Shortchanging NYC students

John Yanno, a teacher at John Jay High School, describes the struggle for scarce resources as the city plans for a "selective" high school in the very same building.

Protesting the co-location of the "Millennium Brooklyn" charter in John Jay High School (Grassroots Education Movement)Protesting the co-location of the "Millennium Brooklyn" charter in John Jay High School (Grassroots Education Movement)

A GROUP of 150 teachers, students, parents and community members rallied outside the John Jay High School campus in Brooklyn before a January 11 public hearing on the New York City Department of Education's (DOE) plan to house a new "selective" college preparatory high school in the very same building.

The campus building currently houses three small schools--the Secondary School for Law (where I work), the Secondary School for Journalism and the Secondary School for Research.

Students attending school at John Jay are predominantly African American and Latino youth from impoverished Brooklyn neighborhoods, while the Park Slope neighborhood in which the school is located is affluent and predominantly white.

The decision to place yet another school, this one called Millennium Brooklyn, inside John Jay is in response to demands by the residents of the neighborhood who want a selective high school to send their children to. In other words, the school would set up a separate-and-unequal school in the John Jay campus building. This has led many to label the plan as "Apartheid Education."

Members of the Secondary School for Research's School Leadership Team blasted the New York City DOE at the public hearing, saying:

More than 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared that separate was inherently unequal, and after hundreds of thousands fought against racism and for the integration of public schools, this country's public school system remains blatantly segregated--and is growing more so by the day.

The Department of Education's proposal to place the new Millennium Brooklyn in the John Jay campus reveals the racism and inequity in the New York City public schools. It also demands that we revive the inspiring struggles of past civil rights movements and take a stand against racism.

The opposition to the placement of Millennium Brooklyn is not because we don't want affluent Park Slope children to study at John Jay. In fact, our rallying cry has been "Integrate, don't segregate."

What you can do

Come to a rally to stop school closings on January 27, 4:30-6:30 p.m., at City Hall Plaza near the Brooklyn Bridge.

Sponsored by: The Ad Hoc Committee to Stop School Closings and Charter Takeovers, Grassroots Education Movement NYC, New York Collective of Radical Educators, Coalition for Public Education, the Manhattan Local of the Green Party of NY State, Class Size Matters and the United Federation of Teachers

We are opposed to the placement of the new school because the NYC DOE has for years neglected the schools already in the building. For example, Millennium Brooklyn will receive about $35,000 more per year than the other three schools because new schools are guaranteed start-up money in order to purchase supplies and update classrooms.

When the three current schools in the building opened up about 10 years ago, we never received these funds. Additionally, students at the Millennium High School in Manhattan, which Millennium Brooklyn will be modeled on, receive higher per-student expenditure rates than the students in my school ($18,103 a year compared to $16,973 a year).

It's absurd that the NYC DOE is shortchanging the students who need it the most. "A lot of us don't feel that it is right that this school is coming in and getting a lot of funding when our school has been needing a lot of money, and we haven't been getting it from the Department of Education," said one student who attended the hearing.

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OTHER REQUESTS to improve the school were also ignored. Jill Bloomberg, principal of the Secondary School for Research, spoke at the hearing about how, after the NYC DOE denied her request for funding to purchase a bell system for her school, she shelled out $5,000 of her own money to purchase one.

Requests to remove metal detectors and airport-like bag scanners from the building are another issue. The metal detectors, which students must walk through each morning, stigmatize our campus, dehumanize and criminalize our students, and make the school less appealing to prospective students, which has led to dwindling enrollment (cited by the NYC DOE as justification for placing Millennium Brooklyn in our building).

"Scanners only criminalize students," said one student at the hearing. "If you are treated like a criminal, you eventually act like one. Who would want to come to a school where children are treated like criminals?"

The metal detectors and the virtual police state seen in front of the school at dismissal send the misleading message that the kids in John Jay are criminals. "We are treated as interlopers at best, criminals at worst," said one student who described as a "racist ritual" the use of NYPD school safety agents to quickly ferry the non-white students off the Park Slope streets and into the subway at the end of the school day.

Students and teachers testified that they welcome all students, but that it was the NYC DOE's responsibility to adequately fund the three schools already in the building in order to make the schools more appealing to neighborhood families.

The building is infamous for its dilapidated condition. According to the testimony of Principal Bloomberg:

Water damage from a chronically leaky roof was so bad that some classroom walls crumbled. Door frames separated from the walls. In 2005-2006, when the roof of the building was belatedly replaced, nearly every classroom on the fourth floor was flooded. The science lab was so badly damaged that tiles floated in the water. To this day, the lab floor remains a patchwork of different-colored tiles.

Though the building received funds for wireless access throughout, most of our students' classrooms have only one electrical outlet, severely limiting the use of interactive whiteboards, LCD projectors and document readers. In our dingy student and faculty bathrooms, the plumbing is so old that the toilets fail with regularity.

Our drinking fountains function sporadically; what water we get is always lukewarm. Ancient radiators either heat rooms like blast furnaces or don't work at all. Whatever funding ever existed for classroom air conditioners never made it to our fourth floor. Of course, there's no place to plug them in if they ever do.

The John Jay community considers it a slap in the face that the NYC DOE has for years knowingly allowed our schools to exist in such a condition--only to make badly needed building-improvement funds contingent on the new school entering the building.

"This is not necessarily an attack on Millennium. Its about the fact that the John Jay Campus has been starved for resources for years," said Julie Cavanagh, a Brooklyn teacher and a member of Concerned Advocates for Public Education and the Grassroots Education Movement.

Cavanagh attacked the NYC DOE's statement that "capital funds be provided to [the John Jay High School campus] school building if and only if the co-location of Millennium is approved."

"That, I'm sorry, is racism," she continued. "And it's shameful."

The chants at the rally outside the school and inside the auditorium during the hearing were an expression of anger at years of neglect--of both the building and the education of the students. The crowd chanted "Black, Latin, Asian, white, students of the world unite," "Whose school? Our school!" and "How do you spell 'racist?' D-O-E!"

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THE STRUGGLE at John Jay began last June when teachers from the schools in the building held a joint union meeting and agreed to continue to meet regularly after school on Fridays to discuss school issues.

Naming ourselves the John Jay Campus Community, we began reaching out to parents and held "Fight Back Friday" pickets outside the school on Friday mornings to protest budget cuts. While we never beat back the budget cuts, our early organizing made it possible to quickly organize against the most recent NYC DOE decision.

In addition to organizing teachers, students and parents from all three schools, the campus fight-back group held debates, informational pickets, began a blog, reached out to the community and held rallies in front of the school in the lead up to the public hearing. While we did not succeed in keeping Millennium out of our building (the Panel for Educational Policy voted in favor of the placement during its January 19 hearing), our organizing has helped make allies in the community and forced local politicians to take a stand.

Brad Lander, the city council member for the Park Slope neighborhood, has called on the NYC DOE to remove the metal detectors and scanners and to "provide equitable and adequate resource investments across schools by implementing long-overdue building-wide improvements, and making sure that investments tied to these changes serve all the schools equally."

Getting more funding and removing the metal detectors from the building would be important victories. They would improve the lives of the students of the John Jay Campus. Therefore, the fight for our school did not end with the panel's decision. We must continue the fight to make sure promises are fulfilled and to continue to press our demand that poor students and students of color stop being pushed to the margins.