Hard Truths at John Jay High School
by Brad Lander
The NYC Department of Education has proposed changes at the John Jay High School campus: (a) to bring in a new, fourth school – Millennium Brooklyn, a selective high school, with priority given to students who reside in Brooklyn, as well as an ASD/Nest program; and (b) to truncate the middle-schools of the Secondary Schools of Law and Journalism.
The proposed changes raise a series of challenging issues. I have heard from many students, parents, and educators in the Secondary Schools of Law, Journalism, and Research (on the John Jay campus) who are angry about the proposals, and about deeper educational inequalities. I believe it is important to be honest about the hard truths that the situation at John Jay highlights. These schools predominantly serve African-American and Latino students, with the vast majority from low-income families. Yet the campus sits in the middle of Park Slope, a primarily white, upper-middle class community. There is a strong disconnect between the schools and the community.
The disparity highlights deep racial, economic, and educational inequalities that plague our city and society. Unfortunately, in 2011, we live in a city and country that is deeply scored by inequality, in ways that we should be ashamed of, in almost every aspect of life. From housing, to employment, to health care, to policing and public safety, the data is clear. If you are white, and if you are middle class, you are far more likely to do well than if you are African-American or Latino, and if you are low-income. Your housing – I should say “our housing,” since I am a white, upper-middle-class resident of Park Slope – is more likely to be decent and affordable, free of rats and with consistent heat and hot water. We are more likely to have quality health care. We are more likely to live in a safe neighborhood, and far less likely to be randomly stopped, questioned, and frisked by police.
This is true right here in Brooklyn, even though many of us are liberal and progressive, believe in equality, and share the dream of a society that would make Martin Luther King Jr. proud. Despite values and action towards racial, social, and economic justice, we live in one of the most unequal places in the country.
And of course, this is true in public education as well. If you are white and middle class in Brooklyn, your children – our children – are more likely to attend a school that meets educational standards, that has arts and cultural programs, that has sufficient resources to provide high quality education. Most days, we look away from these haunting truths. We get used to them, and it becomes too easy to move through worlds that are segregated, even when they sometimes appear not to be, because we share a subway system or place of employment. But the situation at John Jay calls these issues to the forefront.
Recent history at the John Jay campus has amplified these problems. Despite the fact that we live in a community that is passionately concerned about public education, these school communities rightly feel they have been neglected for the past decade. The building has been allowed to deteriorate. When the new schools were created, they did not receive new schools funding to help them succeed. 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.
At the same time, other things are true as well. Families with 8th-grade students have repeatedly reached out to my office, frustrated that students in Manhattan have several small, selective high-schools that give priority to Manhattan students, while students in Brooklyn do not. Many have expressed a desire for an option like this in Brooklyn. While all schools must strive for diversity, and be open and inclusive, it is appropriate to have schools that have different educational models. And students with autism spectrum disorders face overwhelming difficulty finding a high-school that can meet their needs, and in particular one that integrates them into mainstream education.
There are no easy answers to these problems. The problems are large, and will not be solved by what happens at John Jay. But that does not absolve us of responsibility – to confront these issues honestly, to commit more strongly to address broader education inequality, and to do our very best to help all students, in all schools, to succeed on the John Jay campus.
In that spirit, I offer these recommendations, which I believe are critical to the success of the John Jay campus moving forward. While they are my recommendations, and I do not claim to speak for anyone else, these recommendations have been developed through conversations with dozens of students, family members, and educators in the Secondary Schools for Law, Journalism and Research, with all four principals, with other educators, and members of the broader community.
Principles for a successful John Jay restructuring
Insure safety with respect for all students.
- Remove the metal detectors for the entire John Jay campus. They do more to communicate disrespect and lower expectations than they do to promote safety.
- Develop a building-wide safety plan, to help insure safety without the scanners. This would likely include random scanning (which is in place in many NYC high schools).
- Insure a strong school safety team, with increased school safety officers (in light of the increased student population) to maintain a safe school for all students.
- Provide adequate training to these officers so that they can provide a safe environment with respect for all students.
- Offer a strong and appropriate curriculum to students and faculty of all four schools on safety, respect, and inclusion (e.g. including “Respect for All” curriculum).
Commit to diversity at the John Jay campus.
- The DOE should commit that John Jay will remain a diverse campus, with a mix of non-selective and selective options, reflective of Brooklyn’s high school population.
- The new school, Millennium Brooklyn, should have an explicit goal of recruiting and maintaining a diverse community, using Brooklyn’s diversity as a model.1
- All schools should serve appropriate numbers of kids with special needs and English Language Learners, as much in-classroom as possible.
Provide equitable and adequate resource investments across schools.
- Implement building-wide improvements, many of which are long overdue, to bring the John Jay building up to a state of good repair. The DOE must provide a transparent, itemized list of expenditures being made with restructuring funds.
- Electrical upgrade to include adequate electrical services and outlets in all rooms.
- Wireless upgrade, to support wireless connectivity in all rooms.
- Renovation of all bathrooms.
- Cafeteria renovation and upgrade.
- Maintain and improve the school library.
- Establish a shared multi-media room, for use by all schools.
- Capital investments tied to restructuring must serve all schools equally, as required by law. If Millennium Brooklyn classrooms are outfitted with new technologies, the other three schools should receive equal investments.
- The three existing schools should be provided with the equivalent of the “new schools” start-up money that they did not receive when they were new schools. This would redress past wrongs, comply with the legal requirement that restructuring investments be equal, and help put the schools on a more level playing field.
- Where one school offers AP classes, these should be open to students from all schools.
- Allow the existing schools to consider changing their names, if they wish.
Space planning must be done in an equitable, transparent, inclusive manner.
- The DOE must work transparently with the principals and school communities to develop a space plan for the building – including both which classrooms/spaces belong to the individual schools, and how shared spaces (cafeteria, gym, auditorium, library, pool, etc) are utilized. It should not be developed and presented as a fait accompli.
- Schools must be treated equitably in space planning. Particular space needs of each school must be addressed (e.g. the mock courtroom for the Secondary School of Law, the “nest” room for the ASD/Nest program) without reducing classroom space.
- Remove the Alternative Learning Center. It was originally intended that these centers would be rotated to different locations around the borough; the ALC should be removed from John Jay, where space will now increasingly be at a premium.
- Build community among the schools, and partnerships with the broader community.
- Establish a School/Community “John Jay Campus Council,” including principal, teacher, parent, and student representatives from all four schools, elected official representatives, alumni and community representatives, to help the schools succeed together, build community, and connect to resources.
- The Campus Council should oversee shared spaces and shared resources, which can be nurtured through shared fundraising, volunteers, etc.
- Enhanced after-school offerings: expanded PSAL sports teams that serve all John Jay students (soccer, baseball/softball, etc); as well as cultural, arts, academic, and other programs.
- A shared college application/recruiting office (potentially modeled on “student success centers” which have succeeded in other schools)
- Build and strengthen partnerships with universities, institutions, not-for-profit organizations (Good Shepherd Services, PRY, etc) and community/civic groups
- Enhance community use of school in non-school hours (pool, gym, auditorium, etc), in a way that benefits the school community.
- Help recruit and develop partnerships that support the individual schools.
- The Department of Education should provide adequate support (training, facilitation, mediation, resources) for successful collaboration.
I believe that these recommendations can help to bridge the gaps I discussed earlier, in small but meaningful ways.
We have a shared responsibility to help all of the John Jay schools succeed. I have real respect everyone who is speaking out on this matter, those who do not want to see Millennium Brooklyn placed here, and those who do. Whatever the outcome of this process, I am deeply committed to helping the schools in the building succeed – individually and together – and to confronting the educational inequalities that continue to score our city.
I hope that the Panel for Educational Policy will take action on these recommendations before it makes a decision later this month. And I hope that we can work together – across lines of race, class, school, and neighborhood – toward shared goals of helping these schools succeed, reducing inequality, and moving toward an educational system that truly serves all our children.
Brad Lander is a member of the New York City Council