He's got a sharp eye and a 24/7 approach
"Turn around a large urban high school?" Frank Mickens asks sternly. "Why, you know, we don't do that in New York."Skip to next paragraph
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But try as he might, Mr. Mickens can't suppress the smile that breaks out just above his Mickey Mouse necktie. Because turning a school around is exactly what he has done.
Combining in equal measures almost unbounded amounts of personal attention, strict discipline, and a spirited disregard for regular procedures - stretched over the course of innumerable 16-hour workdays - Mickens has done what many would consider impossible.
Parents today stand on line to get their children admitted to Boys and Girls High School. But in 1986, when Mickens was named principal, it seemed the embodiment of the failures of urban education.
Serving a low-income Brooklyn neighborhood, and drawing from seven of the city's toughest housing projects, its students seemed more likely to connect with drugs in the hallways than academics in the classrooms.
During the course of Mickens's tenure, however, graduation and attendance rates have jumped. Recent graduates have gained admission to Ivy League schools such as Brown, Cornell, and Columbia. Teachers say a secure and structured environment - one conducive to learning - has been created.
The 3,700-student school is now rated as one of the safest high schools in New York City, with spotless hallways so quiet that instructors leave the doors open while they teach.
The students who inhabit these well-maintained corridors roll their eyes and shake their heads when they are asked about the husky, gravel-voiced man - a former basketball coach and lifelong neighborhood resident - credited with having brought these changes to their school.
"It's like having a parent at school," says Clint Alexander, a junior. "He's like a shadow. You turn a corner and he's there. Then you go down the hall and he's there, too."
"He cares what we do after school, too," says senior Xiomara Cordero. "He'll embarrass us if we do anything."
If you loiter on a street corner after school, explain his students, Mickens will find you. Every afternoon he does what he calls "perimeter patrol" - driving through the surrounding blocks as school lets out, keeping an eye on his students. If he doesn't like what he sees, he uses a siren and bullhorn to let the student - and anyone else within earshot - know all about it.
His charges insist that they genuinely appreciate the extra care. "We feel safe and protected, and that's what we need," says junior Reba Reynolds. "He wants what's best for us," adds classmate Teisha McClean.
Tales are legion of Mickens's interventions into the daily lives and needs of students. There's the story of the girl who was given a prom dress when she couldn't afford one, the flowers and personal note when a family member dies, the money gladly lent for cookies if a student is hungry for an afternoon snack.
"These are my kids," says Mickens, who is not married and whose only son died when young. He worries that today's students have not had the benefit of the tighter community and church ties that supported him as a young man, and he stretches to supply the difference.
Official efforts at nurturing are built into the school calendar as well. A regular round of awards ceremonies - breakfasts, lunches, and dinners - honor good students, improving students, and even those who consistently perform in the middle.