Ever since Robert L. "Knuckles" Bradley Jr. arrived at Gaskill Preparatory School last year, he has been pounding the students.
Not with his nickname, but with a positive message:
"You're special, you're important and you count."
Entering his second year as the school's principal and someone who has spent his entire adult life working with children, the 58-year-old Bradley knows the importance of a positive self-image.
"A lot of kids come here from families who are supportive, and then you have kids who don't have that type of support, but education and a positive self-image fits everybody," said Bradley, who at 18 started at the Niagara Falls Boys and Girls Club washing floors and training to be a counselor.
He eventually rose to executive director of the organization, ran for a seat on the Niagara Falls Board of Education and served for 15 years, while making a career change to education.
First he worked for five years as a high school guidance counselor in Lockport, then returned to his hometown of Niagara Falls and worked his way up the administrative ranks of the city school district over the last decade.
At Gaskill, a brick three-story structure situated on Hyde Park Boulevard, one of the city's main thoroughfares, Bradley knows he and his staff of more than 50 have challenges in preparing youngsters for a successful experience in high school.
With 527 seventh- and eighth-graders, Gaskill is a school where only 31 percent of its seventh-graders in 2010 met or exceeded state standards for English. That same year, only 33 percent of eighth-graders were proficient or exceeded state expectations for math skills.
"We don't have a choice," Bradley said of helping students do better in those basic areas of education.
To accomplish that, Bradley takes a holistic approach.
"When new parents come in, I tell them 'Gaskill is now part of your family. Your kids will be here two years, six hours a day.' "
In that time, the principal said, teachers will do everything they can to educate youngsters, provide positive role models and work to ensure the building is clean and is a safe haven.
"You treat somebody else's child as if they were your own," he says.
As for parents, Bradley says their job is to make sure their children understand "how important this thing called education is" to succeed in life.
"Whether a kid comes in as a high-achiever, an average-achiever or a student at risk, they are here and we will do what we can to help them succeed," he said.
While acknowledging that there are circumstances beyond the control of the school, Bradley said he is certain that if students embrace self-control, listen and carry out instructions, they will have a promising future, no matter what the economy may hold.
Staff members give Bradley high marks as he embarks on his second year at the helm of the school.
"We have Knuckles here and he is great for our school. His mantra is 'You're special, you're important and you count.' He tells the kids that all the time," said Angela Mecca, who has worked as a Gaskill guidance counselor for 26 years.
Her office desk is overflowing with donated school supplies from a group of women she recently reconnected with from her days as a student in the district.
"I was telling them how some students here can't afford school supplies. We remembered as kids how when we got our supplies for the beginning of the school year we felt great," Mecca said.
Those memories spawned generosity.
"They started donating, and I ended up with a desk full of school supplies. Teachers will send students to my office if they are in need of something," Mecca said.
And it is not uncommon for teachers to personally provide supplies for children, including clothing, when the need is there, Bradley added.
"It doesn't have to be Thanksgiving or Christmastime. If a child needs something, the staff will quietly take care of it. That's what they do and those are the things people will never hear about," he said.
But the school cannot do it alone. Family and the community are crucial ingredients in a successful education.
"We held Fathers and Men Take Your Child to School today," Bradley said on a recent Friday. "I told them not to stay away. 'Come as often as you want.' The more males who come, the better."
As for Bradley, the oldest of four children, father of two grown daughters and grandfather of four, he vows to continue driving home the point that each child who passes through the doors of Gaskill Preparatory School matters.
During a back-to-school assembly, he asked eighth-graders if they recalled what he had been telling them last school year when he first arrived. A youngster recalled the line, and a moment later, Knuckles Bradley had the children chanting, "You're special, you're important and you count."
And by the way, how did he get the nickname "Knuckles?"
It can be traced to his own childhood while growing up in the East Falls section of the city.
"There was a segment on the Howdy Doody TV show called 'Knucklehead Smith' and I loved it. My father started calling me Knuckles. That's how I got the nickname Knuckles, even though I was never a fighter."