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Boys and Girls Principal Hopes to Prove 'Failure Is Not An Option'

 Boys and Girls High School Principal Bernard Gassaway hopes he can turn the troubled high school around.
Boys and Girls High School Principal Bernard Gassaway hopes he can turn the troubled high school around.
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DNAinfo/Paul DeBenedetto

BROOKLYN — The website for Boys and Girls High School lists, before almost any other information, a simple slogan — "Failure Is Not An Option."

For the school's basketball team, that's been a prophecy fulfilled.  The boys varsity team won championships in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

But anyone familiar with the troubled Bedford-Stuyvesant school's academic reputation will tell you that the slogan has not been fact over the past few frustrating years.

Since 2009, the school has performed progressivley worse by Department of Education standards, receiving an F on its last two progress reports and falling within the bottom 1 percent of city high schools. 

It has a four-year graduation rate of just 38.6 percent. And, thanks to a sharp drop in enrollment, the school building is only one-third utilized, leading the DOE to add a new transfer school in the fall.

Now the hope is that a new plan developed in part by Boys & Girls' Principal Bernard Gassaway can help revitalize what locals call "the Pride and Joy of Bed-Stuy."

Q: Boys and Girls has underperformed over the past few years, by DOE standards. Was there ever any fear that the school would be phased out?

A: You know, I didn't have a fear, personally. I'm realistic, I understand the reality of it. [But] in all honesty, I was really focusing more on the child. Looking at the whole child. Not looking at whether or not this data here would make a grade this, that or the other better. I didn't focus on that. I think the key was I was concerned about the perception for the children, saying the school is an F school, when we never believed that internally. I looked at the hard work that certain teachers and certain administrators and even certain children were performing, and I said, 'Wow. Even with that hard work you still get an F.' And what it basically meant is that, academically, the students were coming in largely behind the 8-ball, so we had to work harder to pull them up.

This was my argument, when they talked about the possibility of closing the school. I said, 'We have a plan. Give it a chance to work.' The idea that If you give it a chance, let's see what will happen as a result of putting this comprehensive plan in place. It's sort of like, say, you build a new building, and last year there was no benefit. Well, because there was no building. It can't benefit anybody unless it's open. The same thing with this plan. You can't judge the plan until it's fully implemented. We're moving forward to fully implementing it.

Q: Can you describe describe some of the plan's details?

A: When I came here [in 2009,] it was a large, comprehensive high school. The decision was made based on different evaluations that something needed to happen in a major transformational way. And so we immediately went into small learning communities and breaking the school up. It's still the same school, but having small programs monitor smaller groups of young people. I realized more would need to be done in addition to that, so we sort of devised this comprehensive plan.

 Boys and Girls High School, in Bed-Stuy, is one of the lowest-performing schools in the city.
Boys and Girls High School, in Bed-Stuy, is one of the lowest-performing schools in the city.
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DNAinfo/Victoria Bekiempis

Part of the plan is we had a large number of over-age, under-credited students, and you could basically service those young people in four ways. One is providing them with what's called CTE options — career technical education. One is the transfer school option. That's for over-age, under credited — generally speaking, you're talking between 16-18. Then you've got the Young Adult Borough Centers. Both of those options are diploma-granting programs. 

In addition to that, you have some young people that are over-age and are so under credited that they might not be able to earn a traditional diploma. So we thought, well, why not create a GED program here. College initiatives are ongoing — we have programs with Medgar Evers, NYU, LIU. The next component is to have a comprehensive medical health clinic here, being built as we speak. We open that door in September 2013.

Q: The transfer school will have a new principal and a new staff serving a new set of kids. Can you describe how it fits into the larger plan?

A: When this plan was designed, it wasn't necessarily [only] about Boys and Girls High School, it was about students from the community. Because we are a community high school, we're concerned about all students. It's hard for me to be myopic and just focus on Boys & Girls. I'm focused on the quality of education, because I feel that if we improve the quality of education offerings for students in general, everybody will benefit.

So I would love, for example, having some kids who go to the transfer school who say, 'I don't need a transfer school, I would like to go to Boys & Girls." Some students say 'I'm graduating because my parents graduated from here.' And that means something to them. The whole legacy piece, and the ownership of Boys and Girls being the "Pride and Joy of Bed-Stuy," that's real. There's a real cultural identity at Boys & Girls and, in this community, about this school.

Q: Do you think that with the new school coming in, and with the DOE thinking of adding a third school going forward, that it increases or decreases the school's chances of staying open?

A: The idea is that by having this plan implemented, that will improve the overall outcomes of Boys and Girls High School. So, we don't believe those schools or programs will be a threat to Boys and Girls High School.

It's hard work. It's not easy. Actually, we're being very proactive in trying to figure out, 'OK, the reality is that there will be a school or schools coming in, but we want to have'— and when I say we, I'm talking about the community — 'have a voice.' Because it doesn't make sense to just have any school. 'Oh there's space? Let's just fill it up with bodies.' That doesn't work for the better of the community or the school. So we want to be strategic about that.

The idea is that you have young people with a  myriad of needs, sometimes described as 'high needs,' and you have to have the services and programs to meet those needs.