An Open Letter to the New York City Department of Education

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


10 responses to “An Open Letter to the New York City Department of Education

  1. Gimme a break…No one in Park Slope has sent, or will send, their kids to these schools because there’s nothing there to appeal to them. Put in a selective school and you’ll see how quickly that school building will be improved and local kids will start attending. Why shouldn’t the local community have some say about what happens in a local school building? Stop making the students feel inferior by suggesting they are. Shame on you.

  2. This is in reply to Mike Curatore’s comments.

    Mike, I don’t disagree with your first point. Few parents would choose to send their children to a school where there is “nothing to appeal to them.” Sadly, in our society, some people are allowed to choose good schools while others are not. We should be fighting to make good schools an option for all students.

    Central to the fight at John Jay is NOT that the three schools are perfect. We readily admit that these schools need the funding to create advanced and AP classes. We are fighting not to prevent Park Slope kids access to quality options. What we are fighting for is for equal access to quality options, whether you are from Park Slope or Red Hook.

    The DOE closed down John Jay High School but did nothing to make the changes needed to create a school that would attract Park Slope children. The DOE closed down John Jay High School but failed (by their own admission) to provide the three new schools with the start-up funds promised to new schools. This start-up money, it should be noted, is being provided to the (proposed) new school.

    So, the question is, why don’t the students of color who attend one of the schools in John Jay deserve what Park Slope parents want for their kids? Will you, Mark, and the people of Park Slope stand with us or tolerate an under-funded segregated school in their neighborhood?

    By all means, stand up and demand a good school for your children. But at the same time, demand a quality education for all students.

    John Yanno,

  3. You picked the wrong fight, which you can’t win. Either the new school goes in over your objections, and you’ve already alienated yourself by picking a fight, so you get nothing. Or, the new school doesn’t go in and your programs continue to wither until they push you out.

    Don’t think your ideological rhetoric about “racism” and “inferiority” is going to carry the day, because none of it is true. And you’re manipulating children by telling them that they are inferior children of color. Shame, shame, shame on you by perpetuating such stereotypes for political reasons.

    You could have done some good for your programs if you had sided with the new school and insisted that your programs get better treatment to match the new program. But to suggest you’re under attack, attack a new program, and adopt a victim mentality isn’t going to get you anywhere. What a stupid approach to take.

    Good luck with this one. You’re going to need it.

  4. Mr. Curatore,

    Either you’ve misread my letter or are mischaracterizing it deliberately. Far from perpetuating a stereotype of childen of color as inferior, my letter refutes such a stereotype explicitly by referencing the facts that current students at the John Jay campus work hard, win prestigious scholarships, and attend excellent colleges, all despite the difficult socioecon0mic circumstances in which many of them find themselves. My letter’s main thrust is simple and easy to understand — creating an entirely separate school where none is needed sends these children the implicit (and false) message that they are somehow not good enough to attend school alongside the neighborhood children. You are free to disagree, but I would ask that you stop characterizing my letter in a way that is blatantly incorrect.

  5. Dr. Kobrick, how can you make a statement like this? “The establishment of a separate school to prevent white children from having to attend school alongside children of color…”

    Even at highly sought-after schools like MS 51 and New Voices, white kids make up about a third, or less, or the population (according to demographic data on How is that “mostly white”? How is 35% white kids at Millennium Manhattan “mostly white”? And certainly students of all races would be considered for the new selective school. Look at Bard, for instance–absolutely evenly split between white, black, Asian, Latino (

    What Park Slope parents do not like about the schools in the John Jay building is that, according to the NY Times data on standardized tests, only 19 percent of kids at the Secondary School for Research, for instance, passed their tests ( MS 51, on the other hand, has an 85 percent pass rate.

    I agree that it’s preposterous that the current schools at John Jay have not received proper funding. But to demonize the families of Park Slope for wanting better high school options for high-achieving kids, options that don’t make them travel to Manhattan or 45-60 minutes away in Brooklyn (Midwood, Murrow, Goldstein) is not productive.

    Perhaps it’s not wise to put a new Millennium school at John Jay–clearly the new students would be unwelcome by the current students/administrations in the building.

    • Clarification on my previous post–Bard Queens rather than Bard Manhattan has the demographic profile I mentioned.

    • I did not write the open letter, so I can’t reply to that. I do, however, wonder now that the “progressive” nabe that Park Slope is knows that a “separate and unequal” school exists in their backyard, will they stand up and fight for racial and economic justice regardless of whether they support M2 or not.

      The citizens (most) of Park Slope pride themselves of being progressive. So I invite them to 7th Ave. at 3pm everyday to see NYPD goons push the black and brown kids into the subway and out of the neighborhood. I invite the citizens of Park Slope to visit the pizza place La Bruchetta across from the school to see the “NO KIDS BEFORE 5” sign in their window.

      Our kids have struggles that most in Park Slope would never dream of – undocumented parents struggling to survive, living in substandard public housing, crime-ridden neighborhoods, pressure to join gangs, incarcerated parents, homelessness, eviction, etc. The schools in John Jay should be receiving MORE money, not less. And the folks of Park Slope should join us in demanding that.

  6. Kids at dismissal are boisterously loud, emboldened because they travel in packs, and behave disgracefully on sidewalks – not yielding to their elders or physically challenged – and in local stores. ALL KIDS DO IT AT ALL SCHOOLS REGARDLESS OF THEIR COLOR. Thank goodness we have police around at dismissals to get them to disperse quickly. We need more police, not less, until the kids can demonstrate that they are able to act respectfully and civilly in public places. Maybe the schools need to do a better job of instilling respect outside the classroom. Clearly, there are parents falling down on the job. Until then we need more police, not less.

    As for you, Dr. Kobrick, your piece is demoralizing and is written from an apologetically guilty liberal perspective. Your doctoral degree is in history, not education, and you live in Maryland, not Park Slope. Fraud! Shame on you for suggesting that white people are the problem here and we should feel bad for children of color, you racist. Shame on you for suggesting that this is a case of segregation. You agitate from a condescending place of arrogant ignorance.

    You really don’t get it, do you? Live here, send your kids to school here, and get involved here, then maybe we’ll take what you have to say seriously.

    • So it’s racist to suggest that we should fully fund the existing school for nonwhite kids, rather than cater to the white yuppies in the neighborhood and let the existing school “continue to wither” as you put it?

      There’s nothing worse than the privileged playing the victim. How dare these poor kids from outside the neighborhood expect a decent education? Push them all away to make room for yuppies’ kids! And if you don’t kowtow to the yuppies, you’re a racist!

      Posting the most often (the equivalent of yelling the loudest) doesn’t make you right. The right thing to do here is improve (and fully fund) the schools already in the neighborhood, not make the Slope even more of an enclave for the privileged that it already is.

  7. The great teachers (I know a lot of them personally) and the active, intelligent students (I’ve heard them speak, seen their work, read their essays, taught a workshop) are asking for equal treatment, funding and resources for the schools of John Jay Campus. They want their schools to be saved and to be spared from any negative impact a selective school in the building can bring. Instead of posting a lot of negative comments on this page about things you may not know about, hear from them for yourself at the hearing today:

    January 11, 2011 at 6PM – Rally and Public Hearing on the proposed co-location. All meetings will take place at the John Jay Campus, 237 7th Avenue, between 4th and 5th Streets, in Brooklyn, NY.

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