For the past decade Brooklyn’s John Jay High School has seemed to support every fear about big-city schools. John Jay was so uninspiring in the early ’80s that attendance fell way below city standards and almost a quarter of its students were dropping out. Teenagers who lived nearby tried to get into better public schools across the city.
Few outsiders realize that like many other city high schools, “Jungle Jay” has changed since the bad old days. Though there is still some drug use and police arrive occasionally to keep order, the principal talks about how he has tried to renew pride, encourage the 150 teachers, who earn $20,000 to $40,000 a year, and lower the dropout rate, now about 12 percent. To find out what it’s really like for the 2,749 students who attend this city high school, senior writer Michael Small, a graduate of Massachusetts public schools and Harvard, consulted a group of experts: the students. Neither freshman Ariel Gonzalez nor senior Roseanna Diaz is a star pupil; his grade average is 74, hers 79. Their strong and sometimes surprising opinions reflect the frustrations and hopes of the average student at a public city school.
Ariel Gonzalez, 14:
City high schools get a bad rap. People say they’re unsafe, and that the education has low standards. Well, it’s not the greatest education on earth, but it’s not as bad as people think. The night before my first day at John Jay, I was very scared and worried. I said, “I know I’m gonna get beat up.” But afterward I realized that most of my fears were silly. None of my friends have been ripped off in school. I’ve smelled marijuana a few times, but I never saw anybody smoking it or selling drugs. I never see violence in my classes either.
There are problems here but they’re not what people would expect. Mostly they have to do with the way teachers run classes. I have one teacher who just copies our assignment out of a book every day. Then he paces around the room and watches everybody do their work. I feel like I’m in prison with a patrol. It’s so boring, you know? If he asked me what I thought, I would tell him, “Maybe you should give us more verbal lessons.” I like to have debates, but we never do.
Most of my teachers have sort of given up. They don’t spend a lot of time preparing for class, and that gets me angry. Even though I’m not the best student, I think my classes are too easy. I’d rather be more challenged. Teachers expect the worst from students here. When a student fails, the teacher says, “I can only do so much.” But they could do more. Math is one subject I don’t understand. But I never went to my teacher because I don’t think he’d stay after school to help me.
In English we were supposed to read The Miracle Worker for homework but nobody read it. If the teacher was more forceful, I think kids would read it. The same is true about lateness. I’m usually late to my first class. But if they said, “Get here on time or you’re not getting in,” I’d get here on time. If the rules were stricter, I’d follow them.
The administration treats you like you’re a face in the crowd. This afternoon the principal met me, and he didn’t even recognize me as a student in his school. I don’t know the guidance counselors either. They don’t welcome you with open arms because they have too many students to worry about. I saw an adviser twice this year. But all we did was talk about my grades for 10 minutes.
My education is important to my mother. But it’s hard for her to be involved because she doesn’t speak good English. I think a lot of Hispanics have that problem. Most parents never talk to the teachers. The teachers only call parents when something’s wrong. If I was doing good in history, I don’t think my teacher would call my mother to tell her.
I’d like to be a writer someday. I started writing a story. I feel kind of funny telling you what it’s about. It’s science fiction. It’s about a man. His name is John Somebody. He doesn’t know himself that good. In fact, he doesn’t know who he is. He has some problems emotionally. He’s alone all the time. Of course, he has special powers too. He voyages in space and explores planets. It’s kind of a glamorized boring job that he has. The thing is, sometimes I make grammatical mistakes and then I think, oh my God, I’ll never be an author. I told my English teacher I would like to write and use my imagination. He said, “Why don’t you bring in your writing, and I’ll look at it.” I got pretty excited about that. I don’t get encouragement very often, and I think that’s why you see a lot of kids on the streets. They’re not encouraged to do anything else.
Sometimes I can’t sleep at night thinking about my future. I worry about not getting into college. I don’t want to have to take a job I hate for the rest of my life. I want to be a success. I want to be known around the world. It sounds silly saying that. But something’s weird to me about dying when only my relatives know who I am. I don’t even care about making money as long as I’m respected and I succeed. I’m not blaming teachers if it doesn’t happen. A lot of the blame has to go on me. I feel guilty about being late or not doing my homework sometimes. But I wish someone was out there just to say, “Watch out for Ariel.”
Roseanna Diaz, 18:
Things were really bad when I came to John Jay four years ago. When you walked in, you saw dark grey walls with the ceiling falling down, graffiti everywhere, broken desks and chairs. It looked like a subway station. For about two weeks they couldn’t find my records, so they threw me in the lunchroom with a whole bunch of people who didn’t have classes. I was so frustrated I didn’t want to go to school anymore. They finally put me in classes that I didn’t even want. I tried three times to get my guidance counselor’s attention that year and waited three months. So the next time I wrote for an appointment, I said I was going to bomb the school if they didn’t see me. That worked. They finally saw me.
I think John Jay is a lot better now. After a new principal came in three years ago, they repaired things and painted the walls light blue so there isn’t so much graffiti left. There’s a new dropout prevention program that helps a lot of kids. No one I know dropped out this year. There’s also my student leadership class where we make plans about how to improve the school. So far the principal has only followed one or two of our suggestions. But it’s a start. One program we still want is a buddy system. They should hook up every freshman with a senior who will let them know about the school and get them involved from the start. That would have helped me a lot.
Once I got involved in activities, I started loving the school, and my grades came up. Now I’m captain of the girls’ soccer team and I run the student government. I’ve met all my requirements so I only take two classes this semester—English and hygiene. I already took three years of math, science and social studies. One of the subjects I still don’t know much about is current events. The last time I studied them was in grade school. I don’t know where Libya is or where Tokyo is. My family talked about the nuclear reactor in Russia. But I don’t read much about it.
The English program at John Jay is strong. I think I could write a good business letter and spell everything right in it. My teacher is really picky. She’ll make you write something over until it’s perfect. I get about two great teachers a year, but some of the others are very bad. I was a music major, but I dropped out of the band because when I was there, we only played scales, no music. The teacher wouldn’t let us play classical music or jazz at all, and the only time he let us perform was at graduation. We tried everything to change the class. But we saw that talking wasn’t going to work. So the class got very rowdy. My friends say the class is better this year. But the teacher’s very stubborn. He told us we had to do what he wanted to do.
There’s a lot of reasons why students cut classes. It’s not just because they like hanging around in the hallways. There’s so much to distract them. They may be having a problem at home and they can’t deal with sitting in a classroom. Since the side doors are all broken and there are no guards, it’s very easy to walk out of school anytime. A lot of students don’t have a lunch period so they say, “I’m not going for a whole day without eating.” They skip a class to go to the coffee shop across the street. I’ve noticed that if a student’s cutting, the principal can pass right by and not say anything. I want to tell him, “You’re the principal. Why don’t you stop them?”
I wish the principal had more to do with the students. It’s almost impossible to see him. The main excuse is that he’s in a meeting all the time. But he isn’t. I think the whole administration leaves during lunch. Last week I went to find someone in the office, and there was no one there. That’s why there are so many kids in the hallway during those periods.
I would like it if teachers came to dances or to our sports events to cheer us on. But once the day is over, the teachers don’t want anything to do with the school. The principal only came to one jam so far and he left right away. I think if he stayed and danced, the kids would say, “He ain’t so bad.”
I wish there was more school pride. I tried to get it started myself. For one week I went home every night and made posters with slogans like “In the Halls of John Jay There Are No Strangers” and “John Jay Is on the Way.” But I couldn’t make enough of them. I still think if I had more backup, I could have changed more people’s attitudes. It’s very hard to motivate people. I’m probably going to Brooklyn College next year to major in theater, but I hope I can come back someday to start a theater group.
My aunt lives across the street from John Jay, and she sees all the toughest kids who hang around outside the front door. She thinks that the teachers don’t have enough control over the students. I try to tell her that the idea isn’t to control the students. The idea is to have them on the same side. What I always say is that if the school shows they care about us, then we’re going to show we care about them.