First Person

Yes, teachers do want safer schools, and ending suspensions is an important step

The author, sitting to the left of sign, at a Teachers Unite workshop for educators on restorative justice in 2015.

As an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, I applaud the mayor’s recommendations, released last week, for ending suspensions in kindergarten through second grade and reforming the Department of Education’s metal detector policy. As one of many teachers concerned about the future of New York City school children, I’m glad the city is taking this step to keep students in school. Schools are a place where children should be educated in every sense: academically, in civic participation, and in the development of social-emotional skills. All students should be encouraged to find success and support, not pushed out through suspensions or made to feel like they are criminals.

In several schools where I have worked, I’ve often heard the following rationalization for suspending students who present challenging behavior: “Should the needs of one or two students take precedence over the needs of the whole group?” Why instead aren’t we asking ourselves, “Whose needs are constantly being compromised for the needs of the majority?”

In a second grade class I once taught, five of my students were black boys. The only suspensions given to students in their grade that year were for three of these boys, two of whom were suspended multiple times by the administration for behavior like having a tantrum. Did suspensions change the behavior of these students? No. Did suspensions further alienate these students and their families from the school? Yes. Even in second grade, students realize when they aren’t wanted in a space, and it can become difficult for them to distinguish the adults’ responses to unwanted behavior from a feeling of exclusion, that they aren’t wanted in general. From talking to other teachers, students, and parents, I know this dynamic plays out in classrooms across the city. Black students in New York City represent less than 30% of the student population, yet in 2014-15 they served 53% of suspensions citywide. The lives of black youth matter, and we have to keep them in the classroom.

As I thought critically about my role as a white educator in an institution that actively pushes out youth of color, I chose to seek out instructional practices that matched my belief about children. This led me to restorative justice, a philosophy rooted in traditions that emphasize building community. In the life of a school, that means knowing our students and responding, when students misbehave, to the needs of everyone impacted by the harm done, rather than pushing out students who, often looking for community and acceptance, exhibit behavior as a result of these needs. I have successfully incorporated several restorative approaches into my classrooms, but it is challenging work that needs more district-wide support and funding.

The mayor has committed to greater funding for this work in high-need schools, including mental health supports and professional development, in addition to the policy changes recommended. But the Department of Education still lacks a comprehensive strategy for reducing racial disparities in discipline and policing. Far more schools need multi-year funding to directly hire their own dedicated, school-based restorative justice coordinators and cover program costs. Additional policy changes are also needed: We have to end suspensions for minor misbehaviors in higher grades too, like the highly subjective “defying authority” infraction, long opposed by Teachers Unite and the Dignity in Schools Campaign-New York.

Even before the current conversation about institutional racism in the United States, the groundswell of activists fighting for black lives has resulted in local school district reforms in Chicago, Denver, Miami, Oakland, and elsewhere, that address the racial disparities seen in overused and ineffective suspensions. It’s about time New York City joined the list of cities beginning to answer the calls of their communities. The nation is challenging the widespread police killings of innocent black people through activism, protests, art and critical thinking, and community empowerment. Let’s ensure that New York City is really committed to the health and safety of black children. Greater investment in school climate will inspire academic success, rather than a foreboding sense of distrust and hostility.

New Yorkers deserve public schools that are adequately funded and resourced. If we want schools to be safe places for all students, we must ensure that black students are treated with dignity and acceptance.

Editor’s note: This story has been edited to remove an incorrect reference to the school safety budget.

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.