Longtime Educator Jamaal Bowman Is Headed to Congress. Here’s His Take on Reopening Schools.

Jul 21, 2020

He started his career as an elementary school teacher. Then he became a high school guidance counselor and dean of students. After that, he founded his own public middle school in the Bronx and served as its principal for 10 years.

Now, Jamaal Bowman is headed to Congress.

In what has been called a stunning upset, the progressive Bowman defeated a 16-term incumbent in the U.S. House of Representatives in a recent primary election. Bowman is a complete newcomer to politics—he was a school principal up until about six months ago, when he resigned to become a full-time candidate. Meanwhile, the man he defeated, Eliot Engel, has held the same U.S. House seat in New York since 1989 and is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The election has been covered in nearly every major news outlet. It’s a big deal.

In this case, the primary win essentially clinches the congressional seat. Bowman has no Republican Party challenger, and his congressional district—New York’s 16th, which includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester County—leans heavily Democratic.

As he wrote on Twitter last week: “I’m a Black man who was raised by a single mother in a housing project. That story doesn’t usually end in Congress. But today, that 11-year old boy who was beaten by police is about to be your next Representative.”

On the heels of his primary victory, Bowman spoke with EdSurge about the perspective he hopes to bring to Congress, what it will take to reopen schools safely and the role of educators in addressing systemic racism in America.

Listen to this week’s podcast on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player below. Or read the partial transcript, which has been lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: For those who don’t know you, could you briefly introduce yourself?

Jamaal Bowman: Sure. I was recently elected to Congress. I’m the Democratic congressional-elect in New York’s 16th district. Prior to running for office, I worked in public education for 20 years. I started my career as an elementary school teacher in the South Bronx before becoming a high school dean of students and guidance counselor for three years.

After working in education for eight years, I wrote a proposal and opened my own district public middle school in the North Bronx called the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action (CASA). I served there for 10-and-a-half years as the founding principal before deciding to run for office.


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My personal background is I’m born and raised in the Upper East Side, East Harlem section of Manhattan. I was raised by a single mom along with my three sisters. I went to public schools my whole life and lived in the housing projects and rent-stabilized apartments growing up as well.

What was your own experience in the U.S. education system like, and how does that inform the views and priorities that you plan to bring to Washington?

I had the good fortune of going to very diverse public schools. So it was racially diverse. It was economically diverse. And I had a chance to learn from others who had different backgrounds and different experiences than me. So that was pretty cool.

I also grew up in a neighborhood that had a ton of resources to help with my overall social and emotional development. On the Upper East Side, I lived not far from Central Park, Museum Mile and a plethora of community centers that I would go to, to play sports, engage in the arts and what have you.

Despite all of that, because of the era I grew up in—it was the crack cocaine era in New York City—there was a lot of violence and a lot of problems that we would get into in our schools. So you know, a lot of fights and different things happening.

At the end of my school career, I moved to Sayreville, N.J., to finish high school. And that was a different environment. It was mostly white, mostly suburban. And I was an athlete there—I was a football player. But it was definitely culturally different, and Sayreville itself is different than New York City.

And then after that, I went to college—first in West Virginia, and then in Connecticut, before graduating and becoming a teacher.

So I’ve always fought for and believed in integrated schools because of my experiences. I have always fought for educating the whole child, as opposed to this hyper-focus on standardized tests and academic achievement. Because as I was growing up, without a father, I was very angry and acted out at school quite often. And what sort of settled me down and kept me focused was engaging in extracurricular activities, like the arts, like sports. And that’s where I met mentors, who meant more to me than just teachers in the classroom trying to get me to high academic performance.

My focus is on educating the whole child. Social and emotional intelligence is just as important as cognitive intelligence. The focus on community schools and really focusing on community development, as well as academic achievement, [is important] because when kids have resources in their communities, they’re more likely to grow holistically. And understanding the interconnections between housing, family dynamics, healthcare, employment, and what happens in education—my personal experience sort of informs all of that.

So you support a whole-child approach because that was your experience, and because it was so enriching for you?

Absolutely. And enriching is the perfect word. And it’s not just my personal experience—it is what the research has shown me as well.

“What I believe educating the whole child is all about is putting children on a pathway to fulfillment and not just a pathway to achievement. And I think there’s a very important distinction there to be made.”

I have a doctorate in education leadership, and we look at community development, community organizing, critical care and what approaches like educating the whole child do for children from a variety of backgrounds. Because even in white, wealthy communities where academic achievement is pushed and driven, there are children there who are emotionally empty because they’re only seen as these people who are good for academic excellence. What I believe educating the whole child is all about is putting children on a pathway to fulfillment and not just a pathway to achievement. And I think there’s a very important distinction there to be made. We have to educate our children and everyone as whole people. I actually think that’s how you deal with racial and economic justice as well.

What do you feel like Congress needs to know about U.S. public school education, and how are you as a long-time educator uniquely positioned to tell, or rather teach, them?

Our schools do not exist in isolation. Our schools exist within a context, and they exist within an economic context, a racial context and a historical context. And you cannot separate one from the other. So as we seek to improve our schools, we have to have a holistic lens in doing so.

We have schools existing within redlined, historically marginalized and oppressed communities. So if you want to improve the school, we have to also improve job prospects and housing in that community, [and address] environmental racism that often exists in these communities. And again, flood the community with resources—resources which have been neglected for decades. So while schools are what I call the heartbeat of our communities and a central piece to it, we have to really focus on a holistic view and approach to improving schools and neighborhoods.

I mean, our kids and our families are dealing with intense toxic stress and chronic trauma related to poverty and bad policy. And our policy has to take this holistic approach as we work with our schools, with our teachers and with our families. Everything is interconnected, as the coronavirus has shown us—you know, this invisible virus is making millions of people sick and killing hundreds of thousands, [it’s] disrupted our economy and our school system, overwhelmed our healthcare system and brought up issues of environmental injustice as well. So that holistic approach is what we need Congress to take going forward.

It seems as if the whole country is watching and waiting as school districts consider their options for instruction in the fall. If it were up to you, what reopening approach would you recommend for the middle school you founded?

That’s a very good question. First of all, if we don’t have the full resources of the federal government, I would not feel comfortable opening schools. And by full resources, I mean money to make sure we can hire the right personnel, to clean our schools accordingly, to make sure all of our kids and teachers have masks and gloves, to make sure the classrooms are properly ventilated. These things have to be in place before we even think about opening schools, and they’re not in place now because we don’t have the resources from the federal government.

In addition, we need more teachers because we need to lower class sizes, and we need to use alternative spaces for teaching and learning—libraries, community centers, theaters that are not being used, outdoor learning opportunities. These all need to be put in place in a systematic way so that our classes remain small—no more than eight, nine or 10 kids in a class.

And while they’re in there, the [classrooms need to be] properly cleaned. But also ... now is the time to really implement outdoor experiential learning opportunities, to keep kids safe, because when you’re outdoors, you’re less likely to contract the virus.

So at this very moment, as we sit here, I will not be ready to open our school and I would not feel comfortable. But once the full resources of the federal government are brought to bear, and all stakeholders are at the table being very transparent and coming up with solutions to opening, only then would I be really ready to open up properly and accordingly.

On top of that, are there any other necessary context or considerations for reopening that our national, state, and local leaders are missing right now?

Children with special needs, in particular, is a population that we’re not talking enough about. It’s been four or five months where children who, if they were in school, they would have been receiving occupational therapy, speech therapy, you know. English language learners would be receiving supports, class sizes would have been smaller, with more intimate attention. And they have not received any of that.

So putting a mechanism in place where maybe teachers can go to the homes of children with special needs and provide the services that they need is something that needs to be considered. Because all parents are overwhelmed, but particularly parents of children with special needs. They don’t know what to do, and they’ve kind of been left out of the conversation. So that’s an area where we need to pay a lot more attention.

That’s why I support hiring more teachers. Because it’s not just about teachers in the classroom supporting children, or teachers in an outdoor environment supporting children. There needs to be a home visit mechanism to this as well, so teachers can support families in the home.

In order for that to happen, we need more testing, faster results and contact tracing so we can keep this pandemic under control. Thankfully, New York is doing a lot better than other states, but still we’re not at 100 percent. We still have deaths every day. So there’s a lot more that needs to be done around testing as well.

You’re a father of two young kids. What are you hearing about their return to school, and how are you and your wife juggling those realities?

We, right now, are not even thinking about sending them back to school. We are lucky. My mother-in-law was a former educator who, if we needed her to homeschool, she can do some homeschooling. And we’re very lucky and very privileged to have that option. Millions of parents do not have that option.

So, it’s really stressful for them and it’s stressful for us, because I want my kids to go back to school. I want them to be around their friends. I want them to be safe. I want them to be learning formally with the teacher every day. But my wife and I, as we sit here today, are not comfortable with that. So it seems like, at this moment, we’ll take the homeschool approach, but stay tuned. We’ll see.

How did you define student success at your middle school? And what would your advice be to educators and school leaders trying to measure progress as they plan for reopening?

Formative assessment is key. There’s no separation between teaching and learning. You know, some people call it “learning and teaching” because those things are simultaneous.

Formative assessment is the glue that ties teaching and learning together. So teachers should be consistently assessing as they’re teaching in alignment with grade-appropriate standards that are challenging, rigorous, et cetera. And that’s what’s been lost in the standardized testing conversation: a focus on exemplary teaching and learning and what that looks like in the classroom.

One of the things that we did a lot of was conferencing with kids—one-on-one and in small groups, to assess their learning and alignment with a particular skill. And that could be done online as well, if teachers can make time and have the opportunities to do so.

One of the problems is access. My wife, who’s a second-grade teacher, has many students who haven’t even logged on to online learning, since the pandemic hit, because they don’t have access to the hardware [or] don’t have access to the Wi-Fi. So she hasn’t been able to connect with them via the computer.

So that’s been an issue, as well as just managing the “curriculum” the city has provided for my wife to use with her students. There’s a lot of building the plane as it’s being flown, in terms of trying to teach and support kids via an online platform. But it can be done. The more one-on-one opportunities and small group opportunities teachers have with kids, the better. That’s hard to do within a 8:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday to Friday framework. And many teachers go outside of that framework to provide the one-on-one support that students need.

This is not only something that Congress doesn’t quite understand. Even leaders at the city and state level—our mayors, governors, and even some superintendents and chancellors—don’t understand how to provide the supports to teachers to help the most vulnerable students.

So in addition to dealing with the COVID pandemic, the crisis of systemic racism in this country is top of mind for not only our students and families, but for educators as well. What responsibility do districts and school leaders and educators have in addressing systemic racism in our schools? And what suggestions do you have for educators as they plan to tackle this topic in the year ahead?

“Systemic racism lives in our schools every day, even when Black men aren’t being lynched on camera. It lives in our curriculum. It lives in our teaching staff. It lives in how we measure success.”

It should have been top of mind for years. Systemic racism is not a new phenomenon. You know, George Floyd’s murder—his lynching—is not a new thing. You know, Mike Brown, Eric Gardner and many others were recently lynched—very publicly—by the police.

But systemic racism lives in our schools every day, even when Black men aren’t being lynched on camera. It lives in our curriculum. It lives in our teaching staff. It lives in how we measure success. It lives throughout the communities that we work in. There’s a reason why the wealth gap is what it is across racial lines. There’s a reason why the majority of teachers across the country are white and female. There’s a reason why, when we look at the school curriculum, it’s absent of multicultural history and culture, and Black history starts with slavery and not of kingdoms in ancient Africa.

So this is all systemic racism and how it manifests in our schools. And what needs to happen is a relearning of and a re-preparation of teachers in our schools in alignment with racial justice. We all need to be re-trained so that we can create a world where we’re not judging people based on race and differences and continuing to nurture, not just systemic racism, but implicit bias. That is just as bad in many of our schools and throughout society. So this needs to be a reawakening and a relearning for the education system as a whole, and the teaching profession as a whole. There needs to be a lot of reading and watching documentaries and just understanding systemic racism throughout this country’s history and how to approach teaching differently, once we get back to school with our kids.


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