If there was an age of reason, and one of anxiety, few would argue that we are now enmeshed in an age of income inequality. Tomes have been filled with controversial solutions, and then there’s the old-fashioned way – changing lives one by solitary one – that’s what I witnessed in Brooklyn Jesuit Prep.
I had gone there at the behest of Fr. Vin Biagi, SJ who told me this small middle school in Crown Heights had almost gone under a year previously and needed a hand.
The first thing that strikes you about BJP is the sense of calmness. There are only 37 boys and 42 girls in grades 6 through 8; but it’s more than that – the quiet purpose that ripples around the classrooms and down the polished corridors is almost palpable.
All students are African-American, Caribbean-American or Hispanic – groups that often have trouble graduating from high school, are chronically under-employed and thus destined to linger on the lower rungs of the income ladder. Yet each of these 79 students at BJP is a star on the rise.
These kids are not skimmed from the top academic or intellectual percentiles; what they do have in common is that 87% qualify for the Federal Free Lunch Program – the average family income is $27,600. The belief at BJP is that all children deserve an opportunity to fulfill their potential.
You hear echoes in the classrooms of St. Ignatius and the Berrigan Brothers – Fathers Dan and Phil - all curried by a dash of the Catholic activism of Dorothy Day; but the prime influence is a belief in the magic of the written word to transform young lives by allowing them to dream and imagine.
It’s not that you won’t see computers but BJP recognizes that these are mere tools for learning, and that content is key. Not only are books at the core of the curriculum but each student is encouraged to regularly read one of their own choosing and time is provided each busy day for this private pursuit.
Parents are asked to pay $75 a month for ten months of the year along with an extra $200 that sends a kid on a leadership course to Fairfield University for the month of July. There they take classes in the morning while the rest of the day is devoted to outdoors activities. Video games are left at home while cell phones are returned to students on two evenings a week – but only for family calls.
The principal, Brian Chap, is quiet, intense and self-effacing. You can tell that when urban disorder roils his students’ lives, he is a rock of support. It often takes a couple of years to get students up to grade level but all BJP kids go on to post-secondary education and are often the catalyst in breaking the unrelenting cycle of poverty that afflicts so many local families.
Patricia Gauvey, was a volunteer librarian, who became unpaid president of BJP last year when it seemed as if the school would go under. She’s tireless, voluble and irrepressible, and has that unique drive and fortitude of the ex-nun who refuses to admit defeat.
BJP survived and thrived this year, and has just about enough bucks to reopen again in the fall. The board is very supportive and the school has many well-wishers, but this miracle in Crown Heights can use your help.
Maybe you can sponsor a kid, or expand their world for a summer month in Fairfield University; or perhaps you can donate $75 to help a cash-strapped parent with a month’s tuition.
Even better go out to BJP where you will meet Kwesi, a most impressive 8th grader whose dream came true when recently accepted to Xavier High School. Or have a word with Brianni who will melt your heart when she tells you, “I can’t explain how much I love this school.”
That’s not surprising when you consider that BJP tracks each graduate through high school and college and steps in with financial and other support when needed.
A very special tree is growing in Crown Heights. Its roots are transforming many lives. In this age of grinding income inequality, Brooklyn Jesuit Prep is making a difference. You can too!
www.brooklynjesuit.org 560 Sterling Place, Brooklyn, NY 11238 718-638-5884