2006-01-20 / Community

Gassaway Pens ‘Reflections Of An Urban High School Principal’

Bernard Gassaway is revered by many Rockaway residents as the principal who made Beach Channel High School work again after years of dysfunctional education.

Gassaway, who retired from the Department of Education last year after a stint as the Deputy Chancellor For Alternative Schools, is in a position to tell all about education in New York City in general and specifically at Beach Channel High School.

He does so in a new book, “Reflections of an Urban High School Principal,” which begins with his often-criminal activities growing up on the streets of Brooklyn and moves to his redemption and his stint in Rockaway.

Along the road, he draws in readers with his tough-as-nails narrative and his insights into the city scene.’

Gassaway calls it an “inspirational journey,” and it is that. It is also, however, a document that will make you think twice about what school staff members face each day in our high schools. In September of 1971, at age 11, Gassaway was assigned to Class 6-1, the top class in the sixth grade at Lefferts Junior High School in Brooklyn. He was not happy with the top class designation.

“The class designation had me confused,” he writes. “I could not relate to the teachers or the students. All of my friends from around the way were in a special education class called 6-109. It was a smaller class for what may have been described as disruptive students. I wanted to be placed in that class. So, I began my journey of disruption. My strategy worked. I went from 6-1 to 6-7 to 6-10 to 6-109. Students in 6-1 were not my cup of tea. I was happy to make it to 6-109. I felt more at home in the smaller setting and I could certainly relate better to my peers and the teacher, Mr. Liebowitz.”

Eventually, after lots of fights, some run-ins with the police for burglary and other classroom disruptions, Gassaway was transferred to a “600 School,” a special school for juvenile delinquents at Sterling High School in Brooklyn.

Even that draconian school, however failed to contain Gassaway.

One day, when Gassaway was cutting school, riding the subway system, he ran into the school’s dean.

After a brief argument, Gassaway called the dean “a faggot” and the dean threw a bag of subway tokens at the students. Gassaway decided not to go back to Sterling High School.

At about the same time, Gassaway was arrested once again. Facing a black judge for the first time, he was sent to Annsville Youth Camp in Taberg, New York in early 1975. He counts that placement to saving his life. “I got away from my homeboys on the street and began to think of my future,” he writes. When he got out he went back to high school and, eventually, college.

In April of 1997, Gassaway was assigned as the first black principal of Beach Channel High School. At the time, the school’s population was approximately 85 percent minority and it had problems.

“By any objective analysis, Beach Channel was a school on the verge of disaster when I arrived,” he writes. “During a tour of the building, I noticed that the halls were never cleared of students. Some were not moving, even after the staff told them to move on. As much student traffic as I observed inside the school, a equal amount of traffic was taking place outside the school. It was almost overwhelming to witness.

“On either my second or third day on the job, all hell broke loose. There were seven fights in one day. I was walking through the halls when a school safety agent suddenly ran past me. From previous experience, I knew that meant that students were fighting. I began following him to a crowd of students. Before that crowd dispersed, I heard a call over an agent’s radio, ‘eighty-five at the main.’ “That was a code for a fight. Then, there was another ‘85’ on the second floor. My head was spinning. I was mentally and physically exhausted. All eyes were on me. It was if they were saying ‘welcome to Beach Channel. Do you know what you got into?”

Shortly after that day, Gassaway said that he set up basic rules and enforced them as stringently as possible.

Those rules mandated that all students carry program cards for identification and that all students in the halls had to have passes. They outlawed gambling, alcohol, cell phones, beepers, radios, and walk-men.

Gassaway says that the building began to turn around. He says that “Discipline with compassion” was the key to the turnaround.

Gassaway talks about his favorite peeves: labeling kids (special ed, emotionally handicapped) and adults who disrespect children. He especially riles against the teams of school safety agents who came to the school periodically to use metal scanners during the morning intake process.

To those peeves, he has added the supervisors who sometimes lose sight of the job at hand to impress those higher up or to cover themselves by acting timidly.

All in all, “Reflections of an Urban High School Principal” is a book to read for anybody associated with the schools or who is interested in a true story of redemption. It is available at Amazon. com, from the publisher, XenoGass ALG (178-17 132 Avenue, Jamaica, New York 11434) or from the author at bgas37@aol.com.

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