Education is something that has always been important in my family. My paternal great grandfather was born into slavery and was emancipated at the age of four. He became a minister and vowed that all five of his children would get a college education—which they did.
It’s interesting that, given that legacy, I never really saw myself in education. After I earned my MBA, I worked in public finance. I was very un-fulfilled. So, I went to work for the Jericho Project, a housing organization for men and women in recovery from substance abuse. I’ve always wanted a job where I could have an impact on people’s lives—especially those who have the most trouble getting their lives back on track, or have not graduated high school, or have special education needs. It was clear to me that education was key to their ability to bounce back.
Subsequently, I worked at the Family Academy in development and strategy. One day, I brought my 4-year-old daughter to visit a second-grade class. I was reading a book about dinosaurs and asked the class, “Who can tell me what a carnivore is?” None of the kids could answer. My daughter confidently chimed in, “A carnivore is an animal that eats meat.” In that moment, I understood what the 30-million-word gap is all about. It’s about the vocabulary that kids are introduced to largely by virtue of their parent’s educational attainment. Kids who don’t have that access may simply not be introduced to the words. That impacts learning because they start from a deficit which just escalates.
Those were the key points that made me realize that if I wanted to make a meaningful impact in people’s lives, education was the way to do it.
Research shows that teachers of color help close the achievement gap for students of color. So, it’s not just a “nice to have” issue—it is a “need to have” issue. Where people of color lead, people of color follow. As a Black woman in leadership, and the first Black woman to lead a charter school in New York City and a charter management organization, I strive to be that example of leadership. I’ve always had very diverse and professional leadership teams.
Representation has been one of my commitments at Girls Prep, Urban Teaching Corps, and Bronx Charter School for the Arts (Bronx Arts). All of our classrooms are named for people who represent our students—Billie Jean King at Girls Prep, Nina Simone and Jacob Lawrence at Bronx Arts. The key is showing kids that people who look like them, and who come from similar backgrounds, have achieved incredible things in their careers.
Here are some things I have learned about navigating the education reform space:
- You must be able to communicate with various constituents: students, families, teachers and donors. All of whom have very different needs, and perspectives.
- You must work really hard. I am a single mother and my daughter and I both sacrificed a great deal for my work. It takes being willing to give up a good deal of your life, but not all of it! You must also know where to draw the line. Know what you cannot and should not sacrifice.
- You must have a clear vision of excellence and keep moving toward that vision. Our kids deserve no less.
At the end of the day, we must have great results for kids. If I can’t move the bar towards excellence, I shouldn’t be doing this. Our kids are capable of so much; we need to provide them with the environments where they can thrive and reach their full potential.
The arts are important to education because they help us educate the whole child. We want to make sure that our students have access to everything. As kids go through school, they need different points of access to keep them interested and engaged in learning. One of our students has trouble connecting with other kids. At a recent performance, he played the piano, and everyone got to see how great he was. He may not feel proud of his academics or ability to get along with other kids, but he could feel proud – and he did – in that accomplishment.
The arts are what make us human. They are how we express our humanity. This is true if you are a 30-year-old ballet dancer, or a 5-year-old drawing your feelings. As a kid who was raised with the arts, I think it’s essential to human development.
Bronx Arts serves over 20 percent students with special education needs, and we meet those kids where they are—not where we think they should be. We attract teachers and leaders of color who are skilled and care deeply about educating all kids. We’re a Responsive Classroom school, so we put value on a teacher’s ability to connect with his/her students. All of the schools that I’ve led are warm and caring places for kids to learn.
I want to give to the community lasting organizations that continue to offer powerful educational options for families. I’d love it if one day someone says, “oh yeah! She’s the woman who founded Girls Prep! I went to Girls Prep! She also developed Bronx Arts!”
Miriam Raccah is the Executive Director of Bronx Charter School for the Arts—the top performing elementary school in New York’s District 8. Miriam is also a past participant of the School Leaders of Color convening, organized by the National Alliance.
View all posts on The Charter Blog from our 2019 celebration of Black History Month!
Miriam is a real visionary!I don't think she does sleep because she lives and breathes making her school better