong.

OTP: A belt campaign. When are you looking to do that?

Gassaway: Probably when the new term starts. We need to have young people understand, we need to dress appropriately. If you were to apply for a job and the attire is not proper for that, then it is not appropriate in school because the school is preparing you for life.

OTP: When you mention the belt campaign, I immediately think of the shirt and tie campaign that Former Principal Frank Mickens had and the donations that came in. Would you be interested in donations of belts?

Gasssaway: Without a doubt. I’ve had young people come up to me and ask for a belt and I am so tempted to take off my own because it’s obvious that they need the belt. And this has happened several times. I’ve said I have to find a place where I can buy some wholesale belts just to encourage the young people. They want to do the right thing but it’s a battle between what they perceive as the right thing and the other thing they see as being a culture of survival and thinking, “If I wear my pants a certain way I can fit in, and fitting in may be the difference between me getting home safely, or me getting robbed or assaulted.” And I do understand that reality.

OTP: Any problems with union regulations?

Gassaway: I have not found the union to be an obstacle at Boys and Girls High. There is a contract and both the union and city have signed and agreed to it. If someone is not performing up to standards it is up to the administration to document that accordingly and then to work to either improve the performance of the individual or document sufficiently so that you can then move toward an unsatisfactory rating which may lead to termination.

 Generally, people talk about the teacher’s union. There is also the supervisor union. As a principal, my first act was to address the issues I had with the poor performance of supervisors because it’s their responsibility to lead toward the target. Where I find that has not been successful I take appropriate action and frankly I continue to take action in that regard.

 

OTP: Any other comments on what has really been only your first three months?

Gassaway: The phrase that is often said to me is that “It takes time.”

 When I first met with the chancellor, I asked him for three years in order to do what I think needs to be done in order to truly turn this school around. I’ve forwarded an article to my staff called “The Seven Principles of Sustainable Leadership”, so as I implement new programs in the school I think about how this will be sustainable beyond Bernard Gassoway as a leader. Will the community buy in? I’m constantly reflecting on what I observe. When I speak to staff and parents I emphasize that in the notion of leadership a leader must have at least two things: the vision to see how things should be, and the courage to make the right decisions to bring about the changes necessary to actualize that vision.

And because of the number of students attending, how lives are shaped here has a penetrating effect on the economic and social fabric of the community and will determine what kind of community, if any we’ll have in the future.

When Bernard Gassoway was appointed we wrote, “The Gassaway Era begins in a hyper-competitive, globalized, technological world, where back office operations are moved from Brooklyn to Bombay, and where the ability to think, as opposed to taking a test, reigns supreme in a global economy. In an age of less, young people want more and Gassaway’s challenge will be to have his students focus on their studies as the path to their goals. He has his work cut out for him and judging by the hours he’s keeping early on, he’s working the mission with gusto.

Speaking with Bernard Gassaway now is to understand that he is the mayor of a city of teenagers and he and his staff have to keep track of each of them while instilling a culture of learning. It’s no wonder he’s still keeping those hours. DG

OTP:  How has the experience as Principal at Boys & Girls High School affected your perception of the students and their parents and guardians, middle schools, social technology, pop culture, union regulations and school bureaucracy in which instances were you confirmed and in which were you surprised and how?