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Bernard Gassaway: Reflections of An Urban High School Principal

As Superintendent of Alternative High Schools and Programs, Mr. Gassaway was an observer of the massive denial of civil rights and due process that will be the legacy of Mayoral control in New York City and the Bloomberg/Klein years. A man of honor, ethics and morals, he resigned on June 30, 2005 and now is writing about what he saw. Hold onto your seats, this material is graphic, and vital to a protest against the "reform" that is hurting so many children in New York City. We award him an A For Accountability.

Bernard Gassaway used to work for Joel Klein. He couldn't in good conscience work for the NYC DOE anymore, and resigned his position as Superintendent of Alternative Programs on June 30, 2005. We all should read his essays and pass them on to all the parents and news reporters in America. Help us do that.

Betsy Combier, Editor of

The New York City School System Is Not Broken By Bernard Gassaway

I have spent a large part of this past year trying to figure out how to improve the New York City Public School System from the outside. I have come to the following conclusion: The New York City School System is not broken. It is doing what it was designed to do.

People often query, "Why can't the New York City government get the schools to work? After all, they spend nearly 15 billion dollars annually." To them I say, again, "The system does work. It was designed to teach uniformity, conformity and compliance among its participants. It was designed to teach a class of children to be willing and eager servants. Even the factory-like way schools operate supports its purpose to train the majority of children for their future roles - civil servants or civil dependents. In large urban areas, schools in effect are used to warehouse a large number of children (currently, New York City public school enrollment is slightly over 1 million children). Overcrowding, underachievement, high dropout rates and crime are all expected outcomes of warehousing."

We know numerous upstate communities are highly dependent on New York City's residents to fill their prisons. Approximately 66% of the upstate prisoners come from New York City. At least 50% of all New York State detainees do not have high school diplomas. They come from poor neighborhoods that have a disproportionate number of failing schools. At least 50% of all state detainees are African-American, though they only account for 16% of the state's population. Latinos make up 28% of the state's prisoners while only representing 15% of the state's population. Conservatively, 50% of African-American males are either dropped or pushed out of New York City public schools (the figure is probably higher when you factor in students who never make it out of junior high or middle school).

We know prisons are proportionately built at a higher rate than schools. Since the early eighties, an additional 36 prisons have been built in New York State. Currently, there are 69 state prisons. From a personnel standpoint, there is a correction officer to inmate ratio of 1:3 in the state prisons. On average, in New York City, general education classes have a teacher to student ratio from 1:20 to 1:34 in some high school classes.

We know there is a correlation between the prison population and education failure. When children are not educated, a demand is generated for more prisons. Why do you think there was so much opposition from upstate republicans to give New York City additional money for schools? If schools were to educate New York City children successfully, rural upstate communities would suffer because many are dependent on city residents to fill their prisons.

We know upstate politicians fought hard to prevent the city from getting additional school funding. They need not worry. Additional funding for New York City schools will not translate into an improved school system. As long as the system remains the same, you can spend 28 billion dollars and little will change for the majority of the children. School and government officials will find a way to divert the money. Look at how the Department of Education is currently wasting millions of dollars.

We know they are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to hire consultants to improve the system. The largest provider of professional development services for New York City teachers is an Australian-based company. Although school principals will never admit it publicly, many are forced to purchase professional development services from this company.

We know the people who are impacted the most by the New York City education system have virtually no say in its design.

As I previously stated, the system is not broken. It is doing what it was designed to do.

African-American scholars have long fought to influence the New York City curriculum. There is a legitimate claim that the children who make up the largest part of the system cannot find any significant evidence of their people's history in the school curriculum. Although documents have been prepared to begin to address this gross omission, the Board of Education has rejected them. No surprise. In order for city officials to correct this travesty of exclusion, they would be required to hire Africans or people of African ancestry to provide professional development services to schools, similar to the Australian deal. It would also require the school system to recognize that Black history began long before Africans arrived on North American shores as victims of chattel slavery. To do it right, it would cost the system billions of dollars to correct all of the misinformation and propaganda. Teachers and administrators must be retrained. New books must be written and purchased. I surmise even if these efforts were successful, it is easier to train the mind than it is to train the heart. At this point, I would welcome an educational system that focuses on truth, relevance and student interests.

As I speak to numerous groups, teachers often ask me, "What can I do to help the children I have pledged to serve?" I say, "Stay true to your principles. Be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for our children. If you are a teacher of history, you are culturally and ethically required to teach the truth, although it is your job to teach the lies. As long as children are required to take tests, you are required to prepare them. You need to figure out where you will draw the line. That is an individual decision."

Here are some specific recommendations for parents and other educators:

1. Parents should organize and open learning institutes in their communities. Establish child-centered environments where adults stand among the students not against them - no competing interests.

2. Parents should advocate for funding to follow the child - a form of vouchers. This funding should be available to all city residents to support their child's education, regardless of the parents' choice of educational providers, including homeschooling.

3. Establish community-based enrichment activities for children. They need structure, stimulation and security. Children never get tired of learning. They get tired of people trying to teach them.

4. Parents should boycott all standardized testing. The purpose of testing is to bankroll the publishing industry. A well-trained teacher can provide students with meaningful assessments.

5. Listen to the actions of children. Their behaviors are manifestations of what they see. Do not preach to them. Demonstrate for them.

6. Home educate your child/children. Revive the rite that parents are the first teachers. Work with other like-minded parents to educate your children. There is no natural law that says education is reserved for 8 A.M. to 3 P.M. If you are a parent, you have at least two jobs. One is to earn a living for your family. The second, and more important, is to raise and educate your children. Do not abrogate this important responsibility to an outside entity.

7. Create learning environments that recognize children have different learning styles and different timetables for learning. Do not force a circular child to become a square student.

8. Create learning opportunities that show children how to become owners, not renters, masters, not servants, employers, not employees.

Bernard Gassaway is the former principal of Beach Channel High School and senior superintendent of alternative schools and programs for New York City. He is a homeschooling father and author of "Reflections of an Urban High School Principal." June 2006 ©

Master of Education
by Bernard Gassaway

"You cannot serve two masters." You cannot serve children and remain silent while they are being hurt under your watch. You cannot serve children when you promise the master you will remain loyal to him no matter what. Eighteen years ago, I pledged to serve children - no matter what. So when I was told, as Senior Superintendent of Alternative Schools and Programs and Adult and Continuing Education for the New York City Department of Education that I served at the pleasure of the school's Chancellor and the Mayor, at first, I did not get it.

I contend that most superintendents began their careers as teachers. Teachers take a silent oath to pledge allegiance to their students. Somewhere along the hierarchical ladder, one's allegiance begins to shift. Once you leave the school house, it becomes difficult to exclusively serve students. You are expected to serve the person who holds your employment fate in his hands. In the case of school superintendents, that's the Chancellor and Mayor.

Most school superintendents get it. They understand that by accepting their positions, they can no longer pledge allegiance to children. They understand that there is a line that they cannot cross. They understand that they must be careful about what they say. They understand that they cannot express an independent thought, especially if it is not in accordance with the party line. They understand that if they disagree with the party line, they must keep it to themselves.

As teachers, I among them, we take pride in the fact that once we close our doors, we can exercise a level of assumed autonomy. "I know I'm supposed to use the workshop model. Who will know if I've used 10 or 15 minutes on this section?" Superintendents cannot close the door so easily and assume anything, let alone autonomy. Autonomy implies a level of independence. Have you witnessed any New York City school's superintendent exercise an independent thought that did not jive with the stated position of the Mayor or Chancellor? Superintendents would not dare denounce a flawed educational policy that comes from City Hall or Department of Education headquarters publicly; some are so afraid, that they will not even do so privately. They all got the message back on March 15, 2004, when the Mayor exercised his right of removal of several members of the Panel for Educational Policy who dared to disagree with him on the issue of ending social promotion for third grade children. Didn't they know that they could not serve two masters? They were told in the preamble of their by-laws that "All members serve at the pleasure of the official who appointed them." What were they thinking?

The Mayor's actions sent a message loud and clear. If you serve at my pleasure, shut your mouth. Have you heard opposition from any city agency? You definitely have not heard any from the New York City Department of Education. I find it sadly amusing each time I watch the New York City Council hearing with Chairwoman of the Education Committee Eva Moskowitz grilling Department of Education employees. You can see the fear on their faces' hoping that they do not say anything remotely outside of the party line. After all, they were well rehearsed. I am sure they ask themselves as Councilwoman Moskowitz is hammering them, "What would my master want me to say?"

After serving one master, children, for 16 years, I was assigned senior superintendent of Alternative Schools and Programs in July 2003. The first year in this position was exciting. I worked directly with an educational giant in the man of Dr. Lester Young, Jr. He somehow managed to do what so many before him had failed or were afraid to do; he chose to serve children, not the system.

Under the leadership of Lester Young, we began to make some needed reforms within the larger reform. You see, the Children First Reforms did not consider the children we served in my superintendency. Children First focused on the elementary grades, primarily. Middle and high school children, who have been disenfranchised for years, would have to continue the game of educational roulette. If they were lucky enough to get into a "good school," fine. If not, tough luck. These were the thousands of young children who were pushed through the primary grades long before Children First. These were the children who have fallen between the cracks. These were the children who were and are victims of policies that enable some well-meaning, misguided educators to push them out of school. They were homeless, pregnant, court involved, over-aged and under credited, illiterate, and poor.

It was during my second year as superintendent, following the retirement of Lester Young, that the term serving at the pleasure hit home. As we got closer to the mayoral election, I felt the reigns tighten. Although never spoken directly to me, it was clear that I was expected to be a good boy. I was expected to advocate the position of the Mayor. I could not do this. I knew the reality that many children faced did not match Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and school's Chancellor Joel I. Klein's rhetoric. Their standard line was "Things are improving, scores are rising, but we still have a long way to go."

I represented the children who were on the "long way to go" end of the process. I wanted nothing to do with the bogus talk about test score gains. These so-called gains did not change one thing for the children who I represented. City Hall and Department of Education officials had one goal in mind, get
Bloomberg reelected. The Chancellor frequently advocated on television for the Mayor's reelection. When I first heard this, I remember saying to myself, I do not care about this Mayor's reelection.

If our educational leaders (superintendents) are silenced, what chance do our principals, teachers, parents and children have? Since no one is willing to tell the Emperor that he is not wearing any clothes, our children continue to suffer. Our children continue to suffer because we fail to come to their defense. Our
children continue to suffer because we compromise our principles. Our children continue to suffer because we refuse to listen to them, hear their cries. Our children continue to suffer because few are bold enough to utter a word in defense of them. Our children continue to suffer because our so-called political, religious, educational and community leaders are so weak and paralyzed by complicity or fear.

Here's my charge to educational leaders. If you are not going to pledge allegiance to children, shut up and continue to do as you are told to do. Do not pretend to be an educator. Do not pretend to be free. Your children will surely follow your lead.

Bernard Gassaway Former New York City Student, Teacher, Assistant Principal, Principal, Superintendent Resigned from NYC Department of Education on June 30, 2005

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