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After Facebook post goes viral, a high school’s limited course offerings take the spotlight

A Brooklyn mother says she spent months trying to call attention to problems at her son’s school, and succeeded by accident when she vented to a stranger on the subway.

The stranger, Brandon Stanton, posted Annette Renaud’s concerns about Brooklyn’s Secondary School for Journalism on his popular photography blog, Humans of New York. In the post, Renaud says the absence of a full-time Spanish teacher at the school leaves students like her son unable to earn the state’s most advanced diploma. She ended with a call to action: “God won’t fix it! We’ve got to fix it!”

Renaud’s story, posted on the Humans of New York Facebook page, drew thousands of comments.

Renaud’s story, posted on the Humans of New York Facebook page, drew thousands of comments.

Stanton’s legions of faithful readers responded to Sunday’s post with more than 140,000 Facebook likes and 5,000 comments within 24 hours. Some pledged to call the principal and others offered to help fund or staff the school themselves.

Inside the Park Slope school, the post drew far less attention. While a few students commented on the post, others said on Monday that they hadn’t heard about it but were already well aware of the problem Renaud described — and of other issues at the school, including a general lack of advanced courses.

“We don’t know why,” said Nzingha Freeman, a junior. “Every time we go to the principal and ask she just pushes us off, [saying things] like, ‘There will be AP classes next year.’ We need it this year, we don’t need to wait ’til next year.”

And despite the school’s name, Freeman said she is one of three students enrolled in the school’s only journalism class.

Interim Principal Jodi Radwell did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In an interview, Renaud said that she protests with other PTA members twice a week outside the school hoping to get Radwell’s attention. The school, which shares space with four other schools, hasn’t had a full-time Spanish teacher since last year and doesn’t offer other languages.

A school secretary, Karen Cuccia, said on Monday that “there’s never been a term when foreign language was not available to students.”

But Department of Education officials flagged the school’s limited course offerings as a concern after attending a recent meeting there, according to spokesman Marcus Liem. For now, he said, students can take Spanish through an online course offered during the school day.

“We continue to work closely with the school community to ensure students have access to the courses they need,” Liem said.

Students confirmed that the school has tried to provide Spanish courses even without a full-time Spanish teacher, but they said the alternative course offerings don’t measure up.

Freeman said she knows students who are enrolled in the online Spanish class. In theory, the students spend a period during the school day using the computer program Aventa, which many city schools use to expand their course offerings. But the computer lab is being remodeled and the computers aren’t functional, Freeman said, so students enrolled in that class are often sent home early.

Freeman said the school’s assistant principal and ad-hoc college advisor, Bibiana Ammatuna, agreed to let her do an independent study instead of the Aventa class but hasn’t yet given her the packet of work she’ll have to complete by June to earn her third Spanish credit.

Ammatuna also teaches one period of Spanish, but students said they need classes at multiple levels.

At least three years of Spanish is required to earn an Advanced Regents Diploma, the state’s highest designation.

Andrew Spalding, second from left, and Nzingha Freeman, second from right, with classmates.

Andrew Spalding, second from left, and Nzingha Freeman, second from right, with classmates.

That was the main concern Renaud expressed in the Humans of New York post, where she said that without an advanced diploma, students would be prevented from receiving what she called an “Advanced Regents Government scholarship.” No scholarship exists by that name, and students don’t need the advanced diploma, only high exam scores, to be eligible for NYS Scholarships for Excellence, according to state education officials.

Still, the advanced diploma carries weight with colleges and scholarship committees. The City University of New York advises all students interested in attending college to strive for an advanced diploma — which isn’t easy in small schools that don’t offer the required courses.

While Humans of New York readers suggested that bilingual students such as Renaud’s son could get credit by passing the Regents exam, Dennis Tompkins, State Education Department spokesman, said that isn’t true. Students can move into more advanced classes by passing Regents exams but can’t receive credits without actually enrolling in a course.

Andrew Spalding, a junior, said he wanted to take Spanish this year but couldn’t. He said he might try to transfer schools.

Freeman commutes from Queens and said she’s also considering applying for a travel transfer to attend a school that offers Advanced Placement classes.

Her frustration is exacerbated by knowing that students at other schools in the same building, including the popular Millennium Brooklyn High School, have access to advanced classes that she doesn’t.

“You see all the other schools and how they have better programs, and you’re just stuck in your school, and you’re like, why don’t we have that, why don’t we have this,” she said.

Freeman said she originally applied to the school because she was interested in journalism. Last year she decided she wants to be a principal, so she’s taking careful notes on what isn’t working at her current school.

“I was in the shower thinking, I really hate going to school for journalism where there’s no journalism class,” she said. “But if I can become my own principal at my own school…and change the things that I didn’t get when I was younger, I can make a better future for other people.”