Friday, April 22, 2016

Out of ‘Site’ Education by Bernard Gassaway (2006)

Paraphrase "The more things seem to change, the more they stay the same."

I wrote the follow article in March 2006. You decide if it is still relevant 10 years later.

Over the last two years, while serving as Senior Superintendent of Alternative Schools and Programs, I have visited New York City public school programs in church basements, housing projects, homeless shelters, storefronts, suspension centers, juvenile detention centers, and prisons. I ventured into places that few department of education officials would dare go. Most pretend these makeshift programs do not exist. Worse, they pretend that these children do not exist – out of sight, out of mind.  

The school system’s response to children who do not fit is to place them out of ‘site.’ The familiar cry, “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key,” is more of a reality than you might realize. The New York City Department of Education’s (DOE) way of dealing with children who are described as disruptive is to treat them like criminals. As states across this country have moved toward privatization of prisons, this current administration has opted to follow suit and outsource education. DOE establishes partnerships with community-based organizations (CBO) to service children who have historically been failed by the system. These children fall into the following categories: suspended, homeless, pregnant, over-aged and under-credited.

By outsourcing services for our most challenging students, DOE concedes it is not willing to meet the needs of these children. In fact, the organizations being bankrolled and contracted by DOE to serve these students cannot meet their needs. These organizations will never admit it; to do so would be to bite the hand that feeds them. However, they have told DOE officials they will not service special education students. These students are considered too far gone and beyond help.

Let’s look at what was stated at a DOE press conference on November 25, 2002, in regard to its master plan for dealing with school discipline:
Removal from School:  For committing repeated more serious infractions, students will be assigned to newly created ‘twilight schools that will be established in each borough. These new schools will include community service assignments during the day – performing assignments with the Parks Department, for example – and classes in the late afternoon and early evening. 

Extended Removal from School:  Students who commit the most serious infractions will continue to be assigned to an expanded program of Second Opportunity Schools. These programs will be increased in capacity (from the current 300), re-configured to separate middle school students from high school students, and the rules will be changed to allow more students to be placed in these facilities.
As part of this initiative, and thanks to the change in governance structure making the Department of Education a Mayoral agency, a host of City agencies are now becoming part of a city-wide effort to support teaching and learning. The New York City Police Department has had a partnership with our schools for a number of years. Now the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will be working with schools to provide increased mental health referral services for children involved in these incidents. The New York City Department of Probation has offered to provide trained officers in key schools. The New York City Parks Department will work with the Department of Education on creating supervised community service assignments for children in twilight schools.”[1]
Here is a reality check:
Twilight Schools never happened and were quickly rebranded as New Beginnings. New Beginnings by all accounts was an abysmal failure. It never fulfilled its promise. Sixty students were to be removed from selected middle and high schools and provided counseling services by community-based organizations and rigorous academic coursework by licensed DOE teachers. With the exception of a few notable sites, the majority of the sites failed to deliver. Students and parents were sold a bill of goods.
Second Opportunity Schools (SOS) are de facto juvenile detention centers. Students’ civil rights are being violated. Children are being held in these centers without due process. There is no presumption of innocence. In addition, they are subjected to inferior instruction. In fact, at some sites, children are simply not receiving instruction. DOE central personnel’s current goal is to warehouse these students, not unlike the methods used by the penal institutions across this country. This creates an untenable situation for the program’s administration and teachers. Furthermore, although there are a handful of dedicated teachers in these sites, many are rejects from traditional schools themselves, banished like the students they are told to serve. Once the students are placed in SOS, they are forgotten by the system. Children are forced to remain at these sites (not schools) well beyond their suspension sentences. Schools do not want to accept them upon release, so the cycle of neglect and rejection continues. The prevailing attitude is, “They should not have committed the infraction in the first place. They get what they deserve.” 

Interagency partnerships do not exist in any significant way. I had so much hope for this possibility. Unfortunately, instead of interagency partnerships, you have territorial city commissioners. In too many cases, they do not communicate nor do they care to collaborate. For example, the New York City Department of Probation wants absolutely nothing to do with schools. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will probably admit it does not have the resources or capacity to work with middle and high school students.
The only outcome of the November 25, 2002, press conference was the removal of students from schools. All other promises were hype. I’ll tell you what Public Enemy told urban youth, “Don’t believe the hype.” Don’t be fooled by the power of the messages. People in this city have been fooled; I have heard learned people quote from these press releases as if they are true. No one has bothered to do an analysis of all of the press releases. I dare you – you can find them at
Pushing children out of school is not a new phenomenon. What is new is the masterful way it is being done. Here’s a specific example of how certain children are being pushed out of schools.  In 1995, the board of education established a post-five program called Young Adult Borough Centers (YABC). This program had three minimum criteria: Students must be 18+ years of age; they must have at least 28 credits; they must be in their fifth year of high school and have passed at least three New York State regents examinations. Students attended school from 4 to 9 PM, four days a week. Friday was an independent study day. This program was initially successful because the students were relatively close to meeting graduation requirements. Under this current administration, YABC has lowered the entry requirements. Students only need to be 17 years of age with four years of high school and have 17 credits, no regents required. These students face an uphill battle because many lack the foundation to succeed in a less structured environment. In addition, contrary to the rhetoric about rigorous curriculums, instruction is poor in most centers. So, once these students are convinced by guidance counselors and administrators to leave school, they can never return. Once they realize they were sold a bill of goods, they are left to fend for themselves. Many decide to leave the system altogether. Mission accomplished.

Since this strategy worked so well under the radar, DOE officials probably said, “Let’s design or rebrand another program. Let’s call it Learning-to-Work. We will announce it as a new initiative and everyone will think it is something new. Oh yeah, let’s mention that it will have a vocational component.” Schools Chancellor Klein made the following remarks on March 10, 2005:

“Our newest vocational program, Learning-to-Work, addresses the need for multiple pathways to graduation by providing overage and under-credited students with enhanced academic supports, a range of real-world work-related experiences, and other tools that they will need to complete their education and thrive in the workplace.” [2]

I found out about this so-called initiative by reading the New York Post. I received a call after the fact. I was not trusted with the ‘secret’ initiative. It is crazy. The initiative is a ruse. It is another device to mislead young men of color, primarily out of school. I told the chancellor and others the initiative would not work. What was I thinking?  It never mattered. The announcement of the initiative was the goal, not its implementation. I take absolutely no pride in being correct. In fact, I would be thrilled to be wrong.

Finally, in press conference after press conference, the public is told of the great promise of having community-based organizations work with our challenged youth. The theory is that the community-based organizations are grassroots and can relate to the students and their plight.  Nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing grassroots about many of these organizations. The leadership does not live in the community. The workers who work with students do not live in the community. The only thing community-based about some of these organizations is the location of their facilities. The real grassroots organizations do not want anything to do with the department of education. They perceive the DOE as a corrupt organization. In fact, department officials fear real grassroots organizations because they do not rely on government funding and can speak the truth. Again, others who are being bankrolled by government won’t dare bite the hand that feeds them. They, unlike Daniel of the Old Testament, are eager to eat the king’s meat.

On November 17, 2005, the mayor and chancellor stood together at yet another press conference to announce major education initiatives. People left this press conference just as they left ones in the past, feeling really good about the information they were fed. The words and backdrop were masterfully chosen. They hit their intended target the press. Unchallenged, what was said at this conference was printed in papers across this city. Readers believed it would happen, as they believed past promises have been fulfilled. 

As City Hall, DOE central, and consultants go through another clandestine reform of the original “Children First” reform, I know they will not deliver on this latest promise to serve disconnected children. Their arrogance and disconnection preclude them from doing so. Their arrogance precludes them from working with people who may disagree with them. Their disconnection precludes them from listening to people who live and work closely with children. Their arrogance precludes them from respecting people who are poor and miseducated.  In the final analysis, a system and its protectors are incapable of putting “Children First.” 

I leave you to ponder:

“What shall we do with children who do not fit the school system?” or “What shall we do with a school system that does not fit our children?”

Bernard Gassaway
Former Superintendent for NYC Alternative Schools and Programs

March 2006 ©

[1] Joel I. Klein in a press release on November 25, 2002
[2] Joel I. Klein in a press release on March 10, 2005  

Friday, April 15, 2016

Negroes on Parade by Bernard Gassaway

I wrote the following article nearly seven years ago. I was inspired by Dr. Carter G. Woodson's The Mis-Education of the Negro and Minister Malcolm X's The Ballot or the Bullet speech. Today, I am inspired by my daughter. She reminds me that it is important to be "authentic."

March on ‘til victory is won.  

Some time during my tenure as senior superintendent of alternative schools and programs, 2003-2005, I vowed never to stand behind a podium with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as I had seen countless community based Negroes do. I felt, being one of the few African American men in leadership in the New York City Department of Education, surely they would call upon me at some point when it was politically feasible. They must have known I would have refused because I never received the call.

I notice when the mayor and chancellor need Black faces to support a given initiative, they call upon the usual cast of characters, otherwise known as Negro leaders. These so-called leaders have one thing in common – they are for sale.

The mayor says, "I need for you to stand with me on this issue. In turn, I will support your applications for grants, schools, programs, and jobs."

The Negro responds, "Thank you for choosing me. Not that it matters, but what is the issue?" 

The mayor, "You will find out at the press conference." 

When I see the anointed Negro leaders stand with and behind the mayor, at his convenience, some with wide grins, showing their teeth, I am reminded of some of my ancestors who were forced into chattel slavery in this country. I am reminded of auction blocks which were stained by their blood. I am reminded of the scars from whips and chains. I am reminded of women being raped and told to tend the fields shortly after giving birth. I am reminded of the burning crosses. I am reminded of the limp bodies hanging lifeless from trees. I am reminded of the countless deaths of people who will never be known – because they chose death over servitude.

As I slowly approach fifty years of life, I ask myself, “Will things ever change?” I feel sad for our children and their children. If they follow the lead of the twenty-first century Negro, their children will become the next generation’s Negro.

So, to the aforementioned Negroes, as you proudly march on parade with the highest bidders, ask yourselves, “Is it really worth it?”

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

New York’s Community Schools: Pledge, Promise, Panacea by Bernard Gassaway

Politicians often use community schools as a political ploy and panacea for saving struggling schools. Both New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have decided to concentrate their school reform efforts on one solution: community schools.

In his 2016 State of the State address, Cuomo pledged 100 million dollars to convert struggling schools into community schools. In 2013, mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio pledged to open 100 community schools in his first term. One year later, he directed his schools chancellor to use the community school model as his school turnaround strategy.

While supporters of community schools may be excited by the recent attention they have received, they have reason to be cautious. They are aware of the potential harm Cuomo and de Blasio could cause the community schools movement if they fail to fulfill their pledges and promises.

I caution community school advocates as they align themselves with state and local politicians on school-related matters. Unfortunately, political expediency often trumps what’s in the best interest of children, particularly when they are poor.

Based on my research, I have the following concerns about the governor and mayor’s use of community schools as the cornerstone of their school turnaround model: 1) absence of public trust, 2) lack of relationships, 3) lack of training of school personnel, 4) lack of funding sources and 5) unsound policies and practices.

First, trust is fundamental to the establishment of community schools. Unfortunately, the public has trust issues around Cuomo and de Blasio’s education reform efforts. Teachers’ unions blasted Cuomo for his failed attempts to implement common core standards and a viable teacher evaluation system. The principals’ union criticized de Blasio for his micromanagement of NYC principals, particularly those who lead de Blasio’s school turnaround program (renewal schools).

Second, community schools are built on relationships between communities and schools. Relationships are established on trust, respect, collaboration and communication. Cuomo and de Blasio should understand that money, while important, is not what establishes sustainable and effective partnerships.

Third, school personnel—starting with principals—are not trained in establishing partnerships. It takes time and strategy to enable school leaders to develop turnkey training for their staff.

Fourth, when partnerships are built on a single funding stream, they are more likely to dissolve once that funding source dries up. If partners are not aggressively pursuing funding streams outside of city, state and federal sources, school-community partnerships are likely to end when the funding dries up.

Fifth, Cuomo and de Blasio must also understand that if they continue to implement poor policies that significantly contribute to schools failing, community schools will not succeed in their lofty mission.

These policies include enrollment practices that feed failure and segregation in schools, particularly in poor neighborhoods. They also contribute to a lack of equity, both in funding and the redistribution of effective teachers where they are needed most. For instance, a poor student is more likely to have an inexperienced teacher than a wealthy student.

In short, while community schools hold some promise for poor and disadvantaged children, they are not a panacea for struggling schools. Cuomo and de Blasio should resist the political temptation to offer community schools as an educational silver bullet.  Poor children will likely continue to lose if this approach persists.

Finally, I believe community school advocates have an ethical obligation to hold Cuomo and de Blasio accountable for what they are espousing about school reform. Cuomo and de Blasio’s rhetoric must match their actions with regard to supporting policies and practices that help make community schools work.

Bernard Gassaway, Ed.D.
Former NYC superintendent of alternative schools and programs and principal of Boys and Girls High School and Beach Channel High School