Millennium Brooklyn Proposal Hits a Nerve at John Jay

The DOE's proposal to add a selective high school to the John Jay campus is churning up bitter questions about funding equality.

"Every time it rains, there's paint chips all over the floor and the desks," said Rahsan Williams, a ninth-grade English teacher at the Secondary School for Research on Seventh Avenue.

She adds this scenario to a litany of complaints about the former John Jay High School building, which now houses her school, along with the Secondary Schools for Law and Journalism.

The list goes on: mirrors ripped out of bathroom walls; faulty plumbing; asbestos. Scarce books ruined by leaky ceilings. Overpowering heat and frigid cold. Classrooms equipped with only a single electrical outlet. Mold growing so thick in one classroom that the teacher had to find a new one. 

Williams said that she and her colleagues have been requesting capital improvements to the 1903 building for years, with no response from the Department of Education.

But change may be coming soon, after all. On December 3, the Department of Education released a proposal to add a new school to the address, a selective high school called Millennium Brooklyn that will be modeled after the prestigious Millennium High School in Manhattan. The DOE's Educational Impact Statement for the new school also lists a few capital improvements in its plan, including improved climate control and electrical systems.

"The building was good enough for black and brown students, but now that they're moving in what is likely to be white students, they're putting in improvements," said Williams. 

The prospect of an elite new high school has drawn enthusiastic reviews from some quarters of the neighborhood, as families who found themselves shut out of Manhattan's top-tier public schools welcome the opportunity to send their kids to a similarly demanding school closer to home. But teachers and students at the John Jay campus are expressing dismay at the message they feel the new proposal is sending, along with a fear that the resources for capital improvements will not spread beyond the immediate needs of the new school.

"The feeling in our school is that it's basically a slap in the face," said Williams.

On Monday evening in the schools' library, a group of teachers, students, and parents gathered together to plan their response to the new school proposal. Over plates of Jamaican food, they drew up posters enlisting other students to join an upcoming protest against the Millennium move and discussed the demands they would make if the proposal does come to pass.

"I believe we should demand that the DOE do everything it can to integrate our school," said John Yanno, who teaches middle school social studies at the Secondary School for Law. "And to integrate our school, we need to make it a place where all families want to send their kids, by providing us with fair funding."

Councilman Brad Lander attended the meeting and sat down with the participants to listen to their concerns.

"I've had plenty of parents last year, frustrated with the fact that they're looking at schools like Millennium or Beacon or Bard and those schools all have Manhattan priorities and so Brooklyn students have a hard time getting into them," Lander said toward the end of the meeting. "At the same time, I understand why people here are angry and feel like Thurgood Marshall's scratching his head in his grave."

For a community known for its progressive values and sometimes even ridiculed for its residents' extreme devotion to their offspring's well-being, the specter of a sorely neglected public high school sticking up in the middle of the neighborhood strikes an odd note. 

"I think the community has an impact on why we're not getting any funding in the first place," said Racquel Stewart, a junior in the School for Law.

She describes the hostility she and her classmates sense from businesses near the school, some of whom have gone as far as imposing restrictions on John Jay
students entering their premises.

"If a strong place like this, Park Slope, which is supposed to be one of the richest, is saying we don't want this school here, then why should the DOE keep us?" 

The recent conflict draws on a tension that has existed in the neighborhood for decades, dating from a time when John Jay High School had a graduation rate of 29 percent and was a city champion in assaults, robberies, and drug and weapon possession.

John Jay was finally decommissioned between 2001 and 2004, replaced by three small, specialized 6-12 schools. The new schools, which themselves faced opposition from the old John Jay when they first entered the campus, have shown considerable improvement over their predecessor, despite their limited resources and painful budget cuts.

Yet John Jay's old bad reputation continues to haunt the new schools, due in part to the metal detectors that remain in the lobby for students to pass through every morning. The fact that the new schools are populated by the same demographic mix as the old John Jay seems to have contributed to this conflation. 

As a result, the John Jay schools have remained off the radar of most Park Slope parents as a place to send their own children. 

"Those are schools that I think very few lily-white brownstoney Park Slopers send their kids to if they can afford not to," said Allison Pennell, a Park Slope-based writer whose mother attended school in the John Jay building back when it was called Manual Training High School. She attributes this avoidance to a vague sense among her peers that the schools have a bad reputation, but notes that race and class also play a role. 

"I'm just not going to send my son to some hardened inner-city school," she said. "I want him to be in a diverse situation, but I don't want him to be the only white kid."

Back in the library on Monday night, the John Jay group discussed the case they would make at the public hearing for the Millennium Brooklyn proposal on January 11th. Once the public has had its say, the DOE will compile and analyze the arguments for and against the proposal and put it to a vote by the 13-member Panel for Educational Policy. 

"Setting up a separate school with better funding and better resources is not the way to provide a fair public education for our kids," John Yanno concluded. "You know, the kids that go to this school deserve all the things that Millennium 2 students are going to get."

Gin Penn December 16, 2010 at 01:39 PM
This is a really interesting and important read. I've heard of Patch, but who knew you guys are covering Brooklyn better than the NY Times? Great work.
Martin Coleman December 16, 2010 at 03:01 PM
I love "Thurgood Marshall's scratching his head in his grave." If they are still keeping the metal detectors etc. won't this just be a re-run of when they broke up John Jay in the first place? Will Park Slope parents be willing to send their precious offspring to this new school, or will the reputation and forbidding look of the place keep put them off?
Sarahdigregorio December 16, 2010 at 07:47 PM
Fascinating! And great reporting.
Jennifer January 05, 2011 at 12:14 PM
Yes, Lucky 7, my offspring are precious and I want the best I can possibly provide for them. This is not to say that the parents of the students at the schools in the John Jay Building do not, but I will tell you why I would never send my daughter to school in this building. One, she has been harassed on 4th Street after school by students from John Jay who demanded that she give them her Ipod (she didn't have one), she has been followed down 7th Avenue by girls who made fun of her clothes (a sweatshirt from MS 51 and Ugg boots), one of her friends was beaten up at the park next to 51 by a group of kids from a John Jay school who didn't like his pants (too gay). She was with him at the time. And, of course, I don't like the scanners in the building. You know, I am sure that the majority of students in the John Jay Building are good kids, and even the troublemakers have their reasons for acting out, but my child's personal experience with John Jay kids has not been positive.
Joanna Smith January 12, 2011 at 03:33 PM
From what I heard at the hearing last night, many kids complete their required courses at the existing John Jay high schools and are left to wander the halls or go home early due to lack of electives and advanced classes. Aren't these just the kind of motivated, selective students the new Millennium Brooklyn school would serve? Wouldn't it be great to have a well-funded school that met their needs? I don't see how it can be racist to propose an amazing new opportunity for the John Jay community and the neighborhood at large. Millennium in Manhattan is 35% white, 12% black, 22% Hispanic, and 28% Asian -- you can't get more integrated than that! I think the teachers who spoke last night inciting their students to ignore civility or even become socialist/communists over this issue "because the system doesn't care about you" are doing the kids a grave disservice.
Martin Coleman January 12, 2011 at 07:18 PM
Joanna: Did anyone raise this excellent point, that the Millennium school in Manhattan is more integrated than the current schools, at the meeting? From what I've read and the posters I've seen in the neighborhood, the "anti-segregation" line is the main line of attack against the new school, and that doesn't seem to hold up at all.
Diane Hodson January 12, 2011 at 11:41 PM
What I believe was implied by "Integrate, don't Segregate!" was that the students attending the schools in the John Jay Campus, Joanna, deserve the same “high-quality” options that are being offered at Millennium in Manhattan - yet, the DOE has not provided the schools in the building with the funding necessary to implement them. A Research alum now attending Columbia University spoke last night, as well as two Law seniors who will be attending the University of Notre Dame and Williams College next year. These students clearly were able to excel with the little offered - imagine what they could do with the DOE's support? Also, Joanna, it is important to understand that some of the teachers speaking last night are not teachers at the John Jay Campus. Some were teachers representing other organizations, such as socialist/communist organizations, that came to the hearing to show their support. While I do not disagree that the "the system doesn't care about you" is an incredibly unproductive line of discussion as it only breeds resentment, there were many teachers who spoke eloquently and passionately on the issues.
Diane Hodson January 12, 2011 at 11:42 PM
Lucky7, the main line of attack against the new school is not simply "anti-segregation," but for there to be equal funding for all students and all schools irrespective of race and class – and, unfortunately, the DOE has created a situation such that the only way the building will have any capital improvements is if Millennium Brooklyn moves in. That said, comparatively, due to the start-up funds that will be awarded to Millennium (and were never awarded to the schools already in the John Jay Campus), the per student Fair Student Funding allocation will be higher for students at Millennium than the other schools in the building.
angie January 19, 2011 at 03:59 AM
Millennium High school has a culturally diverse student body. It has 1/3 Asian, 1/3 Black and Latino, 1/3 White; almost half of the students receive free or reduced price lunch; half of our students are the first in their families to attend college. It is not all white. Please check your facts.
angie January 19, 2011 at 04:01 AM
Millenium High School is not all white. It has 1/3 Asian, 1/3 Black and Latino, 1/3 White; almost half of the students receive free or reduced price lunch; half of our students are the first in their families to attend college. Please check your facts.
Meredith Seamus May 11, 2011 at 07:08 PM
Asbestos should no longer be used in schools, homes, and other buildings, etc.! The stuff is poison, check out the EPA http://www.epa.gov/asbestos/pubs/help.html and this site http://www.weitzlux.com/asbestos_1962542.html


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