an eye on social justice

Reflecting on his own education, Buery advises charter students

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Deputy Mayor Richard Buery sat down with Samantha Pugh, the principal of the Charter High School for Law and Social Justice, to answer questions asked by the Bronx school’s inaugural class at City Hall last week.

When Samantha Pugh walked into City Hall last week, the principal was as giddy as the two 14-year-olds she arrived with.

It was the first time at City Hall for all three, and they took a few selfies, admired portraits of former mayors, and stood behind an official podium as they waited for more students to arrive. The 50 or so incoming ninth graders were there to question Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, who has spearheaded the city’s pre-kindergarten expansion and whose work some said they hoped to emulate.

Come September, the students will be a part of the 127-member inaugural class of the Charter High School for Law and Social Justice in the South Bronx. They were already together thanks to a four-week summer program designed to give the students an introduction to law and to high school — guidance Pugh said she had missed during her own school switch.

“I didn’t really have a smooth transition between middle school and high school,” said Pugh, who attended Brooklyn Technical High School, “and to be honest, I wasn’t academically prepared for the rigor and what I needed to do to be successful.”

The summer program was designed to give students some of those academic skills and exposure to real role models.

“We tell our kids that you can be a lawyer, but they need to actually feel the experience, sit in a law school classroom, sit in a college classroom, see actual lawyers and see lawyers of color,” Pugh said.

Chalkbeat listened in as the students talked to Buery. Here are some of the students’ questions, and what the deputy mayor had to say in response.  

What did you struggle with in high school?

“For me, going from middle school to high school was a really hard transition,” Buery said. “It was hard because I grew up in Brooklyn and I grew up in a black and Latino neighborhood, so I was just socially intimidated going to Stuyvesant. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to do the work, I was worried I wouldn’t make friends, I was worried I wouldn’t fit in, so I struggled socially a lot.”

“By the time I graduated, I loved high school,” he added. “I made great friends there, but it took a while. It didn’t happen overnight.”

How does the law come into play in being a social justice leader?

“While you don’t have to be a lawyer to impact social change, it’s almost impossible to enact social change without having the ability to impact and manipulate the law,” said Buery, who attended Yale Law School.

“The law is really intertwined with all the things that make life in America so challenging right now. Whether you live in a good neighborhood or a bad neighborhood, if you have access to good housing or good schools — ultimately, all of those things are defined by laws. It may not be the laws coming right from the book, but it’s the way that government officials make decisions.”

Is it difficult being a person of color in your position?

“The more that I’ve had opportunities to lead, I don’t let it bother me,” Buery said. “In my mind, I don’t see any limitations that come from my race or my ethnicity, but we do live in a world where race and ethnicity matters.”

“The key for us is to not let our race or our ethnicity stop us from doing what we believe, but also to understand that we live in an environment … where the world is not organized fairly and the world is not always organized for our success,” he said.

Who inspires you?

I have a lot of friends and peers who I think are doing extraordinary things in the world,” he said. “I have a lot of friends and peers who started schools, they started very successful charter school networks. Dave Levin who started KIPP Foundation who’s a friend, Dacia Toll who started Achievement First is a friend that I went to law school with … I’m inspired and challenged by them.”

What advice do you have for us?

“Be bold. Be brave. Take chances. Do what feels challenging. Do what feels scary,” he said. “Know you’re going to mess stuff up.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”