Brooklyn, New York (CNN)Once upon a time in a high school in Brooklyn, Sen. Bernie Sanders was a champion long-distance runner and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a baton twirler.
James Madison High School produced some of the biggest names in politics, like Sen. Chuck Schumer and celebrities such as Judge Judy.
So why do so many notable people come out of this school?
“It must be in the water,” said principal Jodie Cohen, who attended James Madison herself and came back to teach English.
Another reason? The sense of community, Cohen said. James Madison is a zoned high school, which draws from children growing up in the same neighborhood.
“It’s not something where we’re picked, where we’re the elite,” said Steve Slavin, an economist who attended James Madison and was a few years older than Sanders (who graduated in 1959). He and Sanders later became roommates while attending Brooklyn College together, only a few minutes drive away from James Madison.
Slavin said Sanders couldn’t have told him then where he would be now but remembers that you could see his conscience forming as a teenager. Even after suffering defeats like not making the prestigious basketball team or losing the election for class president, the future senator from Vermont and Democratic presidential candidate found his own way to make an impact.
“He lost the election but he convinced his friend who had beaten him in the election to actually set up something to help Korean War orphans,” said Slavin of Sanders. After not making the basketball team, Sanders joined the track team and became a champion long-distance runner.
At one time, there were three sitting senators who graduated from James Madison: Sanders, Schumer of New York, and Republican Norm Coleman of Minnesota.
“Chuck Schumer said James Madison was two schools: The school of academics and the school of street smarts. It’s a school where kids bounce off each other for four years and get smart in every way of life,” said Dick Kossoff, a James Madison alum (class of 1953) who credits the parents for pushing their children to study hard and achieve the “American Dream” they had missed themselves. Kossoff remembers the school being a “typical New York mix” of Jewish, Irish and Italian children when he attended.
Kossoff, with the help of Lewis Sheinbaum, created the “Wall of Distinction.” The plaques feature the photos of more than 60 notable alumni across politics, theater, sports and science. James Madison also boasts four Nobel Prize winners and business titans like Stanley Kaplan, who started his test prep business after finding success from tutoring students.
The “Wall of Distinction” is the first thing visitors see entering the doors of James Madison.
“I think it motivates them and it inspires them,” said Cohen of her students knowing about the school’s notable alumni. “Someone who sat in this very same classroom as you did maybe just a few years before you is where Bernie is right now.”