Jelani Cobb graduated from Jamaica High School, as did many other distinguished Americans. In a powerful story that appeared in The New Yorker, Cobb tells the history of Jamaica High School as a paradigm for the clash between race and reform. Jamaica High School was long considered one of the best high schools in New York City in the 1980s. As the city adopted reform after reform, the school went from an integrated model to a highly segregated school; it enrolled growing numbers of students who were learning English or had disabilities. Other schools lured away top-achieving students. When the Bloomberg-Klein regime took over, Jamaica’s days were numbered. The staff and the local community fought for the survival of the school, but Bloomberg-Klein gloried in closing large high schools and stuffing them with multiple small schools with multiple principals. The school that once enrolled over 3,000 students held its last graduation ceremony in 2014, with a graduating class of only 24 students. This is a very sad story about the abandonment of schools that suffered from the reformer conceit that low scores=bad schools. Jamaica in its final years was serving the neediest of the city’s students; it was put to death by the authorities.
Underscoring the indignities that attended the school’s last days was a difficult irony: for much of its time, Jamaica was a gemstone of the city’s public-education system. In 1981, the schools chancellor, Frank Macchiarola, decided to take on the additional role of an interim high-school principal, in order to better appreciate the daily demands of school administration. He chose Jamaica, and was roundly criticized for picking such an easy school to lead. Four years later, the U.S. Department of Education named it one of the most outstanding public secondary schools in the nation. Alumni include Stephen Jay Gould, Attorney General John Mitchell, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Walter O’Malley, Paul Bowles, and three winners of the Pulitzer Prize: Gunther Schuller, Art Buchwald, and Alan Dugan. Bob Beamon, who set a world record for the long jump in the 1968 Olympics, graduated with the class of ’65. The school’s closure felt less like the shuttering of a perennial emblem of stagnation than like the erasure of a once great institution that had somehow ceased to be so.
Jamaica had become an institution of the type that has vexed city policymakers and educators: one charged with serving a majority-minority student body, most of whose members qualified as poor, and whose record was defined by chronic underachievement and academic failure. Even so, word of the school’s closure angered students and their families, the community, and alumni. I was among them—I graduated with the class of ’87—and for me, as for many former students, the school was a figment of recollection, frozen in its academic glory. George Vecsey, the former Times sports columnist and a member of the class of ’56, accused Joel Klein, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s schools chancellor, of “cooking the books,” to make schools slated for closure appear worse than they were, and compared the Department of Education’s closure policies to the nihilism of Pol Pot. Vecsey later apologized for having slighted the suffering of Cambodia, but he held to his contention that Klein ruled by dictatorial fiat. He wrote, in a blog, “The city destroyed a piece of history because of its own failure.”