Higher Education News
Tucked away in Laurel, Maryland, among trees and rundown buildings lies what, for some, serves as a safe haven – and even better, a new beginning. Maya Angelou Academy, within the walls of the New Beginnings Youth Development Center, serves students who have been adjudicated in order to help them reach their full academic and career potential, and aims to support them in transitioning back successfully to the community.
I recently had the privilege of visiting Maya Angelou, meeting some of the students and educators, and shadowing its leader, Principal Rennie Taylor. Principal Taylor is a passionate educator, originally from the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, who has formed an undeniable connection with his students and staff at the Maya Angelou Academy. As a former coach, motivational speaker and special education instructor, he has dedicated his entire career to serving students who face the greatest odds inside and outside the classroom. For Principal Taylor and the staff at Maya Angelou, there is no greater satisfaction than seeing their students overcome the toughest circumstances and exceed everyone’s expectations.
“[At the Academy] students get a taste of what it means to be celebrated”, Taylor told me during my visit with him this week. “That dose of positive energy can get them to say ‘this isn’t so bad.’” He said showing a student you believe in their ability to achieve is the center of his and his staff’s mission.
Maya Angelou Academy’s goal is to provide a safe, nurturing, and mutually respectful environment that motivates and prepares adjudicated young men to fulfill their academic and career potential. The young men it serves struggled and were deemed failures by the system, but Maya Angelou is providing them a second change to get on the right path. Like Taylor, the school’s founders, David Domenici and James Forman, Jr., strongly believed in the redemptive power of second chances.
For students like one recent graduate, having educators at the academy who truly believed in his ability to succeed made all the difference in the world. Principal Taylor shared that one student left Maya Angelou Academy to return to his community school. Today, he is attending Delaware State University. This summer, he interned for the Office of the Attorney General for Washington DC, and participated in the creation of a program to celebrate students in the community.
Today, the school serves as a bastion of hope in a community that still struggles with crime and poverty. Students earn credits at an 87 percent rate – more than 3 times the rate they were achieving before attending the Academy, according to the Academy’s data. Seventy-one percent of scholars are engaged in school, a job, or a group home 120 days after returning to their community; compared to 23 percent in the Academy’s first year of operation. Principal Taylor and the staff at Maya Angelou view their job as not only educating students while they are there, but also supporting their transition back to the community. They are the first to admit there is still much work to do, but are very optimistic about the future.
We all know that when it comes to getting things right for our kids, nothing matters more than great leadership. Strong leaders like Rennie Taylor are a critical part of the equation – they support students, educators and the community, and make the promise of education a reality every day. In my current role at the U.S. Department of Education, as well as previous roles, I have witnessed firsthand the tremendous influence school leadership has on how students succeed in and outside of the classroom. Spending a day with Principal Taylor was a good reminder of that, as well as a reminder of the power of second chances.
Emma Vadehra serves as Chief of Staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Her visit to Maya Angelou Academy was part of an ED-wide effort to shadow principals across the country during National Principals Month.
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I am a white woman and my fiancé, Brent, is a black man who grew up in Newark, New Jersey, at the height of the crack epidemic.
Unlike me, Brent was excited about his thirtieth birthday – a day several of his childhood friends didn’t have the chance to celebrate because they were in prison or dead. Brent’s mom may have saved him from meeting a similar fate when she sent to live with his aunt to attend school in the affluent suburb of Summit.
Brent and his friends were just as smart and talented as their suburban counterparts, but their schools were underresourced—as a result of a racially unequal society— and couldn’t support student development the way that staff and families knew their children deserved. That’s why Brent’s mom made the difficult decision she did.
And, that’s why Secretary Duncan’s recent speech on Investing in Teachers Over Prisons at the National Press Club resonated with me, both personally and as a social justice advocate.
I became a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the Department of Education to learn about education policy and champion my core educational beliefs—cultural competency training for teachers and human rights-based learning for students—toward the goal of creating a more just society in which future generations won’t experience the injustice that Brent and his peers did. I hope the Secretary’s speech proves to spur a nation defined by unequal access to resources and opportunities to feel “uncomfortable with this truth” and take action to change it.
The Secretary understands what happened to change the course of Brent’s life. He believes in the power of excellent educators to support students’ personal and academic growth. He also recognizes the pernicious effects of systemic racial inequity.
Black men are incarcerated at a rate six times higher than that of their white counterparts. Traditionally underserved students of color attend and complete college at lower rates than their peers. America imprisons black people at a higher rate than in Apartheid South Africa.
These facts aren’t coincidence – they’re the result of a system defined by racism and inequality on an individual, cultural and institutional level.
In his remarks, Secretary Duncan urged America to challenge the status quo. He urged us to examine unconscious biases by taking an “unsparing look at our own attitudes and decisions, and the ways they are tied to race and class”. And, he urged that we do “something transformational and revolutionary” to fix our broken system: shift funding out of prisons and into our highest-need schools. By doing this—along with the other key components of the Secretary’s plan— we can disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and improve outcomes for all students.
The Secretary said that despite the progress we’ve made, “we have to do more” to provide all students with equity of opportunity. We have to do more to send more students to flourish in college and fewer to languish in prison. We cannot continue to squander the potential contribution of countless students who are left “on the sidelines,” like Brent almost was. This shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea, but it is.
And, the time is now to put this revolutionary thinking into action. We can’t wait any longer to do right by all of America’s children and to fulfill the promise of our nation.
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