Ragtag school in Brooklyn works to save teens' lives

JACQUES KELLY

January 29, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

In another era, people prayed in the old Crisp Memorial Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn to save their souls. Today, 45 "at risk" teen-agers attend a very special school there -- to save their lives.

The Victorian church building, whose 1888 steeple is a landmark visible all over the neighborhood in the southern part of the city, is now the Chesapeake Center, an unconventional school for teen-agers who have had major brushes with the law. Most have been referred there by the state's Department of Juvenile Services.

The school in the 300 block of E. Patapsco Ave. is completely integrated with its Brooklyn neighborhood. There are rowhouses and bungalows all around. The Brooklyn Enoch Pratt Free Library branch is just across the street.

"If a child has decided to drop out of school, this place doesn't look like any school they've ever been to before," says Ivan Leshinsky, the executive director and moving force at the center for the past 18 years.

He's a 45-year-old, 6-foot-7 former basketball player for Long Island University. The son of parents who often struggled to make ends meet, he grew up in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. You get the impression that absolutely nothing can rattle his nerves.

Leshinsky's management style is unflappable. His office looks like a cluttered closet that no traditional school principal would tolerate. There are usually a couple of students in there, too. "I prefer to be all over the place, doing 25 or 30 things at once," he said one day this week.

"We're convinced that were it not for the year or two our kids spend here, they might be dead or in jail. The farther a kid gets into the correctional system, the harder it is to extract him," he said.

The school is a private institution, part of the Chesapeake Foundation for Human Development. The place has a hardscrabble look to it. It will never be confused with lecture halls at Villa Julie College. The center's existing crackerbox classrooms and a ramshackle gym have been created out of the former Presbyterian church, whose congregation disbanded in 1974. The center leased the vacant building four years later.

The center has an enrollment of only 45 students, ages 13 to 18. There are four academic teachers, two shop teachers, two counselors and three administrators. Many of the students live in the city's housing projects and take several MTA buses or light rail to get there.

The classes (8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.) are very small. The desks are a ragtag collection of 40-year-old cast-offs from the Anne Arundel County school system. Rarely is there a day when every student in the school shows up for class.

The goal is to catch these kids before they give up all hope and get slammed into jail. The teachers get to know their troubles and problems. "Our focus is socialization as well as education," Leshinsky said. Some 16-year-olds arrive at his front door with a first-grade reading level.

The center is not a reform school, although some of its students may wind up in one. Leshinsky believes it is better to work with his students in a school-like setting, in a neighborhood: "The problems should be treated in the community and not in the lockup. These kids live their lives in city neighborhoods. You have to teach them how to behave in one."

Nevertheless, crime and violence are a way of life for his students. Some of the teen-agers who came through the center's doors have been murdered. Many more have been shot.

As he talks, a construction crew is finishing a $350,000 addition that will give the center its first decent classrooms and offices. The state and city have made matching grants available; so have local philanthropic foundations. Leshinsky said he'll be able to take on another 15 students to increase his enrollment to 60.

"The students are becoming more detached from society. They need to be listened to, to be shown they can make it," he said.

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