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City Using Mandela's Name to Push Controversial School, Principal Says

By Paul DeBenedetto | December 19, 2013 12:05pm | Updated on December 19, 2013 12:11pm
 Boys and Girls Principal Bernard Gassaway said he's against the co-location, despite its new name.
Boys and Girls Principal Says Mandela School Name is 'Opportunistic'
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BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — When the city announced earlier this month that the new school co-located inside of Boys and Girls High School would be named after Nelson Mandela, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the school would be a monument to the former South African president's legacy.

But Boys and Girls principal Bernard Gassaway said this week that the new high school's name was nothing more than an "opportunistic" boost to the outgoing mayor's legacy.

Gassaway, who has said he would consider stepping down as principal if the co-location goes through, told DNAinfo New York on Tuesday that despite the new namethe Nelson Mandela School for Social Justice — he still disagrees with the plan to co-locate a third school inside the walls of Boys and Girls.

"It's inappropriate," the outspoken principal said. "I can't for the life of me believe it was out of genuine concern for the legacy of Nelson Mandela."

The mayor's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Gassaway's comments came just one week after the decision to co-locate the new school was approved by the city's Panel for Education Policy, an appointed board that votes on school changes in the Department of Education.

At the meeting, DOE Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the plan to name the school after Mandela was a tribute to his visit to the school in the 1990s, and a way to add to a community in need of new schools.

"We thought it would be fitting to name that school after President Mandela since that's where [he] visited the building back in 1990," Walcott said.

"So we don't really see any impact on Boys and Girls. Where we do see an impact is more of a positive impact, as far as making sure that we provide another quality choice in the community itself."

On Tuesday, Walcott was scheduled to unveil a new banner outside the school touting the 2014 co-location.

But the chancellor never showed, and the unveiling was canceled because of a scheduling conflict, according to MyFoxNY.

The unveiling was a surprise to Gassaway, who said he was never contacted by the chancellor's office about the ceremony.

"At no time did anyone from the chancellor's office discuss the sign going up with me," Gassaway said. "It was a sign of disrespect."

Boys and Girls High School, long a venerable institution in the Bed-Stuy community, has gone through a period of decline over the last decade. The two principals before Gassaway, Spencer Holder and Frank Mickens, were accused by school advocates of skirting the rules to separate problem children from their fellow classmates.

When Gassaway took over the school in 2009, it was under court monitoring, and the school eventually slipped to an F on the DOE's progress reports.

Unlike with the Research and Service High School, which co-located with Boys and Girls in September, and another addition to the school, a mental health center that opened in November, Gassaway said he wasn't consulted on the latest co-location, or on what he called the "ill-advised" name.

Gassaway isn't the only one upset about the co-location. 

At a November hearing on the school, Community Education Council 16 President Felicia Alexander announced that the council opposed the co-location, despite supporting the idea of a new high school, saying the space could be used to increase enrollment at Boys and Girls.

And at Tuesday's canceled unveiling, students and supporters gathered in opposition.

"The thing I totally oppose is basically the disrespect," employee Telanine Buisson told MyFoxNY.

"The community doesn't even know. The parents don't know, the students don't know what's going on."

Gassaway said he is still considering stepping down as principal if the city doesn't change its co-location policy.

The principal also said he's unconvinced Bill de Blasio's new administration would go through with the plan.

"We need to put this to rest, and wait for the next administration and take it up with them," Gassaway said. "We have to see if the rhetoric of the new administration matches their actions."