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January 12th, 2011

A Moment of Reckoning for Park Slope & John Jay

Last night at the public hearing about the DOE’s proposal to locate Millennium 2 in the John Jay Complex  on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, students, administrators, and teachers presented strong and passionate arguments about the Department of Education’s mishandling of the situation. In my opinion it is  clear that the DOE must listen closely to charges of racism, segregation and inequality (financial and otherwise) regarding the three schools that are already inside that building.

The overheated meeting last night, which took place in the overheated auditorium, exposed many serious issues that must be addressed by the DOE—and the Park Slope community. I think there is a radical disconnect between the community and the schools in the JJ complex, which serve, primarily, minority students. Few families from affluent and white Park Slope have opted to enroll in any of those school let alone tour through them to see what they’re about.

As expressed last night, the students at those schools feel like barely tolerated guests in the community, at best, and criminals at worst. Many students in their remarks pointed to the metal detectors and police presence at the school and outside of it.

According to many who spoke last night, the lack of diversity, the lack of funding, and the sense of separation from the community have created a segregated institution within a community that views itself as enlightened and progressive. The students who spoke truly understand this disconnect and they expressed how it’s left them feeling “other” and marginalized. Clearly, Park Slope locals have serious misunderstandings about what really goes on in the school building and they rarely venture inside to find out.

And then comes the proposal to locate Millennium as the 4th school inside those walls. With the schools’ history of DOE neglect no wonder it caused such a negative reaction (and explains the loud and sometimes disruptive environment last night). According to accounts, Millennium 2 was originally presented to the staff and students as a proposal by the DOE but soon it was clear that it was a fait accompli.

What was even more galling to the staff and students and many in the crowd last night was the huge amount of money that will be poured into this new school effort, funding that has been repeatedly denied the schools in that building.

Millennium 2 is part of the DOE’s coveted New Schools Initiative (it will be the 8th in that program) and money is no object for that program, which also brings in corporate funding for those “special” schools.

It seems that the sky’s the limit for Millennium 2 while the DOE claims poverty when it comes to improving the quality of life in the John Jay complex (improving ancient bathrooms, plumbing, bell systems, classrooms, windows, walls, etc.).

Even if the opening of Millennium 2 is ultimately a win-by-association for the other schools it is painfully obvious to the teachers and students that improvements to the building and the school would NEVER have happened unless a “Park Slope approved school” was going in there.

Over and over teachers and administrators made the following point: the schools in the JJ complex were set up to fail while Millennium 2 is being set up for success. And what’s the success formula: funding for the physical plant, funding for teachers, electives, guidance, after school activities and everything else that makes a good school good.

I agree with many who spoke that the  JJ building is an embarrassment and the fact that it exists within this supposedly enlightened neighborhood is even more of an embarrassment. Many in this neighborhood would never allow their children to attend a school with non-working bathrooms, no electrical outlets and general derelict condition. Why is that good enough for the children in our district who go there???

Last night was truly a moment of reckoning that was a long time coming. Issues that have been kept under cover for a long time came flowing out. Racism. Segregation. Class issues. Money for some, financial neglect for others. Better schools for the rich, inferior schools for the poor. Misunderstanding between community and school populations.

Albeit, the talk was mostly from the side of the schools in the John Jay Complex, who don’t want Millennium to be located in the building. Their counter-proposal is to invest in the schools that are already in there.

Representatives from the Secondary School of Research presented a list of demands they want addressed immediately, including the removal of the metal detectors which create a humiliating experience for the students and staff. A name change: Park Slope Collegiate instead of the John Jay Complex. And, of course, a long list of improvements to the building plus the restoration of the new school funding that those schools NEVER got.

A representative from Borough President Marty Markowitz’s office said that Markowitz will advocate for that list of demands (minus not putting Millennium 2 in the building).

Later Brad Lander spoke honestly to the crowd about their charges of racism and inequality. He has his own list of what needs to be done there including the elimination of the metal detectors, a new name for the complex, and renovation of the physical plant. He also proposed a community/school council for understanding and connection between school and Park Slope.

Representative Jim Brennan also spoke to the crowd with these strong words: “This proposal is an egregious insult to the existing schools. Don’t blame the demonstrators.. Take Millennium and take it off the table right now…Strengthen and build what’s here before you. Before you do anything new, you must help those who are here.”

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Posted in Civics and Urban Life | 7 Comments »