During the ESI Conference, Ingrid Chung gave an Ed Talk that moved the audience. Ingrid Chung is a high school English teacher at Urban Assembly for Applied Math and Science. Here is what she said:
We were well into the school year when I first met Devante three weeks after I started teaching humanities, for the first time, to seventh graders in the South Bronx. I had practiced saying his name in front of the mirror like I did with the other students on my class roster. De-Van-Te. I was determined to memorize all of my students’ names before my first day of school.
Yet, the first time I met Devante was not in the classroom. It was after school, on the cusp of October and he was outside talking to some of my students on a red bicycle. At that point, I wasn’t sure if he had been removed from my roster entirely or if he had moved away. He hadn’t. He was just outside, hanging out. He was fourteen- years-old then.
Devante came into the school building the following morning after I had introduced myself and insisted that he come in the next day for my class. He rapidly became one of my favorite students—impressing me with his finesse with words and lyrics and moving me with his fierce loyalty to his family and to his block. He was an artist—a student who spoke rarely in the classroom, but when he did everyone listened. His attendance was sporadic in seventh grade, but he managed to hustle through with his natural intelligence and my sheer force of will.
At the end of seventh grade, Devante’s best friend (in the high school next door), was shot and killed the day before his high school graduation. Devante never recovered from that shock and by the time he entered eighth grade, his attendance was almost nonexistent and he had developed a mean hatred for all things authority. He transferred out of our middle school into another high school and dropped out the next year.
It was the first time I questioned why I became a teacher and also the first time I cried over a student.
All over New York City, there are other “Devantes” in other schools who are struggling. They go by other names and try to stand tall when things get hard. You know their faces. They’re the boys who wander into the building well after the bell has rung . . . the boys who linger a little too late outside on the block and by the school gym . . . and the boys who exist in the hallway like semi- permanent fixtures until one day, they just disappear.
Take a minute. Think of one of your “Devantes.” Think of the demons that he battles every single day. Say his name out loud into the air.
I remember talking to my current principal (who then was my assistant principal) about Devante. Since then, it’s been eight years and he and I have spoken about dozens of other boys—James, David, Darnell, Kaliym, Brian, Alvaro, Jerald, and Joel—all who were each struggling in their own ways. Until one day last year, around this time, we were tired of talking about it and tired of watching the at-risk student prophecy come true year-after- year for our boys. So, we decided to do something about it.
We sat down with our head of discipline, our guidance counselor, and one of our middle school math teachers. What we created was a leadership program for young men called Umoja, a word that I had only just heard the week before at an ESI culturally relevant education PD. A word in Swahili which means unity, family, and brotherhood . . . and directly translated means “I am because we are.”
The five of us transformed our thinking about our most at-risk young men (which we had formerly defined as at-risk through poor attendance, poor credit accumulation, and a high number of disciplinary consequences). Instead of calling them our most at-risk young men and defining their future before it had even played out, we called them our most promising young leaders, our most precious gifts. We realized that the same things that we wanted for them were everything that they already were. So, we brought them, thirteen of them, from grades 9 – 12 to Black Rock Forest for six days and five nights of team building, resilience training, and leadership exercises.
They came with their guard up because they were going to be with boys they didn’t know. They came uncertain because their school principal and head dean who had suspended each of them more than once would be there. But they came. This transformational week has transitioned into a weekly after school and Saturday program that has drastically changed the narrative and trajectory of each of these young men and all of the adults involved. My school, the Urban Assembly School for Applied Math & Science is not an ESI school. In fact, when ESI was inviting schools to participate, we had yet to have our first graduating class of seniors (who are now graduating from college). We are a non-screened 6th – 12th grade school serving those children growing up in the poorest congressional district in the country and we were tired of seeing our boys shut down, drown with everyone watching, and eventually, drop out. So we did something about it. What started as a small pilot program last summer will be expanding this year into Umoja 2.0 and our first Girls’ Empowerment Camp called Nia. ESI has provided many schools a stepping stone to serve and nurture New York City’s fine young men, young men who want bright futures and big things. This work doesn’t stop after ESI. In fact, it can’t. With recent events, it is clear that there is a lot of work to be done and we are the ones to do it, that we owe it to our young men. As we leave behind our legacy of work, ask yourself, what do you plan to do for the “Devantes” in your school? How will you continue the work that thousands of change makers and movers and shakers did before you? What will we do to help our boys?
By Ingrid Chung