Tracy Dunbar works on Teach For America’s Human Assets team. She recently relocated back to her hometown of Brooklyn, New York.
When someone asks me where I work, I usually say I work for an “education reform non-profit organization.” But if I ask myself, “Am I an education reformer?,” my gut reaction is “No.” I have very little in common with the Joel Klein’s, Dave Levin’s and Mike Feinberg’s of the world. I do, however, have much in common with the students we are educating in low-income neighborhoods across the country.
I lived a relatively sheltered life in the housing projects of Brooklyn—a single-parent home, church every Sunday, playing outside until the streetlights came on—but I was not able to escape the realities of living in an environment of highly-concentrated poverty.
View of Boulevard Housing Projects in East New York, Brooklyn. Picture taken by Thomas Brice, Tracy’s former classmate and a professional photographer.
My first peer (Torian) was gunned down and killed during the summer that we all transitioned from 6th grade to junior high school. For most of my secondary education I carried a concealed weapon (a knife or box cutter), walked with a tremendous chip on my shoulder, and perpetuated a “cool” attitude (while secretly making the grade). I figured out how to survive in my environment and still create a vision for my future—I was “moving on up" like Mr. George Jefferson, period.
But by many objective standards, I was receiving a sub-par education. From K-12 I attended my neighborhood zone schools in District 19, in the East New York section of Brooklyn. I was tracked into the top-tier classes in elementary and junior high school, but when presented opportunities to test into magnet schools, boarding schools or specialized high schools, I did not make the grade. Perhaps I did not have the aptitude. Or perhaps I unconsciously threw the tests, knowing these opportunities would take me away from my neighborhood, my family, my friends.
Mrs. Carol Beck was the new principal hired in 1989 to turnaround my failing high school. Teachers were fired, new programs created, students expelled, and Mrs. Beck inspired parents and the surrounding community to believe that we could and would do better. In my corner of the world, Mrs. Carol Beck was the reformer.
And we almost made it.
Then, in 1992, during my senior year of high school, two students—Ian and Tyrone—were shot and killed inside of the school building by another student. While we were all too familiar with the sounds of gunshots, sitting in class and hearing those sounds was a new phenomenon.
The story made the national news. Jesse Jackson and Mayor David Dinkins came to visit. Metal detectors were installed. Then, just a few short months later, it happened again. A third student and a teacher were victims of a shooting inside the school. With a heavy heart and failing health, Mrs. Beck retired at the end of the following school year.
Long before education reform was a nationally known buzzword, my mother—along with other parents and community leaders—took a chance on Mrs. Carol Beck. A movie was never made about her, but she made many strides. Mrs. Beck set a higher standard and fought for us, “her babies.” Did she achieve absolute success? No. Did she improve the experience and outcome for many of her students? Yes.
We need to broaden the term “education reformer” to include many more people. Ed reformers are not only those with high visibility and access to large amounts of capital. They are also people of the community who believe and want change—and whose efforts are improving the system one student, one classroom at a time.
Today, my high school has been split up into several small school communities, but sadly, the results are still the same. I am one of the few exceptions. I graduated at the top of my class, attended college on a merit-based scholarship and completed a Master’s degree. Though my story sometimes feels very different from others engaged in this work, it is precisely because of my experiences that I must be an advocate for our students.
So. . .am I an ed reformer? I am an African-American woman with urban sensibilities committed to honoring the sacrifices of my ancestors who paved the way for me and I work for Teach For America. If this means I am an education reformer, so be it.