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Boys and Girls High School: A Future in Peril

Can Principal Gassaway Turn Things Around in Time?

Bedford-Stuyvesant lays claim to the oldest high school in Brooklyn: .

Established in the late 19th Century, BGHS enrolls between 2,500 and 3,500 students annually, making it one of the largest remaining high schools in Brooklyn.

But, for how long? 

Three principals in less than ten years and startling bad progress reports has raised eyebrows and garnered the attention of the Department of Education (DOE) and the New York State Education Department. In February of 2008, the State placed the school under registration review (S.U.R.R.). After a school is placed on the S.U.R.R. list, it has three years to improve, or it is closed. Once a school is closed, the DOE does what it has done to countless public schools throughout the five boros and reopens it as three or four smaller schools.

Will this BGHS's fate? The school has a long and rich history and boasts an impressive alumni, including professional basketball player Lenny Wilkins and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov.  But neither has drawn as much attention to the school as alumni Frank Mickens who eventually became the school's principal.  Mickens became principal in 1986, a time that students recall the school as "out of control," a "dumping ground" and failing badly.

In a few short years, Mickens had improved not only the school's graduation rate, but also the amount of students enrolling in college. His methods, however, came under fire when some in the community claimed he had been denying classes to troublesome students. But the statistics spoke for themselves: The school was turning around.  By 2004, when he retired, the school had once again become a bastion of education and order.

But after Mickens retired in 2005 and Spencer Holder took over, the school quickly suffered a shaky descent from its halcyon days.  Eventually, Holder was demoted to assistant principal at the start of the 2009-10 year.  But by then, school violence had increased and academics were in decline. 

The school's third principal in a decade, Bernard Gassaway, is now in his second year.  Despite the unwanted attention the school received in 2009 after volunteer assistant coach William Miller inexplicably exposed himself in front of students after a game, Gassaway made headway.  He improved the school's progress report from a "D" to a "C" and its graduation rate from 42.5 percent to 43.6 percent.

The progress is slow, but undeniable. The classroom culture is improving, and even administration and staff seem hopeful. 

Still, the DOE is watching Boys and Girls High very closely, looking for any signs of regress, and thus the proof needed to dismantle it into small schools. This small-school idea was popularized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and advanced by Mayor Bloomberg and ex-Chancellor Klein.

What are the advantages of dividing a large school into smaller ones? The Education Department claims that smaller schools have a 15 percent higher graduation rate than the city as a whole, as reported by The New York Times. The DOE also claim that the large schools are too impersonal and sometimes fail to help academically or emotionally struggling students. 

But large schools have their advantages too. According to Education.com, larger schools tend to be more diverse and to offer a wider array of courses and extracurricular activities. Due to the quantity of students they serve, their budgets are usually quite high, sometimes generous.  Which of these options is best for the students of Boys and Girls High? 

Obviously, a school with such a long history and strong ties to its community as Boys and Girls would be mourned. With Gassaway and his staff firmly committed to reviving the school's reputation and it already showing measurable gains, there seems to be hope yet for Boys and Girls High. The school has two years left to turn things around, and the 2010-2011 academic school year will be telling.  

Michael Wursthorn November 30, 2010 at 10:20 PM
There's not a single quote here? Is this person an expert on education or is this a column? Am I supposed to take your word for it that staff members at Boys & Girls are happy with the new administration? Also, for a story that seems to have a good amount of Wikipedia-style reporting, there are a few typos, like the one in this story's fifth paragraph.
Dylan Houle December 01, 2010 at 03:46 PM
Michael, Wikipedia was not used in writing this story. I culled information and facts from staff members at Boys and Girls High School, the New York Times, and the Department of Education. No, you don't have to take my word for it that staff members at BGHS are "happy" because I did not report that they were. In fact, I did not comment on the staff's opinion of the new administration at all. Thank you for pointing out the error in the fifth paragraph. Dylan
C. Zawadi Morris December 01, 2010 at 04:11 PM
Also, we would love to get comments from the school staff and administration, but they are not allowed to speak to the press without clearance from the Superintendent's office, which rarely is granted. That will not stop us from reporting on what is going on inside of the schools in the most fair and accurate fashion possible.
Khai Gordon December 01, 2010 at 07:08 PM
Excellent article Dylan!
Ivy Houle December 03, 2010 at 12:54 AM
The article was very informative. Being a recipient of our lovely New York Public Schools, I feel for those students attending this school and want to learn, but can't because of all the disruption from fellow students and lemon teachers. Hope they can turn it around!
Albert C. Thompson December 16, 2010 at 01:46 AM
Historical fact. Boys and Girls High School opened in 1975 but does lay claim to a piece of the legacy and tradition established by those two superior high schools that served our students back in the day. The original Boys High School located at 832 Mary Avenue and Girls High School 475 Nostrand Ave. are currently designated landmark status. Boys High School was home to Composer Aaron Copeland, United States Senator Emanuel Cellers, NBA legend Connie Hawkins (Phoenix Suns, Harlem Globetrotters, et.al.) and Major League Baseball great, Willie Davis (Dodgers) just to name a few. International Entertainer Lena Horne and the Honorable Shirley Chisolm, U.S. Congresswoman (first woman to run for Office of President of the United States attended Girls High). Though the current system seems to embrace smaller schools, in 1962 Boys High School had an enollment of 2600 which was in stark contrast to other schools (Lincoln, Broooklyn Tech, Erasmus, Midwood) which had populations that easily exceeded 4000 student capacity at that time. Al Thompson, Boys High-Class 1966
Amelia Thompson December 18, 2010 at 08:55 PM
I am an alumna of Boys and Girls High School and graduated under Mr. Mickens' tenure. A group of alumni known as High Impact Alliance is dedicated to launching a mentor program in partnersip with Bigs United for students of Boys and Girls High School. High Impact is actively recruiting alumni of Boys and Girls and residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant, male in particular. If you are interested in finding out more information, please email TheHighAlumni@yahoo.com with "Mentor Program" in the subject line. Amelia Thompson High Impact Alliance - dedicated to building bridges between Boys and Girls High School students, alumni, and the broader community.

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