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Michele Somerville Headshot

Fast One at 'Apartheid High'

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I came in Wednesday night at about 7 p.m. to find my husband making dinner.

"How was it?" he asked.

"Depressing." I answered.

We have three children. We go to a lot of school meetings. This meeting took place in a local school in my neighborhood, but not at a school any of my children attends. Nor at a school the child of mine would likely attend. You see, my husband and I are reasonably well-educated middle-class parents and, traditionally, well-educated, middle-class parents do not send their sons and daughters to schools like those housed in John Jay building in Park Slope Brooklyn. Parents who have other options don't send their children to schools that require them to pass through metal detectors on the way to their lockers. And they don't send their children to schools with nicknames like "Thug High."

But "Thug High" is getting ready for a cleanup. "Cleanup" is the right word, too, because there is a lot of money involved. Although children enrolled in schools currently operating out of John Jay building will not get much of it, some of the run-off of the funding for the new "selective" school slated to be "co-located" (DOE speak for "put") in John Jay building in 2011 is expected to be used to make improvement in the building the 'non-elite' schools and "Apartheid High" will share. (This nickname is in active teen parlance rotation but I think Gothamist may have coined it.)

This plan is not official yet. The NYC DOE PEP (New York City Department of education Panel for Educational Policy) will vote on the proposal to co-locate Millennium Brooklyn in John Jay building as well as a proposal to begin "grade truncation" ("grade truncation" is DOE for closing schools a grade at a time) in two of the John Jay schools on January 19, 2011.

Public Hearings took place this week on January 11, and January 12, but the plans for Millennium Brooklyn were hatched on the sly. A principal was appointed, and when news of her appointment leaked out late this fall, the John Jay community, which was had not been brought into the decision-making until the plan was well under way, was informed of its fate.

The surreptitiously drafted, racist plan to "co-locate" a new, so-called "selective" school in John Jay building while politely nudging the (mostly) black students out the door now appears to be a go. The January 19th vote, will , I am sorry to predict, be pro-forma a "show vote."

Proponents of Millennium Brooklyn say that the entire John Jay community will reap the benefits of building improvements -- that courtesy of the "elite" students, will come the amelioration of problems involving mold and chipping paint, the repair of malfunctioning toilets and the elimination of the metal detectors at the building's entrance. But at what cost?

Don't students currently at John Jay deserve a paint job and toilets that work as much as the "elite" students who will start at Millennium Brooklyn in September of 2011? (By the way anyone with the most basic knowledge of Brooklyn schools know that this term "elite" is being construed extremely broadly. )

Staff at the schools in John Jay are ambivalent about Millennium Brooklyn. There is outrage over the unvarnished racism involved, and there is desperation for the aforementioned building improvements.

I was unable to attend the January 11 hearing on the matter of the "co-location" (DOE speak for "put") of Brooklyn Millennium in the John Jay building. I understand it was a well-attended meeting and that the discourse became heated.

The January 12 hearing was not well attended and had a lugubrious feel. Secondary School for Law principal Abbie Reif spoke for two minutes about why she signed off on the great white hope that is Brooklyn Millennium. She noted the hardship of trying to run a school under the crippling weight of a mounting deficit, and she discussed ever so briefly the complex connection between budgetary strife and enrollment. "Elite" schools do not open in vacuums. The opening of new schools creates imbalance in the education system. The injustice and inequality that results -- Think of it as a see-saw effect -- must be considered at every turn.

A school that cannot operate due to a lack of funding cannot attract students. Schools that cannot attract students are at a disadvantage in a system that pays, in a sense, by the head. A school that is falling apart because enrollment is low becomes the default school for those "the system" has failed.

The Millennium debacle brings into focus some of the larger problems with facing the New York City public schools. There are many public school options for elite students in New York City, and more are needed. While it is true that all 28,000 children who apply to specialized and other elite schools get disappointed each year, there are currently many fine schools available to intelligent students who have done well in elementary middle school. I say "intelligent students who have done well" and not "elite" for a reason.

An important part of the discussion of co-locating schools like Millennium Brooklyn is not being had, and it has to do with the truth that most of the students at Secondary School of Law, Secondary School of Journalism and Secondary School of Research are every bit as intelligent as the students who will enroll in Millennium Brooklyn this coming fall. Basing my educated guess on what I have seen teaching in some of the poorest sections of New York City, I would suggest that the "elite" eighth grade class at Millennium will enroll children who are, on the whole, neither more nor less, intellectually able than eighth grade students in John Jay schools. But unlike the children in Secondary School for Law, Secondary School for Journalism and Secondary School for Research, children in "Apartheid High" will have been better prepared.

The degree of zeal that accompanies the "articulation" (DOE jargon for "new school start-up") of schools needs to be brought to reviving schools the DOE has abandoned.

Many years ago, while teaching middle school Language Arts as a long-term substitute in a school located in a Brooklyn neighborhood in which many John Jay school students live, I stumbled upon a trick -- a quick, one-question diagnostic test for Language Arts proficiency: a Math problem.

I'd give a child a math problem and watch him or her do it. Having started out as an elementary teacher, I had a general sense of what concepts are introduced when in the course of grades 1-6, so by watching students do Math, I could infer where the education stopped and the social promotion began.

Teaching eighth grade lessons to children who haven't achieved fourth grade mastery makes no sense. It's not so much that it's "all Greek" -- It's more akin to trying to explain the game of baseball, without a pencil, to someone who's never heard of it. So much is abstract and predicated on so much else.

Essentially, students who have been the victims of serial social promotion require a different kind of education than the well enough prepared students who will be admitted to (the really, unlikely to be "elite") Millennium Brooklyn need.

Bringing children who have been shafted by the system up to speed is time-consuming, highly specialized work which calls for extraordinary intelligence, patience and tender regard for the hardship children who spend much of their educational lives faking literacy and feeling stupid experience.

When 14-year-old eighth-grade student, "Linda" (I'll call her) at the aforementioned Brooklyn middle school pronounced the second "p" the word "paragraph" -- this after seeming not to have a clue about what the word "paragraph" meant when I wrote it on the board -- I slipped her a math problem. She was unable to subtract 4.49 from 10.00.

I deduced that she had hopped off (in her case the back of) the education bus in about third or fourth grade and had been cruising on social promotion fumes since. Linda had a baby -- which I concede is not very smart -- but she was smart, nonetheless, and a quick study. Yet for all her intelligence, she didn't know enough math to keep from being cheated while picking up pampers in the grocery store on the corner by the projects. Like many students in this particular class, Linda was pretty much illiterate in eighth grade. She been promoted four or five times without satisfying the requirements for promotions. Whose fault is that?

Many of the students who currently attend schools in John Jay are from the part of Brooklyn where Linda and her classmates lived.

Whose fault is it that so many the students in poor neighborhood can't read?

Whose fault is it that as shiny new Millennium Brooklyn opens its non-metal protected doors in September of 2011, it will have to find the answer to the problem of how to shake off and live down the sparkling new nickname it will have had since its inception: "Apartheid High."

(This essay is a follow-up on "Separate But Nowhere Near Equal in Brooklyn." This is a local story, but what is happening in the public education system in New York City has a long reach, and is in many ways not local at all. Stay tuned for more on "Apartheid High." )