“In 1984, Boys & Girls High School was described as one of the worst high schools in New York City”, says Mickens in the introduction to his handbook, ” It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way.” “Today, (the school) represents the best in Bed-Stuy. It didn’t take a miracle to turn around the nation’s 14th largest high school. It took hard work on the part of students, staff, parents and the community who decided to make a difference. Clearly, many of the problems that once plagued Boys & Girls High School are not unique to our school. It is my fervent belief that our schools can work if given an atmosphere that promotes academic excellence, school pride and sense of purpose. And the only way that will happen is if we have the commitment to make it happen.”
Our Time Press: So much to talk about. Now, you grew up in Bed-Stuy?
Frank Mickens: 446 Lexington Avenue between Tompkins and Throop, and 318 Kosciusko, between Throop and Sumner
OTP: Where did you go to school?
FM: P.S. 25, J.H.S. 57 and Erasmus Hall.
OTP: When you were growing up were there any teachers and administrators who played a part in your life?
FM: There were always a lot of people besides my parents and family. I think that was a big plus in those days. There were some significant teachers. There were black men who worked in the night centers, after school centers, the PAL, the YMCA, the church, the Scouts. So there were always role models. I’d say, “Hey, I want to be like that.” At that time there were some guys I used to play basketball with who went on to college. They were examples and I wanted to go to college. I remember we were playing a tournament at P.S. 29. A guy said that’s Al Vann, University of Toledo. Then there was Jitu Weusi. He was, then, Les Campbell. He was always reading a book while he worked part-time in the center. He was a student at L.I.U. They didn’t mentor me. I just watched these guys.
OTP: What kind of student were you?
FM: A good one.
OTP: Any behavioral problems?
FM: No. Those were different times when I was a teenager. My Brooklyn neighborhood was like a village. And that was good. You couldn’t do anything because there were a lot of people watching you. As opposed to today, when you might get killed or stabbed if you say something about somebody else’s child. We really lost that family spirit as a community. We’ve lost it as a group of people.
The funniest thing. When I became principal of J.H.S. 324, one of my assistants was a teacher I had during the time I went to 57, Ms. Lott. There are constant reminders of the past. I try to tell my staff that kids are always watching you. I think kids respect standards and adults who have them.
OTP: Your parents?
FM: Both my parents worked hard and there was a heavy emphasis on school, a heavy emphasis on being involved in a number of activities and going to church. I attribute a lot to them. The issue of education was so important in my family that my mother went back to school after I left for college. She attended Medgar Evers College, where she received her B.A., and then got her Master’s. You can reflect and say look at the sacrifices that she made. My dad was a furrier. It was a good job. This work ethic thing I got from him. I remember in the winter he would leave home at 4:30am, and he worked Saturdays and Sundays.
He’s concerned about my health. I tell him, “Man, this ain’t nothin’ compared to what you used to do when I was yelling for everything and didn’t know what it took to get those things.” Before my mother went on to college to become a teacher and work in a day care center, she did piece work. Can you imagine? Even though they both worked, I would come home and do certain things that I was told to do. I had certain restrictions. The night center was open. I couldn’t go Monday through Thursday, but I could go Friday night. And I could go Saturday afternoon, Saturday night. If I went to church, I could go Sunday after church. So look at all that was available to me then. That is why I say our kids today really do not have anything to do in there free time.
OTP: What else appeals to you about those times?
FM: Here’s another difference between those times and these. Nobody ever bothered little kids or senior citizens. If you did you were crazy! Even though there were drugs at the time, the guys that did the drugs would say, “Mick, yo, you going to school? OK, man that’s good!” If you were striving, people were protective of you in a very funny way. They would say, “You better keep going. Don’t get involved with that!” It was a relatively safe passage for young people who stayed away from trouble then. And there were gangs. Remember the Chaplains? But I remember being very safe, and people watched out for you. Now there’s nothing for kids to do except stand on the corners. We, as people, know how to raise children. We’ve had history of raising our families and extended families but we are losing it. We have lost it. It takes aunts, cousins, everybody on the block. When they’re watching their kids, they should be helping watch everybody else’s kids.
OTP: How do you think we could have lost it?
FM: I don’t know if it’s the TV thing or getting involved in the larger society and emulating some of the crazy things they do. See, they can do these things and recover. We can’t recover.
OTP: It sounds as though you have incorporated the positive experiences from your past-when family extended to the village and the block and embraced everyone-into your philosophies and concepts about educational leadership and in your incentive programs and seven day school projects.
FM: When I was 17, Bill Jones, the present minister of Bethany, came to Brooklyn from Kentucky. One of the first things he did was institute a Scholar’s program. I remember getting a $100 award. It was a lot of money back then.
OTP: And you continue the example set by your dad, working overtime for your Boys & Girls High Family. In fact, Joseph Fernandez once described you as a 12-hour-a-day man with a passion for getting things done. You, yourself, sound like a success model for any field that you’re in. How do you instill that in the students?
FM: They think I live here. I don’t know if that makes them better. But it does indicate to them my passion for the school and education, and indicates that I am not playing. I think they admire it. I don’t know if they emulate it. I think they admire it.
OTP: What are the results you’ve gotten- the reading scores, the math scores- since you’ve gotten here?
FM: In my book (“It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way”) I give some statistics. The attendance rate is up from 66 to 82 percent. The graduation rate has increased from 81% to 95%. Students going to college up to 74% from 50%. In 1994, we issued 74 Regents-endorsed diplomas from 2 in 1986. You can take the six neighboring high schools with similar populations and add them together and it wouldn’t come to 74. And I think besides that, kids want to come to this school. I don’t think you have a neighborhood school serving the population we serve where kids want to come. I have a folder of parents’ calls and politicians’ calls; all wanting to get their kids in here.
OTP: Boys & Girls High School is located in one of the seven areas where 75% of the prison population comes from. You seem to be beating these odds. How do you do it?
FM: I don’t know what has happened here. Our youngsters are coming here unprepared from some of our major feeder schools- 57, 324, 390, 394. Those youngsters are coming very much unprepared. It seems we have had some success, and I think it is a credit to our staff. All of these schools are in danger of being taken over, restructured, and are on the list of schools identified as having a record of academic problems. Here we have had a record of continuing progress. And it is a concern. I don’t know how we’ve been able to do it. I know we have a good staff and good spirits. We’ve been blessed. It doesn’t fit; we should be a school out of control, low performance. We should fit right in with most of our feeder schools.
OTP: You should be a part of that system.
FM: A part of that. A lot of people will say that he selects the kids. That’s not true. I have a thousand freshmen who come here who I don’t know anything about every year. But what I have done is say to youngsters who go to another school and mess up, beat up the principal, and attack other kids: “I don’t think this is the place for you. I think you should stay where you choose to go.” So in doing that, we have made ourselves a Number One choice. I want kids to make this their Number One choice. I do not want to be on second or third. So we’re happy with that.
OTP: You talk about the notion of Boys & Girls H.S. as being a sort of island, a safe haven.
FM: … in the middle of some problems…
OTP: … some serious problems.
FM: We serve some of the toughest housing projects in this country. Places like Brevoort, Albany, Marcy and Smurf Village. Kids come from places that are tough where they have to fight to survive. So as part of the safe haven we have developed (a security belt) around the perimeter of our building with at least ten or twelve adults, security officers, deans. I’m out there for ten years. I mean ten years is no joke. I’m out there now on our new schedule when a few students leave at 1:15 to 2:30 every day. That’s it. I have a post. We have four people on Utica. Three at the Main entrance. Three at Schenectady. I’m across the street at the (Fulton) Park.
OTP: And the reason is…
FM: To protect our kids as best as we can. There are a lot of young people that want to do harm to kids who go to school. In addition, we have gotten good police protection. We have a police van on Utica. People say how do you get the police? We have the largest number of people coming and leaving Bedford-Stuyvesant at anytime so it warrants that kind of attention. In addition, if you go to other areas of this borough, not too far away, people are able to gather support for their kids in numbers that are astronomical. Once I saw that, there was never a question in my mind that I was going to get the same attention for my kids.
OTP: You have a mentoring program here.
FM: We have a very informal way. It doesn’t cost us anything. That’s one of the great things about it. It’s voluntary…you get about 40 people and they identify two or three kids they want to help or talk to or pat on the shoulder. It’s nothing definite. I give them the leeway. I think it has helped a number of kids. Because it is such a large population, kids need all the support they can get.
OTP: What kind of community support have you gotten?
FM: The community has supported us on different issues. Parents have really been supportive. I think politicians could have given more money to our graduating kids.. I am very pleased that this year Annette Robinson has taken $3500 out of her discretionary funds. That means that 7 kids will get $500 each to go to college. I encourage, I implore to other politicians doing the same. Don’t talk about what a good job I’m doing or how proud you are of this school even if it’s a dollar…
OTP: Put your money where your mouth is.
FM: Even if it’s a dollar, show that. Over the years, the churches have been supportive. I’ve spoken in just about every church in this community-11 o’clock A.M., prime time. I always speak prime time. And they have been supportive. Our political people have been supportive. And they are happy with me being here. Now, every time I get a chance to go somewhere and be a little sump’um, sump’um, I wish that support would follow.
OTP: You talk about your support here and the feeder schools, what about leaving here and becoming a superintendent of several schools?
FM: That’s always been an argument. It is obvious we done a little sump’um, sump’um here. That’s how the kids say it. A little sump’um, sump’um. And I think we have done some things that can be a model for schools. I am asked to speak and make presentations outside of New York. I speak a lot- not on school days because I really try not to leave the building for meetings, even. I want to be here. But I may fly out to talk about the school on a Friday. Cleveland, Atlanta, Louisville, Colorado, Virginia, and Tampa. Talking about those things we do here, I would say that some people in this town should be asking me to do that.
OTP: I was about to ask about that. Have you made presentations here? Sheepshead Bay? Queens?
FM: I’ve made presentations to parents and churches.
OTP: You’ve obviously made some success here. If it were translated system wide, the school system would be in a lot better shape than it is.
FM: I think there are some things we do that can be done in a lot of schools; there are some things that may not be able to be duplicated. That’s because I really believe that good people make a difference.
OTP: That’s right.
FM: I left Thursday morning for a speaking engagement Thursday night. I was back here Friday morning, but my people were really on top of this- my security, my assistants, my deans, and every teacher. Everybody was on top of this, doing their jobs and maintaining the school, taking care of our children. I think that this is the ultimate tribute to all of them. Some would say he does it his own way. He does not follow the Board of Education. If they look at the research- and I’ve been to Harvard University Principal Center; I’ve been around the block and I’m big on this issue of leadership-they will discover that good leaders will sometimes bend rules. Successful principals will sometimes tailor those rules to their own situations. That’s what we have done. I don’t know anybody in this town who could get young men to wear shirts and ties. I don’t know anybody in this town with this population who could get kids to voluntarily serve. And the list goes on. We have the dress code and dress for success days. I’m very, very big on moral issues. But the successes at the High are a tribute to the staff, not Frank Mickens. I have a great first assistant, Janet Moore, who has done extremely well in the area of administration, developing innovative programs-our PM school, our Saturday school, our Sunday school, our summer school. Without those kinds of people, this would have taken a longer period of time to do.
OTP: Were they here when you got here?
FM: Yes, some were here. Some came on board later.
OTP: So why..?
FM: I may have had the vision but a person like Janet Moore was able to develop it. You can have all the vision you want but if you don’t have anyone to develop it…
OTP: Support teams?
FM: Support teams. There are a number of people here who have been through a succession of principals. Phil Cox, my predecessor, did a lot of work. He was here five years. But before him, there were principals in and out of the door. I always say that Phil laid the groundwork for me to come and do some things, but it does take time. People look at us and say, “I want to be like Mick.” “I want to be like Boys & Girls.” It takes time and a tremendous amount of personal energy. I didn’t start with a shirt and tie when I got here. I started with let’s get those Walkman’s off; let’s get those hats off. This is the way we are going to come into this auditorium. This is the way we’re going to have our lunchroom-which wasn’t a popular place at all. In fact, it had railings, almost like a prison – type entrance, for kids to go on line to eat. So, the first day I said, “Knock that down.” Then we got people who were good in terms of running a school cafeteria. And that took changes. I didn’t get them right away. But I made changes. We’re on our sixth and final dietitian. Finally goes the person I think can provide the food they love to eat.
OTP: I thought there was a central food service.
FM: We have a deli bar. Kids can pick six or seven different kinds of meat. There’s a hot area, a cold area, a salad bar. We serve breakfasts. We have award luncheons and dinners.
OTP: There is that aspect, and I see placard signs all around- “Pride and Joy”, “Stay Focused.” These are continuing reinforcements. There’s the dress code, the food, special awards for every student who is achieving, from those who are at the top rungs to those who have wakened up and started passing all of their courses, the special guest speakers, the financial incentives, essay contest and on and on…
FM: You need those positive re-enforcements to get those credits, take those Regents, study for those tests and be on time for classes. Part of our mission is to help develop a decent person who gets an education in the academics and an education in life skill basics-like being on time. I’m a stickler for that. I tell my students that you’ve got to be on time. My brother works for the train, he’s got to be there on time. My work day is from 6am to 9pm and I do five, six hours on Saturdays. Sundays, I come in a few hours. It’s nonstop. And that’s besides speaking engagements, selling our book and our videos. All that money goes towards the kids’ scholarships. The seniors sell videos and books and they get all the money at graduation.
OTP: Have other schools done the same?
FM: They may have, I’m not sure. When I go into the community to raise money I like to say this is what we have done. This is what we have raised. I’m not coming to you empty-handed. We have been able to garner a lot of money for scholarships for a wide variety of kids. Our valedictorian is going to Cornell. The kid in the middle. Kid called survivors. We have survivor scholarships for kids who have made it under very difficult circumstances. Kids who wrote an essay “What Boys & Girls mean to me.” Kids who have sold the books, they get that money. And that’s a lot of kids. Those are things we have done in house. I wrote this handbook with the feeling that I wanted all the funds to go to kids. If I have to go to Florida and I sell some books, that’s several hundred dollars, that’s good.
OTP: Mentioning the valedictorian and the survivors, we did an interview with Eddie Ellis, President of the Community Justice Center, who said that while he was in jail, he found that a lot of the “best and the brightest” were there and that they are there because their energies were misdirected. Do you see yourself losing some of that potential?
FM: Oh yes. I’m losing some right here. But I lost them before they came here. When you talk about drop out rate, when you talk about kids having poor attendance, it didn’t start in high school. It usually starts in middle school. Something happened in those middle school years. I had a youngster who did pretty well in elementary. He floundered in middle school and he’s floundering now. When you’re about 50- 60 days before you come here, you’ve got a problem. When the peer pressure is overwhelming and the support at home is very limited, there’s a problem. When community lacks after-school activities and other activities, there is a problem; it is not a safe haven. And that’s a tough act to push. I teach a class at 7am where the youngsters are real bright. They are trying to get it together, and a few of them will. It’s a physical education class. There are some kids who did something here and I said, “Wait a minute. We can’t just forget you did something. You got to pay for it. It’s alright to say I’m sorry. But let’s see if you really mean it.” So they begin the school day an hour earlier. I’m saying don’t talk about it. Let’s do something. See if we can make this change, and you’ve got to pay for it. Someone can’t just say, “I’m sorry.” You’ve really got to mean it. I have had many innovative programs for at-risk kids. I had a Principal’s Academy where I gave them five of my best teachers. I have had classes called self-contain where they are with one teacher all day long except maybe for gym… If you can feel good about yourself and not be overcome by peer pressure and that’s hard, you can make it.
OTP: Some of those programs sound like innovations. The bureaucracy generally does not like that. How does the Board of Education feel about the programs?
FM: We do some things within our budgets. Many schools have PM schools like us; Saturday school is a different innovation. I do classes on Sundays, too. So we get a little bit of money ourselves to get shirts and ties. A businessman has given us over $40,000 in the past few years. He does not like me to call his name. When I said I want all young men to wear shirts and ties, everybody in Bed-Stuy said, “That’s great.” The churches gave me shirts and ties, but the kids keep them and I’ve got 2,000 male students here. People all over the country sent me shirts and ties. You need to have that. He has done some marvelous work. Some of my students who are in his “I Have A Dream” program get $6,000 per year. They were selected from elementary schools. American Express has been wonderful with the publishing of my handbook and giving me money to help pay for breakfasts.
OTP: About American Express, has Ken Chenault been active here?
FM: Kenneth Chenault was our graduation speaker last year. He told our graduates “Don’t hang out with dumb people. Dumb people get you in trouble.” I stole that from Ken. It was marvelous. We have a community-based program, the Carter G. Woodson Project, which allows every kid to go on trips and participate in cultural activities.
OTP: As long as your innovations occur within your budget you can do it or you must raise monies yourself.
FM: Right. Because we’re so big, I’ve seen some kids do better with nontraditional programs.
OTP: Have the budget cutbacks affected you?
FM: It affects your support services in a number of ways. If I had my way, I would open up more classes in PM school- which is already large. More remedial help is needed for kids. I spend a lot of money on kids, honoring them. And every kid needs it. Every kid needs books, too.
OTP: Do you have an alumni association?
FM: Girls High gives $ 4,000 a year. The local Boys H.S. alumni association initially was supportive .I expected them to come back. They would have been the most powerful group to help us- not so much for the money, but for the mentoring.
OTP: The old Boys High. Those guys aren’t active?
FM: Not as active as they could be. There’s an alumna association on the West Coast. What I like about that school is when you mention that school to older people, they say it was the very best, the cream. We’ve bought some of the glamour back. We also get the support from frats and sororities, the Brooklyn Old-Timers, the Brownstoners. And I give each kid who receives a Regents diploma $100 dollars. And all these groups add up. It’s very important.
OTP: It takes a village to raise a child.
FM: And some money, too.
OTP: Getting back to your impact on the kids, you have said you won’t have 14-year olds calling the shots. But I get the impression they call the shots in the streets. They call the shots in their homes.
FM: I deal with them better than anyone else in this country because I’m going to demand respect, just based on my work. I know some of these kids are going through some changes but I’m not going to allow them to disrespect me or my staff. And yes, the street code is different but this is not the street. Plus, I’m not going to let a few of them destroy us. And even when I sent them to alternative schools or refer them to different institutions, they still respect what we’ve done here. They were just unable to adapt to it.
OTP: The Calvin Klein ads on the sides of buses, the television programs. You are fighting against all of that. What kind of special armament do you need?
FM: The cooperation of our parents. Kids pester them so much for this kind of clothing and they buy it for them. I say New York is the Naked City; all around us on television, in the movies, in the ads, everybody’s naked. So say, ” Look, I can buy one of these items but you can’t wear this to Mr. Mickens school.:” What happens is when I’m correcting a young lady-“Don’t you see these perverts looking at you”- it’s just trying to teach the standards required for a social event, job interview, college interview. Even I am more comfortable in sweats, but I want them to know what to do. When I tell a young lady that she can’t wear miniskirts, I look at the mother who comes up to the school to complain, and her skirt is shorter than her daughter’s.
OTP: We hear you sometimes get into their business outside of the school.
FM: I found out about a recent Sweet Sixteen Party held at a venue in the Flatbush area. The tickets said you bring, could bring more than one. People from all over Brooklyn showed up. My kids were there. There was a dispute. People were diving under tables, running on people’s lawns trying to get out, knocking on the doors trying to get in. I brought it up in school over the intercom. I was very angry about it because a kid could get hurt. The parents spoke to me about it and said they were very wrong in allowing that to happen. That’s all you can do is raise these issues, ’cause I have been to too many funerals. Parenting is hard, very hard. Kids want to be with the crowd, they want to go there with somebody. And they will continue to go to parties, but I laugh about it. I informed this young lady over the loudspeaker: “Louise, I have your shoes that you lost at the party.” See, my students talk to me, and there are over 4000 kids here. Someone told me that this young lady had lost her shoes running. So when a pair of shoes was returned to the school I announced it on the mike.
OTP: You are the “Chancellor of Fulton Street” but you also could be seen as a father to thousands.
FM: I have a moral obligation to do that. They say, “He doesn’t have the right.” Well, I made my authority. I have earned that right. I was driving in the neighborhood, Sunday, down Lewis Avenue, and there were young people running in the street fighting. I saw one of my students and said, “Is that any one of us `cause I’m dying to give a Sunday suspension.” They said, “oh Mick” and started laughing. Each one of us is a person of value. We’ve got to make it happen for our kids. That’s why we fight so much for this to be a safe haven. They have tremendous problems and they bring them here. Getting along is difficult, very hard. If you can’t get along and take it in your hands, I will take care of you because I will do whatever I’ve got to do to help my kids survive. I learned that growing up on Lexington Avenue. You just can’t say you’re sorry when you cause big problems. As I said, I have been to too many funerals.
OTP: How do you make each student feel special? After all, there are over 4,000 individuals, 4,000 worlds.
FM: It is not me, it is my staff. I have a good staff. Janet Moore gives me the ability, let’s me have access to them. I know something about all my students. But they know me. I also do it by honoring my kids. We’ve gotten away from that. I give out more certificates now. Every marking period if you make the honor roll, you get a letter or card. If you have a 75-79 you get a certificate, if you pass every subject, you get a brotherhood or sisterhood certificate. These functions are important. Its respect, a mutual respect. I am with them. Also, there is an attachment which is unique- I know the neighborhood. I lived in it. I live in it. You’ve got to remain close because you can lose them. I try to stay with them. You’ve got to know what’s going on. You’ve got to know their language. I use this expression, “Sump’um, sump’um”- it’s two years old. But there is an attachment, an identification which is unique because I know their language and I know their neighborhoods. These young people have given me the opportunity to grow as an education leader. This thing about education is not only about academics. Its how do you motivate, how do you push, how do you keep them going?
OTP: Your sense of humor helps so much. That’s right. I’ve been to several events here, and I’ve watched you on stage at PTA meetings and award ceremonies, its entertaining. A lot of what you do reminds of how motivational speakers shake people out of their set expectations. You run down the aisle, you joke.
FM: We have a good time. I loosen them up, and I always stress to the parents, to the students, to the staff-when we assemble each grade-I always try to push this thing where we say, “Hey, let’s try to do a little bit better. I think we can do better.” This is a very difficult age for them. Bernice, you know. You see some sparks. You see them coming. You see them coming back up. First thing I say to parents is, “I want to thank you for giving me a person who is a good person.” You might say, “That shouldn’t be a priority.” Yes. It is a priority. Then we go to the subject area. I was not a superstar in high school when I went to Erasmus Hall High. I really didn’t enjoy it there at that time. I felt kids had certain academic advantages. But I stayed the course. Math was easy. Now they have the calculator. That would have been great for me then.
OTP: But you stay the course in so many ways. At Boys & Girls, the “hood” is global. You’re dealing with a number of nationalities, from different worlds.
FM: They come from all over. Natives are born from such places as South Carolina, Florida and Massachusetts. They come from Guyana, Barbados, Trinidad, Liberia, Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Dominican Republic, Belize, Puerto Rico and Honduras. When you are all black people say, “It’s a black school.” This is an international school. They come from all over the world, and even though we’re in the, hood and we work hard, I feel great talking about the High. I find that the problems of urban education are all over the country, not just in New York. It’s unfortunate that this system has not called on me to talk to some of our feeder schools. I would like to share. But if you’ve got something and I think it’s good for my kids, I will use it.
OTP: Speaking of what’s good for our kids, do you feel there is a need for more black male teachers?
FM: I wish I had more black male teachers here. We’re at the point where we need some more men as role models, and I may want to have more African Americans as role models, but I’m looking for good teachers. Good teachers, period! We have an outstanding math teacher here who is Chinese, Mr. Chao. We have whites and Latinos. Deans Dominguez and Rosario are outstanding. Good teachers are my priority. As an educator and I have said to my staff, “I am fortunate enough to have had some black women who have been some of the greatest teachers.” They have really made an important difference here. Hey, you can’t tell me anything about the black educated woman as a teacher. They have kept this place going. They do marvelous things in the classroom and I give them credit. When I hire teachers I look for someone who is strong and passionate about teaching. The Regents came in here; they were surprised at the diversity in our staff. We have one of the largest contingents of Peace Corps teachers, teachers who have served all over the world, Ghana, Nigeria and Liberia. I get to them, I hustle. There’s a program at Columbia University, an excellent source of Peace Corps teachers. Janet Moore went down with me one year and we interviewed candidates intensively. Now they tell me they’re going to use the Peace Corps to go to failing schools.
OTP: You scout for teachers the way a basketball coach scouts for players.
FM: I do. I ask them some embarrassing questions. I have to. You never know who’s dealing with your kids. That’s the bottom line. I’m not dealing just as a principal; I’m dealing as a person. I have moved people out of here whose behavior I thought was inappropriate. I’ve got to get them out of here. I don’t care how we do it. How can you go on knowing that this guy may be rapping to a student or, not to be a chauvinist, it may be the other way around. Kids know a good teacher because they’ve got them all day. I’ll have a new teacher come in and I’ll ask a kid, “What do you think?” The kids might say, “Well, I don’t know Mick. We’re making noise.” That’s a very informal evaluation, but it’s from the soul. I go in and out of classrooms. I think the best thing is the kid who says, “Mick, we good, huh. She’s good, isn’t she?” they’re expressing ownership. We’re in and out of these classrooms. They want me to keep this person. By the same token, they will also express concern. That’s the most difficult part when you know the kids are not getting what they should be getting, and it’s taking three months to replace the teacher. That’s the killer. That hurts. I don’t think we can do a good enough job providing good teachers for our schools.
OTP: What about this business of rating or evaluating teachers based on performance?
FM: I know that’s a trend around the country. I don’t know, I’d like to have the ability to pay some people more for their good work, but I don’t know if that will ever come because of their strong union. I think this issue of school-based management is going the opposite way. A whole lot of people sit around this table and make decisions. That’s good but decisions must be timely. Who’s going to make the decision? Who’s going to follow up on it? Who’ll get the blame if a decision is wrong? That’s why I really believe in the role of the principal. People will say that I’m like the Lone Ranger. I talk to kids; I talk to my assistants, my staff. When I come up with something I say, “Let’s go with it now.” We’ll do the Most Improved Student of the Month. That’s 320 kids per semester, in every subject area. Suppose a department has 20 kids for a special award, but six of them are not excelling as the others, I can deem that they get a departmental award. In fact, I think I’ll do that. Just sitting here talking to you, David. Just thought of it. It’ll be done.
OTP: A person who has vision can run things. Others who don’t have the vision just do it by committee.
FM: I’ve always wanted to honor kids. Ten years ago, I formed a committee of six people to do this. I said, “I want to enhance the achievement program here.” I haven’t seen them since. I’m still running the program with the help of Ms. Moore. I write the notes. I set up the program. It’s go to be done, we’ve just got to do it. I say, “Here’s the book. Here’s the page.” It’s never been done like that, traditionally.
OTP: Meanwhile, you’re training folks along the way.
FM: A number of people have moved on to become assistant principals at various high schools: Rodney Harris to John Jay, Bernie Gassoway to Far Rockaway, and Ms. Walton to I.S. 192 as an assistant guidance counselor. But getting back to acknowledging kids, that is key. We’ve got to be in balance. We don’t have time to be continuously disciplining kids. Look at the schools that don’t honor kids, they are the ones who are overwhelmed with discipline.
OTP: Or lack of discipline.
FM: It means something. These award luncheons and dinners mean something. They bring the family together. We don’t eat with our kids. The parents or guardians get on the phone, “Girl, I can’t be there. My child is being honored.” And they say it loud enough so everybody in the office can hear. Their grandmother brings the little brother and sister up here and they see. It brings you together. To me, it’s better than going to Attica or a house detention. We don’t have enough good things that we can share about our kids. This provides the opportunity. The kids feel good. He feels good that he’s being celebrated. I think we do a lot of that in our elementary schools. We don’t do enough of this in our middle schools and we do less in our high schools.
OTP: You’re saying that the ritual is as important as the award. The giving is as significant as the gift.
FM: I think it’s marvelous that in 1996 our young men came to the awards assemblies in white shirts and ties. Our young ladies come in white blouses and red bowties or red scarves. It’s marvelous when we can do something together. I just think that bringing the family and the school together is great. It’s a wide variety of kids. It’s just not the kids that are doing exceptionally well. It’s the middle groups. Some of these kids have never been honored in their lives. We think enough of them to give them some props. In fact, we can’t ever do enough for them.
OTP: You mentioned that Regents officials visited the school and they were impressed with what they saw.
FM: They visited the teachers, the classrooms, even the kitchen. Now, I don’t know if this is a “black thing”, but when we have visitors, my people know how to look. They know that look I can get in my bright eyes letting them know what time it is. Regent Tisch asked us how we raised the monies for our scholarships. Two days later, I got a check for $2500 from the James A. Merrill Tisch Foundation, describing the High staff as “decent and caring.”
OTP: You didn’t mention Rudy Crew. Has he been there?
FM: I think he has an excellent record. He may have been advised not to come here. We’re the largest African American H.S. in the city of New York. Joe Fernandez did not come. He didn’t visit schools. Cortines had his differences but visited the school like he did others. So I suppose if you put that in contest with Mr. Crew’s response from the African American politicians, it just doesn’t match. They were just running wild welcoming him. But this does not affect our daily operations. We’re going to do what we have to do even if the chancellor is Mickey Mouse.
OTP: If Rudy Crew’s goal is to see other schools shape up, he should take a look at one that has. He couldn’t think about the other schools that could benefit from your work. And look at the Regent. You didn’t ask Regent Tisch for money. If you had that affect, it could help Rudy’s mission.
FM: Actually, he has a lot of schools to turn around.
OTP: If he wants to turn schools around, then he should study one that is turned around. I mean his office is just at the other end of Fulton Street.
FM: I don’t know how long he’s going to be here. Several people have raised that question. I say, “Yo, you can’t say anything (bad) about us.” With this neighborhood’s demographics, its location, its people, it would have been incumbent upon him to make the inquiry. The school is different from any school around it. But you must understand, he is surrounded by the same people who were there before. The same people stayed.
OTP: The ongoing bureaucracy.
OTP: Where do you see yourself by the year 2000?
FM: I’m not rushing, but hope I’m going somewhere by then. Although another position may not come to me easily, they really don’t come to you. You have to network. My job as I have made it, does not allow me to network. I’m so busy. I spend my time here and I think political structure is inert because they are happy to have me here so they are not going to…
OTP: … put your name forward.
OTP: You pay a heavy price, in more ways than one. I’ve been told a lot of your salary goes into the school.
FM: If I counted every dollar I personally give out to kids… I mean, I go through a couple of dollars a week. “Mick can I have a dollar for the juice machine.” I give it. It’s not a hustle. That juice might give her the energy to get through a class. At graduation, I make a contribution- the Principal’s Scholarship. I don’t want money to get in the way of what we have to do. Every year, I come in with a new initiative, a new slogan (that is bannered throughout the school). This year, it’s “All We Have Is Each Other.”
“Chancellor of Fulton Street”
Frank Mickens was born and raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, New York. Mickens graduated from Erasmus Hall H.S. in 1964. He completed his undergraduate studies at the State University of New York at Potsdam and received his Master’s degree from New York University. He completed postgraduate work at Columbia University. In December 1991, he was awarded his Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from Medgar Evers College.
Mickens has more than 25 years experience as an educator in the New York City Public School System. Throughout his career, Mickens has served in the positions of teacher, dean, basketball coach, and assistant principal, principal and assistant superintendent.
He started in 1968 as a teacher of Social Studies at the old Boys and Girls High School and spent a combined ten years at the old Boys High School and the new Boys and Girls High School. From 1979-1982, he served as assistant principal of Junior High School 109 in Queens. From 1982-1985, he was principal of Junior High School 324 in Bedford-Stuyvesant. In 1985, Mickens was appointed principal of Martin Luther King, Jr. High School.
For the past ten years, Mickens has served as principal of Boys and Girls High School. He has received nationwide recognition for his commitment to young people, and for the relentless campaign of his positive program on self-esteem at Boys and Girls H.S.
On November 18, 1992, Mickens was appointed by NYC School Chancellor Joseph Fernandez to serve in the position of administrative superintendent in addition to his duties as principal of Boys & Girls High School. At the same time, Mickens serves as an assistant principal at Long Island University, New York University and PACE University.
A noted lecturer on effective schools, Mickens has spoken at education forums across the country.