First Person

Out Of Our League

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.

Track meets were trying experiences for the students and coaches of Brooklyn Arts Academy, a small school with no prior PSAL (Public School Athletic League) teams. The PSAL does not differentiate between big schools and small schools in track (meaning our tiny team had to go up against powerhouse schools like Boys and Girls High School). Moreover, there is only one venue for the entire city. So on almost every Saturday in February and March, our kids had to bring themselves from Brooklyn all the way to the 168th Street Armory (easily an hour commute) only to sit around most of the day before they got their chance to race.

A single track meet might have 40 teams and a single event, such as the 300-meter dash, could have up to 500 participants. (By contrast, meets I participated in as a high school student typically had no more than 10 teams, and a single event would rarely have more than 50 participants.) At the Armory, athletes were lined up around the track and then brought forward to race, six at a time, as if they were bullets being loaded into the chamber of a gun. Because our students were new to the sport, and those with faster recorded times ran first, they were usually at the end of the line, standing around the track upwards of 45 minutes for their turn at a race that would be over in less than 45 seconds.

The system infuriated me, but I gamely told my students not to worry about their place in the results and race against the clock instead. Our kids ran hard, but it was not lost on them that they were out of their league. I believe the students would have had a more positive experience if they competed only against the athletes of other small schools.

A few students dropped out of the team as the season progressed. Others expressed deep apprehension every time we had a track meet. We had to do everything in our power to cajole some of them into racing. The stress of the meets finally came to a head one Friday evening when we took the team to compete in the relays-only meet that the PSAL required us to participate in.

Things went wrong that day from the beginning. One of our boys didn’t show up at school, meaning we wouldn’t have four bodies to field a boy’s relay team. We had five girls show up, but two of the slower ones protested that they did not want to run. The issue remained unresolved as we boarded the train for Manhattan that afternoon. We explained that if they didn’t compete, we would have to forfeit the meet, and thereby jeopardize our school’s chance of gaining another athletic team. But the girls did not want to subject themselves to the humiliation of finishing near last place and held firm.

We arrived at the Armory and tried one more time to persuade the girls, hoping that being at the venue would help change their minds. But after about 20 minutes, we concluded it was a lost cause. Having traveled an hour and half through rush hour to get there, we withdrew from both boys’ and girls’ competitions. Feeling terrible about the whole thing, I suggested we take the kids to McDonalds and debrief.

The kids ordered what they wanted and I split the bill with my co-coach. Once they had their food, we sat them down and had a team meeting. We told them that being on a team meant commitment and sacrifice, and some of the girls expressed frustration that we expected too much of them. We didn’t resolve anything, but I hope we showed the students that we cared about them regardless of whatever else happened.

Seven students made it through to the end of the season. After the last meet, I had them over to my apartment in Manhattan for a celebration. I cooked them burgers and hot dogs, and they devoured them but were mostly interested in watching movies on my HDTV. Watching the students interact in my home, it was easy to remember that they were just kids. I was proud of what we’d accomplished that season but knew there wouldn’t be a next season. I’d look for other ways to provide an after-school athletic program to students that wouldn’t leave us all feeling so demoralized.

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.