(Credit: Photographer/Mayoral Photography Office)
When I was in 5th grade at a public elementary school in Manhattan, my teacher was Mrs. Camiji, and I loved her. She taught us about diverse cultures all over the world, and pushed us to think about what roles we could serve in our community. It was empowering to see her in front of the classroom. She was the first African-American classroom teacher I ever had, and the last African-American classroom teacher I had until college.
Ms. Camiji was part of the reason I have been so committed to education as an adult. Over the past four years, I dedicated hundreds of hours serving on the city’s Panel for Educational Policy and voting on hundreds of policies affecting the students of color who make up the vast majority of the city’s public school students. But extremely few of those policies have directly addressed the racism and bias in our schools that are obstacles to academic achievement.
In his State of the City speech a few months ago, Mayor de Blasio said, “We face an achievement gap today that is rooted in the enslavement of Americans and the pervasive discrimination against people of color over centuries. We know exactly where the problem comes from, but to defeat structural racism and to overcome this achievement gap, we have to flip the script. We have to do something different when it comes to education….”
The mayor is right, and he is in a position to change this. Former schools Chancellor Carmen Farina made many positive changes in New York City public schools - elevating the role of educators, diminishing the role of standardized tests, expanding community schools, and other great initiatives. But over the past four years, this administration has danced around issues of systemic racism in schools, unwilling to confront it directly.
Despite a deep body of research showing that students are more likely to succeed academically when they see themselves reflected in the books and curriculum they read, in the courses they take, in the issues discussed in class, I have seen very few system-wide policies that reflect this approach to advancing the success of students of color, beyond small and excellent initiatives like NYCMenTeach and Expanded Success Initiative.
I hope that the new leader of the school system, Chancellor Richard Carranza, will take up this issue and do more than the administration has so far.
Chancellor Carranza has seen first-hand, as a principal and a superintendent, the incredible impact on students of color when they learn about their own history and culture, and from educators who understand and connect with their history and culture. He has a reputation for engaging families in genuine and culturally appropriate ways, and knows the investment in schools that approach builds.
My daughter graduated from high school last year, and she never had an African-American classroom teacher in New York City public schools. In elementary school there was one African-American music teacher; in high school there was an African-American substitute science teacher. The students loved that science teacher, and my daughter confided in him and relied on his input to shape her decisions and keep her focused. But it’s a disgrace that my daughter’s teachers were no more diverse than my own, 25 years earlier.
Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza, let’s make this the last generation of New York City public school students who have to experience what my daughter and I have. Let’s grow the number of teachers and administrators of color, increase cultural competency among all teachers, and diversify curriculum and course offerings. This is the path to expanding academic success among our students of color, and for all students.
Elzora Cleveland is a former mayoral appointee on the Panel for Educational Policy, and a parent leader with the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice. On Twitter @CEJNYC.