First Person

Why it's a mistake for Jeffco to let diversity be just a basic value

Editor’s note: During an April 3 discussion of what qualities the Jeffco Public Schools board of education wanted in a new superintendent, board members Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman requested that a bullet point about valuing diversity be included on a promotional flier recruiters would use to solicit applicants. Board President Ken Witt said he didn’t believe the flier needed to include that copy because cultural sensitivity should be expected of any candidate and it was important to keep the recruitment material focused.

 But First Person contributor Alonzo Rodriguez makes the argument that de-emphasizing diversity is a problem​. 

I am not only appalled but equally disappointed and angered by the comments made by Ken Witt at the April 3rd Board of Education Study Session. Witt is on record as saying during a presentation by Ray & Associates regarding the attributes of a new Superintendent that he, “Was not interested in diversity.” What?

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by this prejudiced statement because, during the community forums held prior to the November election, none of the new board members had a clue what diversity meant in our district. Williams’ answered centered on students with special needs because she said “she had such a child in school.” Special needs students are a subset of our student population but there are more who need help. Newkirk’s answer was that he “wants people to be ‘color-blind’ and he wants all people just to be Americans.”

Hear. Hear. A lofty and idealistic notion, but the truth is we do have some differences, and color and culture are among those. I wish our society was color-blind when it comes to equality and fairness – unfortunately, we’re not there yet. For those of us who don’t look like Mr. Newkirk, let me assure him, we are Americans. In fact, our ancestors lived in this part of the country for years before their land was taken away. Witt, your responses to the questions regarding diversity centered only on the 12 percent Gifted and Talented (GT) in our district. Again, they too are included in our district’s diversity but you seem to know nothing about the rest.

Like many others living in our diverse Jefferson County, we’re proud to be Americans. In fact, I spent over 20 years in the U.S. Army ensuring that all Americans continue to have equal access, opportunities and the fundamental freedoms we all enjoy. With the Board’s position regarding district diversity centered solely on GT – the three of them ignore our ethnic diversity (about 34 percent of our students), gender, special needs kids throughout the district and our Gay, Lesbian and Transgender students.

I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s when there was great tension in our schools, cities and nation because there was not equal protection and equality. There were signs outside some stores that said, “No dogs – No Mexicans,” schools were segregated, people of color were treated as inferior and called terrible disgusting names, there were the haves — students that looked like you (Witt, Newkirk and Williams) — and the have nots — the rest of us. In the 60’s, civil rights laws were passed and the Supreme Court acted. Since then, the playing field has improved – but not enough… because you’re not interested in diversity.

All students in Jeffco deserve better representation on the board; Board members are supposed to be unbiased. All students deserve the best teachers; and we have some of the very best. All are entitled to funding that supports the best learning environment to learn. Students deserve some teachers, administrators, and staff that look like them. They deserve – and we as parents, grandparents and taxpayers deserve – a BOE who makes decisions in the interests of all children, not special interests, because all our children are special. I simply cannot condone this Board’s conduct as elected officials to make decisions because they don’t care about diversity.

I’m confident that the vast majority of Jeffco residents – veterans, parents, grandparents, business owners, senior citizens, school personnel and community members of all races and diverse backgrounds – support equal opportunity for all Jeffco children. We simply cannot continue as stakeholders in our educational system to allow Witt, Newkirk, and Williams to disenfranchise our diverse student population. Do we want the reputation as a district to be viewed as racist and having no compassion for equality in education for all students? I think not.

I have more confidence in the citizens of Jefferson County to not to allow this to continue. There have been too many people in this district both past and present who have worked too hard to build the solid reputation we have. I urge you, if you believe that all students have value and should all have the same educational opportunities to be successful, to let the BOE hear from you.

Wake up, Witt, Newkirk, and Williams. We’re not living in the 50’s. All students matter.

This post has been updated to add context about the school board meeting that Rodriguez is responding to. 

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.