Geraldine Maione, principal of William E. Grady CTE High School, speaks to a teacher getting ready for summer school.

“Everything about this school has improved. Everything.”

Geraldine Maione, principal of William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School in Brighton Beach, does not hesitate when asked about the trajectory of her school.

Maione just finished her first year at Grady, where she was greeted with a staff weary of leadership changes, a curriculum that has see-sawed between emphasizing traditional academics and the school’s signature “shops,” and a D grade on its 2009-10 progress report.

She was also given $1.4 million of additional “transformation” money through the federal government’s program to improve low-achieving schools.

At the end of her first year, staff members say they’ve felt the impact of Maione’s leadership and the additional funds—though it is unclear if the school is yet making the academic gains it needs to avoid facing closure in the future.

The transformation money helped pay for an array of cosmetic changes to the building and school trips to colleges throughout New York state, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC.

The entrance area was repainted from black and white to maroon and yellow, the school colors. The front doors are now framed by planters, filled with flowers, that double as benches. Murals featuring civil rights leaders and faces of current students fill once-blank hallway walls.

Grady's front entrance before cosmetic improvements, at top, and after.

“Since we did that, there has not been one graffiti on the wall, because the kids are the one doing the painting,” said parent coordinator Karen McDonald, who has worked at Grady for 14 years.

In a school with metal detectors and at least four security officers manning the front desk, those changes make an emotional difference for students, Maione argues.

By many metrics, the school has improved. Maione says students have earned 10 percent more credits this year, and the 2010-11 quality review report showed gains in almost every category, from how teachers use data to the school’s support services.

Ebony Mahoney, who is in charge of school security, said that both incidents and arrests were down. “The entire tone of the school changed,” she said.

But the school is still struggling to raise the bar academically. On that quality review, the school’s major weakness is still a “need to improve academic rigor in all classes,” and Grady is not labeled proficient in curriculum and pedagogy.

Its graduation rate also remains low. At graduation on June 27, 173 students were listed as graduating, while 473 students entered Grady in 2007. Last year’s official graduation rate was 42.3 percent.

Some of the school’s transformation money was funneled into paying teachers to offer after-school and during-school tutoring, including for Regents preparation. The money allowed the staff to offer those services to the entire school, according to the school’s assistant principal for instruction, Tarah Montalbano.

“We would never have been able to reach them without the transformation money,” she said.

McDonald says Grady has always offered extra tutoring, but it was attendance that was the real problem.

“Now they feel like they have to do the tutoring,” she said of the students who are struggling and want to go into one of the trades, like construction or automotive tech. “We tell them, you want to get a union job? You have to come to tutoring, you have to come to class.”

The school is still divided between students who want to go directly into the workforce and those who are aiming for college, and Grady is focused on both paths, she said.

“When I see a kid who says, I got a 55 on a test, I just say, next time let’s try for a 65. These kids just need to be motivated,” McDonald said.

Maione says she has no idea whether Grady will receive similar funding next year. A disagreement over teacher evaluations has left the teacher’s union and the city in a standoff over whether the transformation model can continue.

Either way, she is framing the fight for Grady’s improvement as hers to win or lose.

“It’s the same staff. This has been my cry for the last year—stop blaming the teachers,” she said.

The biggest change this year, though, is the atmosphere that Maione herself has created. Maione’s passion for the school where she taught for over a decade—which comes out in healthy doses of tough love—is obvious.

Staff members say that morale has improved, thanks to a more collaborative leadership style than that of previous principal Carlston Gray.

Maione projects a no-nonsense exterior (after a student was surprised to see a picture of her with a pit bull, she responded, ‘What, you think I’d sleep with a poodle?’). But she tears up every few moments when talking about students who have overcome challenges at home to succeed at Grady.

“We get many, many more kids who need love, more than other schools,” she said.