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"Reflections of an Urban High School Principal"

A Review

by Fadhilika Atiba-Weza
Amityville, New York

Reflections of an Urban High School Principal
by Bernard Gassaway

Jamaica, NY: XenoGass ALG, 2006, 148 Pages

Reflections of an Urban High School Principal comes at time of renewed interest in and activities regarding the size, structure, and effectiveness of our High Schools. The publication of the Breaking Ranks I and II, the convening of the Governors Conferences on Education, which gave us the William Gates proclamation on the structure and relevance of high schools, as we know them, and the small schools movement, to name a few. Not to be outdone, New York State has embarked on its Destination Diploma initiative, a series of high school reformation conferences. The time therefore is ripe for the works of one who has been involved in the process of improving the quality of the education which is provided to our students. Reflections of an Urban High School Principal is the story of one such individual.

Using a format which includes flashbacks to stages in his development, Gassaway weaves a tale that takes the reader from the streets of Brooklyn to the superintendency of the New York City Department of Education’s Adult and Alternative Education program. There are many stops along the way as he reflects on his upbringing, his marriage, his work as a teacher, assistant principal, and the main subject of this book, his prinicpalship of the Beach Channel High School in NYC. Although not written as a manual for prospective principals, this book provides insights and recommendations for aspiring principals and administrators, and could very well become a guide for the leadership of the urban high school.

In his critique of the President’s education policies, he refers to the reauthorized Elementary Secondary and Elementary Act (ESEA) as the Leave No Child Behind Act, and not by its popular moniker No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Whether by design or accident, he ends up using the term that was originally coined by the Children’s Defense Fund.

In My Wife’s Reflections Traci Lilly takes the reader on a journey which begins with their first encounter, her attempts at teaching, the author’s life work as an educator, the struggles he waged in becoming an effective teacher and administrator, and the importance of spousal support, as one endeavors to make a difference for students. This chapter is written in a format such that it would have been more effective had it been presented as a foreword to the book. It nevertheless, informs the reader of the life of the principal beyond the walls of the schoolhouse, and its impact on his/her immediate family.

The final chapter, Master of Education, is Gassaway’s critique of the New York City Department of Education, and a clarion call to his erstwhile colleagues to accept the challenge of providing an effective education for all of the students in the system. Although no one questions his sincerity regarding the issues which confronted him, and his response to them, one may argue that there is a certain element of naiveté in the manner in which he chose to respond to the conflicts which he faced. Given the success that he experienced as a principal and NYC superintendent, one wonders whether he would have been more effective by quitting as he did or remaining in the system. One in which he was successful, in spite of the hurdles which he had to overcome.

Reflections of an Urban High School Principal is recommended reading for those who are interested in learning about some of the realities of growing up and working in the NYC school system.

Published in In Motion Magazine March 12, 2006.

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