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Boys and Girls High School: A Future in Peril

Can Principal Gassaway Turn Things Around in Time?

Boys and Girls High School: A Future in Peril Boys and Girls High School: A Future in Peril Boys and Girls High School: A Future in Peril

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.  

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