In January 1999, a team of independent education experts recommended that Sarah J. Hale high school in Boerum Hill be “phased out,” citing low student academic performance and poor attendance. Next fall, the school will be replaced by the Brooklyn High School of the Performing Arts. About half of Hale’s students have already transferred out, according to one teacher.
Clearly, Hale had problems: Of the 28 high schools in the Brooklyn and Staten Island School District, this one was identified as “the school that was farthest from state standards and most in need of improvement,” says Ira Schwartz of New York State School and Community Services, the state agency that oversees New York City public high schools.
But not everyone agrees with the decision. For some students, the change has been disruptive and stressful. “Who knows what effect this new risky situation may have on my grades and my chances of getting into the college of my choice,” wrote one student in the most recent issue of the school’s student literary journal, Crossing Swords.
And administrators think that Hale wasn’t a lost cause. “I felt that the school should have been restructured without such drastic measures,” says Bette Davis, who was Hale’s principal in 1998.
In addition, Hale was a neighborhood school, with a student body that was approximately 77 percent African-American and 21 percent Latino. “The community needs that school,” says 37-year-old Tylon Washington, parent of a Hale sophomore. “They are punishing the children who are really the victims.”
And, says Washington, it’s part of a larger pattern of gentrification in downtown Brooklyn. When the Brooklyn High School of the Performing Arts replaces Hale this fall, students who are presently enrolled at Hale are not guaranteed a seat. Admission to this new specialty performing arts school will be based on auditions or an interest in “preservation arts,” which will be the only major that does not require a performance test.
“They are saying that the students failed. My belief is that they wanted the school to fail because of the gentrification of the downtown Metrotech area,” Washington says. “They were shipping out kids so that they could phase out the school without any problems or resistance from parents.”
“We are looking to service Brooklyn,” counters Elizabeth Sciabarra, Deputy Superintendent of the district. She said the new performing arts school will draw 25 percent of its students from the neighborhood, and that students who haven’t yet transferred will be allowed to continue through December of next year. “The kids who are there have not been abandoned.”