This issue met me at my corner. I frequently pass the small three-story building labeled on the top Mount Prospect Laboratory on my way to the Q/B trains and to the Food Coop. Greeting the uniformed folks outside when I got back to the country mid-April, I stopped to chat and asked about what was going into the building, which also bears a sign designating it the offices of School District 13.
Rumor of suspended high school students - but I didn’t hear it from them. I went in and asked to speak with someone who might know. The secretary to the Department Of Education (DOE) District 13 superintendent suggested I request a meeting on behalf of ‘the community’. Coincidentally, the Park Place Underhill Avenue Block Association (PPUABA) regular monthly gathering was the following Wednesday. Regular has been for the last 54 years. Under ‘new business’ I reported my conversations and volunteered to write the text of the request. Others also wanted the information.
That letter focuses on our concerns that conditions for a school do not exist at that site and that “placing students there could cause unnecessary painful friction in the community”. It was printed on our letterhead, and I brought it in later that week. An appointment with the superintendent was scheduled for Monday morning May 7th. We CC’d elected officials and made contact with the office of Letitia James (Tish) , city councilmember for the 35th district. Tish’s representative had spoken against the placement at a recent meeting of the DOE Community Education Council (CEC), a local arm of the DOE that none of us locals knew existed.
During that first interview with the District 13 superintendent, she informed us that the previous week the news that high school students suspended from their regular placements in six Brooklyn school districts would be assigned to the building was communicated to her during a telephone conversation. Two separate Alternative Learning Centers (ACLs) were to occupy four classrooms and an office each, to begin in September. The decision had been made at the DOE Office of Portfolio Planning with no consultation with Community Board 8, District 13 administrators, nor the neighbors. We could find no written plan anywhere.
After our conversation that morning we walked through the building and our anxieties were confirmed – no kitchen nor lunchroom, no auditorium nor library nor gym nor lab, instructional spaces small, ill-lit and poorly ventilated; insufficient bathrooms. No elevator nor stair aid for the disabled. And with heavy rain, we know that the drain system carrying sewage and run-off overflows and floods local basements, including into the basement of that building where students would be expected to study and eat.
The previous year (2010-11) a cadre of about 70 9th graders of the Academy for Health Careers had come from other parts of Brooklyn to attend classes. After one year they were re-assigned to a permanent site. Nothing terrible happened. In a residential brownstone neighborhood with a park restricted to toddlers and caregivers behind and with no outdoor space for teen-agers, they would chill on stoops or pal around outside of the building until NYPD school security personnel ordered them to move on. Occasional trash cans toppled and some big mouth to neighbors left a bad taste.
That week Mark Morales from the Daily News (DN) phoned me, the president and another PPUAB Association activist. On Friday, May 11th the DN published a story under the headline “Prospect Scares Residents,” a misleading rendering of the interviews and of the tone of our campaign. We are determined that these adolescents receive the services they need, deserve and are legally entitled to. The president and I are both retired teachers. I spent 21 years teaching at Prospect Heights HS near-by, and I found my brownstone in 1980 to live near where I work. Not in My Backyard is an easy accusation. The reality is a policy decision to place young people in this site sets up a foreseeable conflict for which the young people will then be blamed and punished. Under-the-breath remarks from authorities reassuring us that probably half of the young people assigned will not show up is assuming that 50% will not receive services. With tightened discipline codes, police in the schools and the number of suspensions increasing each year, I find that response cynical and racist.
No DOE plan in writing. What is in writing? Three informative research studies published as pamphlets by the NY Civil Liberties Union provide background and context. “Criminalizing the Classroom “ (2007) discusses over-policing of NYC Schools. “Safety with Dignity” (2009) covers best practices with recommendations for returning the responsibility of maintaining order to professional educators. The most recent, “Education Interrupted” (2011) documents the increasing use of suspensions and the devastating effects of that policy on students with problems and the increasingly repressive atmosphere in the public schools, even elementary schools. To residents of our recently designated historic landmarked neighborhood, these documents provide answers to the initial questions about the mayor’s decision to isolate these young people. Essential reading, these reports are available in pdf form on the NYCLU website and/or in hard copy.
At the May 16th PPUA Block Association meeting we decided to circulate a petition documenting the opposition to the use of the water and sewage lab building as an instruction site for students. Five neighbors constituted a committee and began meeting. A friendly architect forwarded relevant building codes. Violations? The building has no access for the disabled. A requirement of 20 square feet per person limits the number of occupants. We learned then that the basement did recently flood during a heavy rain. DOE codes or NY State regulations defining what space is appropriate for a school, we have not located.
Saturday, May 19th was a gorgeous day for our yearly plant sale and street festivities. We collected 86 signatures. Two local residents refused to sign because they worried about where the students would then o. A neighbor’s canvas brought the number over 100. Residents are protective of the tranquility of the streets. In all conversations the welfare of the young people and educational obligations of the DOE are of great concern. Policy decisions made by authorities without consultation with those affected set up conflict over territory and resources - entirely unnecessary conflicts. “Foreseeable consequences are a good measure of intention.” Noam Chomsky.
In constant contact with us, Tish’s asked for DOE officials for a walk-through, and we looked forward to the DOE coming into Prospect Heights touring the building with us. A date was set. Tish’s staff member called to say the neighbors were not invited inside. Fine, we would wait outside, perhaps with the press, and hear what our councilmember found. The walk-through was cancelled.
Only one of us was invited accompany Tish to DOE headquarters in the former Tweed courthouse (Tweed) , the building near City Hall in lower Manhattan that houses offices of DOE administrators. On Monday morning, June 18th, Tish and her staff member and I met in the Chancellors Meeting Room, purportedly with Mark Sternberg, deputy to Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott. Mr Sternberg arrived 20 minutes after we had begun our discussion with his hand-held device active throughout. The discussion was scheduled for one hour. Present were Antonio Whitaker, Lilly Haskens and Karrie Marlin of the Office of Planning for Brooklyn and Anthony Orzo, Deputy to the Chief Executive Officer in the Office of School and Youth Development explained the program and who was the only person who gave me his card. Charles Fisher, chief of the Office of Space Planning for Brooklyn arrived10 minutes into the discussion. He distributed a three-page schemata of the 2010-11 plan for that year’s placement of students, not the footprint schemata with dimensions of each space which we expected when we asked for the ‘footprint’ of the building. Very firmly, Mr. Fisher asserted that the building could and would serve as a permanent site for these two ALCs. He acknowledged that the site does not conform to the law mandating disabilities access. Flooding of the basement apparently was news to him.
Anthony Orzo described the program for the ALCs.
52 students are expected for 5 to …days in what is called the Short Stay ALC, and 47 in the Long Term unit, which is meant to accommodate those involved in repeated incidents or ‘patterns of anti-social behavior’. Those young people are excluded from their regular placements for up to 180 school days or one full school year. Beginning and ending of the stay of each student is based on the date of the suspension hearing. Young people would come from Brooklyn school districts 13, 14, 15, 19, 32 and 37 by public transit. Each unit would occupy four classrooms and an office. Boys and girls, special needs students of all kinds and others would be assigned to 10 to 14 per group. Instruction is intended to cover the mandated high school curriculum. Staff assigned as transition coaches to the home school and a community liaison will augment the instructional staff to build a ratio of 1:10. Staggered entrance and exit times would coordinate with other schools and programs in the area. However, nothing in writing. Again, ‘reassurance’ was offered that an attendance rate of 50% has been the experience in other sites and that only highly motivated students will come.
I infer at this point that the young people excluded from their regular assigned school as a result of behavior problems or conflicts or other difficulties will be sent to these two ALCs as an exit door strategy calculated to eliminate the most problematic from the system. Until the age of 21 a resident has a right to a place in a public school. Until 16 they are obligated to attend. For those between 17 and 21 only those with the most tenacity, motivation and skills will demand their right to an education in a public school. The other 15 will drop, be left or pushed out.
Fifty percent of those who get into trouble or have problems are welcome be excluded. That expectation is offered to neighbors as solace assuming that NYBY (not in my back yard) is the motivation for objections to using the Mount Prospect Laboratory as an instructional site. Mr Orzo assured us that no problems were reported by neighbors of the other ALC in District 13. No one says exactly how much space there is there nor do we know how much space we have here. No one says how many students will be assigned to 355 Park Place. No one says how many young people will be marginalized and sacrificed because they have had problems. Our concerns have not yet been addressed.
I am thinking about those young people who miss school in order to take a grandmother to the doctor or look after a younger sibling, those who find affiliation with bands of other youth making a living in contraband commerce selling drugs or guns, those depressed or with self-esteem too low to insist on what they deserve, those with no adult advocates to accompany and guide them … and so many other youth whose connection to society has been weakened to the point that we are losing them because they have been cut from aspiring towards what previous generations had to look forward. We expected fulfilling and sustainable jobs, continually defined as ‘success’.
Marginalized and neglected youth become sad, depressed, bitter, angry. And out of these justifiable emotional responses to social neglect, they may act out in negative and destructive ways against themselves and those around them. Adolescents do not have the emotional maturity nor skills to translate their emotions into language and then channel their complaints and demands towards the authorities who made the decisions shaping the institutions which define their possibilities. Acting out begins to identify and define them. They are big, energetic. We may grow to fear them. Authorities can manipulated our fear and maintain control through punishing the young people. That repression can go just so far and for so long. We have experienced youth rebellions and revolutions throughout human history in all cultures. Dr King noted, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”
A few participants of the Education Committee of Community Board 8 (CB 8) heard our story at their last meeting of the season on June 20th. We are discussing with them and at our Block Association meeting that same evening a community meeting in July when DOE officials can come to Prospect Heights and speak directly to our concerns. We are convinced that the site is not appropriate for a school. We need decision makers to speak to our concerns. The congregation of Duryea Presbyterian Church has again offered us their facility for this meeting. Stay tuned for the date towards the end of July.
Help in framing this campaign, deciding on logistics and inviting folks from around the district will make the event inclusive and large enough to be meaningful. The committee of the PPUABA will coordinate. Participation will strengthen our cause and our democracy. With any suggestions, concerns or contacts, get in touch with us via email@example.com
We are also talking about a large public forum during October to discuss the consequences for our youth and all residents of the city of this and other education policy decisions made under the system of mayoral control of the schools.
Thank you for your attention.