First Person

My kingdom for a parking space. Oh, never mind

My first teaching job was in a pretty rough school. So imagine my surprise one day when one of my colleagues said, “This is a great school to work at.” I waited for him to elaborate and tried not to fall over. He added, “Because of the parking!” He was right about that. We had a small section of the street that was reserved for teachers, but there was also ample street parking. The issues at that school were too vast for me to consider staying, but I still miss the ease of parking there.

Being a perpetual early bird, I didn’t find it too difficult to park when I transferred to my current school 10 years ago, even though there was a lot less street parking that wasn’t reserved for the school. I had my placard and usually had no problems, save for the very rare occasion when there was an accident on the Cross Bronx Expressway and I arrived later.

Much as we loved the city, my husband and I decided to buy a house and were unable to afford the city. We decided to head north, to Putnam County, where our daughter could have a yard and a small-town childhood. Since I loved teaching in the city, and still do, I didn’t look for a new job. Once I’d left Queens, I found myself leaving earlier than ever, but I wanted to make sure I could get a parking spot. And I have always relied heavily on that hour before school to get myself mentally ready for the day and set up any materials I needed. I am also neurotic about punctuality and am almost never late.

This worked well for me until last fall, when Mayor Bloomberg decided to strip most of our parking passes, citing abuse and a desire to see more people using mass transit.(I am not sure how one can abuse a Department of Education parking placard; I did once park in a Red Cross spot next to Martin Luther King High School in Manhattan, and I got towed faster than you can say “parking pass.” It was my own fault because I didn’t read the sign carefully enough, but is it abuse if you’re ticketed and towed?)

After our current passes were revoked, I found myself leaving home earlier than ever, but I still had to loop around the neighborhood until I found a space. More than once, I crossed my fingers and took a questionable spot, hoping I wouldn’t find a ticket when I got out. Sometimes I was lucky, more often not.

I suppose I could have paid to park in the lot near my school, but I have a philosophical problem with paying for something that suburban teachers get for free, even though our salaries are supposedly on par with theirs. And I was already spending a lot of money on gas. On average, I drove around for 15 to 20 minutes, wasting gas, looking for a spot, but more important, I wasted time that would have been better spent in my classroom. My commute, an hour from door to door, was extended substantially by the time I spent looking for a parking space.

Each month, I’d wait hopefully for my name to be pulled out of a hat so that I could take my turn with one of the eight passes we were issued, to be shared among 30 teachers who drove. Three times since the fall of 2008, the parking placard fairy smiled upon me. During those months, I got more work done. I drove up to the school, parked, and went inside, just like I used to, with a full hour or more to grade papers, organize my classroom, or write lessons. This left about 12 months during this school year and last that I did not have parking privileges. The number of placards my complex got from the city was also way out of line with the number of spaces we estimated ourselves — it seems like there is space for 10 more cars but of course, since we don’t have enough placards, we can’t use those spaces. My UFT chapter leader told me that the city estimated 20 feet per vehicle. Since most of us don’t drive stretch limos to work, that estimation seemed a bit high.

In February, fed up with the situation, I decided to start taking the train. Though I have to be out the door at 5:30 a.m., so that I can arrive in Melrose by 7:30 a.m., there are definite benefits. Most important, I get a lot of work done during the ride. It’s less stressful than driving, especially in the winter months. I spend about half the ride home reading a book of my choosing, which helps me unwind. When I get home, I’ve done nearly everything I need to do for the next day and can devote myself to spending time with my daughter. When I was driving, I would have to bring home the work I didn’t get done because I was looking for parking, which left less time for her. Due to the train schedule and the length of the train ride, I now arrive home an hour later than I used to, but my daughter gets 100 percent of my attention from the minute I walk in the door. I usually have to do a few minor things, but there’s time after she goes to bed.

Ironically, my commute by train is shorter and easier than it was by subway. When I lived in Queens, it took an hour and 45 minutes, and involved a bus, two subways and a walk of several blocks. Now, it’s two commuter trains and a very short walk and an actual lot where I can leave my car. Living and working in the same city does not automatically equal an easy public transit commute, especially for those who have children, attend school or have other obligations.

I am grateful that the train has worked out for me. It’s not perfect, though. If my daughter gets sick during the school day and needs to be picked up early, it may pose a problem because the trains run very infrequently from my school. My first train leaves from my town and the second from White Plains, but for two weeks in a row my first train had mechanical problems, which led to me missing my train from White Plains, which led to me being late. It’s ironic that I’ve been late more often using public transit than I was when I was driving. Fortunately, I have an understanding principal.

If our parking passes were restored tomorrow (I know they won’t be; in fact, I wonder what we’re going to lose next) I would still continue to take the train, but I would be grateful for the flexibility of being able to drive if I needed or wanted to. I had to pass up a music class that I wanted to take with my daughter because the train won’t get me home in time and the class is held on the worst parking day of the week. I still feel for my colleagues who were not able to find a solution like mine. They are still spending lots of time driving around, looking for spots — time that could be better spent on other things. If the situation weren’t so frustrating to so many of us, maybe we’d laugh at the fact that parking is considered a perk and not a necessity.

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.