This piece was written by Arthur Samuels, Executive Director, Pagee Cheung, Principal, Princess Francois, Assistant Principal of Math & Science, and Dwayne James, Social Worker & Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Math, Engineering, and Science Academy (MESA) Charter High School in Brooklyn, NY. MESA Charter High School is authorized by New York State Regents.
When MESA Charter High School opened in 2013, we described it as a “love bubble on the third floor” of the forbidding public building we shared with two other district schools.
We are located in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, a community comprised largely of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, and Puerto Rico, and our student demographics reflect this.
With rigorous instruction, hard-working staff, and a relentlessly positive culture, the school thrived. Kids aced exams, graduated at rates unheard of in the district, and went to college.
Never mind that students self-segregated by race in the cafeteria.
Over time, the fissures became harder to ignore and more pernicious. Students described being bullied because of their skin color. There were vicious, anonymous attacks on social media. One student told us, “I get a great education here, but I hate coming to school,” which, as school leaders, cut deeply.
If students felt this way — and indeed, if some students had been feeling this way since day one — we couldn’t pretend that MESA was still a “love bubble.” We needed to respond.
In spring 2018 — two years before the killing of George Floyd — our team began the painful but necessary process of unpacking the racial dynamics of our school. We first looked closely at how we, as staff and leadership, had permitted, and in some cases, unwittingly encouraged, racism to fester. We unearthed microaggressions that staff and students alike carried with them. We reexamined the language used, comments in class made carelessly or allowed to go unchecked.
It was, and continues to be, messy. We have attempted — slowly, imperfectly, and in a “two-steps-forward-one-step-back” way — to make MESA a place where we understand that everyone is on a journey, that we will all mess up along the way, and where it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you apologize, learn from it, and do better going forward.