First Person

Opinion: Campaign launches; funders unknown

The One Chance Colorado education reform advocacy campaign officially launches today with a 30-second TV ad on five stations, a website and social media presence.

Here’s a look at the campaign’s first ad:

I wrote about the campaign last week, and there’s not a lot more detail to offer than what leaked out then. Look for billboards, signs at bus-stops, and a presence on Twitter, Facebook and the web.

The statewide campaign has been in the works for over a year. The timing of its launch corresponds with the start of a new school year, former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien said yesterday. The campaign is tentatively scheduled to last through September, but could go longer depending on the success of fundraising efforts.

“We intend to have a laser focus on accelerating chances for kids,” she said. O’Brien currently works for The Piton Foundation (a funder of Education News Colorado), but said her work with One Chance Colorado grows out of her decades of work on education reform.

The campaign focuses on the following principles (taking directly from a campaign press release):

  • Invest in teachers and principals. Great education begins with an excellent teacher in every classroom and a terrific principal at each school.
  • Demand accountability. Teachers, principals, administrators, politicians and parents should all be held to high expectations.
  • Support great public schools, period. Neighborhood, charter and innovation schools can all provide excellent options for Colorado’s children.
  • Put children first.

O’Brien said local foundations are funding the effort, but she declined to name the foundations or the project’s budget (rumored to be in the neighborhood of $1 million). I pressed her on this, because it strikes me as odd  and counterproductive for a public awareness campaign to be cloaked in this kind of secrecy.

But she reiterated that the focus should be on the campaign’s principles, not on its funders or budget. We’ll see how that plays out in the wider world.

The Colorado Education Association (an EdNews sponsor) issued a statement this morning “cautiously welcoming” the concept, but expressing skepticism about the campaign and its exclusivity.

“We’re a bit perplexed that One Chance Colorado has left teachers out of discussions that are presumably focused on the classroom,” CEA Executive Director Tony Salazar said in a statement. “That said, we welcome the opportunity to participate.”

O’Brien said the CEA wasn’t invited into the campaign because the coalition “is mostly people and organizations that have worked together on these issues for years and have a common vision” as well as a sense of “urgency and mission.”

“If other people or organizations want to join us, great,” O’Brien said,  adding that organizations currently in the coalition “don’t need debates on the principles.”

Salazar also asked whether the campaign has a covert political agenda. If so, he said, the CEA would be concerned.

“We hope this is not just a veiled effort to influence elections in the Denver Public School district,” Salazar said. “If this is about DPS School Board elections, then One Chance Colorado is doing the people of Colorado a great disservice by using accountability – which is so important in every school district and public school student in the state – as an election pawn instead of approaching the issue with the care, thought and collaboration it deserves.”

O’Brien said the campaign is “absolutely not” related to the pivotal DPS elections in November. Most members of the coalition are 501 (c) (3) non-profits, a tax status which prohibits them from endorsing or working directly on behalf of candidates.

According to a press release from One Chance Colorado:

The coalition is comprised primarily of 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations that are dedicated to improving the lives of  Colorado’s children, including Colorado Children’s Campaign, Stand for Children Leadership Center, Education Reform Now, Colorado Succeeds, A+ Denver, Democrats for Education Reform – Colorado, Get Smart Schools, Byrne Urban Scholars, Common Good Colorado, Colorado “I Have A Dream” Foundation, Urban League of Metropolitan Denver, and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Denver.

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.