First Person

From the publisher: Some random thoughts

Having stayed out of the fray for several months working on the business end of EdNews, I’ve gained some distance and perspective on the flashpoints that have been dominating the education reform debate. From a freshly detached point of view, a few things seem clear to me. In no particular order:

*** Granted, it makes no sense to evaluate educators solely on how students perform on standardized tests, imperfect instruments at best. It makes even less sense, though, to escalate this to a generalized anti-testing frenzy, as some have done. Measuring progress and achievement is essential to improvement. So by all means, find some others measures to augment testing, and throttle way back on the test-prep and test-score obsession. But keep testing.

*** Both “sides” in the reform debate like to use Finland as an example of a country that has solved the public education puzzle. On one side, advocates point out that Finnish teachers are unionized, effective and well prepared. They are a respected and admired pillar of Finnish society. Advocates on the other side point out that the teachers in Finland have had to clear some high bars to get into the profession. It takes more than a pulse and an inflated grade point average to get a Finnish teaching license. Until we can figure out how to make teaching a true profession in this country, and attract a larger number of highest caliber applicants, our education system will not match Finland’s results. What can we do to make teachers feel efficacious? How do we make  teaching a career as appealing as engineering, law or medicine? And then what do we do about current teachers who wouldn’t be able to clear the Finnish bar?

*** Some people skeptical about charter schools want districts to focus instead (or in addition to) on strong neighborhood schools. It makes a great political slogan. Many of these folks are self-identified progressives, who decry what they see as the segregating nature of some charter schools. So how can they reconcile this with their push to focus on neighborhood schools? Cities like Denver, with racially and socio-economically segregated neighborhoods are, logically, going to have segregated neighborhood schools. Remember the Mitchell Montessori magnet in Northeast Denver? As busing ended in the mid-1990s, a small but vocal group of advocates demanded their neighborhood school back. The school board acquiesced, dismantling one of the most successful models of integration in the city. And Mitchell spiraled downhill, eventually closing.

*** Decades of research, beginning with the Coleman Report, have demonstrated conclusively that “out-of-school effects” have a huge impact on low-income students’ preparedness and achievement. Yet there’s something irresponsible about the way some people who oppose current reforms are using this credible research to raise a white flag and say you can’t fix schools without first fixing poverty. What society in human history has “fixed” poverty? Currently we’re heading 180 degrees in the wrong direction when it comes to attacking poverty. Yet pockets of hope have emerged in education. Saying poverty is the problem may be partly true, but it’s a cop-out.

*** Growth measures for standardized test scores are a great leap forward in making school data meaningful. But amid the myriad spins placed on the data by districts and advocacy groups, let’s not lose sight of the fact that “status” (just plain, old-fashioned scores) matter as well. A high growth trajectory for a kid who started out several grade levels behind won’t necessarily get him/her to promised land of proficiency. Growth should augment but not replace status scores.

*** Just because a school seeks innovation status doesn’t mean it has the tools to succeed. I’m awaiting the day when Denver says no to some of its weaker applicants instead of approving them all. Weak innovation schools undermine a potentially groundbreaking policy. I understand the “let a thousand flowers bloom” philosophy, but you have to make sure you start with healthy seeds.

*** The Douglas County voucher debate is a fascinating legal puzzle. But I’m still stuck on why, aside from ideology, an affluent, high-performing school district would push vouchers. Call me a mush-headed liberal, but the only compelling argument I’ve ever heard for vouchers is as an escape hatch for low-income kids stuck in abysmal urban schools with no viable public options available. I respect the commitment and fervor of friends to my political right, but in the end I come back to this question: Douglas County? Really?

*** Speaking of vouchers, Denver school board candidate Emily Sirota (running against Anne Rowe in Southeast Denver) sent out an email last week warning that vouchers could be coming to Denver. Using some convoluted reasoning, Sirota said that because Democrats for Education Reform endorses her opponent, and some in DFER have said they support vouchers (though the link she provides is unclear on this issue), a victory for her opponent could mean vouchers here. Please. Vouchers in Denver? When pigs fly.

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.