First Person

An Open, Honest, Transcontinental Dialogue Starts Now

Dear GothamSchools Community,

A few weeks ago, as I read through GothamSchools, I saw a link to a column written by Marc Waxman. Even though Marc now lives in Denver, I know him well. For over a decade he worked in New York City where he worked as a teacher and administrator at KIPP Bronx and then founded and directed (with his wife) a school in Harlem which became a conversion charter school several years ago. Since his school and mine, Renaissance Charter School in Queens, are one of only five conversion charter schools in the city, we worked closely on many issues.

After emailing with Marc about some technical issues relevant to running multiple charter schools (something I am working on here in NYC and Marc is doing in Denver), Marc invited me to enter into a public dialogue with him (a la Diane Ravitch and Debbie Meier). This letter is the kickoff of that dialogue.

I was delayed in getting this first installment for GothamSchools’ community page. Why was I late? Well, I am a school principal (aka leader, administrator, management) and this is the beginning of the third week of school. Things are busy and I am working — 60-plus hours a week. This is not meant to get sympathy — I have a big job to do and failure is just not an option — but okay, you say, where is this going?

I am also busy leaving no child behind, chartering new territory (yes, this is a clue to my background), racing to the top (did I say I am afraid of heights?), advocating for anything advocatable (I am asking that this become a new eduterm), analyzing data to do all of these things and now I stand outside school every day waiting for superman.  He has not arrived. At least not yet.

I also need you to know that I am an idealist. Sometimes I am a cynical idealist and some days I am a cynical idealist realist. This comes from being in a school for the last thirteen years. This comes from being an observer and an active participant and on some days even a change-maker.

When Marc asked if I was interested in starting up a dialogue about educational issues facing us today, I first thought “Isn’t there enough of that?” But then I was reminded by a wise woman at GothamSchools that this dialogue often takes place outside of those people actually doing the work day to day educating our young people. This is not to say that those people don’t have something to say, because surely they do and their contributions and lobbying have been instrumental in helping to push education to the forefront of policy makers. In fact, I think it is safe to say that we have a pretty strong consensus among folks who usually can’t even sit in a room together without disagreeing in the first five minutes that our nation is in a state of emergency as far as education goes.

Our goal for this dialogue is to take back ownership of some of these issues, while discussing them in the context of real-world practice.

We won’t have all the answers, you’ll surely disagree with us and you’ll see that we don’t camp out in any one camp ground. Did I say that Marc’s one condition in writing this post together was that I promise to be candid and brutally honest at all times? This will not be a debate column on good pedagogy. Although I reserve the right to use appropriate quotes as necessary.

So, for now I am putting on my tights and cape and trying to act like a superhero so that when superman or superwoman comes he/she won’t feel so alone.

Marc — even though we have communicated a bit over the past couple years, there is a whole bunch that has been going on at our school and in NYC around charter schools and education generally. Let me catch you up on some highlights. Do you remember when we co-chaired a committee called Advocacy and Equity at The New York City Center for Charter School Excellence (now known as The New York City Center for Charter Schools)? We asked many questions (which it would be great to revisit in this blog) but one of the most controversial at the time was whether charter schools and teacher unions could truly be partners in educational reform. This year this very question was embedded in a series of articles dubbed “The War on Charter Schools” in the New York Post. Unfortunately, the conclusion reached in this article was a pretty resounding, “No, not today, not tomorrow, forget about it, Al Shanker!” I have a lot to say about this and interestingly after all that I experienced firsthand for the last two years, I continue to see that ray of sunshine and possibility coming through (remember, I am the idealist). But I would love to hear how unions and charter schools co-exist in Denver.


Stacey Gauthier is co-principal at the Renaissance Charter School in Queens.  Renaissance is a K-12 unionized, conversion charter school originally founded in 1992 by a group of teachers wanting to create a “renaissance” in NYC public education. Prior to joining Renaissance she worked in various not-for-profit settings including a major art museum and for a prominent labor union.

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.