I distinctly remember my first parent-teacher conference when I was in elementary school. I was excited to hear all the good things I had done in school. More importantly, I wanted my mother to hear about them. As we approached my teacher’s desk, I was smiling because I knew I had done well! My siblings and I were super competitive; they were both older than me and were great students. This was my moment to shine. They both joined me and my mother as we sat to listen to my teacher’s feedback on my academic performance. As soon as we sat down my teacher handed my mother a paper with my grades and before it touched her hand, my brother grabbed it. He skimmed through it quickly and then whispered in my mother's ears. At this moment I realized my mother couldn’t read. My beautiful, smart, hardworking mother. The person I looked up to, respected, loved and adored couldn’t read but I could. What did this mean about me? What did this mean about her?
My parents were raised in Haiti during a dictatorship that left a bitter legacy of grinding poverty, unemployment and extreme levels of illiteracy. They left their beloved, beautiful native country and family to immigrate to Brooklyn, New York, for economic and educational opportunities. Their education level meant they could only find menial work in Brooklyn, working jobs others were not willing to work. Due to their lack of options, they pushed my siblings and me to leverage education to ensure we were not limited in our potential. I’ve always carried that with me throughout my life. Fundamentally, I strongly believe that everyone deserves a high-quality education and a fair shot to truly reach their potential. Despite structures of oppression, my parents did their best to shift and move what was in their locus of control. As a child, I resented them for not being able to read and having to work long hours just to barely make it. But now, as an adult, I marvel at their intelligence, will, humility and innate ability to turn obstacles into opportunities. Both of them intentionally and unintentionally inspired me.
My parents were not the only people that supported me growing up. I was fortunate to have several adults who invested in me and my potential, ranging from a local Black police-officer-turned-coach who dedicated his weekend driving, coaching, feeding, and teaching third graders about basketball. He introduced me to a world I probably would have not interacted with if he didn’t step in and step up. And in my teenage years, a coach acknowledged me for not being the most skilled player on the team while still affirming my will and work ethic. While intentionally teaching me to use basketball as a “hook” to engage and access high-quality educational opportunities, it was their servant leadership and commitment that helped shape me as a person.
Although I had amazing people in my life who believed in education, it was not my first choice as a career. Growing up “po’” made me desire a high-wage industry. My natural inclination was to make a lot of money and then give back. I went to college and majored in economics, hoping to become an investment banker. Several months into my first post-college job at a bank, I knew it wasn’t the career for me. So I quit and started volunteering full time at a Brooklyn school. Volunteering there ignited my passion for education. I was lucky enough to serve alongside a Black male principal who mentored me and taught me the ins and outs of education leadership and the transformational impact leaders like us could have in education. It was revelatory to witness Black men leading and teaching at an exceptional level in an industry where Black male educators are currently 2% of the nation’s teachers. Just 2%. Those leaders inspired me to jump into education, first as a teacher, and since then as a sports coach, dean, assistant principal and turnaround principal.
Several years ago I visited Indianapolis to observe a school on the Far Eastside and another on the westside. At both schools, I encountered leaders who worked tirelessly to ensure their kids received an excellent education. Both leaders were intentional, loving and passionate. The way they served students, their staff and their communities stuck with me.
Shortly thereafter I had dinner with an educator from Indiana and it seemed all we could talk about was education systems in Brooklyn and Indianapolis and how both cities were pushing to transform how they served the most marginalized students. At the end of that conversation, I realized I wanted to lead a school in Indianapolis. I became an Innovation School Fellow with The Mind Trust and am the founder of Promise Prep. We are looking to partner with IPS as an innovation school to add value to their overall portfolio.
Promise Prep aims to ensure all students, regardless of their family's income, race or zip code have access to a high-quality education that enables them to become critical thinkers, have choices, capitalize on opportunities and secure continuing economic advancement to positively impact their community. I am fortunate to have a support structure, dynamic leadership team and family to support us as we launch our school. By emphasizing college and career prep; engaging and rigorous learning; well-rounded experiences through academics, athletics, and arts; and family and community partnerships, we will offer a quality school that delivers on the promise of education for all students who walk through our doors.
At the end of the day, I ground my leadership of Promise Prep in James Baldwin’s quote: “For these are all our children, we will all profit by or pay for what they become.”
Geoff Fenelus is the founding school leader and executive director of Promise Prep.