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A Tale of Two Schools
January 20th, 2011

Last night’s decision by the rubber stamp Panel on Educational Policy to place a second Millennium High School in the John Jay High School building in Park Slope represents the latest twist in the story of one of the city’s most troubled settings.

Once described by Inside Schools as “a long-troubled, large neighborhood school that became a school of last resort for students from all over Brooklyn,” it was even dubbed “Thug School.”

Tension between the school’s largely black and Latino students and the surrounding affluent white community have been palpable going back at least to the 1990s. Park Slopers tended to blame crime on John Jay students, often with little or no evidence (and even though there were some miscreants among the Park Slope kids at nearby M.S. 51 and many good kids at John Jay). Police standing outside the school would move the John Jay kids along as though to get them back to their own neighborhoods. Metal detectors reinforced the image, as did the dingy, deteriorating facilities.

Around 2002, the city, prompted by some parents at prestigious P.S. 321 down the street, placed three smaller schools in the building and began phasing out John Jay. Many Park Slope parents envisioned the new schools — Secondary School for Law, Secondary School for Research and Secondary School for Journalism — as places they would send their children.

It did not work out that way. Few parents from the Slope sent their kids to the schools, which remain around 90 percent black and Latino. The stigmatization of John Jay kids continued, even tough crime reportedly is down (see this recent post from Gothamist as evidence.)

The facility apparently remains in some disrepair, with broken toilets, moldy and chipping paint, according to at least one account.

In 2002, my predecessor at GG, Jonathan Mandell, described his experience with the journalism school, which he had helped found in another incarnation in the mid 1990s. He told a sad story of poor management and missed opportunities going back to the Giuliani administration. For example, the school originally was to be named Manuel de Dios Unane School of Journalism in honor of a journalist slain for covering the Colombian drug dealers in Queens). But that changed. “I had been told (though, of course, never officially) that having a school named after a Latino was making it difficult to attract white parents,” Mandell wrote.

Visiting the school a couple of years later, Mandell found, “None of the teachers I saw were the same as those who had initially been hired. Though the three schools in the building — journalism, law and research — had been combined into one school the year before, they had now been separated once again.”

Problems persisted, it seems, extending beyond the journalism school. Scores stayed low, with graduate rates ranging from 55 to 70 percent.

“Despite the requests of students and educators, the Department of Education and the NYPD have refused to remove the metal detectors, leaving students feel as though they are suspect of being criminals. Students have been made to feel like outsiders by many neighborhood businesses and residents. So I understand the anger and frustration being expressed by students, parents, and educators about the current situation at these three schools,” the City Council member form the district, Brad Lander, wrote recently.

In the latest move, the city will place a second version of the popular Manhattan School, Millennium, in John Jay along with the other schools. That will bring in start-up money to a building that has been, by almost all accounts, starved of resources for years, if not decades. If the Millennium School in Manhattan is a guide, its Brooklyn version will also get more money per student than the three exiting schools.

Millennium in Manhattan is 34 percent black and Latino. It boasts a 97 percent graduation rate. While only about half the ninth graders coming into the John Jay School read at grade level, at Millennium 88 percent do.

And the school they attend could not be more different from John Jay. “Millennium High School has some of the most striking architecture of any public school in the city. Housed on several floors of a 1929 office building near Wall Street, the school boasts a river views from its cafeteria, wide corridors and interior staircases to connect one floor to another,” Inside Schools wrote in its description. “Cork walls serve as bulletin boards and help muffle sound. Classrooms with bright blue floors and high-tech chrome and gray tables and chairs encircle the exterior of the floors. Pleasant lounge areas in the center of the floors have upholstered sofas and hardwood tables.”

As plans for Millennium Brooklyn developed there was apparently even talk that the students at that school would get a separate entrance, without a metal detector. The school principal, Lisa Gioe, however, dismissed this idea.

But the disparities remain. No wonder that one student, Racquel Stewart, recently told a reporter, “Where was that money when we needed it. The school system doesn’t care about us. They set us up to fail. Its racism.”

Before the panel voted last night, people from the current John Jay spoke out against the Millennium move. “You are saying that our school isn’t good enough for Park Slope residents,” said Kwaesi Laguer, an 11th grader at the Secondary School for Law. “Why don’t you use the money to help make our schools better?”

Whatever the failing of the schools in John Jay, the kids there clearly have learned some lesson about how things often work in the city. It is probably not, though, the lesson we would want to teach them.

By on January 20, 2011, 3:30 pm
In category: Civil Rights,Education | 7 Comments »

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