Boys of Color Are “Becoming Extinct.” This Bold Thinker Wants to Change That.

Update: Applications for the 2018 Bridge Fellowship are open now through September 2nd.

Back in June, Marvin Pierre was named one of TNTP’s 2016 Bridge Fellows. As Marvin prepares for his year-long fellowship, we sat down with him to learn more about his story, his passion for educating young men of color, and what he looks forward to in the next year.

In your application essay you write about some barriers to success you and your friends faced growing up in Jamaica, Queens. What was the biggest challenge?

For a lot of kids, it was not seeing positive role models—particularly male role models—doing something productive in the community. I was lucky. I was the son of Haitian immigrants who worked hard to make ends meet. I knew their lifestyle was something I didn't want for myself, and my father made it clear that education was the only way my brothers and I could change that. He drove a cab for a living and every time we fell short in school he’d say, “You need to focus because you don't want to be driving a cab like me.” He inspired us to be better than him.

A lot of my friends didn't have parents who reinforced expectations. I lost many to gun and gang violence. I really got a better understanding of the situation when I attended Tabor Academy, a prep school near Cape Cod, Massachusetts. My experiences at Tabor helped me to understand what the opportunity gap meant and looked like. I was around classmates who were afforded better opportunities and were exposed to things at a much earlier age.

Cape Cod was like this utopia. People didn't lock the doors to their houses or cars. Growing up in New York City, that's not normal. At Tabor, I had an opportunity to escape the noise and distractions of New York. I was able to really get an education and develop myself as a young man. People were really nice and my teachers understood the challenges and shortcomings I came with. They were invested in helping me close the gaps I had in my development, both academically and socially.

How did you end up working in education?

After graduating from Trinity College, I got a job working on Wall Street. I did that for three years until the recession hit and found myself at a crossroads. I was trying to figure out whether I wanted to stay in finance, or pursue something I always thought about doing: working with kids—specifically boys of color.

My best friend and classmate at Tabor was a fifth grade special education teacher, and invited me to speak to her kids. Her school was having trouble finding positive black male role models. She said, “You have such an amazing story of how you overcame the obstacles they currently face. Your story would be an inspiration to them.” So I went and spoke. Afterward I walked around her class and she had this board up with a student's name and a number next to it. I asked, “What do the numbers mean?” She said, “That's their reading level.” They were fifth graders, but the highest reading level on the board was third grade.

I couldn’t stop staring. I knew if these kids couldn’t read by the time they were done with elementary school, it would limit their opportunities for long-term success. It's too competitive of a world. I asked myself, “How do I change that?” I had already been giving back through volunteering and donating to organizations that supported youth, but I felt there was more to do.

In the past you’ve served as a dean in charter networks and an assistant principal at a school for boys. What inspired you to focus specifically on the school to prison pipeline and how to deal with discipline in a smarter, more proactive way?

I’ve been fortunate to have success working with boys of color in charter schools, but I started to think about how to do more on a greater scale: how do I take what I'm doing and provide more opportunities for other boys in the city of Houston and across this country? The school to prison pipeline was one of the things I couldn't get over. It’s really a problem. We're actually setting up kids to become adult inmates because of the way we respond to their behavior and their academic performance—particularly in elementary and middle school. I thought that would be a great place to direct my energy.

Your Bridge Fellowship project will focus on implementing re-entry strategies for kids who’ve been suspended or spent time in juvenile detention centers. I know it’s early, but what are some things that you think would help with this?

I think we've got to address issues around mental health, character development, and job readiness—particularly for those students who have exhausted the opportunity to go back into a traditional school setting. How do we make sure those kids are still set up for success in the real world? I think we can also do more to leverage non-profits that are interested in getting involved with schools and can help solve some of the problems. I personally think doing these sort of things on a larger scale can help close gaps with our young men.

What expectations do you have for the fellowship? Are there any challenges you anticipate?

I think the fellowship will be a great opportunity for me to essentially become an expert in the field of developing young boys of color. It’s challenging to do that in a school setting when you have a lot of other things to worry about. To spend the whole year studying how our boys end up in our criminal justice system is really exciting.

As a country, we've tried a lot of things to address the problem, but for the most part they haven’t worked at scale. I want to figure out how to do that—starting with early childhood education. How do we develop our boys and set them up for success in elementary school so that it transitions into their middle school, high school, and college experiences? How do our boys end up in juvenile detention centers to begin with? Where does the downward spiral start? How do we catch these issues early on? The fellowship will give me an opportunity to understand this on the back end, at the policy level, and from the lens of an educator. As someone who aspires to run my own elementary school for boys, understanding this is critical to my long-term success.

In terms of challenges, I come from one of the most challenging areas of New York City. I'm a product of parents who have overcome so much to provide an opportunity for me to make a difference in the world. I'm not afraid of challenges and frustrations that will come with this project. I’m focused on driving results and seeing outcomes. Our young boys of color are becoming extinct; too many are lost to the streets and prison system. It would be a huge disservice to this country for us to not capitalize on the potential they have, and the amazing contributions they can make if we provide them with the support they need.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

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