The Best High School in Brooklyn Needs Your Help

06/14/2012 12:44 PM |

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Tonight at Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Brewery, a party called “Best of Brooklyn” will be held in support of The Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice (SLJ), a Title 1 public school with rigorous academic standards and an incredible college acceptance rate. To find out more about SLJ (and the good stuff happening at the fundraiser), we talked to Executive director of the foundation (and “recovering lawyer”), Jennifer Wohl and Junior Board Member, Joe Keohane.

What foundation supports SLJ?

Jennifer Wohl: It’s called the Adams Street foundation. The school is called the Urban Assembly for Law and Justice. It’s a public school. A public high school, unscreened, which means you don’t have to take a test to get into it. We’re a Title 1 school too, so it’s all low income. So, all of the money we get from the Department of Education goes towards educating these kids. And since we can’t draw from the community in terms of fundraising for enrichment or college preparation, application preparation and stuff like that. The foundation is there to raise money just for the school.

Joe Keohane: Why can you not raise money from the public?

JW: No, I can raise from anyone. I can take anyone’s money. Get that?

JK: Which is a pretty rare thing for any public school.

JW: Exactly, they’re going to Ghana and a bunch of other places—and community service work and the other portion of it is—we pay for the staff and for the money to allow these kids the opportunities but we partner with other institutions and then for the college and career office. Most of these kids are the first generation in their families to ever go to college or even graduate high school, and we have about a 93 percent graduation rate; of that, all of them get into college, but about 90 percent go, which is really remarkable. We’re only eight years old, this school, so we’re very small and young. We staff and fund a lot of the application processes, we set up the interviews, help the kids with their essays to the financial aid applications. So in addition to getting into school, most of them have little to no loans, which is remarkable.

(To Joe Keohane) You’re a journalist by trade. Can you tell me exactly how you got involved?

JK: Jen’s predecessor was a guy named Joe Pinto, who was one of the founders of the Adams Street foundation, and he’s an old buddy of mine. When he started over there, he helped found our whole organization and wrote me in to do some cool things near the end of every term, where the kids have their final projects. Basically what that means is we would sit down with a group of about five kids, and sometimes with their parents, and the kids talk you through their final projects. Sort of like a thesis kind of a deal.

JW: Yeah, it’s like a portfolio.

JK: Basically they present it to you and you give them feedback, and you can sort of be aggressive with it; the academic standard of schoolwork is extremely high. And the kids are expected to not only be able to do the work, but to defend it afterwards, and be quick on their feet and generally very sharp and articulate. So when you go through the process with these kids, they’ll make a point and if the point doesn’t make sense, you can shoot the point down, and their basically expected to come back with it, strengthen it, and to come up with a clearer way of putting it, which seems to be a part of the ethos of the whole place.

So you started out helping out with the school on these final projects. Why are you now on the junior board of directors?

JK: I’m sort of a policy nerd in certain ways like education theory and education policy and city planning and stuff like that, it all kind of ties together. So I was definitely intrigued by the idea. But again I was really impressed by the kids and I have to admit that a good deal of it was my good friend who has deep convictions and really stayed on me about it. Then Joe left and I stayed on, and we basically formed a junior board because the school was really law heavy with the main board, the executive board, it was all lawyers. They wanted to take advantage of some of the people who were associated with the school who worked in different fields.

JW: The junior board is sort of like the farm team for the executive board. So this is the future. But we want to tap into a younger constituency. Our board is older, so there’s a whole group of young people that we want to get involved.

For tonight’s fundraiser, could you give a two-minute rundown?

JK: Basically the philosophy behind the fundraiser is to do small donations, so that the barrier for entry is really low, and we try to throw a really good party. So even if you couldn’t care less about the cause, you’ll still want to go because it will still be worth your time and your money. This year we decided to do it at Brooklyn Brewery, depending on how much you donate, you get an hour of open bar. If you donate a little more, you get a behind the scenes VIP tour. And Brooklyn Brewery just expanded their facilities so you get to see a lot of stuff most people haven’t seen and most will never see and you get access to a special keg of beer which they’re brewing special for this event which no one has ever had before. We have a German brass band called Oompah, which is going to be really cool. And Baratunde Thurston will be there…

How did he get involved?

JK: We’re old friends. I was actually the first person to publish him. He’s going to be doing some emceeing, he’s not going to read, but he is a stand-up comic; he does everything. So he’ll do a half an hour of something, stand up or emceeing—he’s really good. So we’ve got Baritunde, and also a ton of food.

JW: A lot. Brooklyn Brewery is pretty much giving us the space free. And we have restaurants who are donating some food, so we’re really hoping to raise a significant amount of money. The levels are Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Senior, and all of the money is going to next year’s class 2012-13, specifically to their applications.

JK: And Brooklyn Bowl donated free tickets to the Questlove show. Also, there will be four tickets to any Brooklyn Bowl show, regardless of whether it’s sold out or not.

And to enter the raffle?

JK: A few bucks at the door.

The party is called Best of Brooklyn. Are most of your sponsors Brooklyn based? Is it important to keep it kind of local?

JK: We argue about this a little. The appeal to Brooklyn businesses in this, for me, is that there is a measurable connection between quality of education and quality of life in the community. So when you have a place like this that really turns out kids who are going to be successful and contributing members of society, that has an impact on the neighborhood. It’s almost an epidemiological thing where it spreads. Education can stabilize whole communities when its done properly. I’m into that.

If someone misses this fundraiser, how else can they get involved or donate?

JW: They can go to our website and donate. Which is sljhs.org, and go to the Adams Street foundation. We’re always looking for mentors, people who can run clubs, there’re a lot of different sponsored events, like Joe said, we have this event, we have another one called the social justice social, which happens in the fall and is much more focused around the school, students will be there.

JK: It really is a great experience. And it really does renew your faith in American education, at a time when American education is an absolute catastrophe.

Do either of you have a particular favorite success story from the school or some event that was particularly memorable?

JW: I’ve been here for less than a year, but the success story that stands out to me the most is, we have a girl right now who for the last four years has been living in transitional housing, in a shelter, and she just got a full ride to Smith College. And that’s what it’s all about. With all the odds against her, she’s really going to go places. For me that’s really exciting. There are so many things. One kid is graduating and going to City Tech. The prom is tomorrow night, and he lives in a studio apartment with four other people and his family and he supports his family. He’s got a girlfriend and they really want to go to prom. He’s really involved with the school so the teachers pooled their money together and bought him a suit. And he’s very proud, he took a picture of himself; those kind of things, the teachers and people involved in the school are not just committed to the education, really it’s a very personal approach to education. So yes, there are the rigors of education and the principal takes that very seriously, but a lot of these kids need in addition, someone to listen to or someone to talk to.