Keeping Score: A Year Inside a Divided Brooklyn High School
Announcer: This is The New Yorker Radio Hour, a co-production of WNYC studios and The New Yorker.
David Remnick: This is The New Yorker Radio Hour. I'm David Remnick.
Lauren Valme: My day start until like 5:50, six o'clock that's when I get up and I'm out the house about like 7:10.
David Remnick: Lauren Valme lives in East New York. A neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Lauren Valme: I would say is mainly a Black community
David Remnick: Lauren's high school is in Park Slope, another Brooklyn neighborhood seven miles away.
Lauren Valme: It's a whole shift in demographics. I went from seeing all Black and brown people to predominantly white.
David Remnick: Her commute takes about an hour and a half. First, she drops off her sister then she jumps on the subway. Then she takes a bus
Automated Voice: Please exit through the rear door.
David Remnick: When she finally arrives in park slope she sees a lot of fancy strollers and coffee shops.
Lauren Valme: I just think these people must have a lot of money because these coffee shops are expensive.
David Remnick: Lauren's school is based in a big brick building.
Lauren Valme: Then I'll go through the metal detectors.
David Remnick: The building is the length of a full city block and it houses four schools one on each floor.
Lauren Valme: I take my time and go up the stairs because my bag is very heavy because I got my computer in there and my charger and I'm walking up those stairs and I take a break maybe on like the third floor and then walk up again. When I get to my school I'm really relieved and I take a little, not a victory lap but a little lap around the school just so I could calm down, reset.
David Remnick: New York City has the largest public school system in the United States with almost a million students. Two-thirds of them are Black or Latino, less than a third are white or Asian by some measures. It's the most segregated school system in the entire country. America's history of school segregation is often a story of neighborhoods, but segregation can also play out within a single school building and that's what this week's show is all about.
Lauren's school is almost all people of color, a school on another floor of that building is nearly half white. Despite being in one building students from different schools were actually discouraged from interacting with each other. After a decade students, parents, and even some administrators said it was finally time to come together to break down some of the racial barriers, and the way they were going to do it was by playing together through sports. Lauren is one of those players.
Today we're going to spend the entire show following one sports team. A girls varsity volleyball team on their quest for the city championship and something more. Alana Casanova-Burgess, my colleague from WNYC studios spent the last year reporting this story alongside some student reporters including some who were on the team.
Mariah Morgan: It just ended and they called my name. I'm on the varsity team. [screams] It was very intense because I really want to play. I just want to be on the team. I don't know.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: This is Mariah Morgan, a junior she's a setter on the girls varsity volleyball team, but that's not her only extracurricular. She's also active on the campus council, a group of student leaders who represent the four separate schools that share this one building. That council pressured the administrators of the four schools to combine the athletics programs last year.
Mariah Morgan: I want this to work. I really do because it has the potential to be incredibly anti-racist.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: She's really feeling the stakes of this merger.
Mariah Morgan: 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 are going to make it work. I believe in it, my family believes in it. I want other Black and brown kids to believe in it too.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Mariah is also a reporter with The Bell. That's the student journalism nonprofit that I've been working with to tell this story. She and her peers have been looking into how the building got divided to begin with.
Mariah Morgan: It's really egregious by having an environment like that. It's almost like you set these kids up to fail.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: To understand the challenges and the impact of last year's sports team merger. It's important to have some history of what's gone on in this school building. Let's rewind to the 1970s back then the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope was much more racially integrated and was the John Jay Building.
At that point, it was just one school, a single high school that filled all the floors. 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: Our first question to start off would be, can you introduce yourself to our audience?
Glenda Hernandez: 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 Casanova-Burgess: Glenda went to John Jay in the mid-'90s.
Glenda Hernandez: It was really hard to be a student in that school. The bathrooms were terrible. The bathrooms was where most of the bullying happened. I did see a lot of fights in John-- like a whole lot of fights. 'Jungle Jay'. They called the school 'Jungle Jay'. It was rough.
Mariah Morgan: Do you think that calling the school 'Jungle Jay' in a school that was mostly Black and Latin and people of color had racial implications?
Glenda Hernandez: When I think about it now, probably.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: 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. At one point in 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.
What came next in the early 2000s was the small schools movement, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg championed. The idea which was put into use across the country was to split up big unmanageable schools, like John Jay, and turned them into smaller schools with fewer students so it would be easier for administrators to get a handle on things.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg: Most importantly, we're going to begin giving parents and students a better wider range of secondary school choices.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: In the John Jay building. That meant one big school was split into three.
Jill Bloomberg: I always described it to people as like living in an apartment building where everybody has their own apartment, but you share common spaces and you're good neighbors. You treat each other with respect and get along.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Jill Bloomberg used to be the principal of Park Slope Collegiate, which is on the fourth floor of the building. When she took on that job in 2004, the John Jay building was falling apart.
Jill Bloomberg: 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 Casanova-Burgess: There were rodents and the lockers didn't close.
Jill Bloomberg: The bathrooms had not been renovated, it also seemed. For decades the toilets didn't flush.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Then in 2010, the department of education reached out with some news, something that would create a big shift.
Jill Bloomberg: We want to bring in a fourth school.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: They wanted to add a new high school into the old John Jay building. Its name would be Millennium Brooklyn. It would be a sister school to a very prestigious and sought-after one in Manhattan. Students would need to apply to get in. 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 Bloomberg: 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 Casanova-Burgess: At this point in 2010, the three existing schools in John Jay all together had a student body that was just 6% white, 50% were Latino, 36% 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: Is not right. We're here already--
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Here's a student from John Jay talking to WNYC at the time.
Student: There are going to be a lot of white and Asian students that are going to come into the school, and then, they're going to get the money that we've always needed.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: He was reflecting a pretty widespread worry, that they were going to be privileged and underserved kids in the same building, getting a different quality education, and the building would feel divided. Despite all that pushback from the community, a board appointed by the mayor approved the plan. Millennium would come into the building. 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, but not everything would be shared.
Veronica Vega: The way I see it, sports, clubs, extracurriculars, are the heart of the school.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: This is Veronica Vega. She's a teacher at PSC and she coaches volleyball. Up to this point, all the schools at John Jay had been playing together in one sports program. When Millennium arrived in 2011, they brought their own program so Coach Vega had to help figure out how they were going to share the gyms, the fields, the courts, with a bunch of new teams. It was bound to come to a head eventually.
Jill Bloomberg: One of the PE teachers and coaches came into my office furious.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Jill Bloomberg, the principal at the time.
Jill Bloomberg: 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 Casanova-Burgess: It's like competitive cheerleading.
Jill Bloomberg: They have fencing, they have ping pong, they have baseball, they have softball. They had 17 teams.
Veronica Vega: Oh my God, they have double the amount of sports that we have, and we've been in this building for the longest time.
Jill Bloomberg: I was like, "How did that happen?
Veronica Vega: How is that possible? How is that possible?
Alana Casanova-Burgess: We're making a podcast about the John Jay campus following these recent efforts to really unite the campuses.
Michael Williams: I'm so happy that you all are doing this.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Michael Williams graduated from Millennium Brooklyn in 2017. He remembers when he first learned about the discrepancies in the school sports programs. It was his senior year.
Michael Williams: When I saw the flyer, there were multiple people by the entrance of the building, just passing them out.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: The Park Slope Collegiate PTA had put this flyer together, explaining the team sports situation. At this point, Millennium had 17 sports teams and the rest of the schools in the building, they just had 9.
Michael Williams: In big, red, bold, underline text, "Separate is not equal. Segregation is going on in the John Jay campus."
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Actually, it read, "Separate is never equal" and that text was in black but close enough. "One building, one team." Should be simple, right? The flyer made the case that the students being hurt by this imbalance were Black and Latino kids who went to the three other schools. The flyer opened the floodgates. All this pain had been contained to separate floors and suddenly, there was a conversation between them. Michael, who is Black, heard that his school, Millennium Brooklyn, had a reputation for being privileged and snobby. He helped start the Campus Council, the student government group for all four schools. The one that Mariah, who plays volleyball, is also part of today.
Jill Bloomberg: The sports teams, it was a very visible and very tangible manifestation of segregation.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Former PSC principal, Jill Bloomberg.
Jill Bloomberg: I think just this idea of, "Why can't kids play together? Why is this so hard to do?"
Brian Friedman: You have to do things thoughtfully.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: This is Brian Friedman, the athletics director and baseball coach at Millennium. He spent seven years building their winning program. From where he stood, merging the teams would be complicated.
Brian Friedman: Let's say you have a full basketball roster of 15 at John Jay and a full basketball roster of 15 at Millenium. 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 Casanova-Burgess: In other words, when only five players can be on the court at any given time, what do you do with the rest? Plus, they were all the sports that Millennium dominated in and didn't even exist for the other students. How would they ever stand a chance in tryouts against the Millennium kids? Then, the pandemic happened. All sports stopped, but that, strangely, created an opportunity according to Friedman.
Brian: Everything is on hold anyway, nobody's playing. Let's restructure. Let's rebrand.
Crowd: George Floyd.
Woman 1: Say his name.
Crowd: George Floyd.
Woman 1: Say his name.
Crowd: George Floyd.
Woman 1: Say his name.
Crowd: George Floyd.
Woman 1: Say his name.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: At the same time, across the country, there was a new focus on anti-racism. Here in New York City, students, parents, and administrators, were taking a hard look at just how segregated the New York City public school system is. All that influenced the conversation around combining the sports programs. After years of debate, it finally happened. The administrators finally decided to join all of the schools into one sports program, the John Jay Jaguars.
Crowd 2: Let's go, Jaguars. Let's go Jaguars.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: That was just step one. The big question was, would students from every school get an equal shot at playing on a team?
David Remnick: That's Alana Casanova-Burgess reporting. The John Jay Jaguars volleyball season begins after the break. You're listening to The New Yorker Radio Hour.
David Remnick: This is The New Yorker Radio Hour, I'm David Remnick. We're spending the entire hour today in Brooklyn, New York, in one school building. It's a building that's home to four different high schools. The racial makeup of the student body at each school is quite different. For years, a rivalry existed within the building as students competed in sports teams against each other, but that all changed last year. The sports teams merged, and the hope was that the merger would break down some of the segregation that had always existed between and among the schools. That seemed like a win, but de-segregating turned out to be a lot harder in practice than in theory.
Here's WNYC's Alana Casanova-Burgess with the story of the girls' varsity volleyball team, the newly formed John Jay Jaguars. The season begins.
Alana Casanove-Burgess: It's September. The girls practice in the second-floor gym, and the whole time on the court, they look like a team. All 23 girls text every morning to decide what colored T-shirts to wear to practice so they're coordinated. If someone doesn't have, for example, an orange one, someone else brings an extra. That doesn't sound like much but the four schools in this building are so separated that it's already more interaction than many of the students have ever had. Then, there's something about volleyball.
Angelina Sharifi: Just the sisterhood that brings, just being on the court and working together to accomplish something-- [crosstalk]
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Angelina Sharifi, the co-captain from Millennium Manhattan, which is also part of the Jaguars. She describes herself as ethnically Italian-Iranian.
Angelina Sharifi: Meshing is the best feeling ever, having a pass, set, swing, that just fits perfectly with one another. That kind of unspoken connection that comes with volleyball is super satisfying for me.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: I've heard this from a lot of players, that there's something special about this game. In soccer or basketball, say, you're spending a lot of time engaging with players from another team. Everyone is running around, you can literally touch your opponents but in volleyball, you're spending all your time on one side of the net. Meshing, as Angie said, and becoming a unit.
Mike Salak: Truly, no Michael Jordans can get you there. You truly are as strong as your weakest link.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Coach Mike Salak looks like a taller Coach Taylor from the TV show Friday Night Lights, but with a Brooklyn accent that gets a little muffled by his mask. He grew up in the New York City public school system playing volleyball, then went on to compete professionally in Europe. His coaching goes beyond drills. This is a team with a particular set of challenges.
Mike Salak: Yesterday, I put a picture on the wall of them during our first scrimmage. It was all of them sitting on the bleachers. The Black students right next to each other. Then, it was all the Millennium girls. It was like, "We're not mixed yet, right?" This is a symbol of where we need to go.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: There were setbacks even before tryouts, like a vaccine mandate for playing on team sports. That meant that some potential players weren't eligible, and those students tended to be kids of color. In the end, 23 students ended up joining the team. By the way, a team of 23 is roughly twice the size of a regular roster, which presented another challenge, making sure all girls get significant court time, despite vast differences in experience.
Mike Salak: Right away girls who are new to the sport, how do we make it equitable when people are coming to you with stark differences in level of play, very different socio-economic backgrounds.?
Alana Casanova-Burgess: The socio-economic aspect he's talking about is the influence of Club Volleyball. That's a private league that some students compete in between seasons it's expensive. Here's assistant coach, Veronica Vega.
Veronica Vega: It's club-- it's a cost, it's thousands of dollars to play.
Mike Salak: Sometimes it costs $10,000 to play a year.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: It's a real boost for the players who can participate. These girls with Club Volleyball experience, they tend to be more white or Asian and they also tend to get more playing time.
Mike Salak: I came into this thinking I'm going to coach this team like I coach my Black and Latin teams that I've had in the past. Beginning of the season you focus on the first team to get them ready for the games and the end of the season you switch it and you try to work on the second team because the next year they're going to be your first team.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: A first team with most of the starters, it's not unusual for coaches of any sport to organize practice like this. The thought is that iron sharpens iron. You want your most skilled players to be playing with each other, making each other stronger. At first, they called them the A and B teams, but that felt elitist. They switched it to blue and gold, but same difference. What was really stark was this, the high-skilled group barely had any dark-skinned girls. In other words, the split ended up having this racial dimension and it hurt.
Lauren Valme: This is the morning after the tournament. It's 7:44.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Lauren Valme is a junior at PSC. She plays middle and she's in the group of students helping us report this story. We heard from her at the very top of this episode.
Lauren Valme: Yesterday we spent 10 hours at Cardozo High School. If I have to say from most of the Black players we did nothing yesterday. We just all turned into cheerleaders, which is very much sad. Why can't you let somebody else with a different skill set, come and try?
Mariah Morgan: It was like, my stomach started to hurt.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Mariah Morgan, we met her just after she'd made the team. She's also a junior at PSC.
Mariah Morgan: That's when I knew I probably have to say something because this does not feel right, this does not look great.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Even the players who were starters could feel something was off.
Elaine Lee: It was when Mariah mentioned that she felt it was unfair when we had A and B team.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Elaine Lee is a very tall sophomore from Millennium Manhattan, she's Chinese American.
Elaine Lee: I felt for her so much because the coaches named it like gold and blue team, but we obviously all knew it was just A and B team.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Had you noticed it before Mariah called it out?
Elaine Lee: Oh yes. All the girls knew it. It's just Mariah. She was a brave one to speak up about it.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: It was all feeling really heavy. Lauren and Mariah were thinking about handing in their jerseys in protest. They went to Coach Salak and they had a circle, which is a special mediated group discussion about a difficult subject.
Mariah Morgan: Basically I told them that to have the best-skilled players only play with each other for most of the practice, those girls who are good are only just getting better. It's not changing anything. We have already lost a lot of Black and brown players because of the vaccination mandate. I told him, "This is not the message you want to send. How does that look?"
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Salak says he took their suggestions to heart. He started implementing them and it even made him reconsider how he's been coaching all these years, dividing the players by skill instead of mixing them up.
Mike Salak: They saw a need for it. It was hard for me to feel what they were feeling, maybe for a long time as a coach. The girls who were on the second team, maybe I made them feel a certain type of way too. You know what I mean?
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Actually, the other players like the new strategy too. Take peppering for example, it's a warmup drill where players go through all the volleyball skills like bumping, setting, and spiking.
Elaine Lee: The ball goes back and forth without stopping and when we do warmups, we have pepper partners which our coach assgn to us, which I really like.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Coach would match people up with different skill levels. Sometimes Elaine, blue team, was paired up with Lauren, gold team. They both play middle, so in a way they're competing over who gets court time, but mixing up practice like this made them really close. The mixed practices were improving the team dynamic. Lauren and Mariah were feeling better enough to stay, but when it came to games, the coaches were still struggling to define their priorities.
Victoria Vega: During our league play we're going to have a lot of different opportunities where we can put the mixed team in against certain teams.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Assistant Coach Vega.
Victoria Vega: There are going to be certain days or certain tournaments or certain games where it's high stakes. We talked about this in a circle where if we lose, it might jeopardize us winning a championship.
Mike Salak: You put a girl in to fight racism and to be equitable, what if she makes mistakes and then she feels like she's the reason we are losing and then she feels bad? It's like they have to be willing to do that. It's challenging and now being less competitive feels like you're fighting racism more. It doesn't take away that desire to win a city championship though.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: What does it feel like when you're on the court?
Lauren Valme: I don't know, it seems like a rush of energy now. Before it was down like slow, now it's kind of like I'm going for it.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: It's mid-October and I catch up with Lauren after drills.
Lauren Valme: People seem to be coordinated and keeping the ball up in the air forever. We're definitely building more trust with each other. I think everybody is working as a team, like a well-oiled machine. Everybody's going to have a weakness. I might not be great at passing, but I'm a great hitter or a blocker. You just need to put them in, you need to give them a chance.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: After every point, whether they've scored one or given one up the players come together for a second to pat each other on the back. Since they're all wearing masks, they look like mimes who are celebrating or consoling each other using these exaggerated gestures. Their body language is encouraging even when someone makes a mistake, which is part of the purpose of after-school sports, to be encouraged, no matter what.
Coach 1: We're playing [unintelligible 00:27:26] this Friday.
Coach 2: It's a home game.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: The Jaguars are undefeated three-and-oh gearing up for their first real test, a home game against one of their biggest rivals the Brooklyn Tech Engineers. The first team to get to 25 points and outscore the other team by two wins the set. It's best two out of three. Set 1.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Tech started picking up points right away. They were up 10 nothing and the gym felt tense, but suddenly, the Jaguars shook off their nerves and found their groove scoring point after point after point to get to 25 and win the first match. Before the second one started, I asked Mariah and some of the other players, are you going to get to play? Are you guys going to get to play.
Mariah Morgan: No.
Malika Rice: I don't know.
Mariah Morgan: No, we won't. No. That's not how it works.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Why do you say that?
Mariah Morgan: When it comes to certain teens, like-- Malika how would you describe it?
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Malika Rice is a junior from Millennium Brooklyn.
Malika Rice: When we play teams that like we get a big lead on, usually since our team is so big we'll try to get other players to go in. When we're playing against teams like Tech or Bronx Science which are really competitive and really good, we usually try to put our "best players" in, which is understandable because it is a competitive league. We get playing time in some games and we get playing time in scrimmages and stuff like that.
Mariah Morgan: It's a lot better than it was before when we first started, but it's a big team so it's hard.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: I asked, do you want to be playing?
Malika Rice: I do, but I'm also scared of messing up and making it worse for the team, but I do want to play because I think that's the best way to learn is actually being on the court and learning how to deal with the nervousness that comes with playing.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: The second set flies by and the Jaguars beat Tech.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: It wasn't just this game. At match after match, the Jaguars kept bringing home the wins but what was happening on the court kept getting complicated by what was happening off it.
Mariah Morgan: Associated with what happened yesterday I'm just super disconnected from it right now. I really don't want to play.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: What happened yesterday?
Mariah Morgan: Me and my volleyball team, I guess we're friends too. Me and half of the girls there.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: They were at an away game. This was at the end of October and a group of girls asked a security guard if they could use a bathroom.
Mariah Morgan: Looks at me, she gets an attitude, and then she's like, "You're not allowed to be in here, unless you're kicking a ball, setting a ball touching a ball, or spiking a ball." Then she looks to my other friends and then in a completely different tone, the other girls, she's like, "What do you guys want?" Then they're like, "She's with us. We're on the same team." I'm like, "Miss, we're literally on the same team. Can we please go to the bathroom?"
Alana Casanova-Burgess: The security guard keeps giving them a hard time, specifically asking Mariah the only dark-skinned Black girl in the group for her name. The other girls tried to have her back.
Mariah Morgan: Because they were interjecting themselves in between and they were like, "Well, why does she need to show Id. No, she's not going to do that. We're not going to do that." They were even like, "What does she have against you?" Obviously, it's because I'm Black.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Coach Salak wanted to bring it to administrators but Mariah wanted to drop it.
Mariah Morgan: I'm telling you because I know it's important to do. I already do a lot concerning my race and how it affects how I move specifically in volleyball. I cannot escape it.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: The season isn't over. In fact, the Jaguars are first seed in the league, undefeated, and they're about to face the ultimate test.
David Remnick: The city championship and after that final game the players grapple with, "What does winning actually mean?" Our story today comes from WNYC studios podcast Keeping Score. You're listening to The New Yorker Radio Hour. This is The New Yorker Radio Hour. I'm David Remnick. This hour we've been following the John Jay Jaguars, a high school girls volleyball team in Brooklyn, New York, and they have been crushing it all season long turning in win after win after win.
Mike Salak: Be ready for that. Remember they like to set the ball over and deep. Right, we're ready for that. When it comes down to it whatever happens on our side of the court is what matters most.
David Remnick: This is a story about volleyball but it's also the story of one team's attempt at integration within a New York City school building that's had a very complicated history with race, equity, and education. WNYC's Alana Casanova-Burgess followed the team through their fall season and now she takes us to the climax of the year, the championship final.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: With every win comes the hope that this team will help integrate a divided school building. Many people have come out for this final game that the security guards are turning people away. There are two sets of bleachers with fans dressed in green on the Bronx Science side and blue for John Jay and they're full. There are parents and teachers and even alums who have come out for this game. I managed to grab a seat near the court and I wait for the Jaguars and I wait and wait. They'd gotten stuck in rush hour traffic and at game time, they still weren't there yet.
By the time they got into their uniforms and onto the court to warm up, they were already off to a rocky start.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Before the opening buzzer the Jaguars do a breathing exercise a collective roar to get their nerves out.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: The whole thing feels very official. The game is streaming online and there's an announcer too.
Announcer: --welcome you to the A Division Girl's Volleyball Championship game right here at Francis [unintelligible 00:34:40] .
Kali Moore: I was thinking this is so much more than just volleyball for our campus.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: This is Kali Moore. She's co-captain of the Jaguars. The coaches have decided to go with a starting lineup of players who almost all play in Club Volleyball in addition to their team at John Jay. Club is that pricy private after-school league. The energy in the room is electric. Everyone is stomping and cheering. The teams line up. It's about to start. It's best two out of three. Set 1. The Bronx Science Wolverines were stiff competition but the Jaguars were ahead. The team was coordinated. Coach Mike Salak.
Mike Salak: My mindset was we're about to get this.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Jaguars win the first set, but it was close 25 to 19.
Mike: We just need to stay focus, reset and we still haven't even played our best. That was my mindset.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: They huddle quickly for a pep talk and then set 2. It seems like the Jaguars aren't meshing as much as I've seen them in other games. The players will run for a ball that's clearly going out, or they'll hit it out of bounds. They're making mistakes, and they look frustrated.
Kali Moore: We've never been under that pressure.
Lauren Valme: The tiredness was starting to set in.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Lauren Valme and the rest of the team are courtside, trying to motivate their six teammates in action.
Lauren Valme: Going into our second game, I was like, "Okay, we need to build up the energy as much as possible."
Alana Casanova-Burgess: The Jaguars start to look totally out of sync.
Mike Salak: We had the philosophy all season on that we can't get into a fight, expect somebody not to push you back.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: The Wolverines are pushing back hard, they start to pull ahead.
Kali Moore: We all just fall apart a little because they were just going on a roll on us and we couldn't really get back from them.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Before we know it, it's 11 to 5 suddenly coach is calling for timeouts trying to cram as much direction as possible into those 60-second huddles.
Mike: You're saying things to individual people, you're saying things to the group. You're letting them have a chance to talk with each other.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Set 2 is over the Wolverines 25 Jaguars 16. It's best two out of three. It's not over yet but the energy in the bleachers on the John Jay side has shifted from elation to dread. Final set.
Kali Moore: We just need to step it up. Maybe make some changes.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: The fresh players hit the court with all the hustle and optimism they can muster but they just can't turn it around.
Kali Moore: It was all coming down to that one game.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: The Jaguars lose the third set 25 to 16 and it's over. Then there are a lot of tears. The players hold each other sob openly.
Player 1: It's okay. There he is.
Player 2: [inaudible 00:38:38]
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Outside the team files onto the bus.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: How are you doing?
Mike: Still processing, but I'm all right.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: I think everyone's still processing.
Mike Salak: Thank you so much, guys.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: The Jaguars finished the season in second place, undefeated until the very last game but remember that they had another goal to be a united team. At the beginning of the season, Coach Salak taped a photo up on the wall. It showed the players sitting on the bleachers, but only sitting with their own classmates separated by school.
Rebecca Joseph: It was eye-opening for me too, because I'm also a person in that picture only sitting next to my friends that are like me.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Rebecca Joseph, she goes to Park Slope Collegiate on the fourth floor.
Rebecca Joseph: It was everybody. They stuck to their comfort zone. They stuck with people that were like them. They stuck with people that were from their school.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Did it get better by the end of the season?
Rebecca Joseph: I would say it got better. I wouldn't say it was 100% but it did get better. There was more of a mixture. If they still took pictures towards the end they would have saw everyone was talking to each other and everyone was cheering each other on. We weren't all closed off. Everyone was mingled and mixed
Player 3: Left hand on yellow.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: That was the case at the postseason celebration held in the John Jay library. Everyone was hanging out together. The main event was a circle one last chance to gather the team and talk frankly, about how the season went. This is the one place that's for team members only so I turned the recorder off.
Mike Salak: I lean on my community a lot to help me navigate this.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: A couple of days later, I asked Coach Salak, what he'd be comfortable sharing.
Mike Salak: It felt a little bit kumbaya-ish but that's natural to feel that at the end of the season, where you were successful in winning and the girls, a lot of them felt super tight and got super close. I think Mariah was very honest and said that it was challenging for her at times and for the other girls of color. She didn't feel like it was a complete win when it came to the fighting racism part.
Mariah Morgan: I had planned on talking in that circle that day, but I almost wasn't going to, because I felt like I would be seen as like a Debbie downer or something.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Mariah Morgan she'd been outspoken all season.
Mariah Morgan: I finally said this season was not fun for me or my comrades. I'm not going to speak for them. At least for me, it was really hard being one of the darker-skinned Black girls on the team. It was hard for us to do this.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Lauren Valme spoke up too.
Lauren Valme: I was just seeing how draining it was to be on the team at one point. I think we made it clear that we don't want other kids to go through what we went through.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Mariah says that after the circle, a couple of her teammates, mainly players from Millennium came up to her and hugged her.
Mariah Morgan: They were like, "That was so powerful and like, I'm sorry. Thank you for saying that." I also really appreciated having their support, even if it was at the end, because it didn't make me feel as alone as it did. People think the volleyball team is a really, really good example of what we should be doing. It's like, I think that the volleyball team did better than the other team. That doesn't mean that we did great, but I hope that it'll change.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Yes. A lot of your teammates felt the team merger was good for them because they made friends from other schools.
Mariah Morgan: It was also interesting for me to see like them talking about, "I think it went well. I'm glad I got to make so many friends". Then my problems were just-- it was definitely a juxtaposition between how their season went and just how separate we are, even though we're on the same team. The fact that we have such different retellings of how the season went.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: 23 players, 23 different opinions about how the merger went in the circle, several of the girls said volleyball was just the beginning. Why couldn't there be a joint arts program or a theater production for all the schools or an all-school prom. For his part, Coach Salak is still grappling with what winning means. Is it getting to the championships or focusing on making this an equitable experience for everyone?
Mike Salak: I think I struggled with it throughout the whole season. Winning and competing is ingrained in me, right in a capitalist society. Greedily, I want to have both, but I don't think it's possible. I don't think it's possible yet. Before when my team won and it was mainly Black and Latin, it was like an FU to the system because a Black and Latin team in a largely white sport was winning. Winning meant almost like fighting racism. Now, winning is not really that it can be again one day, but it's not right now.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Up until now, the team had been focused on their corner of the merger, how the girl's varsity volleyball team had done in this first season of the integration. The John Jay community was starting to look at the sports program as a whole. Turns out 85% of the students who participated were from the Millennium schools. That's nearly 190. One of the other schools only had five student-athletes. Another only had three.
Mariah Morgan: When I saw those numbers, I think I was slightly devastated by it.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Again, Mariah.
Mariah Morgan: The whole thing about what people were saying about,"Black and Latin kids will get opportunities to things that they would never have had before," and then it's like, "No."
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Some students told me they didn't feel welcome at tryouts or felt like they wouldn't want to compete with Millennium kids. I asked Brian Friedman about how it came to be that Millennium so dominated the team rosters. He's the coathletic director based at Millennium Brooklyn. He said recruiting students from all of the schools has been a big priority.
Brian Friedman: Virtual, in-person, done it. Standing on cafeteria table say, "Who plays the sport? Come talk to me."
Alana Casanova-Burgess: He says, he keeps hearing the same thing.
Brian Friedman: I walked into the Phys Ed class yesterday. A kid was throwing himself alley-oops [unintelligible 00:45:53]. Said, "What grade are you in?" "11th." "Do you want to play basketball?" "No, I work." "Do you want to talk to the coach and try to figure that out and try to find some schedule that works?" He's like, "No, I'm not really interested. I just play for fun." Okay. Obviously, he tells me he works. It could be a million other things and that's only just one kid. Yes, that's definitely a challenge.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Everyone is in agreement that the outcome here with such lopsided team rosters was not what they had in mind, but they don't agree about why anti-racism continues to be the driving force for the students who pushed for this merger in the first place who shared how it made them feel to play separately and unequally under the same roof.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: They've continued to push. They want to ensure that their fellow students aren't cut from teams. They want restorative justice training for coaches. They want a quota system so every school is represented on every team. The demands can seem a bit extreme to the adults like these kids want all this enormous change to happen instantly. The thing is that the students who really care about this don't have time to waste. High school is only four years long. They want to see change while they still have the opportunity to benefit from it. Lauren Valme is determined to see the good that came out of this merger's first season and to build on it. It's been hard, but she told me she's proud of herself.
Lauren Valme: I'm trying to be more optimistic these days because I think like if this world is so hard and I know that I cannot change everything, but I know that if I keep looking at it as like, I can change at least this one thing that is going to maybe cause ripple effect and sprout change other places, not only in athletics, but trying to push it further through the whole school.
David Remnick: WNYC's Alana Casanova-Burgess Casanova-Burgess reported our story and it was adapted from the four-part series keeping score from WNYC studios and The Bell, a student journalism organization. To hear the full series, go to wnyc.org/keepingscore. That's The New Yorker Radio Hour. Thanks so much for listening. See you next time.
Plourde: The New Yorker Radio Hour is a production of WNYC studios and The New Yorker. This episode was produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jessica Gould, Jenny Lawton, Karen Frillmann, Emily Botein, Wayne Shulmister, Andrew Dunn and me Joe Plourde with reporters from The Bell Renika Jack, Mariah Morgan, Lauren Valme. Noor Muhsin, Thyan Nelson, Jacob Mestizo, Taylor McGraw, and Mira Gordon fact check by Natalie Me music by Jared Paul with additional tracks by Hannis Brown and Isaac Jones. The New Yorker Radio Hour is supported in part by the Charina Endowment Fund.
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