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High school principal, Bloomberg playing politics with Mandela’s death

Nayaba Arinde | 12/19/2013, 10:41 a.m.

The very day after the world began mourning the death of Nelson Mandela (Dec. 5), the global icon of resistance and perseverance, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and the Department of Education (DOE) announced the creation of the Nelson Mandela School for Social Justice, a new high school that is slated to be located in the Boys and Girls High School campus at Fulton Street and Utica Avenue in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.

“That was so inappropriate, announcing the name of this new school after Nelson Mandela purely to capitalize on his death,” stated Bernard Gassaway, principal of Boys and Girls High, when he called the AmNews offices on Monday.

Noting that Mandela visited New York City in 1990, just months after he was released from Robben Island, where he had served 27 years of a life sentence for his fight to overthrow the horrific apartheid system in South Africa, the DOE said in a statement, “The school, which [will] open in September 2014, will be named for the former president of South Africa, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and transformative global figure devoted to democracy, equality and education, who passed away yesterday. To further honor the legacy and work of Nelson Mandela, Mayor Bloomberg announced New Yorkers can help honor Nelson Mandela’s legacy through community service this weekend. Through the city’s comprehensive volunteer initiative, NYC Service, New Yorkers can connect to service projects across the five boroughs and share their experiences and commitment on Twitter using the hashtag #ServeMandela. The Panel for Education Policy will vote on the proposal to create the Nelson Mandela School for Social Justice at its Dec. 11 meeting.”

They did. The panel, which is often accused of just being a rubber-stamp crew for Bloomberg, passed his recommendation.

“Equal opportunity and access to education were among the many things Nelson Mandela spent his life fighting for,” said Bloomberg. “President Mandela once said, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.’ Renaming the campus he visited shortly after his release from prison will forever serve as a reminder that our mandate as public servants is to provide our children with the weapons they need for a successful future and help us build a city of inclusion and opportunity that Madiba could be proud of.”

While no one from the DOE responded to an AmNews request for comment on the opposition to what Gassaway calls the “opportunistic timing”of the announcement, Walcott did say in a prior statement, “Nelson Mandela visited this building not long after he was released from prison, and we want to ensure that the special bond between the students and this legendary figure will live forever ... A school that bears his name will encourage our students to demonstrate courage, overcome obstacles and embrace community. His legacy will forever live on in New York City schools, and I hope our students will reflect on, grow from and emulate this extraordinary man.”

Gassaway remains unimpressed and suspicious of the timing. While he told the AmNews that there may be room for the proposed 150 new students in a new school in the building, he added, “I don’t believe in colocations. It is not an effective tool for educating our students. The issue comes down to if they bring in new schools and yet do not do it in a collaborative way, it raises questions. Mayor Bloomberg’s and Chancellor Walcott’s last day is Dec. 31—why are they rushing to put these things in place in the last hour?

“The challenge for the community is putting viable programs in our schools, rather than putting in random schools everywhere,” he said.

Boys and Girls High School is already going through many changes, including the opening of a Lutheran Hospital school-based clinic. Another change, Gassaway stated, is that without his knowledge, the DOE authorized the posting of a sign declaring that the school will be the “future home of the Nelson Mandela School for Social Justice.” “It’s as if they are renaming the entire school—not just a new school,” stormed Gassaway.

The principal also noted, “If it is supposed to be a STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] school, then how do they just randomly change the nature of the school when they name it after Mandela?

“They are doing this under false pretenses and playing politics with the death of Nelson Mandela,” Gassaway charged. “People have been sitting on their hands, but they can’t allow the mayor in the final days of his administration to destroy what we have built all these years.”

Neither Bloomberg, Walcott nor the DOE responded to an AmNews request for comment by press time.