Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Race, Class & Politics: What is going on at John Jay

There is a lot of sturm und drang about the proposed new school in the John Jay building in the middle of Park Slope. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of substance or thoughtfulness to go with it. We should all understand what is being said and why, rather than fly off the handle in a knee-jerk sort of way, because the issues here appear elsewhere is the city, too. They just do not get this much attention in other neighborhoods.


I have been most disturbed by the accusations of racism, segregation and even apartheid (?) that are being associated with the proposed school by those who oppose it. These are real issues for the schools in the John Jay building, but they are not products of the proposed new school.

The students at the Secondary Schools for Law, for Research and for Journalism generally do not come from the surrounding neighborhood. Moreover, they do not look like the kids in the surrounding neighborhood either; the building's students are predominantly black and Latino, whereas the neighborhood is predominately white. Having taught at Law, I can tell you that the students are very aware of this issue and that they feel judged and excluded by the neighborhood.

My students told me about how shopkeepers, when it is warmer, will close their doors when they walk by, after school. They are literally shut out. And I have seen this happen myself. Of course, the kids think it is racism. Of course, there is some kernel of truth in that, but it is not the whole story -- or even most of it. The fact is that adolescents and teenagers are loud and boisterous when they get out of school in the afternoon. When they leave school by the hundreds at the same time, the shouting, yelling, profanity, professions of love and all the rest are, well, loud. Really loud. So, the shopkeepers want to keep the noise out.

But that is not everything. I've made a point of talking to the shopkeepers about this, from the jewelry stores to the cupcake truck. They talk about the noise, but they also talk about the behavior. The kids do not act respectfully, in their eyes. And they are right. Too many of them drop their trash on the ground and some are even are little destructive with the shops' wares. Of course, this is the students’ own ego-defense from a neighborhood that they feel excludes them, and it is not many of them. But it does happen.

So, yes, the shopkeepers close their doors, and some even lock them from 2:45pm to 3:45pm. That ain't cool. But it also ain't racist, mostly. More importantly, this is an issue about the neighborhood that has nothing to do with the proposed new school.

Even if the implied accusation that the new school is just for white kids were true, it would not be any more “racist” or “segregated” than the status quo. Having a “white school” elsewhere would be just as segregated. Actually, it would be less segregated if the school were in their building. The kids at the three schools already mix to some degree. They would certainly get to know each other better in the same building than spread blocks or miles apart.

The accusations of “apartheid” being associated with the new school are even more ridiculous, and I would hope that schools focused on law, research and journalism would be more clear on this. Perhaps there already is a form of apartheid in the schools, with largely white administrations and faculties in charge of a much larger largely black student body. But the new school has nothing to do with this common dynamic.

To be fair, there are idiots in the community, yes. Allison Perrnell, who last night assured us on the 11 o'clock news, "Not that we're necessarily racist," has likened the existing schools to the plague and worried about how they could "ghettify" her children. However, even she has a point about how the new school is actually good for the students already there. If they get more resources or a renovated building, that is a good thing. And she is really addressing – however inartfully – SES differences, rather than racial difference.

When Kanye West accused George W. Bush of not caring about black people, he was wrong. Bush had no problem with black people; it was poor people that he did not care about.


Park Slope is one of the wealthiest neighborhood in Brooklyn, with ridiculous property values and high levels of educational attainment. However you measure SES (i.e. socio-economic status), the neighborhood in which the school is located has more of it than the neighborhoods in which the students live. Class is a big issue here.

The fact is that the former principals were charged with changing the building's reputation to attract more families from the neighborhood eight years ago. I know this because one of them told me this himself. This proposed new school is aimed at attracting the families in Park Slope and other high-SES neighborhoods, but so were the existing schools in the building.

We need good public schools for students of all backgrounds. We need schools that leverage the time and effort that many parents put into preparing their kids for reading, for school and for their work in schools. We also need schools that can educate children from families who do such things less often or not at all. We need good schools for high-SES families and for good schools for moderate- and low-SES families.

All of these schools should be rigorous. All of these schools should be welcoming to families and supportive of their children. Students should feel valued, respected and that they belong at every one of them.

The problem is that too many schools serving lower-SES families are of low quality. Be it issues with their own leadership, issues with their faculties or issues with support from the DOE, they are not serving their students well. I have taught in such schools myself, and that experience drove me to education policy so that I could work on finding systemic answers to address these issues. These kids deserve far better.

But they are not the only ones who deserve better. There are no public schools that higher-SES families find attractive in this part of Brooklyn. These families look at the low quality of schools (i.e. low academic performance, low attendance rates, discipline problems, etc.) and then look further to find something better for their children. This is not about rejecting the students at these schools; it is about rejecting the educators.


None of the students at these schools are being threatened by the new school. Their schools are not closing down. They get to keep their schools and their classmates and all the rest. Even though these schools might lose their middle grades (i.e. 6-8), the kids who are already there will continue there.

Unfortunately (in my view), these schools are not community schools. The local community is not invested in these schools. The local political and business leaders are not threatened by the proposed new school, either.

On the other hand, the employees of these schools are threatened by this action. Some teachers will lose their jobs and administrators will surely lose headcount and money from their budgets. This is an assault on them and their status. My own experience, however, shows me that it has been a long time coming. While I taught there, I was told by my principal not to teach critical and analytical thinking to my students, and told by my assistant principal not to teach my 11th grade students -- who would be taking the Regents exam in the spring -- how to write essays. Months after I had left, another principal in the building sent me letters at home warning me that if I continued to work late in my classroom that my pay would be docked.

The faculties that these principals have hired remain in the building, and most of the administrators are the same as when I left. All of them are threatened by this new school. And their students are crying "racism." I wonder how that could happen.

Solutions, Not Grievances

We should all be perfectly willing to acknowledge that the building has been neglected. I do not believe that the families whom the current schools in the John Jay building has served in the past have been well served. There have been real issues with the leadership in the building and support from the DOE.

But what is the problem with adding a new school if we look forward? We can agree that the building should have been fixed up long ago. I should not have had to deal with a broken window in my classroom for the entire time that I worked there. I should not have had to paint my classroom myself. The students and teachers who are still there should not have had to put up with the decaying of the building around them.

But if the new school comes with new funds to fix up the building, why is that something to complain about? Complain about the past but embrace this solution! It is good for the kids.

Furthermore, I know that the leadership of the new school (disclosure: I know Principal Gioe well and have spoken with her at length about this proposed new school) has a track record of supporting students who traditionally have struggled in conventional schools, and applied those lessons to the rest of her programs. This proposed new school would be an additional option for the families who have traditionally sent their kids to the Secondary Schools for Law, for Research and for Journalism. The research, from Coleman in the 1960's all the way through the more recent work of Kahlenberg and others, shows that mixing students from lower-SES families with those from higher-SES families can help the former without hurting the latter. The proposed new school would give priority to Brooklyn students, without giving preference to any particular Brooklyn neighborhood.

The final vote on the proposed new school is tonight. What are we arguing about here?