Midwood

The Midwood charter school debate has nothing to do with racism | Opinion

January 3, 2020 Ellen Levitt

In this day and age of highly polarized viewpoints and agendas, people too frequently resort to name-calling and avoid nuanced discussion. I’ve taken a pause to settle my own anger after reading the opinion piece published here on Dec. 2: “Let’s Call the Opposition to Urban Dove What It Is: Racism,” and I’m ready to address this in a measured manner.

The three authors of this opinion piece, who don’t appear to be locals of Midwood, are not teachers, are not members of the East Midwood Jewish Center nor of any other group in Midwood, made a sweeping judgement of many people at the contentious meeting held on Nov. 25. This meeting was about how the EMJC Board of Trustees intends to rent out the former, longtime Hebrew Day School building to a charter high school for at-risk teens called Urban Dove. A few hundred people from the neighborhood, many Orthodox Jews but by no means all, were upset about this turn of events. Dozens of EMJC members also attended, many in favor of this deal, but by no means all.

Related: New Midwood charter school sparks racial and religious tensions

The people in the neighborhood are not racist because they are against a high school for problematic 16- to 20-year-olds. Nearby Edward R. Murrow High School and PS 193K are just blocks away from the EMJC, and both are highly diverse schools. But they are established schools, and they serve general education students. Some children have individualized education plans, but for the most part these are schools that are not dealing with highly difficult teenagers. They are well-respected schools with long histories in the Midwood neighborhood, and are a critical part of the community.

I taught for five years at a public high school for at-risk teenagers, the Manhattan Comprehensive Night High School. Most of our students were non-violent, but we had a significant number who did fight and cause other serious problems. I recall one boy, typically mild-mannered, who while speaking with the principal in his office, grabbed a fork and began stabbing at the principal’s table. I had to call security guards occasionally on students who began punching each other class. One time a student ran up to the roof, and threatened to jump down onto Second Avenue because his girlfriend (who also attended the school) wouldn’t reunite with him. One girl stole my wallet and when confronted by security and administrators, attempted to strangle me (a quick-thinking security guard intercepted). These were just a few among many incidents that I witnessed in a high school for at-risk students.

This is why the neighbors of Midwood are upset and frightened about the prospect of Urban Dove’s arrival. This is not racism. The students could very well be any race or ethnicity. But these are young adults who have problems well beyond those of the typical Murrow High School student. And while they do deserve a school (currently they have one in Bedford-Stuyvesant), they would not be a good fit at all on a sleepy, residential side street in Midwood, in a building that was designed for about 200 elementary students. In addition, there is the potential for these students to cause trouble with those at Murrow, and further afield at Midwood High School.

This issue is very difficult for me. I have belonged to the East Midwood Jewish Center since 1971, when I was 7 years old. I grew up at the EMJC, as did my children. But I cannot stand by quietly when such a poor decision is being made. The Board of Trustees is somewhat naïve (and perhaps anxious to pay the congregational bills) and is making a very bad decision, in my opinion.

But do not label this racism, nor rush to make judgement calls about people with whom you are not well acquainted, because it makes a sensationalistic opinion piece.

Ellen Levitt, of Midwood, is a lifelong Brooklynite and a veteran high school teacher.


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  1. The Facts

    I began with a quote from the opposition to the school “But do not label this racism, nor rush to make judgement calls about people with whom you are not well acquainted, because it makes a sensationalistic opinion piece.” Those are my sentiments to the opposition. Don’t label, judge, or discriminate about a community of students you know nothing of. It would be wrong for all Jewish people to be viewed as lacking compassion and interest for the lives of others, other than Jewish people because of your comments. Just as it would be wrong to judge Urban Doves students by the interactions that you claim you have had with other students from another school. Your baseless claims, your antiquated ideas, and your absurd opinions are oppressive and racist by their(your) nature. To judge teens, and say such harsh rhetoric about students you have never met, interacted with or observed is again I say oppressive and therefore racist by its (your) nature. In today’s society we need to be inclusive, equitable and diverse. This land that we all inhabit belongs to no one populous. It belonged to the indigenous people that had their land stolen from them. So unless you plan to give Midwood back to the indigenous people the land was stolen from I suggest you stop staking claim. The roads in Midwood are paved and cleaned by the taxes of all New York City residents.