Jamaal Bowman stumbled into education and doesn’t regret it

Stephon Johnson | 12/8/2016, midnight
A product of the Upper East Side, Cornerstone Academy for Social Action Middle School Principal Jamaal Bowman didn’t set out ...
Jamaal Bowman Photo courtesy of Jamaal Bowman

A product of the Upper East Side, Cornerstone Academy for Social Action Middle School Principal Jamaal Bowman didn’t set out to be an educator. But here he is.

Bowman was born and raised in New York City and spent the first seven years of his life in the East River Houses with his grandmother. His mother was a single mom and he had two older sisters. All of them worked during the day, so he stayed with his grandmother during the week and with his mother on the weekends. When his grandmother passed, he moved in with his mom full time in Knickerbocker Plaza.

Despite an upbringing some would consider topsy-turvy, Bowman told the AmNews that he was “so thankful and blessed.”

At the age of 16, his family moved to New Jersey, where he would finish high school. Although he started college down in West Virginia, Bowman got his undergraduate degree in sports management from the University of New Haven in May 1999. Whereas some college graduates take time off before looking at the job market, Bowman had other goals.

“I told myself that by September, I wanted to have a job somewhere,” Bowman said. “I guess my mind was using that [kind of] clock and I was used to being in school.”

Bowman didn’t consider himself a good fit at any of the corporate jobs he looked into in his chosen field of sports management, so a friend offered to help.

“A friend, whose mom was a teacher and worked for the Department of Education, told me to take a look at that field and give it a shot,” said Bowman. “Once I was in, I fell in love with it immediately. God puts you where you need to be.”

Bowman said he went to 65 Court St., filled out an application and got finger printed. He was hired on the spot.

Bowman first job came in a high-need area: District 9 in the South Bronx. He worked as a fourth grade crisis intervention teacher at Public School 90, which at the time was embroiled in a cheating scandal.

“When I was there, it had four principles in five years,” said Bowman. “You could almost sense the apathy and despair amongst the staff. It was sort of a depressing work environment. I was young and naive and passionate about working with children. I think it should be like military service you should work with children. It’s good for the spirit and the soul of all of us.”

Bowman learned a few lessons, positive and negative, in his first teaching experience, lessons he carries with him to this day.

“When you become a teacher, you’re a learner first,” Bowman told the AmNews. “It was mostly positive to be honest. I think the negativity, if there is one, is what the system does in focusing a lot of your worth on a single standardized test at the end of the school year, and there’s much more nuance and complexity to what happens to students and teachers in this space. [There are] multiple measures and ways that display the work that teachers do.”

At P.S. 90, Bowman started a basketball program to give kids something to do after school and partnered with the local Boys & Girls Club to organize back-to-school events and provide after-school tutoring. Bowman also worked on his master’s degree in school counseling. He eventually moved from that elementary school to the High School for Arts and Technology. There, Bowman was an all-purpose educator. He served as a counselor, a teacher and a coach, and he led after-school programs.

But Bowman had also been jotting down in his journal ideas he had for what he would do it he got to run a school of his own. Bowman applied to the New Leaders for New Schools program and got in.

“I spent a year as a resident at an Achievement First charter school,” said Bowman. “And I simultaneously wrote my proposal for a new school. I had an idea of opening up a new school and putting in a team to make it happen.”

Bowman, taking advantage of then Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education agenda, wrote and submitted his proposal in December 2008. The proposal was accepted in January 2009. The Cornerstone Academy for Social Action Middle School opened that September.

“It was a great experience to be a founding principal, because I was allowed to hire my own staff and hire a staff that share our philosophy for education and believed in what we were trying to do with children,” said Bowman. “High expectations. They believe in innovation and creativity so it’s not just learning in an abstract sense, they learn by doing and creating things. They believe in meeting students where they are and honoring their social capital.”

The website for Bowman’s school touts the school as a “public middle school in the Bronx focused on passion, self-actualization and 21st century learning ... with the #1 improvement in test scores of any school in NYC.”

The middle school devotes itself to the combination and what they call “Common Core + 21st Century Learning” and includes leadership training, weekly assemblies and something called “Genius Hour,” where kids are given two 60-minute sessions weekly to work on passion projects that address community concerns.

“Some of the challenges I faced were operating in a standardized space where I don’t believe kids or curriculums should be standardized,” said Bowman. “Operating in that space while staying true to our uniqueness was a challenge. Year three was where progress was made on the standardized tests while maintaining our uniqueness.”

Before ending his conversation with the AmNews, Bowman expressed a desire that readers take a few lessons from him with the hope that it carries them through their lives.

“Follow your instincts,” said Bowman. “Trust your guts and your inner compass. Your intuitive intelligence matters more than anything. Be open to learning and be mindful of your biases. Go through the pain of change and don’t allow yourself to stick with the status quo.”

He concluded, “All kids are brilliant and adults have to create the environment that nurtures their brilliance. Education is more than just a test score.”