08/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

New York Losing a Great Educator

Frank Mickens, the recently deceased principal of New York's Boys and Girls High School, didn't bend the rules "a little," as suggested by Ernie Logan, the president of the school supervisors' union in the New York Times obituary ("Unconventional Principal Who Saved a Troubled School," July 11, 2009); Principal Mickens tore the rulebook to shreds and lit a match.

He routinely threw disruptive students out of his school, either secretly transferring them elsewhere or just dumping them on the street by barring them from "his" building. For that, he was hated by the administrators who ran the school system because they viewed him as the autocrat he was. From the point of view of the neighborhood, he was a hero; he had made his school safe, which was no mean accomplishment in a neighborhood at the time ruled by gangs and drug dealers.

That was also the reason schools chancellors from Frank Macchiarola on protected him. Mickens would not tolerate any threat to his students, any objection to his power, or any criticism from his teachers of his handling the school. He was the embodiment of order -- albeit somewhat tyranical in his manner -- and we knew it.

His techniques were unconventional. When he wanted a parent to come in for a conference and they refused, he took a court order, reworked the signature block, and had the parents "served." When as chancellor I proposed using such a "summons" more broadly, the superintendents rebelled, saying the device demeaned parents. Frank took no heed; he kept on summoning parents under the guise of legal compulsion, lecturing them, demanding that they live up to their parental obligations and insisting on their cooperation. I suspect that he would have been very much at home with President Obama's NAACP Speech.

He also liberally gave parents money out of his own pocket, sought social services help from unorthodox "street" organizations when needed, and more than once made deals with local vendors to get parents jobs. I never did figure out whether his methods changed habits or just intimidated; what I never quarreled with was that he was a force of nature, and that he loved his students.

I did not like that he treated teachers - particularly those who disagreed with his authoritarian means - so disrespectfully. I had several stern talks with him about the need to be more inclusive and that, contrary to his claims at the time, his school's reading scores were low and not appreciably improving.
On the other hand, he moved the graduation rate in a tough neighborhood through sheer grit. He was proud and determined, and routinely sought to showcase his successes, of which there were many.

I tried several times to promote him to superintendent, as I know several of my predecessors had tried. He never budged. He knew that his work was as a principal whose commanding personality dominated every inch of "Boys High of Bed Stuy", a phrase he used to the end.

His gift was to provide a fatherly presence that represented determination, strength of character and a vision or order in a community then dominated by chaos.

Educators everywhere are lessened by his passing.