New School Honoring Mandela Smooths Bed-Stuy Tensions

NYC Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott (via Gotham Schools)

NYC Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott says “the honoring of a man like Mr. Mandela is something that transcends elected politics, that transcends administrations.” (Photo via Gotham Schools)

The new Nelson Mandela School for Social Justice, plans for which were announced by outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott the day after the South African leader’s death, will open inside the Boys and Girls High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant that Mandela visited in 1990, and should mollify concerns about co-location of schools, reports Sarah Darville in GothamSchools.

Plans for the school-within-a-school have been on the drawing boards for some time. Boys and Girls High School has been a poor performer, receiving three Fs in a row in the city’s progress reports. It has 1,000 students, down from 4,000 in 2007.

The school already contains the small Research and Service High School. The school principal, Bernard Gassaway, said as recently as October that he might resign if the city put another school within his school.

While Gassaway didn’t comment following the announcement, the Rev. Conrad Tillard, who serves on the school’s advisory council, said that Gassaway and the group had warmed to the idea.

“The legacy of Nelson Mandela transcends everything,” Tillard said, adding that Gassaway’s support had been a recent development. “Many people on the advisory committee had never supported co-location, but this was one people felt was worthy of the historical context of the school and could bring so much to the school.”

Despite its low graduation rates and test scores, Boys and Girls High School has been a symbolic center of the Bed-Stuy neighborhood, and the school has a powerful group of allied politicians and clergy, says Darville.

State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, who also serves on the Boys and Girls advisory council, said that was a compromise forged from weeks of discussion about whether to attach Mandela’s name to a single school or to the entire building. Ultimately, she said Gassaway pushed to keep the Boys and Girls’ name. “He did not want to lose the Boys and Girls High—symbolically, the institution,” she said.

The proposed new school will be voted on at the December 11 Panel for Educational Policy meeting. The city’s current plans are for Nelson Mandela High to open in September 2014, so the school will also need support from Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s administration.

Despite de Blasio’s statements before and during the campaign that he wants to pause the city’s policy of co-locating schools, spokeswoman Lis Smith indicated some support for the plans on Friday.

“The idea of naming a school after Nelson Mandela is a very worthy one. We will confer with our new Chancellor on this matter when he or she is named,” she said.

The proposed school is consistent with the model for new schools opened during the Bloomberg administration – that they be small and focused on a particular topic.

Montgomery said that one model might be Bedford Academy, a small school also located in Bedford-Stuyvesant that has been celebrated for high test scores and its male and female empowerment classes.

Following the announcement, a staff member at the Boys and Girls High School was quoted as saying that a new school will never open under the new mayor.

But Walcott, who had been in discussions with some at Boys and Girls High during Mandela’s illness, made it clear that he expects that it will.

“The honoring of a man like Mr. Mandela is something that transcends elected politics, that transcends administrations,” he said.

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