After 30 years I returned to my old school, Girls Commercial High, here in Brooklyn. This was not a social visit -- I came as a recruiter. My purpose was to recruit Hispanic Students who spoke English well but had neglected their Spanish. As a Spanish professor I wanted to help them improve and maintain their Spanish and introduce them to the richness of their culture. However, Spanish would not have to be their major, as I really was looking for potential bilingual psychologists, social workers, speech therapists, and so forth who were interested in attending a small rural college with the aid of the equal-opportunity program.
The first inkling I had that all did not augur well for my plans was when the senior-class counselor suggested over the telephone that I take a taxi and not the subway from my hotel in mid-Manhattan to the school in Brooklyn.
As I left the Eastern Parkway-Brooklyn Museum subway station, I looked for the familiar building, which, I remembered, covered an entire block. It was there, a light gray building sparkling in the morning sunlight. It looked as large and solid as I had remembered. Even though it was now coed and renamed Prospect Heights, the building seemed the same.
In the lobby, a small, white-haired black man greeted me and asked me my business. I was ushered into the front office and given a pass and directions to the senior-class counselor's office.
As I walked alone trough the wide corridors, I noticed that all the doors to everything were shut. I tried to open the door to the auditorium, but it was locked. I learned later that all the doors are locked during classes. The bulletin boards in the corridors had colorful displays of masks and African art. The building was manicured and apparently had aged gracefully.
George Fields, the senior-class, counselor, was busy on my arrival talking to students, and I waited my turn. He was not too encouraging as he pointed out that the population of Prospect Heights now consisted of about to 80 percent black students, 15 to 20 percent Haitian students, and only 5 to 10 percent Hispanics. There appears to be little interest in foreign languages. Only French And Spanish are offered, and the department consists of four teachers who , at present, have no chairman. Three teachers teach English as a foreign language.
Of the 3,000 student population, 400 are seniors. Of these 400 seniors, 100 are college-bound. These 100 were the students I came to see. Later, I learned that of the 100 college- bound students only about 75 would actually apply; the 25 others would be claimed by pregnancy or the military.
When I asked Mr. fields what colleges the students tended to select, he said the majority applied to CUNY (City University of New York) and nearby SUNY (State University of New York). Very few, he insisted, are willing to leave the metropolitan area.
There are only two guidance counselors for the 3,000 students. In between students, I was introduced to the second counselor, who laughed when Mr. Fields told her the purpose of my visit. She said she spends most of her time trying to persuade the freshmenand sophomores just to stay in school. I was sorry to learn that Mr. Fields was kindly seeing me during his lunch hour.
It was my pleasure to speak to the reading-skills classes, where the students were all planning to go to college. I did not see one Hispanic student. I was surprised to find that the classes were small -- only 10 to 15 students in each class -- and more surprised when I heard the key turn and found myself locked in for my short talk.
The students did not ask questions, and the only time I saw an enthusiastc face was when a young lady shouted out as I left the room that she liked my leather, cherry-colored coat.
After visiting three classes, I commented to Mr. Fields that all the classes I had visited thus far had white teachers. He pointed out that of the 100 teachers in Prospect Heights fewer than 10 percent were black.
While I failed in my mission -- I didn't find a single person interested in what my college has to offer -- I learned first- hand how much our inner-city high schools have changed. I expected to see guards, and I did, but the padlocks, locked classrooms, the understaffing, and placing of so-called top students in reading-skills classes were unexpected.
After 30 years only the building seems unchanged.