First Person

What I learned from four years of fighting for the city’s ‘scariest’ schools

What makes being a senior at a closing school miserable?

For one thing, students at so-called “failing” schools are often already struggling in school and facing difficult home lives. Hearing that their schools are going to be closed only confirms the sense of failure many of our poorest, most disenfranchised youth often already feel.

What’s more, given the city’s tradition of co-location, students whose schools are phasing out often have to watch a new school in their building thrive with new books, equipment, and renovated space. Students who remain enrolled in a school as it closes often feel that they might as well give up, which leads to escalating drop-out rates—the single most destructive aspect of the three-and-a-half to four-year closure process.

In this environment, any incentive, from free SAT prep to a new T-shirt, makes a difference, because it can help get a student closer to graduation and further from dropping out.

That’s what the Partnership for Student Advocacy, an organization I started four years go, tried to do, through a combination of advocacy and philanthropy. I founded PFSA four years ago to advocate for students enrolled in New York City’s “worst” schools; every school I worked with was deemed “failing” by the city and faced closure.

I started the program to try to stop schools from closing. Even though none of my own children attend “failing” schools, I was drawn to this work because my husband and I are the adoptive parents of a young black man who faced more hardship, failure, loss, and poverty in his childhood than anyone I’ve ever known. I wanted to do for the thousands and thousands of youth enrolled in “failing” schools what my husband and I did for our son.

Over time, the mission of PFSA became to make the years of closure the best they possibly could be. In other words, we made lemonade out of some really lousy lemons.

Of all of the schools I worked with through PFSA, I worked most closely with Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx, a school that will close forever in a few weeks. Funds raised by PFSA provided Columbus seniors with free Kaplan SAT prep and helped cover CUNY college application fees for students who needed financial assistance. PFSA funds also made possible a senior class trip to the Intrepid Museum and paid for T-shirts for the Leadership Seniors, a group of Columbus students committed to serving the community and maintaining good grades.

No one needed an A average to get a T-shirt. We looked for students who had positive school spirit and led by example.

During the summer of 2013, I visited with elected officials in the Bronx to request support for this very special and final group of Columbus seniors—the last and only students at the school during this past school year. Senator Jeff Klein’s office came through with a $14,000 donation and presented it at a fall fundraiser for the school hosted by John Starks, the former New York Knicks player and NBA All-Star. The event and the donation were huge boosts at a critical moment: the start of the very last year of the school.

Those practical efforts to boost morale were one result of really listening to what kind of support the parents, guardians, students, teachers and principals wanted. In my work as an advocate, my goal was always to meet them exactly where they were.

I felt strongly that if I was going to go to the “scariest,” “worst” schools in the system, I’d better not walk into the building judging.

The reward for my humility was an education beyond measure. Intuitively, I knew when I started and know now that beneath the “scary” stuff, the stuff no one wants to witness or believe, exists incredible, magical things.

For example, Lorraine, a Columbus senior with special needs, came out of her shell thanks to her mother’s advocacy, Principal Lisa Fuente’s expertise, and her fierce commitment to students with special needs. Lorraine is on the autism spectrum and defied the odds by not settling for an education in practical life skills—the most that’s expected of many autistic students.

Lorraine graduated Columbus with a Regents diploma and is now in college.

The Columbus dance/step/cheer squad is another example of magic. Each year I’ve been at Columbus I’ve watched them practice and perform, and each year I’m blown away by their talent. Students cannot be part of the squad unless they maintain passing grades, show up for school and never miss practice.

The Columbus squad consistently wins trophies. Many students say they stay in school because of the squad.

Over the past four years, I worked with many schools, including the Bronx Writing Academy, M.S. 22, the High School of Graphic Communication Arts, Samuel Gompers, the Academy for Scholarship and Entrepreneurship, and P.S./M.S. 149, and I’m grateful to all the principals who welcomed me into their schools.

As Columbus closes, I’m also wrapping up my work with PFSA. I leave this work knowing I’ve done my best, and while I remain hopeful, I am also concerned.

My dream for the charitable arm of Partnership For Student Advocacy was to replicate the Christopher Columbus Fund in every closing school, but I lack the financial support and some of the skills necessary to realize that dream.

And even though this administration hasn’t tried to close schools and has a very different attitude towards struggling schools from the last administration, I haven’t seen genuine efforts to support struggling schools and their students in a meaningful way.

The problems I was tackling aren’t solved. I hope they won’t be ignored.

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First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.