n the fourth day of school, in the cavernous sunlit lunchroom of the High School for Public Service, about 450 teenagers converge on lunch tables scattered here and there. The seniors and underclassmen jockey for the most coveted tables; the confident prance and flirt; and the adolescent girls giggle and gossip. Amid the din and commotion, a shy, roughly 6-foot-tall young black male named Jean approaches principal Ben Shuldiner to have an exchange that commonly occurs at the school. Averting his eyes, the young man comes to report news of his academic growth. He just demonstrated college readiness on one of his Regents exams. “I brought my score up to an 80,” Jean says. Shuldiner praises and affirms him, in a quiet, terse manner appropriate to the boy’s personality. “Good job,” Shuldiner says, patting him on the back.
In too many majority black New York City public schools, academic achievement competes for the faculty’s attention with distractions like discipline problems. Not at the High School for Public Service. The Crown Heights Brooklyn school is one of 7 majority black New York City schools graded quadruple-A in its 2009-10 progress report. For the past few years, 100 percent of each graduating class of the High School for Public Service has been admitted to college. Their 4-year-graduation rate is 98 percent. Those who don’t graduate return for a fifth-year. And the school-wide attendance rate is 93 percent. More than 50 percent of the parents come to the school’s bi-annual parent-teacher conferences.
What’s really remarkable about the school’s academic performance, is not just that the school is 86 percent black. Of its 450 students, only one might call himself white and he’s from the central Asian country Uzbekistan. Seventy-six percent of the school’s students receive free or reduced price lunches. And when the students arrive as freshman, many are performing far below grade level in reading and math.
In seventh grade, 17-year-old Ahmed Elsayed was a C-plus student. The African-American male didn’t know how to study, was quiet and never participated in after-school activities. Yet by his junior year at the High School for Public Service, he was so motivated to succeed in pre-calculus that he started getting tutoring after school and during lunch. Because he was also the captain of the wrestling team and involved in other extra-curricular activities — such as drama and spoken word — he often stayed up until 1 AM finishing his homework. Now he is an A-student, the president of the student of body, and a future applicant to the Ivy League Brown University. “Joining the wrestling team taught me how to work hard and be committed,” says Elsayed, whose parents are Sudanese immigrants. “It translated into my books, translated into my classes … This school opened me up to all those different windows like wrestling, poetry. All of these things the school offers.”
Khadeem McLeoud, a junior at the High School for Public Service has a similar story of academic and social growth. After earning “B”s and “C”s in sixth grade, he got serious about school in 7th grade, but feels that if he weren’t attending High School for Public Service, he wouldn’t be as active on campus as he is now. He’s the vice president of the school and through participating in Coro — a leadership development program — he’s discovered social justice activism. His GPA is about 3.7 and he’s thinking of applying to The Juilliard School, where he can pursue his interest in drama, voice, and dance, and then to Harvard Law School. “I’ve learned more about policies that happen in New York and that happen around the world period and I just want to be a part of having my own opinions set in what goes on. I believe in peace. And I think lawyers have a big role in achieving peace,” McLeoud says. “I think being a lawyer I can help people.”
A Tour of the High School for Public Service
High School for Public Service is on the ground floor of the old George W. Wingate High School at 600 Kingston Avenue. It is clean, orderly, and welcoming. In the main hallway and in the office, samples of student work, including their art, line the pastel blue walls. Each door of the main corridor is painted with the portrait or quote of a notable person, ranging from Ezra Pound to Maya Angelou and Chief Joseph. A quote attributed to Roman poet Virgil reads, “They can … because they think they can.” A small lending library consisting of two-tall bookcases sits in the hallway too, raising the visibility of books and offering opportunities for independent intellectual exploration. No dust bunnies tumble across the floor. No stockpiles of old equipment and inventory pile up in heaps, signalling that this is a wasteland.