First Person

Voices: Goodbye, Wasson High School

 Jason Gaulden, a member of  Roy J. Wasson High School’s class of 1996, pays tribute to his alma mater days after the District 11 school board voted to close it.

From the moment the board of education in Colorado Springs District 11 voted 6-1 to close an historic high school, Facebook lit up with activity paying respect and tribute to a place that significantly shaped the lives of many.

Roy J. Wasson High School, home of the mighty Thunderbirds, will be closed, leaving many former students in a state of mourning.

“Gone but not forgotten. We will always be the T-Birds.” –  Toni Matlasz.

“Sad to see Wasson is closed. So many great memories.” – Jason Davis

“T-Birds for life.”  – Cristina Portillos

This is the resounding sentiment of those who feel the closing of Wasson is a great loss. And in many ways, it is. The nostalgia is strong for good reason – the character and culture of the school makes for a very special, universal bond among T-Birds. In my biased opinion, the mid-90s was the golden age for Wasson. What an incredible era, and what good fortune my peers and I had to live through it.

Some of the most profound moments and memories of my life occurred during my years as a student at Wasson, many in that building. Some of my best friends to this day are a result of crossing paths there. So many priceless lessons that govern my life were molded by my high school experience.

I am the seventh Gaulden, after my six older siblings, to go through Wasson while transitioning from teen to adult. So I understand and share the grief of my fellow T-Birds:

“Goodbye Wasson, what a sad day.” – Ever Hopper

“Closing of another great school. Sad day in Colorado Springs. The silver lining is that we will always have each other, and Facebook!” – Freeman Thompson

“Woke up thinking about the demise of my beloved high school. Sad that a new generation won’t live the Thunderbird experience, but proud to be able to call myself a T-BIRD!”  – Marisa Murphy

Like all those expressing discontent, I too have deep and unwavering passion in my heart for Wasson. It definitely feels like something bad has happened here.

However, there is another side to this issue that must also be acknowledged. In fairness, as much as so many of us benefitted from our experience at Wasson, we also have to remember the school’s primary charge –  to provide an excellent education to all its students. Every student deserves that, and it is up to our schools to deliver it.

On its core mission and top priority, Wasson has struggled for many years. Today, its graduation rate is 65 percent. And of those who do graduate and go on to college, 56 percent of them require remedial classes to prepare them for the rigor of college-level work. That means they are paying college tuition for courses that do not count toward graduation in order to learn basic things that should have been mastered by the time they received their high school diploma.

Adding to the pressure is the unfortunate fact that the building is terribly underutilized. Families have exercised their right and responsibility of school choice, and have migrated to other schools. Not by force, but by choice.

When I graduated in 1996, the building bustled with 1,500 students. Enrollment today is 900, and, according to the district, the building is only utilized to 49 percent of its capacity. It is expected of those who manage our precious tax dollars be prudent, so it is reasonable to change course rather than continue the upside down financially situation.

These facts do little to ease the angst we feel about the closing of our beloved alma mater, but it does speak to a very important factor. Every child has a right to a high quality public education, and in honoring that commitment, sometimes we have to make tough decisions. Sometimes that means closing poor-performing schools and replacing them with better options.

That is what remains to be seen. What will District 11 do to create something even better – either in that building or elsewhere? Let’s all keep an eye on that.

I always try to find the silver lining in sad situations, and I think there is one here. The closure of Wasson doesn’t diminish any of our experiences or memories. Despite this end of an era, we should be filled with hope and determination to ensure this closure ultimately brings about something positive. Let’s direct our passion and engagement toward making sure the current and future generations get to create their own lasting memories of a great experience, both socially and academically.

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.