Feature stories

Dewey HS at a crossroads

More than 1,000 celebrate 40th anniversary despite uncertain future

Former and present staff gather at the iconic Key of Knowledge sculpture. The first two rows are teachers who opened the school in 1969.

Alan Siegel, a retired teacher, is reunited with former students. Miller Photography

Alan Siegel, a teacher from 1969 to 1989, is reunited with former students Nadege Lespinasse (left) and Ursula Albert Edwards.

Nadine Danon ’77 and Michael Cowan ’78 share a moment. Miller Photography

Nadine Danon ’77 and Michael Cowan ’78 share a “that was then” moment with an old yearbook.

Ticket sales had hit a thousand and John Dewey HS’s landmark Brooklyn campus was bathed in sunlight as alumni and their families, retired staff, students and faculty streamed onto the campus on a bright June 12 Saturday to celebrate the school’s 40th anniversary.

Musicians were tuning up, tables of food and drink stretched across the grassy Gravesend campus and excitement mounted as former students and teachers, some from that historic first day in the fall of 1969, reconnected with each other to reminisce about how much Dewey has meant to each of them and to the lives they have built since graduation.

There was something for everyone. A “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” educational panel that included the founding principal, a former teacher, a regent and a

State Supreme Court associate justice was moderated by alumnus Ray Suarez, author and senior correspondent of the PBS NewsHour. They discussed the proud history and traditions of Dewey’s unique student-centered curriculum and its future.

But the future is the ominous cloud that cast a long shadow over the day that seemed so picture perfect.

Like scores of other New York City high schools boasting a long history of academic excellence and long lists of distinguished alumni, Dewey is on the state list of 34 “persistently lowest-achieving” city schools facing restructuring, charter conversion or closure.

While the Department of Education must indicate one of four intervention strategies for each persistently lowest-achieving school, at this time, the DOE remains mute about Dewey’s future.

“As another school year begins, we sit here in a state of limbo,” Chapter Leader Robert Kanyuk said. “Nobody has told us a thing and there’s no support from anywhere except from the UFT which is helping us gain empowerment.”

Kanyuk criticized the administration for inaction. “They could have and should have taken a proactive stand and worked collaboratively with us to institute programs to meet the needs of a changing population.” 

But, since that hasn’t happened, the Dewey staff, with help from its many friends, is working on its own transformation. A Friends of Dewey Steering Committee that includes dedicated alumni, staff, retired staff and community and parent representatives has worked through the summer to hammer out new initiatives.

Like so many of the high schools labeled failing by the city and/or state, Dewey has weathered years of absorbing high numbers of at-risk students without any additional support as more and more neighboring south Brooklyn high schools have been closed or phased out. By 2004 the Dewey student population had swollen to 3,400 or 130 percent of capacity. Last February the school reported 105 oversized classes.

Kanyuk cited the midterm enrollment of 60 students from mainland China who were expected to be prepped for the upcoming English regents as one more example of the challenges faced by the school as it struggles to remain academically strong while educating students with special needs, English language learners and newcomers to the U.S. — all while going it alone with no support from the DOE.

Most of the influx of new students didn’t choose Dewey for its progressive style of education, 15 Advanced Placement classes, renowned arts program or reputation for sending its graduates to the country’s top colleges and universities. They are coming to Dewey by default. Either they didn’t qualify for, or there was no room for them in, the new minischools created after their neighborhood schools were closed.

What’s hard to understand is why the DOE did not include Dewey in its list of 11 schools slated for “transformation,” the least extreme of the intervention strategies for turning failing schools around. Dewey’s outspoken defenders point to the core strengths of the school, which has a high attendance rate; its 15 AP courses compared to the citywide high school average of four and the Advanced Regents graduation rate of 19 percent that beats the city average of 16 percent.

This year Dewey was again on the prestigious Newsweek list of top high schools in America and in 2007 was awarded a Best American High Schools silver medal by US News and World Report.

Deweyites are mobilizing to have a voice in their future, unwilling to become victims of bureaucratic neglect.

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