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How Separate Might Yet Be Made Equal at Millennium High School in Brooklyn

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On January 19, the New York City Department of Education Panel for Educational Policy (NYC DOE PEP) voted to "co-locate" an "elite" school, Millennium Brooklyn, in the John Jay building located in the affluent Brooklyn, New York neighborhood of Park Slope. Currently, John Jay is home to three struggling schools, Secondary School for Journalism, Secondary School for Law and Secondary School for Research whose students are about more than 90 percent black and Latino. They come from some of the weakest elementary schools in the city.

Many of the finest educators in the DOE teach in so-called "failing" schools like those in the building that was once called "Thug School," wherein these dedicated educators slowly "turn" students who have been shafted by a racist educational system "around." Some of the best teachers in the DOE teach in some of the so-called "worst" schools.

For two decades, John Jay students -- all too aware that Park Slope residents deem their schools unfit for their own children -- have been scorned by local merchants and residents, and made to feel unwelcome on the avenue on which their school is located.

The co-location of Millennium Brooklyn in John Jay is insult heaped onto years of cumulative injury. Like many in the John Jay schools and surrounding communities, I view the proposal (designed in secrecy) to thrust a whiter, brighter school into the black and brown school a violation. Prejudice should never be business as usual and is never more pernicious than when it imperils the education of children.

The recent response of the John Jay community alone, in the aftermath of the announcement of the new school (made two months prior to the PEP vote) offered reason enough for the DOE to rethink the plan for Millennium Brooklyn.

Jill Bloomberg, principal of Research, wrote eloquently in her school's Spirit Gazette about how damaging inequality in education funding can be.

At the public hearings on grade "truncation" (closing a school one grade at a time), the principal of Journalism offered a brief outline of her reasons for saying "uncle." She spoke of a crippling deficit and a corrupt system, and the beaten-down educator freely admitted a readiness to walk away from negotiations, such as they were, with something -- anything she could get for her students: operational toilets, the elimination of metal detectors, asbestos abatement. The principal had been made an offer she couldn't refuse.

The students, teachers, and community members protesting outside and within John Jay Building on the evening of January 11 (the first hearing to discuss the proposal to "co-locate" Brooklyn Millennium in John Jay) offered our new Schools Chancellor and the PEP an opportunity to think again -- but they passed. Their allegedly pro forma vote was a victory for "separate but equal."

The timing reveals much. On November 18, the current principal of MS 447 in Brooklyn was forced (when the information leaked out) to notify parents at her school of her intention to depart her small middle school in order to run a new high school slated to open in the John Jay in September, 2011. She made this announcement two months -- almost to the day -- before the PEP voted to open the new school in John Jay.

That the genesis of Millennium Brooklyn was shrouded in secrecy and the suspicion it is driven by racism are sure to compromise the school's ability to attract "elite" students. Progressive white parents may not be all that eager to consider such a school.

Millennium Brooklyn is a done deal, but it is not too late for the DOE to do the right thing. Were the DOE to do some or all of the following, it would "increase the peace" at John Jay and help the new school begin to live down its fast-catching-on nickname -- "Apartheid High":

  • Table or postpone the proposed ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) Nest program for children at Millennium. Children with disorders on the autism spectrum require tranquil, orderly learning environments. A school beset with racial tension is a poor setting for a pilot ASD program. So too is a school just getting off the ground. Millennium Brooklyn is unlikely to be adequately safe for children as vulnerable as those on the autism spectrum and will therefore be unable to provide them the "free and appropriate public education" to which they are entitled by law.

  • Appoint another principal, one with secondary school administrative experience, who was not instrumental in Millennium's design. From a practical and public relations standpoint, a white teacher whose experience as a principal is limited to running a small school, which caters to a privileged demographic, is not the optimal choice to lead a school so widely accused of seeking to evict a black and Latino school from its own building. Installing a principal who had no "stake" in starting the school would automatically eliminate the appearance of impropriety as it relates to the clandestine planning of the new school.
  • Reserve half the seats at Millennium for students presently attending John Jay schools. This would immediately render moot the argument that the Millennium proposal Brooklyn is racist.
  • Recruit educators from the schools it is, in effect, in the process of terminating. Millennium Brooklyn would be doing itself a favor were it to recruit teachers from John Jay as it sets forth to eliminate their jobs.
  • Stop calling the school "elite." Competition for seats in specialized high schools in New York City is tight, but there are more than a dozen de facto "elite" schools within a four-mile radius of Brooklyn's Park Slope. An academically, socio-economically and racially diverse range of students should be enrolled in Millennium Brooklyn in the fall of 2011.
  • The delicious irony in this question of Millennium's "eliteness" is that the best minds in John Jay, come fall 2011, will likely be those of students enrolled in Research, Journalism and Law. Anyone who saw them rally to defend against the occupation of their school building knows those intelligent John Jay kids "took us all to school."

    They shed light (which is what educationis!) -- on how circumstances surrounding the opening of Millennium Brooklyn are emblematic of all that's wrong with public education in this nation.

    The John Jay Schools community lost the battle on January 19, but the teachers and students from Law, Research and Journalism who stood up to the bullies walked away with the medals of valor.

    And those high school kids taught us a lesson: Education stripped of integrity is not education.

    I hope we don't fail the test.

    For more on this and other education issues, read Bored-o-Ed.