UPPER EAST SIDE — The legacy of the late Judith Kaye will live on at a small high school opening next year and target over-age and under-credited students, many of whom have been caught up in the criminal justice system.
Kaye, who died in January 2016, was the first woman to serve as chief of New York’s highest court and was a staunch advocate for keeping kids in schools and out of jails.
The new District 79 alternative school, at 96th Street at Second Avenue, will open in September with 91 students from ages 16 to 21, aimed at those who are interested in learning a trade, including many of whom live in temporary housing, foster care, or are court-involved, according to city officials.
It will share a space and facilities with the School of Cooperative Technical Education (Co-op Tech), which is getting a new home on the site by 2022, as part of a $500 million redevelopment project that will build two school buildings on the same block-long lot, in addition to 1,200 mixed-income apartments and 25,000 square feet of retail.
Harlem's Park East High School and the Heritage School will both share one of the new school buildings. Judith Kaye High School will be re-located when Co-op Tech moves into the new space.
Like Co-op Tech, the Judith Kaye school will not only teach myriad trades from mechanics, electrical, and plumbing, to cosmetology, culinary arts, and web design, but it also will have the ability to grant Regents diplomas and certifications for career and technical education.
The new school will be an alternative to a typical high school by offering state-of-the-art equipment, small class sizes of roughly 15 students and emphasizing project-based learning and entrepreneurship to match the level of academic engagement currently touted at Co-op Tech.
On-site mental health help will also be offered for free to students and staff. The school will also create post-graduation plans for each student so they have the support they need to start and maintain careers.
“There’s always been a need for this other option — to be able to have kids earn a Regents diploma and certifications — there are other buildings that do it, but the way that we’re going to do it as a very small, nurturing school is an option that hasn’t been available for kids yet,” said Andrew Brown, the District 79 project director for Judith Kaye High School.
Brown added that the vision aligns with Kaye’s philosophy.
“Her biggest advocacy point was keeping kids out of court and in school,” Brown said.
When Kaye was on the bench, she was a big force behind the creation of the community courts, which seek to administer “humane justice,” where low-level, nonviolent offenders are given alternative punishments to jail, including cleaning streets and graffiti removal while also getting social services and training. In 2013, after her mandatory retirement from the court, she led the city’s School-Justice Partnership Task Force, which brought together players from the education and justice communities to outline strategies to reduce suspensions and school-based summons and arrests — which is what the de Blasio administration is trying to accomplish.
“Some kids, particularly those that have experienced trauma, need more support in order to flourish in a school setting,” Kaye said in a 2015 statement supporting state legislation to reduce suspensions. “Public schools cannot push these kids out, and as such, we need to ensure schools have positive alternatives and discipline strategies that build reflection and impulse control as well as a strong sense of community.”
Having the new school named after her would have made Kaye proud, said her sons, Jonathan and Gordon Kaye, who serve on the school’s advisory board.
“She was so concerned about breaking the school-to-prison pipeline,” Jonathan said. “Among the many things she did in the court system, she felt this was unresolved.”
He was impressed by the school’s “innovative” approach and the passion of the future staff.
“They realize they’re not just teachers, they’re surrogate family and role models. A lot of the kids don’t have support or mentors,” Jonathan said, applauding that the school would be giving extra support to students, whether in the form of literacy help or career guidance.
“It’s giving these kids the best shot we can,” he said.
Kaye believed in the power of intervention and that the school and legal systems could affect positive change, Gordon noted.
“If we think about my mother’s legacy and passion, it was breaking the cycle of keeping people in the [justice] system,” Gordon said.
“My mother believed in her core that everybody, inside, was a good person and had the ability to be great. If we were to accept where they were in life because of a certain circumstance, then we weren’t doing our job to bring out the greatness and humanity in them.
"I look at this school as an opportunity to give kids a chance at being good citizens,” Gordon continued.