First Person

First Period

Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

My morning routine never wavered during the years that I taught at the Brooklyn Arts Academy. I woke at 6:30 a.m. and was out the door at 6:45. I walked briskly to the 110th street 1 station, took the downtown local two stops, transferred to the 2/3 express to Broadway/Nassau, and then switched to the A/C into Brooklyn. This put me at school around 7:40 a.m. with time enough to make copies, prepare my white board, and hopefully have a few precious minutes for breakfast and the newspaper before it was go-time.

Despite having one of the longest commutes, I was invariably one of the first people in the building, often arriving to empty hallways and a dark, locked main office. Most teachers and staff arrived around 8 a.m., with a few notoriously late exceptions. Students were not allowed in the building until 8, but few came this early anyway. Early birds mainly consisted of students who came for free breakfast, who wanted to escape from home, and/or scholarly types, who came to study in the peace and quiet of a sparsely populated cafeteria.

First period attendance was an intractable issue. There were days during my second year when I would start my 8:30 a.m. class with as few as four students present. Most of the other students would trickle in throughout the period. A few never made it at all. Even after shifting the start time to 9 a.m. in subsequent years, a clear majority of our students were tardy for their first class.

Our school had no official lateness policy. Staff called the homes of consistently late students, and the grades of those students suffered, but there was no rule about only being allowed to come late X number of times. A student could come late every day and still pass the class. Some of mine did.

When we broached this subject in staff meetings, the principal often suggested that teachers needed to give students a reason for wanting to get to school (via more engaging instruction). The dean believed teachers should call homes more often. The tardy students, for their part, gave the typical excuses about bad public transportation and long lines for the elevators (our school was housed on the seventh and eighth floors – heaven forbid taking the stairs). But then, those same students might show up late with a McDonald’s breakfast, so they obviously did not feel a tremendous urgency to show up on time.

For my part, I strived to change student attitudes and behaviors within my own classroom. For instance, I started each class period with a “daily quiz.” This quiz always consisted of five multiple-choice questions related to the previous day’s lesson, with a bonus critical-thinking question sometimes added. The students were given five minutes at the beginning of class to complete the quiz. Students who missed the beginning of class missed the quiz, though I usually folded and allowed them to make it up at lunch.

I also set up an incentive system, which I called “my global rewards.”  The concept, inspired by “My Coke Rewards,” was that students could earn points to redeem for prizes. I posted a big chart with all the students’ names on my classroom door. Anytime a student earned a perfect score on a daily quiz, completed a homework assignment on time, or maintained perfect attendance for one week, she earned a point. The points were recorded with star stickers on the chart.  Points could be redeemed right away for small prizes (such as a Jolly Rancher) or saved up and cashed in for bigger prizes (a McDonald’s lunch, a book from

Interestingly enough, the program was wildly popular with high-level students and low-level students, but not the ones in between. Furthermore, the incentives did not entice chronically late students to change their habits. I ultimately decided the system required too much recordkeeping and did not continue it into my third year.

It was difficult to fight off feelings of defeatism when I started class with so few students.  Every morning, I put on my game-face for my first-period students and started class as though everything were normal, as though we weren’t going to be interrupted repeatedly during the next 50 minutes as their classmates arrived, one by one, and had to be caught up.  No matter how much lip service I paid to the virtue of punctuality, however, the students knew as well as I did that we would go through the motions again the next morning.

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.