In an often emotional and defiant meeting, several hundred past alumni, students, teachers, administrators, parents and activists packed the Boys & Girls High School auditorium on Tuesday vowing that the city will never shut the school.
The meeting came after the city’s Department of Education (DOE) recently gave the school a failing grade for the second year in a row citing low graduation and attendance rates. This “F” grade triggers off the possibility of several remedial measures including possibly closing the school and/or replacing current Principal Bernard Gassaway.
But both of these possible options were roundly criticized and booed at the meeting which the DOE organized to get local input.
“Joel Klein (former DOE Chancellor) ran and put the DOE structure in place that created this animal of failure, not our school,” said Anthony Jones, a Boys & Girls alumnus, math teacher and track coach for the past 40 years.
Jones attributed part of the low graduation rate to the DOE’s decision over the past few years to close and restructure neighboring Brooklyn high schools such as Prospect Heights, Canarsie, South Shore, Erasmus and Tilden, which led to Boys & Girls taking in about 1,800 at-risk students with 10 or less high school credits from these neighboring districts.
“Klein came in bragging about the graduation rates and now we have to bear the burden because during this process (of closing neighboring schools) we went from a ‘B’ grade to an ‘F’,” said Jones.
Jones and others noted the many success stories such as that all the track athletes who went to college, many to top Division One schools, as well as the successful debate team and the journalism club, which recently launched an excellent school newspaper, The Kangaroo Voice, featuring stories on teenage pregnancy and whether or not cell phones should be allowed in the school.
“The school that they (the media and the DOE) paint is not the school we are as evidenced by The Kangaroo Voice,” said Assistant Principal Katrina Williams.
James Holder, a parent of a sophomore at Boys & Girls, testified that his daughter was a transfer student who came to the school with an average in the 60s. Now her average is in the 80s and she’s very active in several extracurricular activities, he said.
Holder and others said they have never seen Mayor Bloomberg come to the school, and all expressed support and admiration for Gassaway.
“Mr. Gassaway takes in young people from all over Brooklyn,” said Holder.
Boys & Girls PTA President Lisa Dunn also expressed support for Gassaway, saying he has an eight-point plan to turn the school around.
“We have failing kids, but we need more resources to help them, and more time to implement the plans to move forward,” Dunn said.
Several students and alumni from years past also spoke highly of the school and Gassaway.
“Nobody understands this is our home here and I often stay in school until 9 pm,” said Diana, a senior at the school. “And Mr. Gassaway is like a father to all of us.”
Activist Joe Gonzalez agreed with everyone that the DOE and Bloomberg Administration is largely to blame, but also told those in attendance to recognize that the City Council leadership failed the community by giving Bloomberg a third term.
“We must hold the upcoming City Council candidates accountable,” he said.
Bedford-Stuyvesant City Councilman Al Vann, who supported and now is in his third term, issued a statement in favor of Gassaway and the school.
“As (the) DOE itself has recognized, Boys and Girls High School has a strong, experienced leader in Principal Gassaway,” said Vann. “I have full confidence in him and his ability to do what he was hired to do: develop and implement a plan to halt the downward spiral of Boys and Girls. He has already taken significant steps to transform the school’s culture into one that demands and supports excellence from its students and welcomes community involvement. I believe that, given time and resources, the plan he has put into place will succeed and I pledge my continued support for this effort.”
DOE spokesperson David Pena said that 24 secondary (6-12) schools, high schools and transfer schools have been identified as struggling with Boys & Girls among them, but that does not necessarily mean it will be closed.
A short list from the list of 24 schools will be made in early 2013, along with remedial plans including possibly changing leadership, closing the school or placing a charter school within the school.
The DOE’s Panel for Education Policy (PEP) will make the final decision on a vote regarding the remedial plans concerning the short list, said Pena.
The majority of the PEP is Bloomberg appointments.