2005-12-09 / Columnists

It’s My Turn

Op-Ed by Bernard Gassaway, Former Principal, BCHS

Op-Ed by Bernard Gassaway,
Former Principal, BCHS

Bernard GassawayBernard 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. Teacers 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.

Author of Reflections of an Urban High School Principal (January 2006 release)

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