The Tragedy at Boys and Girls High School: “Saving” a School and Sacrificing Children

Boys and Girls High School has a long and illustrious history. The “old” building opened in 1892 and the current building in 1975, the school has a long list of famous graduates: Lena Horne, Rita Hayworth, Norman Mailer, Shirley Chisholm and Aaron Copland, among others, basketball players. The highly controversial Frank Mickens, who ran the school as his fiefdom was principal from 1986 until 2004. In spite of constant complaints Mickens ignored rules and regulations, suspended students without due process, discharged pupils at will; he was strongly supported in the community. In 2008 a federal law suit averring that Mickens “warehoused” students in the auditorium was “settled” by the Department, in essence acknowledging the claims.

The Progress Report grades for the last three years have been “F,” no other school in the city remained open with three consecutive “F” grades. The school once had over 3,000 students currently registers 729 students with an average daily attendance of 65%, among the worst in the city.

Bernard Gassoway, the most recent principal, who just resigned spent the last few years complaining.

How did a school with three consecutive “F” grades, with appalling attendance remain unscathed by a Department of Education that was quick to close struggling high schools?

As a high level education executive told me, “The school is protected.”

From former chancellor Dennis Walcott to local electeds and community leaders Boys and Girls had to be saved; unfortunately “saved” meant sharply reducing the enrollment and ignoring the remaining students. School leadership complained about the inability to rid the school of teachers that the school hired, blamed the central board, spent their time shielding the school, the school continued to get worse and worse.

Al Vann, who represented the neighborhood in the Assembly and City Council for 34 years, defended the school regardless of the deteriorating academics and the outrageous leadership of Mickens.

A New York Times editorial is sharply critical of the de Blasio administration’s seeming abandonment of the 729 student remaining in Boys and Girls

On Monday, Mr. de Blasio is scheduled to give his first major education address as mayor. He should use the occasion to flesh out his policies on failing schools and, while he’s at it, address two questions:

One, why is the city months late in submitting state-mandated plans explaining how it would remake scores of troubled schools all over the city? And two, why he has failed to produce a credible plan to deal with Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, a particularly troubled failing school that has been under state scrutiny for several years?

I served on a dozen State SURR Review teams (Schools under Registration Review), many of the schools had deteriorated beyond the tipping point, the central administration ignored certain schools, a triage model, save some and sacrifice others.

The recent history of Boys and Girls is particularly depressing; there is ample evidence addressing the problems. Robert Balfanz, at John Hopkins writes.

… the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research … using … indicators, it is possible to identify by the middle of ninth grade virtually everyone who will drop out. These young men are waving their hands early and often to say they need help, but our educational and student-support systems aren’t organized to recognize and respond to their distress signals.

… high-poverty secondary schools need to be redesigned with the special problems of their students in mind, with a focus on freshman year. In practice, this means starting new schools and transforming existing ones.

The Times is correct,

If any school in the system deserved a full housecleaning — a new start with a fresh staff — it was Boys and Girls. Though Mr. Bloomberg closed down many schools during his tenure, he replaced this school’s principal but passed on shutting the school down, perhaps to avoid a bruising, costly fight with politicians who loved the school and community groups that would have rallied around it.

Bloomberg simply did not want to antagonize politicians and community groups, his inaction accepted allowing the school to fail year after year.

This spring — about six years after the first warning — the state told the city that the school had not made the required improvements and gave the de Blasio administration several choices, including closing the school and relocating the students, phasing in a new replacement school, converting Boys and Girls to a charter school, or changing the administrative structure. The de Blasio administration chose the weakest option— creating a new administrative structure.

The Department “encouraged” another principal, with no creds in turning around schools, by offering a $20,000 bonus and the right to return to his former school – not a formula for school turnaround.

The administration still seems to believe that it can avoid shutdowns and that even Boys and Girls can be improved without draconian measures. Maybe so, but the bar for judging reforms needs to be very high. If Mr. de Blasio fails to deliver, the Board of Regents should use its authority to shutter those schools that are clearly beyond saving in their present form.

The former administration created the Chancellor’s High School District, four of the lowest achieving high schools in the city were closed and new small schools opened in a collaborative environment. The UFT Teacher Centers provided consistent, on-going professional development, the union, the parents and the community were fully engaged, and, the teachers who either were not hired or chose not to apply were excessed into other high schools and the superintendent had a proven record of success.

Chancellor Klein terminated the Chancellor’s District. a la the old Soviet Union, all that proceeded had to be purged.

While the graduation rates in the Bloomberg replacement small schools have increased the data is questionable. (See my blog here)

Mayor de Blasio will make a major education speech on Monday; hopefully he will build upon existing research. The Young Men’s Initiative should be expanded, the Chicago Consortium on School Research has published a wealth of research addressing high school reform, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, we simply have to have the will to implement what we know works.

As much as I am encouraged by Mayor de Blasio’s concern with the “tale of two cities” and a chancellor with decades of urban school experience I am discomforted, why has so much time gone by without a blueprint, perhaps the mayor will lay out his plans on Monday.

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3 responses to “The Tragedy at Boys and Girls High School: “Saving” a School and Sacrificing Children

  1. Carole Silverstein

    I always look forward to your remarks. They usually give a very fair perspective. I wonder all the time if anyone is listening. We have been dealing with the same issues over the years.

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  2. Eric Nadelstern

    Over the 9 years of the Bloomberg-Klein administration, the graduation rate incresed from 50% to 66%. The most significant variable was closing large failed schools like B & G that graduated barely 30% and opening new small schools with an aggregate graduation rate of 70% or better. To cast aspirations over what ever interested observer recognized during that period, not to mention the impressive findings of MDRC is two separate studies, is to doom a school like Boys to fail its students year after year.

    During Mickens’ tenure, using the kind of questionable tactics you mention, Boys and Girls had a 60% graduation rate which exempted it from consideration for closing. Poltics, as you correctly observed, factored into keeping the school open just as it has with DeWitt Clinton HS in the Bronx.

    Simply changing the principal will not get beyond the rules, roles and relationships that created the failure in the first place. Nothing less that closing the school and giving others a chance to do better on a more human scale will improve that academic and life outcomes for the students trapped in this low performing school.

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  3. Frank Mickens enjoyed widespread support in the Bed-Stuy community and among his students because there was never any doubt about  his commitment to them.  He took pride in his independence, even calling himself the “Chancellor of Fulton Street.” I worked for him at JHS 324 the year before his appointment to Boys and Girls High.  Some principals I’ve worked for were literally afraid of interacting with students, virtually hiding in their offices.  Mickens was omnipresent.  He also expressed his appreciation to staff for our hard work.  At a faculty meeting he commiserated with a struggling teacher who had been a headmaster of a Caribbean school, noting how much more difficult teaching was with our population.  Mickens then praised the teacher for his continuing efforts. Mickens may have subscribed to the belief in the greatest good for the greatest number in unoffiicially suspending a large number of students, especially at the beginning of the year.  But this helped set a tone of tough love that also included unofficially barring extravagant clothing and jewelery.  Frank may not have played by all the rules and his statistics may not have great, but parents were willing to send their children to his schools, which apparently stopped with his demise. Paul Feingold     

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