Separate and Nowhere Near Equal in Brooklyn

This feature article, which appeared in the December 3, 2010 edition of a Brooklyn newspaper the Spirit Gazette brought tears to my eyes:

There are many negatives to this so-called "proposal" but some positives. When M2 does arrive, the building will get the repairs it needs. However, the majority of the money will be given to M2 because they are a new school and need that money to start up. This also includes an extra $120,000. That extra money will be used for their purposes only. This also goes deeper than money. Think about the feedback that this school will be getting from this neighborhood. They are obviously going to prefer this "elite high school" (as said in the Daily News) than the schools that have been here for many years with a "checkered reputation".

In this piece, Cheidy Perez a reporter for The Spirit Gazette, the school newspaper for the Secondary School for Research, which is housed in the John Jay building in the heart of Park Slope, Brooklyn, comments on the DOE plan (Department of Education) to establish a new school. Millennium 2, within the building in which she attends classes. Although just recently announced to the community of John Jay schools, this clandestine plan has been in the making for some time.

Read the article in its entirety. Out of the mouths of babes. In this case, out of the mouth of one very thoughtful and intelligent student who offers a rather chilling portrait of the NYC DOE at its most venal.

I wrote a piece last week using the Cathie Black appointment as a means for discussing my concerns about the way the education "system" crushes innovation and rewards mediocrity in students and teachers. Some misinterpreted --or I was not sufficiently clear. Good teachers are never the problem. Education hacks are the problem. They go backwards when they should go forward. They crush good teachers. In my opinion, there is no one smarter than a really good teacher. The only problem with good teachers is that Education "system" likes to eat them alive. It punishes the best and rewards the political panderers. Further complicating this educational malpractice is that many of the finest teachers are drawn to struggling schools -- because that's where the need is greatest. That's where the teaching is most challenging and exciting. Too often teachers in struggling schools are not given time and support adequate to enable them to bring about change.

While touring Brooklyn middle schools a few years ago, I met a principal who made a great impression on me. He knew the name of every child in his school. During the school open houses he emphasized his choice to accept children who receive low scores on the statewide tests along with those who excel on them. He knew those tests only told part of the story of a child's potential to learn. As a former teacher, I marveled over the fact that this principal was turning away students with 3's in order to accept students with 1's. Such educators are the cream of the crop.

It is relatively easy to identify a group of well-prepared students and to open a program for them -- especially when middle-class parents inclined to get involved in fundraising are clamoring for one. Inheriting the children of this demographic is sure to make the most mediocre administrator shine. Because there are not enough choices for New York City public school students, opening an "elite" program is low-hanging fruit for any ambitious Tweed hack looking to move out of the classroom and scratch his or her way up the salary/pension ladder.

But the good teachers working slowly and steadily in schools like the Secondary School for Journalism, the Secondary School for Law and the Secondary School of Social Research are the true gems of the system, the diamonds in the rough, if you will. They are the muscle, the a heart -- and most important -- the conscience of the DOE. They deserve more.

My first response to the Spirit Gazette article by Cheidy Perez was to tear up. My second response was desire: a fantasy of being back in a classroom where I might enjoy the privilege of working with students like her.

Many "Brownstone Brooklyn" parents parents were delighted to hear of the new school, Millennium 2, due to open in Park Slope next fall. I was one of them -- until I heard the plan.

A most unctuous plan it is, as unethical as it is thoughtless. The DOE (Department of Education) plans to roll out the red carpet at the school popularly know as "Thug High," for a crop of white (mostly) well-prepared, white local middle-class students from "Brownstone Brooklyn." This plan was hatched under cloak and dagger conditions without input from parents and teachers of children who currently attend the three schools in the John Jay building.

I don't know where Cheidy Perez lives, but it is unlikely she lives near the school. Park Slope is a safe, clean, prosperous and stylish neighborhood; children from Park Slope do not attend schools in the John Jay building. "Brownstone Brooklyn" families tend not to send their children to schools that require students to remove their belts and pass through metal detectors each morning en route to first period homeroom. It is easy to understand why "Brownstone Brooklyn" parents don't want their children to be subject to metal detectors each morning. No parent wants this for his or her children.

I've visited a couple of schools with metal detectors within the past two years. Once you've seen an 85-pound 5-feet tall baby-faced peanut of a ninth-grader pass through one, you gain an all too clear sense of all that's wrong with uniform guards and scanners at school entrances. While phalanxes of uniform guards and scanners may, in some cases, protect some students from physical harm, police presence does psychological and spiritual harm. It demoralizes students and communicates negative expectations. My father, a NYPD lieutenant with 20 years "on the job," often advised my brother and me that the presence of police was a sign that one should leave the scene. In schools where scanners and guards greet students first thing in the morning this message is conveyed: "You and your school are dangerous."

Most of the students enrolled in schools residing in John Jay building live in neighborhoods like Bedford Stuyvesant and Red Hook which rank among the poorest and most dangerous in New York City. Their schools should offer sanctuary. Perhaps this is parents of students in the three John Jay Schools were so hurt as they were blindsided a month ago when word leaked out that a new "selective" school would open in John Jay building in the fall of 2011.

Millennium 2, which (according to Perez) the New York Daily News characterized as "elite," will admit only students who had achieved a score of 3 or higher (the range being 1 through 4) on the (NY) state-wide Math and English Language Arts tests. Even very intelligent students from schools in poor neighborhoods and troubled school districts often fare poorly on these tests as a consequence of the cumulative effects of years of educational inequality.

Perez speculates in her article that the DOE may rethink the aforementioned metal detectors. This is interesting because it suggests a the possibly dramatic reduction in the need for metal detectors has recently taken place. It suggests that John Jay is safer now. If the building is now safe enough to warrant the removal of scanners, can we not infer that significant progress in the school is under way? If the schools currently housed in John Jay are improving, perhaps it might be more just and proper to redirect they ought to redirect the the budget currently reserved for earmarked for Millennium 2 to the schools already in the building.

There are many gifted educators who have been walking through metal detectors, working through the mire of bad public relations, persevering in buildings in dire need of repairs, trying to educate and empower a student population that has been failed by the education system and walks through a neighborhood whose local residents and business owners regard them with scorn, now these teachers must they contend with fallout of an unjust bad decision to push a shiny new elite (more white) school into their building.

The way Millennium 2 has been handled by DOE brass is emblematic of so much that's wrong. It reminds us of the support and recognition the best of these teachers and administrators currently working in John Jay have had to manage without -- for years. Were these schools to inherit the Millennium II budget today, there would be no need for Millennium 2 by the time fall of 2012 came around.

And if a selective school must be opened in John Jay, why not put one of John Jay building's own in charge? What an act of good faith that would be! This would go a long way to easing the tensions which have surrounded this development thus far. Would those currently attending the Schools of Journalism, Social Research or Law feel as betrayed as they do now if one of their own were creating this new, more rigorous school?

I'm not sure Park Slope will leap so quickly (as the DOE hopes it will) to send their children to Millennium II for many reasons; at the top of the list is that Millennium II threatens to turn John Jay into a segregated school building. Perez notes that discussion about the elimination of metal detectors has included the possibility of creating a separate entrance, at John Jay, for Millennium 2 students. The school may be called Millennium 2, maybe it ought to operate in the third millennium! More than half a century has passed since Brown v. Board of Education. Separate entrances for blacks and whites? That's certainly an idea whose time has come. And gone. Let it stay gone.

In an astonishing display of grace under pressure, some educators at the Secondary Schools for Journalism, Social Research and Law are attempting to put a hopeful analysis on this shift. These teachers deserve extra credit. The children currently attending school in John Jay have been informed that there may be an upside to the advent of Millennium 2 (an ironic appellation given its determination to hearken back to a 50's view of things educational).

Because the "elite" students will require building improvements, the putatively less elite students may reap the benefits of a paint job and long-needed building repairs. This begs this question: Why wasn't the dignity of students like Cheidy Perez sufficient to compel the DOE to make these improvements in the John Jay building before the impetus of an influx of white students presented itself?

Rahsan Williams, an ELA teacher at the Secondary School for Research spoke to the Spirit Gazette, on the record, about this:

"the building is in such bad shape and is need of repairs. This should happen without a 4th school coming in. Students here deserve to have those improvements and it is a slap in the face to our current black and brown population if it takes a new school to get these improvements."

If I were in charge, I'd have Rashawn Williams on my short list for principal of a the school. Integrity matters, because whatever else John Jay may be, it is not some educational black hole for black kids. It is the educational home of many. Each school in John Jay is someone's future Alma Mater -- and that does not mean nothing.

Though Millennium 2 is a done deal (and I do mean "deal") it may not be too late to arrive at a plan which offers more respect for the community already making its educational home in the building.

The DOE still has a chance to render this arrangement less volatile, safer and more just.
It can do the following would help:

  • Design a plan to recruit general education students from neighborhoods that have traditionally sent students to the John Jay building.
  • Assign a principal with secondary school experience, who has demonstrated that he or she can turn a struggling school around; or someone already fighting the fight in that building -- someone who has the depth, decency and intelligence to shepherd the new John Jay community through the inevitable (and possibly dangerous) tensions which are likely to ensue once Millennium 2 occupies the John Jay Building next fall.
  • Listen well to the parents, teachers and children who were insulted and degraded by the cloak and dagger approach those who designed this plan adopted as they hatched it.
  • Abandon the dunder-headed public relations strategy of announcing the creation of an "elite" school. For one thing, "3's" on those state-wide tests are not all that "elite." Many of the strongest students zoned for Millennium II won't even put a school residing in "Thug HIgh," on their lists.
  • Drop the plan to house an ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) Nest program in John Jay. An ASD program at Millennium 2 would, under the current plan would be an abomination. "Brownstone Brooklyn" parents won't send their "elite" children to "Thug high" to study in n Collaborative Team Teaching classes with autistic children, (More on the ADD piece to come.)

This is a local education story, but what Perez describes in her Spirit Gazette article is emblematic of what goes wrong on a larger scale all too routinely. The bigotry piece must not be ignored. Cheidy Perez sums it up perfectly, thus:

Instead of sugarcoating it, let's call it what it is: An attack on under-privileged students.

What she said.

And If Cathie Black is really smart, she will get that Citizen Perez on the phone and offer the kid a job.