Schoolhouse Block

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Perhaps it was a little naive to think a school dedicated to harmony, racial or otherwise, could set down roots in Crown Heights, the Central Brooklyn community that has become synonymous with tensions between blacks and Jews.

In 1994, a group of educators, parents and community activists set out to create a small alternative public school in the neighborhood for grades 6 through 12, with a focus on cross-cultural understanding and leadership development and a curriculum designed to prepare students for the 21st century workplace. They planned to name the school the Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner Leadership Academy, in honor of three civil rights workers–one of them black, two of them Jewish–murdered by segregationists in Mississippi in 1964.

Considering that blacks and Jews waged open war on one another on Crown Heights streets just five years ago, it seemed like the right note to strike.

The group’s members, led by education activist Don Murphy, a Revson Fellow who first began teaching in a local school in the 1980s, suspected the undertaking would be difficult. In the past, alternative public schools have sought true independence, with the freedom to define curriculum and hand-pick their teachers, yet they’ve had to broker deals on building space, supplies and other matters with oft-hostile local school boards and distracted city bureaucrats.

Still, they never expected to find themselves square on top of a political fault line. Now it’s a real possibility the school will never open in Crown Heights.

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From the start, Murphy took pains to assemble a politics-proof coalition in support of the academy proposal. Its leaders included the Reverend Paul Chandler, director of the Jackie Robinson Center for Physical Culture and a veteran educator, and Rabbi David Lazerson, the director of a progressive yeshiva and, with Chandler, a founder of Project Cure, an inter-ethnic youth group. The school also had the backing of the neighborhood’s elected officials, including Clarence Norman, the Brooklyn Democratic leader and state assemblyman, and Congressman Major Owens.

The proposal, submitted to the New Visions for Public Schools foundation in 1995, articulated three main principles. First, the school would promote racial harmony. Second, it would provide students with real-world technology skills and share its resources with adults in the surrounding community. Lastly, Murphy promised that Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman Leadership Academy would pursue a “radical civil rights agenda” that stressed desegregation and the realization of full equality–the ideals the three young men gave their lives for 32 years ago.

“We are committed to the idea that the only path, if we’re going to survive in this society, is that people genuinely need to understand each other,” Murphy says. “There has to be a cultural democracy, within the black community and within the larger community.”

Last April, the group’s proposal was one of 32 new projects awarded a $15,000 planning grant by New Visions, which develops public/private partnerships to create small, independent public schools organized around community-based themes. The first round of 15 New Visions schools opened in 1993 and 1994.

By the time they got the good news, the group had located a possible location for the academy in the building then housing an intermediate school Chancellor Rudy Crew had slated for closure–I.S. 210 on Rochester Avenue. Moreover, they had convinced District 17 Superintendent Barbara Byrd-Bennett of their project’s merits and obtained her support for securing the site. If the superintendent was sold on the school, Murphy thought, chances were good the members of the community school board would support them, too.

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Then, suddenly, the academy fell vic-tim to Byrd-Bennet’s own good fortune. In August, she was tapped by Chancellor Crew to head up a special citywide district for low-performing schools. In Crown Heights, she was replaced by an interim superintendent, Eric Ward, who had not been involved in the academy’s scramble for space. Ward also announced he planned to retire this June, leaving him lit-tle time to foster innovation.

“We thought board [approval] from District 17 was just a formality,” Murphy says. “We thought it was set, and then we’d go over any changes necessary. We learned that was not the case.”

District 17 is not known as a magnet for educational innovation. In fact, it has been a model of instability, home to 19 superintendents in 11 years, a succession of inept school boards, high staff turnover and federal charges of malfeasance. In 1994, then-Chancellor Ramon Cortines took control of the district, throwing out the board members and installing his own trustees. Last spring, four of the former board members were reelected and promptly denied their seats by Chancellor Crew; they won’t be eligible to take office again until May 1997. Five other new members were elected to the board last year, and are serving along with four city-appointed trustees–including neighborhood activist Richard Green, a strong supporter of the academy.

“The school could bring about the kind of racial and ethnic healing that we need in Central Brooklyn right about now,” says Green.

Murphy thinks it may be Green’s mod-erate racial stance that has prompted a backroom anti-academy campaign among some of the other board members. Green–whose organization, the Crown Heights Youth Collective, would likely be one of the community groups involved in the school–has been roundly criticized by various community members for his efforts over the years to promote fellowship between blacks and Jews.

“Richard has been called an apologist for the Hasids,” observes Esmeralda Simmons, executive director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College and another of the trustees appointed to the district board by Cortines in 1994. “There are many African American community members, and some Caribbean American members that don’t want peace with the Hasidim,” she says.

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Although District 17 president Fay Fraser declined to comment on the academy proposal, insiders say she has complained that it is not Afrocentric enough. And that may be the real reason the newly elected board, which Simmons describes as being “very, very sensitive to the senti-ments of community and political players,” is not getting behind the project.

But race is only a part of it. Norm Fruchter, a former president of the Park Slope/Sunset Park school board who runs an education reform institute at NYU, thinks the district’s inherent instability is a barrier that will be hard for any reform group to overcome. “I wouldn’t go to District 17 [with a New Visions school], given the flux it’s in and what it will take to stabilize it over time,” he says. “You’ve got to have a stable superintendent and board that know what they want. Otherwise you don’t have a chance.”

“The [five] new board members [are] extremely cautious,” Simmons adds. “They would much rather do nothing than do something, for fear of doing the wrong thing.”

In fact, as noted by new member Rubain Dorancy at a December board session, District 17 would rather not “make major changes or new initiatives in the district until they hire a permanent superintendent” in June, when Eric Ward retires.

Thus, when the academy’s backers expected a resolution on the board’s agenda in November about giving them control of I.S. 210, it was not even listed as an item of business.

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In its diffidence, critics say the board may be missing an opportunity to use innovative projects to shake the district out of its lethargy.

“You’ve got to grab new ideas when they come to you, because it takes so long for these things to build and develop,” says Chris Owens, president of the neighboring school board in District 13 and the son of Congressman Owens.

Owens, whose district encompasses Prospect Heights and Fort Greene, may yet be able to save the school. Murphy has been talking to Owens as well as superintendents from other districts about providing space in the fall, even though the project was specifically designed as a community school for Crown Heights.

Yet even if an alternative site comes through–and Murphy is confident a deal will be worked out–the stresses and strains of the planning process are weakening the original coalition. Paul Chandler, who has also been criticized in the past for being too close to the Jewish community, recently disassociated himself from the project, charging that Murphy and others were putting too little emphasis on the cross-cultural aspects of the curriculum. And Rabbi Lazerson has left Crown Heights to take a job with a yeshiva in Miami. It is uncertain when he will return.

As for Murphy, the entire ordeal has reacquainted him with the deep anger that prompted him to try opening an alternative school in the first place.

“What it says to people is, ‘Don’t do this. Don’t get involved,” Murphy says. “Then the only choice left for teachers is to stay in a big school, and die, and never get a chance to implement your ideas.”

“But we’re going to push ahead,” he adds. “We are determined to do this.”

Jill Kirschenbaum is a former City Limits senior editor.