The Julia Richman Complex

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My name is Ann Cook and I am the co-director of Urban Academy Laboratory High School – one of the six schools housed in the Julia Richman Education Complex. I am also a member of the Building Council – the govering body of the Complex.

Before I begin with my comments, I want to take you on a non virtual tour of the Julia Richman Education Complex – or JREC – a state-of-the art institution – first of all, state of the art educationally – the very first public school building in the country redesigned as an educational campus. I wish President Raab were here since she and many others proposing the destruction of JREC have never actually entered the building.

JREC houses 6 schools – 4 high schools, a pre K through-8th grade elementary school, and a junior high school for children with autism. It also includes a Teachers Center that provides professional development for teachers from across the city, an adolescent health center in conjunction with Mt. Sinai Hospital, the Maxine Greene Center for the Arts, and First Steps, an infant toddler center for the children of teen parents.

JREC is also state-of-the art physically. How can an eighty-four year old building be considered state of the art? Well, let me tell you about the interior – it has features to die for...marble steps, terrazo floors, brass fittings, spacious hallways, iron grill work, and solid oak ballastrades, not to mention the two gyms, swimming pool, a library and media center donated by Weil Gotshal & Manges, a distance learning lab, and a 1500 seat auditorium with acoustics described professionals as one of the best in the city. The auditorium has been refurbished with new curtains, scenery rigging, and a computerized sound system provided by MTV.

It’s a sad fact that the major promoters of the Hunter land grab are not educators. Note I said “grab” – not, as it has been spun, a mere “swap.” Those who favor uprooting the Julia Richman schools are either land developers, real estate moguls, lawyers, or business people – but not educators. We accept that some may mean well, but they are seriously misguided. They act as though schools are factories, and children and teachers are widgets to be moved at will.

It’s tragic when you consider how hard we’ve worked these past twelve years to reclaim the Julia Richman building and create an exceptional learning environment. Moving JREC to 25th Street would be a disaster. As John Welhelmi the Director of Portland Oregon high schools said in a letter to Mayor Bloomberg,

“It’s the very fact that JREC was an older building housing a single failing school and is now a complex of several small successful schools that gave Portland schools hope – moving the iconic JREC to a new site is, in my mind, the symbolic equivalent of moving the Statue of Liberty to the Plains of Kansas.”

A little history. Although the Julia Richman Education Complex is recognized world-wide as a symbol of educational rebirth, it wasn’t always so: twelve years ago most people had given up on the school– including Hunter, who, though offered the building, flatly turned it down. By the 90’s, the vast majority of students who attended did not graduate. And the community regarded the building with concern – even fear and many described the school as “Julia Rikers.”

Then a miracle occurred. The redesign of the building from one school to 6 was requested by the former Board of Education which adopted the plan unanimously, contrary to Hunter President Raab’s claim that Julia Richman was “never intended for its current use.”

In fact, the building’s official opening was attended by the Chancellor, Deputy Chancellor, and members of the Board of Education. And, with support from the neighborhood friends, foundations, and political allies, Julia Richman began to flourish.

Now – some 30 million dollars, and thousands of graduates later – the JREC has become the jewel in the crown of national educational reform.

Why is it that thousands of educators across the country have expressed such fierce loyaltty and support for JREC?. It’s certainly NOT as some so glibly claim – because Julia Richman educators simply “don’t want change.” JREC is full of risk-takers, ground-breakers, and pioneers of school reform. The Gates Foundation, impressed with JREC’s vibrancy and boldness, proposed to the Board of Education that it embark on a experiment – the creation of hundreds of small schools. One of the Foundation’s directors declared that there’s “not a better example of a multiplex in the United States” than the Julia Richman Education Complex.

Moreover, this Upper East Side community has thrown its support behind JREC. Tentative at first, it has welcomed the schools and their mission to bring together children from their community with children from other communities who come to JREC seeking quality education. While other communities have been polarized by such challenges we have succeeded; where so many others have retreated from diversity and integration, this community has embraced it. We have an unparelled mix of children of ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds.

Times have indeed changed; the high schools in our complex now exceed the city average for graduation and close to 90 percent of our graduates go on to college.

Cultures such as JREC are not developed overnight. They take time and continually renewed dedication; they are fragile. As a professor at Columbia Medical Center has written: “Removing people from a vibrant community steeped in history causes a root shock that can last for decades.” How can uprooting such a community possibly be described as WIN? And, why would something that is described as Win Win be held in such secrecy from the people most directly affected by it?

We, the JREC community, the residents, community organizations, and over a thousand parents, see this proposal as Lose Lose. It does not promote our Mayor’s Children First Intitative. It puts children last, community last. and public education last. We should remind President Raab that Hunter’s successes depend on quality high school education.

We invite to all to come and be inspired.

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