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School Reformers Struggle to Cure Brooklyn School

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If Brooklyn’s Boys and Girls Highs School were a person, it would be in a hospice bed on life support.

For the past 40 years, Boys and Girls has declined in every aspect of school life. It has suffered New York City’s lowest math and English scores. Its graduation rate has been as low as 23 percent. It sends a small fraction of its graduates to college. And it has a reputation for drugs, gangs, and wanton violence.

The school’s student population — which peaked at more than 5,000 students in the 1990s — is now a mere 350 students.

“I went to Boys and Girls High School, but I did not finish there,” said legendary jazz pianist Randy Weston, 92. “Boys and Girls was more academic, very high academics,” said Weston, who later enrolled in and graduated from New York’s High School of Music and Art in the 1940s.

The school, established in 1878 in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, has graduated a host of famous Americans, many now departed: composer Aaron Copland, Democratic congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, and singer actress Lena Horne.

But “the Pride and Joy of Bed Stuy” became a “failing school” in 2010 and is now deemed “out of time” by the New York City Department of Education.

School reformers, all doctors of education, have struggled for years to  revive this ailing educational institution.

Only one out of every four students graduated when Dr. Frank Mickens became principal in 1986. The cigar-chomping disciplinarian used colorful language and patrolled the school with a claw hammer and walkie-talkie. He pushed the graduation rate to almost 50 percent by the time he retired in 2004. 

Mickens stirred controversy for implementing a dress-for-success code: no hats, no excessive jewelry, no sneakers and no gang colors. He moved misbehaved students into separate classrooms, so their schoolmates could focus on learning. Mickens barred some particularly disruptive kids from campus altogether. Advocates for Children, a student-rights group, successfully sued school authorities in 2008 to include these excluded students. Mickens died in 2009.

Dr. Bernard Gassaway also took the Boys and Girls challenge.

Gassaway divided the school into smaller units, essentially schools within a school, with five different “deans” to run each sub-school. Gassaway innovated, but the school remained on the “failing” list throughout his tenure.

When Bill de Blasio became New York’s mayor in 2014, Gassaway openly criticized his Renewal Schools Plan to reform 94 poorly performing campuses. Boys and Girls High topped the list of schools facing closure.

“You currently do not have a comprehensive plan to address the struggling school system,” Gassaway wrote in an open letter to de Blasio. “You do not have the leadership infrastructure within the Department of Education to implement it successfully on such a large scale.”

Gassaway, who declined an interview for this article, resigned in October 2014.

In stepped Dr. Michael Wiltshire. 

“Michael Wiltshire is a veteran educator with a proven track record of success as a principal and is undoubtedly the right leader to turn this school around,” said NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña in a statement after appointing Wiltshire to Boys and Girls in October 2014.

Wiltshire is best known for transforming Medgar Evers College Preparatory School into a center of academic excellence.  

The educational statistics at Boys and Girls High were far worse than the school that he rescued. Boys and Girls’ graduation rate was still about 40 percent, and only half of those graduates went on to college.

Wiltshire said the school’s past reputation as a hotbed of violence and gangs has hampered student recruitment.

Still, he implemented an “extensive career education program,” reorganized the staff structure and added new academic initiatives. The graduation rate increased to 53 percent in his first year.

Boys and Girls students now have three tracks: early college for the more advanced, a college-bound support program for more typical children, and a career technical-education track for students who wish to learn trades.

The massive facility now houses three schools. Nelson Mandela International School and a Research Academy are startups with 200 students each.

Like a hospital, students and visitors stop at the security desk to announce which school they seek. Along these vast hallways, very few feet scuff the well-polished floors of this ghost of a building.

Brooklyn’s oldest school still has a heartbeat and hope. But will the school, its name and its history endure?

“It will survive,” says Wiltshire. “It’s not about saving the name,” he said. “It is about making sure those kids, even though small in number, have an educational opportunity.”

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