J. Michael Steele is part of a crusade to get more city high school students into college. Last month, he was promoted to director of school supports for Early College Initiative, one of a number of the City University of New York’s (CUNY) K16 initiatives.
The Early College Initiative was started 10 years ago and provides the opportunity for city students to graduate high school with an associates degree and/or up to two years of transferable college credits. The program, which is in 20 public schools, focuses on students from underserved areas and making sure they have exposure and access to college.
In his new position, Steele solidifies the alignment between high schools and colleges making sure students matriculate properly between the two. His responsibilities include strategic leadership and leading the team development, and planning activities for early college high school.
Originally from Detroit, Michigan, Steele was inspired to get into education while in college at the historically Black Alabama State University. He took a class with English professor Dr. Ralph J. Byrson, who serves as the grand historian for Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., which Steele is a member of. He said Byrson was his first Black male teacher.
“Watching him and being in his class, I said I wanted to be like him,” Steele said. “I was really inspired by him and he really had an impact on me.”
Steele earned his bachelor’s degree in English and History and went back to his home state to teach English at Loyola High School of Detroit. While starting his teaching career, he attended Central Michigan University where he earned a master’s degree in education. He would go on to become an adjunct English professor at the University of Detroit Mercy.
“While I was teaching high school English at Loyola in Detroit, I ended up going to grad school while I taught and made sure I got that out of the way,” Steele said. “It was a no-brainer knowing that I wanted to teach college so the master’s degree was there.”
Moving to the East Coast, Steele took his first leadership position as a principal at The Nativity School in Worcester, Mass. He went on to serve as director of academic planning at The
Cambridge School of Weston, a private boarding school.
Steele says he arrived in New York City in 2010 to visit friends and never left. One of his friends was working at Believe High Schools Network (BHSN). The executive director was looking for someone to head the network’s humanities department. Steel was hired on the spot.
After working for BHSN, he received a job as a program manager for Early College Initiative at CUNY in 2012. With his background in private and charter schools, Steele said he had to learn how New York’s Department of Education (DOE) worked.
“My first director would give me an assignment and tell me to go figure it out and I had to do it that way,” he said. “That’s how I learned the DOE system and structures. It was real on-the-job training and that’s one thing that’s really elevated me to this level.”
Steele was promoted to director of school supports for the Early College Initiative in November. He’s now in a position to get more Black and Brown high school students into college. Steele says his biggest concern is access and exposure to students of color to higher education, especially males.
“A lot of male students of color don’t see themselves as part of the college planning culture because it’s not something that’s placed on them until later on in life,” Steele said. “The beauty of the 6 to 12 schools that I support is that students are exposed to college starting in sixth grade. Whether it’s enrichment programs in fifth, seventh and eighth grade or college immersion when you’re in eighth grade or taking college classes when you are a freshman in high school, it’s all about exposure and access.”
Steele is now settling into his new position but has many years left in his career. He eventually would like to do something in the realm of education on the local, state or national government level. He eventually wants to be in a position where he can write education policy where Black males students can benefit.