Tomorrow, I will be rallying with hundreds of New York City educators to stand up for school equality for all children. As operations manager of Success Academy Bronx 1, I see every day the difference a quality education makes in the lives of black and Latino children who otherwise would be shunted into failing neighborhood schools. I understand their struggles and their triumphs, because only a few years ago, I was just like them.
My parents immigrated to Queens from Colombia as young adults in search of a better life. Though they found opportunity here that they could not have imagined in their home country, difficulty with language and financial challenges made it impossible for them to achieve their dreams. But they were determined that my younger brother and I would succeed.
My parents understood the power and opportunity that an education could unlock, and they committed themselves to preparing us for a life that valued true educational rigor.
They didn’t know that PS 29, where they enrolled me, and JHS 185 and Flushing High School, which I would have attended as I progressed through the grades, delivered an education far below the high standards they expected in the land of opportunity. But slowly, they realized that PS 29 was letting them down. For my first two years, I was labeled an English Language Learner because my parents spoke Spanish at home, and I often missed important lessons because I was pulled out for small-group instruction I didn’t need.
This was extremely frustrating for my parents, so when I was invited in fourth grade to take the test for Prep for Prep — a 14-month, intensive program that offers high-performing minority kids access to some of the country’s best private and independent schools – they jumped at the chance.
They made sure I was on time for the Prep for Prep classes after my regular school and that I did all my homework for both; they prepared me for tests and interviews and made sure I wasn’t among the 40 percent of students who drop out of the program. They made it very clear that I was not to settle for anything less than excellence, especially if opportunities were out there.
When I got into the Town School for junior high, someone – my mom, my dad, my grandma – got up with me at 4:15 every morning and took me on two trains and a bus for 2½ hours from Flushing to the Upper East Side. And they kept up their demand for excellence through my high school years at the Little Red Schoolhouse & Elisabeth Irwin HS in the West Village.
Despite studies that suggested Latin men were not going to attend, much less graduate from, college, my parents believed in me, and I thank them for making me the first in my family to graduate from college, with a double major in international and urban studies from Vassar.
I was truly lucky to have educational warriors as parents, activists who wanted a choice for me and my brother and made sure we took advantage of it. And their activism inspires me still, to speak out on behalf of the half million children in New York City — mostly children of color — who are trapped in failing schools, where less than a third can read or write or do math at grade level. I will speak out for them tomorrow at the Teachers for Equality rally, and I will continue to make my voice heard.
I was truly lucky to have educational warriors as parents, activists who wanted a choice for me and my brother and made sure we took advantage of it.
Too many children still have no choice. They are victims of inequality in a system that looks at neighborhoods like the South Bronx and condemns them as dangerous, that sees students of color as unworthy of educational opportunity because their parents are immigrants, or because they are, or because their families don’t have much money.
That’s why I am rallying — to protect our black and brown leaders of tomorrow. To bask in their intelligent questioning and their ever-growing self-confidence and to make sure those qualities aren’t lost to mediocrity and low expectations. To ensure that while the days are long and the journey is hard, that parents understand that I am just like their scholars, and that all their effort and hard work and insistence on the best for their children will pay off.
To fight for the right of all children to attend schools that value their minds and believe they can achieve great things, no matter where their parents come from or where they live.