I have long regarded the New York City Department of Education as an entity that has mastered the purposefulness of failure. Any measure of success children and schools have enjoyed has been garnered despite the system from which they operate from. Successful schools function as silos in the midst of the weight of a bloated bureaucracy that professes to have the interest of every child as its No. 1 priority but episodic leadership, promotions of individuals to positions of power who wallowed in mediocrity, coupled with wasteful spending and a top-down leadership paradigm have plagued the system for years. I come from an era where you had to prove your mettle as an educator based on student outcomes. Student outcomes reveal themselves in a variety of ways—they can be test scores, graduation rates, scholarship reports, attendance rates or even a parents’ or scholars’ smile or a visit after a graduate enters college and comes back and thanks you for the sacrifice, time, and structure you provided.
When I started in District 13 in March of 1998, the first books I received were from the legendary educational giant, Dr. Lester Young. The books would lay the foundation for my educational career. The first book was called “The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children” by Gloria Ladson-Billings which spoke to what is called Critical Race Theory, which, simply put, is the ability for an educator to craft a lesson that incorporates the culture and values of the children that the educator is charged with teaching. On a deeper level, it is the essence of cultural plurality and the intersectionality between race, class and gender.
An educator who has embraced Critical Race Theory understands that there must be an inclusivity where every historically undervalued American can see themselves in the curriculum that is being taught.
The second book was by Charlotte Danielson, it was titled “Enhancing Professional Practice.” The framework was based on four basic elements an educator should master: these elements are student services, instruction, professionalism and perpetually engaging in professional development. There are two important citadels of education that I have come to know intimately in central Brooklyn. Benjamin Banneker Academy for Community Development and Bedford Academy. Both schools were created with specific levels of intentionality: provide scholars with an alternative to specialized high schools which in recent history have disproportionately excluded Black and Brown scholars and to provide a cultural atmosphere that promotes morals, values and educational excellence.
The aforementioned schools have historically fulfilled their missions with graduation rates that fluctuate between 96 and 100% on a yearly basis. However, each school, much like its counterparts system wide, is now facing challenges that it has never faced before. What to do with a cadre of scholars who have been remotely educated since March of 2020 and now have been thrust back into school? It’s a daunting task. This truly has been the most challenging year. As the first semester has come to a close, a daunting reality has set in, the pandemic has stunted the academic, social and emotional growth of our scholars. Teachers and administrators spend more time with the children they serve in school then the ones they love at home. Many of us are burned out. Throughout my 23 years in the system, it’s been a glorious struggle. Yet, this school year is like no other. Weekly COVID exposures to both students and staff can cripple a school’s momentum. I have seen it firsthand. Sometimes it feels like we are rolling the dice in a game we surely will lose. We enter into our buildings with a population of scholars who most likely have been exposed to someone who has COVID on a daily basis. Or we ourselves have been unwittingly exposed!
Nevertheless, as educational leaders, we still face compliance mandates, questions from parents about remote learning options, that we cannot possibly answer. There is pressure to make sure our children are safe and learning even while COVID-19 strains run rampant. It all begs the question, should schools stay open? The answer is that they must stay open. I have seen the impact of on-line instruction. It doesn’t work. Although there is always a cluster of scholars who will excel, for special needs, elk scholars and scholars who need live instruction, it was a disaster. There is no substitute for in-person instruction in an atmosphere that is conducive to success.
The shakeup at Tweed is a welcomed change. I expect more changes as time goes by. As I believe in Mayor Adams, I believe in Brother Banks. He has been one of us, he understands the plight and knows that the current system is far from sustainable for student success. We need hope. We need inspiration and we need a plan of action. Our most precious resources, our children, must succeed; the alternative is unthinkable.
Adofo A. Muhammad Ed.D serves as principal of Brooklyn’s Bedford Academy High School.