An Open Letter in Defense of John Jay and Public Education in NYC

Posted on January 9, 2011

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An Open Letter to the New York City Department of Education:

I am writing to oppose the Department’s recent proposal to open a new selective high school, to be known as Millennium Brooklyn, in the John Jay Building.  The plan will, I believe, be severely detrimental to the underprivileged students who currently attend the three existing schools located at John Jay – the Secondary Schools for Law, Journalism, and Research.

More than a half century ago, in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court ruled that laws providing for the racial segregation of public schools were unconstitutional.  In reaching its decision, the Court recognized that segregation imposed upon African American children “a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

Decades after legal segregation was abolished, a great many of America’s schoolchildren continue to attend public schools that are segregated not by law, but in fact.  A prime culprit, of course, is the extent to which our country’s residential neighborhoods remain racially exclusive.  In New York City, however, students are not tethered to neighborhood schools, but instead are free to seek the educational opportunities that suit them best anywhere within the five boroughs.  The policy of school choice creates exciting possibilities for young people to interact with, and learn from, individuals with backgrounds different from their own – an experience that has, for generations of Americans, come to define what it means to live in New York City.

Unfortunately, many of New York’s youth are missing out on the unique educational opportunities their city’s school system provides.  In the affluent and mostly white Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope, parents have demanded the creation of a new selective high school despite the fact that there is a surplus, rather than a shortage, of high school seats in the borough.  Implied by the parents’ demand is that they are unwilling to send their children to the existing schools in the neighborhood, which are populated heavily with African American, Latino, and immigrant students, most of whom come from low-income families.  Should Millennium Brooklyn be established in the John Jay Building alongside the existing three schools, its selection criteria will ensure that its population, like those of New York City’s other selective high schools, will be made up primarily of white students of greater economic means.

The New York City Department of Education should not perpetuate the racial segregation of the city’s schoolchildren in order to satisfy the whims of parents in Park Slope.  The establishment of a separate school to prevent white children from having to attend school alongside children of color would, as the Supreme Court pointed out in Brown, create among the student bodies of the Secondary Schools for Law, Journalism, and Research a feeling of inferiority.  In short, the Department would be sending those children the message that they are not good enough to attend the same school as their wealthier white counterparts.

Such an assertion of inferiority would be not only harmful, but false.  The reality is that despite the disadvantaged circumstances of many of their students, the Secondary Schools maintain the position that every student should go to college.  The vast majority of those students, working diligently to overcome the obstacles in their path, do just that.  Recent graduates of the Secondary School for Research, for example, have attended Babson College, Bates College, Clark University, Columbia University, CUNY – Hunter, Eugene Lang, The New School, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Muhlenberg College, New York University, Polytechnic University, Skidmore College, St. John’s University, SUNY – Binghamton, SUNY – Stonybrook, Trinity College, Union College, Utica College, and Williams College.  Students from the Secondary Schools for Research and Law have been awarded highly prestigious four-year full tuition college scholarships by the Posse Foundation, with two such awards this year alone.  Moreover, the Department’s most recent Quality Review Report for the Secondary School for Research was comparable to that for the original Millennium High School in Manhattan after which Millennium Brooklyn is to be modeled, with both schools receiving an overall assessment of “well developed.”  The Department also took note of SSR’s talented and dedicated teachers, reporting that “Every educator in the building has an extraordinary knowledge of the social and academic needs of each student, so that every learner feels valued and successful in an environment where learning is valued and celebrated.”

It would be wrong to ask parents in Park Slope to sacrifice a quality education for their children in the name of political correctness.  But no one is asking them to do so.  Even without the establishment of a Millennium School in Brooklyn, Park Slope students will be able to apply to schools of their choosing throughout the city, as they do now.  Should they wish to attend school close to home, they will have the three excellent schools already residing in the John Jay Building from which to choose, all of which have available space, would welcome them with open arms, and whose teachers strive every day to provide each student with the best possible preparation for college.  It is not necessary, therefore, for the Department of Education to promote a message of division and inferiority, so damaging to the underprivileged students in its care, in order to cater to the desires of a small number of wealthy parents.

Integration of the Secondary Schools would be beneficial to the existing students in those schools as well as students from Park Slope, because in the best educational environments, students learn not only from their teachers, but from each other.  Spending time with people of diverse backgrounds gives us a greater understanding of the world we live in as well as an enhanced ability to empathize with the plight of others.  One cannot help but wonder how social attitudes toward the poor might change if formerly sheltered students attended class alongside those born without the same advantages – those, for example, who excel in school despite caring for younger siblings because their parents work multiple jobs to make ends meet.  Also, attending school with Park Slope residents would allow current students at the John Jay campus to feel embraced by the community where they go to school rather than rejected by it.

If past experience is any indication, most parents in Park Slope will continue to resist the integration of the Secondary Schools and refuse to send their children there.  That likelihood, however, does not obligate the Department of Education to indulge those parents’ biases by creating a new school that is not only unnecessary, but will stand as a monument to segregation and exclusion when what our youth need sorely is integration and understanding.

New York City is better than this.

Dr. Jake Kobrick
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