August 9, 2012
Wesley Weissberg has poured hours into Park Slope’s public schools, even serving as PTA president at the neighborhood’s popular elementary school, P.S. 321. But until this year, she hadn’t even considered trying to help the neighborhood’s only high schools.
Housed in the John Jay Campus at the heart of Park Slope’s main shopping street, the high schools have never drawn many students from within the neighborhood’s brownstone-lined borders. Students who graduated from local middle schools mostly headed to private schools or Manhattan for ninth grade.
That was true well before Weissberg moved to Park Slope. More than a decade ago, the district’s school board president, Mark Peters, waged an effort to turn John Jay High School into a destination for the neighborhood’s middle-class families. As a result, the struggling high school was replaced by three smaller schools: two that had been located elsewhere in the district and one that grew out of John Jay’s relatively strong legal studies program.
But even with the overhaul, the new schools, which did not screen students, never attracted local students. And a decade after Peters engineered the building’s redesign, the Secondary School for Law; the Secondary School for Journalism; and the Secondary School for Research, which became Park Slope Collegiate in 2011, continued to struggle. Except for during the hours immediately after school, when some neighborhood shopkeepers would lock their doors to keep John Jay students out, there was little relationship between the building and its neighborhood.
Then, last year, tensions over the addition of a selective school billed as more likely to attract Park Slope’s high-performing students drew the neighborhood’s attention back to the campus — and volunteers like Weissberg into the building.
A year into Millennium Brooklyn’s uneasy co-location, it is not yet clear whether the building is on the way to becoming a Park Slope school, or whether the worst fears about Millennium’s presence will come to pass.
In protests and at city school board meetings, students and teachers from the John Jay schools charged that Millennium’s arrival could give rise to race and class segregation. Almost all students at the original three schools are black and Hispanic, but if Millennium turned out to be anything like its model in Manhattan, than half its students would be white and Asian.
The John Jay students urged the city to attract more diverse populations to the campus by investing in the three existing schools, rather than concentrating white and Asian students on a single floor. And in a letter to city officials, Park Slope Collegiate Principal Jill Bloomberg said it was hard to stomach a new school getting extra funding while her school was strapped by budget cuts.
Weissberg was one of several members of Congregation Beth Elohim, a synagogue located blocks from John Jay, who were unnerved by the tension Millennium wrought. So the congregation’s social action committee reached out to Learning Leaders, a non-profit that trains community members to volunteer in public schools.
This spring, 16 volunteers from Beth Elohim started working at John Jay — four at each school. The volunteers were each assigned to a teacher at one of the schools and spent at least two periods a week tutoring students, organizing classroom materials, and pitching in wherever they were needed.
“We were thinking about the relationship between all the schools and how we wanted to model the behavior in the type of relationships,” said Isabel Burton, the congregation’s director of social outreach. But she said the volunteers hardly “changed the world.”
Both volunteers and students said last year’s acute tensions had subsided. But they said Millennium doesn’t have much to do with the other schools, an outcome they feared from the start.
“Millennium doesn’t involve themselves with the rest of the school,” said Jelissa Fernandez, who graduated from the Secondary School for Journalism in June. The other schools play on the same sports teams, but Millennium competes with its sister school in Manhattan, Fernandez offered as an example.
Millennium Brooklyn’s founding principal said the four schools do work together in many ways. In an email, Lisa Gioe said principals of the four schools meet once a week to strengthen ties. She said the Beth Elohim volunteers, a weekly cooking competition, and Millennium’s writing center also bring the schools together.
But the union is far from seamless. Bulletin boards at the entrance of the school feature only the original three schools. Students from all the schools must pass through metal detectors at the front doors, but Millennium students arrive earlier. And Millennium students can all leave the building for lunch, but the other schools have tighter rules.
And as predicted, the racial makeup of Millennium’s student body was very different from the three other schools’. At Millennium, 35 percent of the first class was white and another 18 percent was Asian.
Students from the other schools said they are forbidden from walking down to Millennium, although they can visit the other schools.
Giovanni Callao, who just finished eighth grade at Park Slope Collegiate in June and will begin high school there in September, said the Millennium students were “cool,” but he’s had limited contact with them.
“We’re allowed to go to other floors, but we’re not allowed to go there,” he said.
Volunteers have witnessed the disconnect between the schools but not bridged it. As a lead volunteer at the congregation, Weissberg met with the principals at all the schools. She said Gioe told her that students from the building’s other schools were welcome to use Millennium’s Writing Center.
But Weissberg, who volunteered biweekly in an English class at the Secondary School for Journalism and led a lunchtime book group, said she never saw the Writing Center or any other evidence that Millennium was sharing its space and resources.
“I’m really unaware of Millennium, and where they are,” she said. “I don’t know the politics of shared spaces, but I don’t see it.”
Burton said the largest effect of the work has been volunteers’ relationship with John Jay students, at least addressing some of the tensions that have plagued the school.
“Before they would walk by John Jay relatively fast, maybe be tentative about looking at the kids coming out of it in the eye,” she said. “But now they’re looking at them in the face.” The congregation aims to expand the Learning Leaders program this fall.
But community relations with John Jay have a long way to go, according to City Councilman Brad Lander. Lander said he lauds volunteer-led efforts such as Learning Leaders and Teen Battle Chef, a weekly cooking competition organized by a Park Slope resident, Veronica Guzman, and New York Methodist Hospital. But he said he would like to see more neighbors offer students opportunities for internships and resources.
And he said there are other ways the schools could be told they are part of the neighborhood.
“There’s just a strong police presence before and after school that I think contributes to some students feeling like they are less welcome in the community,” Lander said.
When Lander held a panel discussion at the campus about Stop and Frisk, the New York Police Department’s controversial policing strategy, a Park Slope Collegiate teacher said policing at the school only compounded other problems that they already face.
“So A, our school is underfunded,” the teacher said. “B, we have metal detectors. C, a new school comes in with more funding, D, we’re getting cameras. What’s E?”
She added, “It’s pretty obvious that the message that’s being sent to our students is they’re criminals.”
Other teachers say the building is changing for the better. Michael Salak, a social studies teacher at Park Slope Collegiate, said he likes seeing more community members at the school, and that the neighborhood has come along way since he began teaching at John Jay, when a restaurant across the street had a “No Students Allowed” sign posted in the window.
But Salak said the best way for community members to make an impact is to send their children to all of the schools in the building.
“Just try to join us is anyway possible,” he said. “Send your students here, too.”
And a decade after his push to turn the building into a desired school for local residents fizzled, Mark Peters says he still holds out hope for change. His daughter, whose birth first inspired him to take a look at the building, is now in middle school.
“I have no idea where she’s going to high school,” Peters said. “But wouldn’t it be cool if she went to John Jay?”