How Medgar Evers College Is Raising Up Brooklyn and the Caribbean

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A report by Matt Krupnick for the Village Voice.

Central Brooklyn faces educational challenges common across the country: poor high school graduation and college attendance rates and limited math and English proficiency, for example. To address these problems, and analogous challenges facing students two thousand miles away, Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College is trying a novel approach: a teaching program that will train educators both at their Crown Heights campus and at colleges in the Caribbean, where they’re hoping to incubate a new generation of K–12 teachers for the borough and those countries. The Brooklyn college is working primarily with schools in Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, and Grenada.

And when the new school of education opens on the Brooklyn campus this fall, it will allow the college to expand its mission to improve Brooklyn public schools into the West Indies, which in turn would produce more local Medgar Evers students.

The 6,800-student college, part of the CUNY system, has been awarding degrees in education since it was founded a half-century ago. But the new school will allow Medgar Evers the flexibility to expand that program — training math and science teachers, for example — and provide more resources to colleges in the West Indies; it will also provide basic math and English classes to the six in ten Medgar Evers freshmen who are not ready for college-level courses in a least one of those subjects.

“We’ve outgrown the idea of just a department in another school,” said Sheilah Paul, the school’s new executive dean. “We’ve earned the right to take on more responsibility.”

Part of that responsibility will entail forming tighter bonds between schools in Brooklyn and those in the Caribbean nations that send a steady stream of immigrants to the borough. More than 308,000 Brooklyn residents — about 12 percent of the borough’s population — are of West Indian descent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Medgar Evers is working with colleges and universities in those countries to strengthen teacher training and help Caribbean students prepare for U.S. colleges and universities. Students from some Caribbean schools will be able to transfer directly to Medgar Evers to finish their degrees, a move Medgar Evers is betting will help both Brooklyn and the Caribbean.

A large percentage of Medgar Evers graduates return to the Caribbean to teach, Paul said, so it makes sense to gear the new school toward Caribbean education. Eventually, she said, the college hopes to require students to complete a semester of student teaching in the Caribbean, and that its Caribbean partners will require their students to spend a semester in Brooklyn. Caribbean schools, Paul said, need help training teachers to be more effective in special education fields.

“Special education in the Caribbean is still trapped in the past,” she said. “We want to take what we’ve done here and share it.

A major goal of the partnerships, the college says, is to provide Brooklyn with better-educated immigrants who will attend universities and be employed in the borough. With hundreds of thousands of immigrants in Brooklyn, teaching here requires being attuned to different issues than in more homogenous parts of the country. Ameria Lennard of the nonprofit group Global Kids runs an after-school program in the heavily Caribbean East Flatbush neighborhood. She notes that nearly 95 percent of the program’s middle schoolers come from West Indian families, and many complain that teachers don’t take the time to understand their culture or heritage. “It would boost their confidence and morale” to have more teachers who can connect with them and incorporate their backgrounds into the classroom, she says.

Denise Laidley graduated in May from Medgar Evers’s education program and now teaches special education in Brooklyn. She says she’s taken pains to bring Caribbean culture into her classroom.

“We’re storytellers,” says Laidley, who was raised in East Flatbush by Jamaican immigrant parents. “If you go to the Caribbean, the way they greet you, it sounds like a fairy tale or a movie because of the way they talk. I wanted my students to be engaged, so I had to tailor my teaching to be more of a story, because that’s what they were used to.”

“Students’ cultures don’t leave when they enter the classroom,” adds Amanda Wilson, a Trinidadian-Canadian Medgar Evers alum who teaches at a Brooklyn charter school. “If we incorporate their culture into the classroom, they’ll be more engaged.”

Some education experts are warning the college to proceed cautiously. The Caribbean initiative may come across as “another form of colonization,” said Tavis Jules, an associate professor who teaches international education at Loyola University in Chicago. Jules, who grew up in Guyana, notes that Caribbean countries have significant cultural differences from one another: “The most important thing will be for them to understand the sociopolitical implications of the project they’re embarking on. It would be easy to think of the Caribbean as one homogenous area.”

Several West Indian nations are in drastic need of better teacher training, said Hilary Landorf, director of Florida International University’s Office of Global Learning Initiatives. But, she says, it’s imperative to approach the issue with cultural sensitivity. “I was trained that we, as Americans, go to other countries to collaborate with educators there and to listen to them,” Landorf said. “It’s not an imperialist endeavor at all.”

Medgar Evers President Rudy Crew says the college has noticed similar reading and math deficiencies in students from New York City and those from the Caribbean. “Brooklyn is the backyard of the Caribbean, and vice versa,” says Crew, a former New York City schools chancellor. “When you think of these students coming to us from another country and trying to do college-level work, they have exactly the same challenge as a kid coming out of Crown Heights.”

These shared challenges, however, are also common across most of the United States. About 60 percent of first-year students at Medgar Evers are not ready for college-level English, math, or both, about on par with the nationwide figures. And those are just the students who make it to college at all. As a result, a big part of the new school will be addressing the broken “pipeline” from preschool to college. Nearly 86 percent of freshmen needed remedial work before the project began, the college says, but by training teachers to better connect with students early in their education, the new school hopes to help bring that number down.

“We need to be more like the coach who recruits people when they’re in elementary school,” says Crew. “The fact that you’re a third-grader means you’re a third-grader en route to college. We’ve got to be more aggressive about recruiting people to this very valuable commodity of education.”

Officials at the New York City Department of Education declined to answer questions about the need for more teachers or schools at which to train them.

Medgar Evers has already brokered deals with textbook companies to provide Caribbean schools with the same materials used in Brooklyn, says Paul, the Medgar Evers dean, who grew up in Trinidad and Tobago and says that as a child she would have welcomed American educators sharing their expertise with her teachers. By improving the lives of those in two separate communities, separated by over two thousand miles but bound together by indelible cultural ties, the new program is a natural fit within a 21st-century education. As Paul says, “We are trying to create a workforce that is global.”

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