Student: Hi I’m Renika Jack
Student: I am here interviewing for the
Student: The New York City um radio station
Student: WNYC Public Radio
Student: I’m going to be interviewing
Student: Starting out can you possibly state your name.
Student: and I’m here with …
Student: What school do you go to?
Student: What's your grade level?
Student: What sports team are you on?
Student: How do you like your school community?
Student: Do you think that our school is separated from the others?
Student: And what has changed since the John Jay integration?
[UNITED STATES OF ANXIETY THEME: VOLLEYBALL EDITION]
ALANA: From WNYC Studios and The Bell, this is “Keeping Score” – a year inside a divided Brooklyn high school building that’s trying to unite through sports. I’m Alana Casanova-Burgess.
Mariah: I want this to work. I really do, because it has the potential to be incredibly anti-racist.
ALANA: And this is Mariah Morgan, a junior. She made it! – she’s on the varsity volleyball team. She’s also active on the Campus Council, a group of student leaders from all four schools in the building. And that council pressured the administrators to combine the athletics programs. So… she’s really feeling the stakes of this merger.
Mariah: I think the campuses have been separated for too long. And I think a more unified campus is probably a good thing, but there are moments where, I'm going to be honest, I just don't know how we're going to make it work. But I believe in it, my family believes in it. Um, I want other Black and brown kids to believe in it too.
Steffen: Mariah comes from a very integrated family.
ALANA: This is Mariah’s father, Steffen Nelson. He works at her school, Park Slope Collegiate, and their family has very intentional conversations about race at home.
Steffen: We're a Mexican Haitian Jewish family. You know, we've been we've been doing…
Alana: Mariah, why did you put your head in your hands?
Mariah: It's just It makes me cringe, I don't know, like the way he said it.
Steffen: I think that background is important for people to understand as to one, one of the reasons why you are sometimes more sophisticated in the way that you can speak about racism and the way you observe interactions between white, Black, and Latin people is because you have a lot of experience with interactions between white, Black, and Latin people.
ALANA: Speaking with these teenagers, I’m struck by the sophistication with which many of them talk about race. Some of them are even more attuned to it than adults. These students have experienced the same reckoning we all have – and it’s sharpened their expectations.
And yet, this is still high school. Everyone is still learning. And talking openly about race, identity, and privilege (even with the best intentions) is never NOT complicated.
Mariah: I take such a big role. And I question things even at the risk of my own interpersonal relationships.
ALANA: Mariah is also a reporter with The Bell, the student journalism non-profit we’re partnering with on this series. She and her peers have been looking into how the building got divided to begin with.
Mariah: It's really, egregious what, you know, by having an environment like that, it's almost like you set these kids up to fail.
ALANA: Let’s rewind to the 1970s. Back then, the neighborhood of Park Slope was much more racially integrated, and so was the John Jay building. At that point, it was just one school – a single high school that filled all the floors. But in the 80s and 90s, the Department of Education was sending kids who had trouble at other schools to John Jay, and by the mid-90s, the school ranked first among New York City high schools in assaults, robberies, and drug-related incidents. Fewer than a third of students attended through their senior year.
Lauren Valme: So our first question to start off would be, can you introduce yourself to our audience?
Glenda: Sure. Um, so my name is Glenda Hernandez. I'm actually a teacher. I was a student at John Jay high school when it was one campus.
ALANA: She went there in the mid-90s.
Glenda: It was really hard to be a student in that school, um… The bathrooms was where most of the bullying happened. You saw a lot of girls smoke in the bathrooms, tons of girls smoking cigarettes in the bathroom. And there was no adults kind of checking in to see what the kids were doing in the bathroom. I did see a lot of fights in John Jay. Like a whole lot of fights. They called it Jungle Jay, it was you know, kind of rough. The
Mariah: You think that the word, that calling the school Jungle Jay and the school that was mostly Black and Latin when people of color had racial implications?
Glenda: I mean, when I think about it now, probably.
ALANA: The building’s history has a lot of (quote) “racial implications,” and Mariah is one in a long line of students to pick up on them. By 2001, John Jay High School was struggling so much that it got shut down, some of the students sent elsewhere, and reopened with a new administration.
One 17-year-old in the building was quoted by the New York Times as saying: “I think they want us out because we’re black and Hispanic. I just don’t think it’s right.”
The Times also reported that the move was part of a city-wide trend of “middle class parents” who wanted to send their kids to local public schools and didn't like their existing options.
Bloomberg: [fade in]...to improve the curriculum. We're going to restructure many schools to make them smaller, safer and more accountable.
ALANA: What came next, in the early 2000s, was the “small schools movement” – which Mayor Michael Bloomberg championed. The idea was to split up big, unmanageable schools (like John Jay), and turn them into smaller schools with fewer students, so it would be easier for administrators to get a handle on things.
Bloomberg: Most importantly, we're going to begin giving parents and students a better, wider range of secondary school choices.
ALANA: In the John Jay building, that meant one big school was split into three.
Jill: I always described it to people as like, you know, living in an apartment building where, you know, everybody has their own apartment, but you share common spaces and your good neighbors and you, and you treat each other with respect and, and get along.
ALANA: Jill Bloomberg used to be the principal of Park Slope Collegiate. When she took on that job, in 2004, the John Jay building was sort of falling apart.
Jill: There was paint peeling off the walls. There was water damage from the leaking roof that created crumbling walls and ceilings inside the classrooms. There was either no water in the drinking fountains or only hot water in the drinking fountains.
ALANA: There were rodents, and the lockers didn’t close.
Jill: The bathrooms had not been renovated, it also seemed, for decades. The toilets didn't flush.
ALANA: Park Slope parents – mostly white, affluent ones – were not exactly scrambling to send their kids to any of the three John Jay schools in this crumbling building. Jill kept asking the Department of Education, the DOE for repairs and kept coming up empty. So, at times, she’d do what so many teachers and principals in public schools all across this country do: she’d reach into her own pockets.
Jill: If you have three schools in the building that used to be one school, there's one PA system. And it was old and we couldn't get it to have different bell schedules on different floors. It would either ring throughout the whole building or not ring at all. And so I asked the DOE, I put in a request for a bell system in the building that could be individualized for each school. And they just said no. So I just looked into systems and bought one.
Alana: With your own money
ALANA: It was five thousand dollars. She was ultimately reimbursed, but still.
And then, in 2010, Jill heard something else from the DOE – something that would create a big shift in the building.
Jill: We want to bring in a fourth school.
ALANA: Specifically, they wanted to create a new public high school, Millennium Brooklyn, a sister school to the prestigious, sought-after Millenium Manhattan across the river.
And the DOE had a proposal. If Jill and the other principals agreed to add this fourth school, the DOE would do what they had been asking for for years: they’d renovate.
Jill: When the DOE came in and said, we have this great news. We have all this money for the school, but we're only going to spend it on the building if Millennium moves in, then I was furious with a well of past slights.
ALANA: Here's the case the city made for bringing Millennium Brooklyn into the building. (quote) “...while there is not an immediate need to create additional high school seats in Brooklyn, the community has made the DOE aware of the need to provide more high-quality high school options.”
Jill: And so the implication was there's no school for the students in zip code 1, 1, 2, 1 5 – when a great, big, huge building with three schools sits right in the middle of the zip code – it's just that if the school is not good enough for middle-class children who are overwhelmingly white, why is it good enough for the Black and Latin students who attend the school? And look, I think school integration is a good thing, and I had no objection to students who live in the neighborhood coming to the school. But I thought the idea of creating a separate school to be attractive to those students and families was racist.
ALANA: We asked the DOE about the decision to bring Millennium Brooklyn in, and what it would mean for the John Jay building, but they didn’t respond to those questions.
There was another layer to all this: Millennium is a selective school, meaning that it screens applicants. And it’s competitive. In the past, metrics like attendance and test scores were factors for admission. The DOE did tell us, right now, it’s only based on grades. And there’s been talk of adjusting the process, because system-wide, Black and Latino students are underrepresented at screened schools.
There are also specialized high schools, like Brooklyn Tech, where I went. And those are controversial for requiring their own standardized test to get in.
So the disparities across the system are stark.
The group we’ve been reporting with, The Bell, once housed a student advocacy program that argues that selective admission leads to racial discrimination.
But – this series isn’t an investigation into how the admissions process works, or why.
It’s a portrait of how it plays out in the lives of some of the students who go to schools in the John Jay building. And how they’re trying to address the disparities they see.
In 2011, the three existing schools in John Jay (all together) had a student body that was just six percent white. 50 percent were Latino, 36 percent were Black. That’s very different from who was expected to come in as Millennium students: that sister school in Manhattan was more white, more Asian, and often more affluent.
Jill Bloomberg wasn’t alone in pushing back. There were parents and teachers and students who also saw it as unfair.
Student: [fade in] …it's not right. We're here already. We deserve the money, we’re minority students.
ALANA: Here’s a student from John Jay talking to WNYC at the time.
Student: They're going to be a lot of white and Asian students that are going to come into this school. And then they're going to get the money that we, we've always needed. If they bring in a new school, they're going to advertise the school as way better than us. And then… [fade out]The
ALANA: He was reflecting a pretty widespread worry: that there were going to be privileged and under-served kids in the same building, getting a different quality education, and the building would feel divided.
Again, the DOE didn’t respond to our questions about this. But it was a big local story at the time – blogs and newspapers were writing about this as a story about segregation in Park Slope, and a slogan emerged from John Jay: “integrate, don’t segregate.”
The pushback culminated in January 2011, at a public meeting where a panel mostly appointed by the mayor was going to vote on letting Millennium in or not. Teachers and parents were scattered around in this giant auditorium. Everyone got two minutes to speak, including Jill Bloomberg, one of the principals.
Jill: They had this big clock up on the stage
ALANA: Which would start counting down whenever someone spoke.
Jill: And then I gave my presentation.
Jill in video: [fade in] …work with the schools in the building to create a heterogeneous student population that reflects the true diversity of New York City, Brooklyn and District 15… [fade out]
ALANA: But suddenly her mic was cut.
Jill: My time was not up.
[In the video, people yell, a crowd chants, “Let her speak! Let her speak”]
Jill: So school administrators all know how to use what is often referred to as our Cafeteria Voice.
Jill in video, yelling: We invite you to join us in building something new on the John Jay campus together. Integration, yes! Segregation, no!
[In the video, the crowd chants, “Integration, yes! Segregation, no!...”]
ALANA: But it didn’t seem to matter. The panel voted unanimously to approve Millennium coming in. One John Jay teacher called the hearing “a rubber stamp.”
Renovations got underway – the water fountains were fixed, floors redone, roof repaired.
The four schools would share common areas, like a library and a cafeteria. They’d even share the gyms.
But… not everything would be shared.
Up to this point, all the schools at John Jay had been playing together, in one sports program… as the Jayhawks.
Now, Millennium was coming in, but the sports program wasn't changing. It was the John Jay Jayhawks against the Millenium Phoenixes.
That’s after the break.
Hi there, this is Jessica Gould, I’m a reporter in the WNYC Newsroom and I helped report this series. We’re really interested to hear how it’s resonating with you.
So before we go back to the story, I wanted to take a moment to ask you about your experience in high school.
Do you play high school sports? Or did you, back in the day? Were there ways that racial disparities showed up in your experience? Did you talk about it openly, and how was that? Did you try to do something about those disparities?
Tell us about it. You can record yourself on your phone or just write a message and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you didn’t play sports, we want to hear from you too. We know that racial disparities appear in different ways in different communities. How did you experience it in high school? And what did you do about it?
You can send us your emails and voice memos to email@example.com.
Again, that's firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks and now, back to the story.
ALANA: This is “Keeping Score:” I'm Alana Casanova-Burgess.
[MUSIC / gym sound]
So Millennium Brooklyn took the third floor of the John Jay building, and there were now two sports programs competing against each other under one roof…
Alex: Like we had to play each other twice in our home gym – twice! Every year!
ALANA: Alex Stevens is an alum of Park Slope Collegiate – she played on the girls varsity volleyball team, the Jayhawks. They were good. But when they would play against the Millennium team, the Phoenixes...
Alex: Millennium was a better team than us and Millennium had always beaten us because of the nature of club volleyball.
ALANA: Club volleyball. It’s a private after school activity that helps players develop their skills. But…
Alex: It's extremely expensive to play.
ALANA: Like, thousands of dollars per season.
Alex: And so of course the girls who get to play nine months out of the year are better than the girls who get to play two months out of the year. And a lot of the white and Asian girls at Millennium had the money to go and play for these club teams.
ALANA: And so those players come back to the Millennium team, and they’d win. Alex’s freshman year, her team barely had any club players, and they got creamed.
Alex: But our sophomore year, I remember it was the first time we were playing them and we were good. And the gym was filled over capacity. People were standing, you know, literally 10 feet behind the court. Like people were crowded in there, there wasn't enough space on the bleachers. People were standing outside of the gym, peering in through the door and it was so loud. And one bleacher was filled with red and the other bleacher was filled with navy blue and red is Millennium school colors, and navy blue is John Jay's. Across the net, I was playing girls who I saw, you know, walk into the school building.
ALANA: They’d see each other in passing, but never interact except in this one setting: as opponents. Competitors. It was like all of the tensions caused by the arrival of Millennium were playing out in this single frame.
Alex: And if you're constantly pitted against each other, even if it's something as seemingly harmless as for a sports game, like, it was a really big deal!
ALANA: The Jayhawks won. Alex said it was first time beating Millennium, as far as she knew.
Alex: It meant more, the game meant more because it was sort of competing for – quote – who's the better team in this school.
ALANA: There was more dividing them than just a net.
And it all could have been different.
Veronica: From the very beginning, I felt like: oh, this, we should all play together. From the very beginning.
ALANA: This is Veronica Vega, a Park Slope Collegiate teacher. Students call her Mama Vega, she’s the matriarch of the Jayhawks volleyball program.
Veronica: The way I see it, sports, clubs, extracurriculars are the heart of a school. And when I became a teacher, like immediately, I said, ‘I need to be a coach.’
ALANA: And she helped build the after school athletics program in the building. And when Millennium arrived, back in 2011, she had to help figure out how they were going to share the gyms, the fields, the courts with eight new teams.
It was bound to come to a head eventually.
Jill: Then, one of the PE teachers and coaches came into my office furious.
ALANA: Jill Bloomberg, the principal at the time.
Jill: She said we were supposed to have the gym now for our middle school volleyball program and the Millennium stunts team is working out there. I'm like, ‘what's a stunts team?’
ALANA: It’s like competitive cheerleading, I had to look it up.
Veronica: I was like, you know what, I'm just going to go on to PSAL.
ALANA: PSAL, the Public Schools Athletic League. For years, Vega and others had been applying to them to try to get more sports.
Veronica: And see how many teams that they have versus us.
Jill: I'm like, oh my God, they have a stunts team. They have fencing, they have ping pong, they have baseball, they have softball, they have 17 teams!
Veronica: Oh my God, they have like double the amount of sports that we have. And we've been in this building for the longest time.
Jill: I was like, how did that happen?
Veronica: How is that possible? Like, how is that possible?
ALANA: The leaders at John Jay weren’t imagining things – there really was a discrepancy in how the PSAL (the office at the DOE that runs competitive sports) decided which schools get to compete in which sport.
Just this spring, the PSAL settled a class action lawsuit, which alleged that Black and Latino students severely lack access to competitive sports. The result: they’ll create 200 new teams. They did not comment for this story.
Millennium had actually been denied access to new sports too, but they formed clubs to show there was enough interest, applied again, and grew their program.
Michael: I'll always be forever thankful for the, um, the network of people that I met there because they were just truly awesome.
ALANA: Michael Williams graduated from Millennium Brooklyn in 2017. He recently did an interview with the student reporters who work for The Bell.
Mira Gordon: So we're making a podcast about the John Jay campus following these recent efforts to really unite the campuses.
Michael: I'm so happy that you all are doing this, and… [fade down]
ALANA: Michael remembers when he first learned about the discrepancies in the school sports programs. It was his senior year.
Michael: When I saw the flier, there were multiple people by the entrance of the building, just passing them out.
ALANA: The Park Slope Collegiate PTA had put this flier together, explaining the team sports situation. At this point, the Millennium Phoenixes had 17 sports teams. And the John Jay Jayhawks, just nine.
Michael: And in big red, bold underlined text: ‘Separate is not equal. Segregation is going on in the John Jay campus.’
ALANA: Actually, it read “Separate is NEVER equal” – and that text was in black, but close enough. (quote) “One building. One team. Should be simple, right?” Michael was shocked.
Michael: So the entire day, all anybody was talking about, at least in Millennium, was the facts that they were bringing up in this thing, because this was the first time that we had even interfaced with this issue.
ALANA: The flier made the case that the students being hurt by this imbalance were Black and Latino kids. Michael is Black. He remembers that, at first, even the other students of color at Millennium felt defensive about the comparison to segregation.
Michael: People were like, that's so derogatory for you to take something as serious and as life-threatening and as damaging as segregation, and compare it to this situation.
ALANA: But he’d also heard that Millennium had a reputation for being full of privileged snobs, rich white kids. His experience was more complicated than that.
Michael: I was never truly in a majority white space because my peers for the most part looked like me. Where the whiteness showed through was in the fact that I could literally count the teachers who were not white on one hand.
ALANA: The flier opened the floodgates. All this pain had been contained to separate floors, and suddenly there was a conversation between them. Michael helped start the Campus Council, the student government group for all four schools – the one that Mariah is part of today. Michael remembers there was this enormous hunger to be heard, especially from the students at Law. They were saying that they felt policed, like they couldn’t go up one flight of stairs to the Millennium floor without being stopped and questioned.
Michael: We just held space several times for people to just come in and just be for real, like: this has been the treatment that we've been receiving, straight up at the hands of your school Millennium. This is what we think should be done. Primarily amongst those demands were not just the integration of sports teams, but like access to all clubs for all people.
Jill: The sports teams was, it was a very visible and very tangible, um, manifestation of segregation. of the ways the separate and equal is not equal. It was very separate and unequal.
ALANA: Former PSC principal Jill Bloomberg.
Jill: And, and I think just this idea of why can't kids play together, like really. Why is this so hard to do?
ALANA: We asked the DOE and the PSAL about the decision to play separately – they did not respond. But… I did get to talk with someone who’s been involved with Millennium Brooklyn’s program almost from the start.
Friedman: Through a lot of persistence, eventually we got to the point where, you know, I think 2017 or 18, we were the only program in the city that had every single team in the school had a winning record, every single team in the school went to playoffs. They were the only team in our city for that. So we ended up being pretty good at everything.
ALANA: This is Brian Friedman, the athletics director and baseball coach at Millennium. He spent 7 years building their winning program. And from where he stood, merging the teams would be complicated.
Friedman: The conversations were that PSC in particular really wanted to merge. We thought that it made sense, but you have to do things thoughtfully. Let's say you had a full basketball roster of 15 at John Jay and a full basketball roster of 15 at Millennium. You're not going to take 30 kids on a basketball team, because if you are, 25 of those kids are going to have a horrible experience.
ALANA: In other words, when only five athletes can be on the court at any given time, what do you do with the rest?
Boitano: We definitely had concerns that there wouldn't be, spots enough, equity amongst the teams.
ALANA: Michael Boitano ran the Jayhawks program and coached basketball. He admits there were a bunch of sports that Millennium students clearly dominated in.
Boitano: Like, for example, there was a boy's fencing team, right?
ALANA: But the students from PSC, Law and CASA –
Boitano: They just have no, not even knowledge of that sport even existing, let alone even trying to compete.
ALANA: Or take swimming, where the Jayhawks did have a team. But…
Boitano: Many of the kids on our team never competed in a swim meet before, and they were very beginners. Whereas then the kids at Millennium on their swim team, they had like 15 advanced swimmers.
ALANA: So how would his students ever stand a chance in tryouts against the Millennium kids?
And then, the pandemic happened. ALL sports stopped.
But that, strangely, created an opportunity – according to Friedman.
Friedman: It just seemed like if we're ever going to really do this, this is the time that it makes sense while everything is on hold anyway: nobody's playing, let's restructure, let's rebrand, let's come out when we come back to school, kids have just been dealing with so much stress, let's give them something positive to look forward to. So it was a total fresh start.
[Archive / WNYC Newsroom: George Floyd demonstrations: “George Floyd! Say his name! George Floyd! Say his name!”]
ALANA: At the same time all this was happening, there was a big shift in the national conversation. And… anti-racism also became part of the conversation around merging these sports programs.
Zoom town hall meetings put parents and administrators face to face with kids who were telling them yet again that segregation was happening in the building, in the middle of Park Slope, this supposedly progressive neighborhood. Student leaders were pushing for a merger.
Boitano: Everyone decided, you know what, why do we have this? Why are we creating this tension in the building?
ALANA: This is Michael Boitano again, the basketball coach.
Boitano: We need to come together as a community and show everyone else what it should look like – that everybody should be together.
ALANA: And so after years of debate, it finally happened. The sports merger was approved.
Friedman and Boitano would lead it together, co-athletic directors.
So, gone were the days of the Millennium Phoenixes and the John Jay Jayhawks, jockeying for practice time in the gyms. Out of the two teams, a new one would be made and named: The John Jay Jaguars.
[Let’s go Jaguars! Let’s go Jaguars! Cheers!]
But that was just Step 1. The big question was: now that the teams were combined, did that guarantee a true merger? Would the teams reflect the building as a whole? Would students from every school get an equal shot at playing on a team?
Mariah: So the first day of practice, I was really, really excited because, um, like, I was very, very eager to meet everybody and see everybody.
ALANA: This is Mariah again, with a voice memo during the volleyball pre-season in late August…
Mariah: Um, now that Law, Casa and Millennium and park slope collegiate were now combined and have the same sports teams, I thought that it would just really be something really amazing.
ALANA: It was a big day, made bigger by the fact that because of COVID, few people had seen each other in-person in months.
Mariah: I got money from my mom to get lunch that day and I got my book bag filled with like my knee pads and shoes, an extra pair of clothes just in case I need to change. And I was on my way.
Then, when I got to school, all that excitedness just went away.
Well, as soon as I walked into the gym -- I was one of the one of four Black girls there. And then everyone else was white and Asian. And it kind of slapped me in the face, too, because I was like, what? So it was just super kind of sad for me there. So that was the first day.
So the second day was the day where Mr. Salak and Ms Vega decided that it would be a good idea to split us into skill level.
ALANA: More girls had shown up that second day.
Mariah: So basically, all the less skilled players went upstairs, while the more skilled players stayed downstairs.
ALANA: Mariah was in the high skill group at practice. And at one point, a coach asked her to run upstairs to find out something from the coach working with the low skill group -- and...
Mariah: Like, three fourths of the room was like Black and Latinx, while there was only like three white girls in that room. So then I went back downstairs. And as soon as I walked back into the gym that I was just in, it, like, hit me: like, something is wrong because it was significantly whiter than the one upstairs. And it was like, my stomach started to hurt. That’s when I knew I probably have to say something. Because this does not look right. This does not feel right. And y’know this pre-season, er practices, or whatever, I feel like now is starting to further the inequities.
ALANA: And given all the concerns about this merger – about who would get on the team, about whether it would be fair to all players – it’s immediately demoralizing. Mariah, who had pushed for the merger – who had been so excited about making the team, is already feeling like it's not working. She can barely convince herself to show up to practice.
Mariah: It's especially discouraging, at least for me. Like, I don't even want to play.
ALANA: That’s next time, on “Keeping Score.”
THYAN: “Keeping Score” is a co-production of WNYC and The Bell.
The WNYC team includes: Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jessica Gould, Joe Plourde, Jenny Lawton, Karen Frillmann, Emily Botein, Wayne Schulmeister, and Andrew Dunn.
For The Bell: Mariah Morgan, Lauren Valme, Renika Jack, Noor Muhsin, Jacob Mestizo, Taylor McGraw, Mira Gordon… and me, Thyan Nelson.
Fact-check by Natalie Meade.
Music by Jared Paul – with additional tracks by Hannis Brown and Isaac Jones.
Special thanks to: Andy Lanset, Norman Scott, Gwynne Hogan, and Afi Yellow-Duke.
Thanks for listening.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.