The Cold Shoulder

Members of Boys and Girls HS leadership team feel shut out as city intervenes

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
There has been a “mass exodus” of students leaving Boys and Girls High School since a new principal took over last month, one person said.

Before the start of a meeting at Boys and Girls High School last month, an education department employee made a request that soon led to a tense showdown, several attendees said.

The woman wanted the members of the school’s leadership team to sign a document certifying that they had helped develop an improvement plan for the long-struggling school. A student and the parent association president signed the form, according to multiple members of the team, which includes the principal, staffers, parents, and two students from the Bedford-Stuyvesant school. But several others declined, saying later that they had played little role in creating the plan and had not seen an updated edition after giving feedback on a draft version over the summer.

Once the meeting started, Bernard Gassaway, the school’s outspoken principal who has since resigned, refused to sign the document. Those who already had signed asked to retract their signatures, insisting they had been misled. (The student, Calvin Brown, Jr., later said he thought the form was a sign-in sheet.) The employee, Aurora Brice, angrily asserted that she had misled no one, though another department official who was present agreed to tear up the document.

But the whole debate was largely beside the point: Although the leadership team did not know it, the city had already submitted a final version of the plan to the state before that meeting even took place. Several team members said they only learned that the plan had been finalized and filed when told by Chalkbeat last week, and added that they have yet to see the finished version.

Meanwhile, as the city appointed a new principal to replace Gassaway, officials did not meet the with school leadership team — even though city regulations say those teams must be consulted before a new principal is hired.

“Nobody’s informing us,” Brown, a 17-year-old senior at Boys and Girls, said at the team’s most recent meeting. “Why weren’t any of the teachers, the parents, the students involved in the decision making?”

The city’s interactions with the school leadership team expose the tension between Fariña’s need to intervene at struggling schools like Boys and Girls, which is in such dire shape that the state has labeled it as “out of time,” and her ongoing emphasis on collaboration and empowering educators and parents. It also underscores the challenge the education department faced when working with a principal who happened to be the agency’s loudest internal critic and a leadership team that was closely aligned with him.

The team’s frustration with being given limited information about the city’s plan for their school, meanwhile, comes as other critics are making a similar complaint. They note that even as officials start to take action at some struggling schools, they still have not revealed a system-wide strategy for improving troubled schools, leaving educators largely in the dark more than seven weeks into the school year.

Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University, said that while “it’s always good to engage” with school communities when making important decisions, the education department is ultimately responsible for the fate of Boys and Girls and justified in taking steps on its own to improve it.

He also said few districts in the country have effective plans for turning around troubled schools, and added that Fariña has essentially had to create her plan from scratch since the previous administration often opted to close the worst-off schools rather than fix them. Still, he said it is “troubling” that she has still not announced her plan when so many floundering schools require urgent attention.

“Schools can’t tread water indefinitely,” he said.

Former Principal Bernard Gassaway frequently clashed with the education department before he resigned this month.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Former Principal Bernard Gassaway frequently clashed with the education department before he resigned this month.

In a recent interview with Education Week, Fariña said the city has been working with many struggling schools since the summer. Calling herself the “queen of urgency,” she added that she will release an “extremely detailed” plan for such schools soon.

“We are taking a thoughtful approach, developing new solutions and reinventing our entire playbook to most effectively support schools and ensure better student outcomes,” Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye said in a statement to Chalkbeat. “The stakes couldn’t be higher for our students, and it’s worth the time to get it right.”

Gassaway, who presided over Boys and Girls as it earned three straight F’s on its annual school-progress reports, said officials showed him their plan for the school in July after he spoke out about a lack of transparency. One part of the plan was to stop new students from being sent to the school mid-year — a policy change Gassaway had long lobbied for. But even then Gassaway was not satisfied, arguing that he still should have the ability to recruit new students during the year.

The leadership team also saw the plan over the summer and suggested some additions, such as more guidance counselors and teacher training, members said. But they said they did not help create it.

Department officials “just put down what they wanted and expected us to go along with it,” one teacher said.

City rules stipulate that each school’s leadership team must create an annual school-improvement plan, which is filed with the state. In the case of Boys and Girls, the city-made improvement plan is standing in for the leadership team’s plan, officials said, even though the team did not sign off on the city’s plan. Kaye, the department spokeswoman, said the school team was consulted.

If Gassaway complicated the city’s interactions with the school leadership team, little appears to have changed since his departure.

Officials did not consult the team when they hired Michael Wiltshire, the longtime principal of a Crown Heights school, to replace Gassaway. Team members discovered that a new principal had been appointed only after reading about it in the newspaper, several said. However, during the hiring process, Fariña did meet with the school’s politically connected advisory board, which includes elected officials, civic leaders, and alumni.

Caster Hall, the school’s parent association president and Gassaway’s brother, emailed Fariña last Monday to complain about her “lack of communication” with the leadership team. He asked why she had met with the advisory board and not the team and why she is “disrespecting parents and students of BGHS.”

Fariña promptly emailed back, saying, “There will be a meeting this week to explain steps going forward.” Fariña visited the school that day to confer with the new principal, but she still has not met with the school leadership team, Hall said.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”