"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."