Students at a southern Brooklyn high school will soon have one of the best school auditoriums in the city when workers complete a $7.5 million renovation of their sprawling concert hall.
The renovations at John Dewey High School will revive a performance space that was once known as one of the best in southern Brooklyn, according to one theater educator.
“John Dewey High School — for everyone who comes from southern Brooklyn and grew up here — that was the stage to be on,” said Sara Steinweiss, a former theater teacher at New Utrecht High School who taught “Hamilton” star Anthony Ramos. “That’s where I did my first dance recital.”
John Dewey High School opened its massive theater in 1969, when the progressive high school opened its doors in Gravesend. In its earlier years, the school boasted a progressive pedagogy and was repeatedly mentioned in national high school rankings by Newsweek and the US News and World Report.
But by the early 2010s, the school began a downward turn. Faced with falling enrollment, a rising drop-out rate, and low test scores, the Bloomberg administration nearly closed the school nearly seven years ago.
Area Councilman Mark Treyger and school leaders worked to keep John Dewey alive and vowed to turn the school around, Treyger said.
“When I took office, John Dewey was going through a very tumultuous period. There was very low staff morale,” said Treyger, who funded the theater upgrades. “I remember visiting the Dewey campus, and I saw a building that needed a lot of love, investment, care, attention.”
The school has pulled out of its most difficult era under principal Connie Hamilton, who took the helm in 2015, but many of its facilities — including its over 900-seat auditorium — remain outdated, Treyger said.
To help modernize the school, Hamilton and her team began working with the local politician and former educator a couple of years ago to brainstorm infrastructural improvements, Treyger said. At the top of the list of priorities were renovations to the school’s culinary kitchen and auditorium.
Treyger set aside $3 million in upgrades for the culinary kitchen last year at the principal and assistant principal’s request. But the school leaders planned an even more ambitious revamp of the concert hall, which is used not only by the school, but by a host of community group and senior programs.
“They gave us a vision, and it was certainly ambitious in terms of cost,” Treyger said, adding that he wanted the performance space to rival LaGuardia High School’s famously state-of-the-art theater.
Under the renovations, John Dewey’s theater will receive an air conditioning system, a new and improved stage, seating, lighting, dressing rooms, acoustic cushioning, and spaces that will be used for sound control, stage design, and music.
The theater will also become ADA-compliant will be receive state-of-the-art sound equipment that transmits sound directly to hearing aids, helping people with hearing impairments.
Steinweiss, who helped advise Treyger on the improvements, said the new auditorium won’t only serve as a performance space, but as a key educational asset.
“Most individuals who are not in education do not always view arts education with the importance it has,” she said, emphasizing that theater teaches students community-building and problem-solving skills. “It becomes so much more than ‘Oh you guys put on a play.’ You built a whole individual.”
Steinweiss added that she wishes she could have worked in an auditorium like one John Dewey is receiving.
“It’s every theater educator’s dream to perform on that stage and work in a space like this,” she said.