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Politics

Leslie-Bernard Joseph ’06

Founding Dean of Students, Coney Island Prep

My interests were incredibly varied during my first two years at Princeton. I took a number of English courses, explored French and psychology, considered sociology, and committed to the then-Program in African American Studies. I knew I was most passionate about social justice, but questioned whether the politics department was the right home for my curiosity. I found the answer after taking “Discrimination and the Law.” The politics department, at its best, is constantly relating theory to the relevant, tackling questions of race, class, and rights, all while studying the past’s implications for our present problems.

In spite of my interdisciplinary interests, I was more attracted to the politics department than the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. I knew the flexibility of the department would allow me to take courses in other disciplines without feeling bogged down by strict requirements. Within the department I took a number of classes in American politics, comparative politics, and political theory. Outside my concentration, I found ample opportunity in my schedule to take several African American studies classes, Shakespeare and satire, comparative literature, French literature, and even music. The facility of connecting all these aspects of culture back to politics, policy, and social justice made my last two years an intellectual field day.

My junior papers were especially gratifying. I wrote about education policy in one, comparing the two public school districts I grew up in, and for the second, I focused on social criticism—the practice of speaking truth to power on behalf of a community. One of these topics would become the basis for my senior thesis; the other proved to be what started me on my career path.

Inspired to get involved

I spent my time on campus discussing the problems I perceived to be plaguing the world and writing about how to fix them. I joined Teach for America because I was tired of simply talking about solutions; I was eager to get involved. Working in a high-need, urban public school, I witnessed many of the issues I studied in college play out in a high-stakes setting. Academically, I had studied a range of topics, but often in isolation from each other. In the Bronx, an “inescapable network of mutuality” conspired to limit the educational opportunity of my students. Unions and labor politics, cross-cultural conflicts and misunderstandings with recent immigrant populations, poverty, housing segregation, and, of course, the achievement gap laid down a fascinating intellectual gauntlet of obstacles at the feet of my unsuspecting 10-year-olds. Most importantly, I was happy to be a politics major on the front lines of making the American Dream a reality for my kids.

Our public school system is infected with low expectations and hindered by excuses. High school graduation rates in New York City hover around 50 percent. One study puts the cost of our nation’s achievement gap at the economic equivalent of a permanent recession. I think Teach for America is spot on when it calls access to quality education the “Civil Rights Movement of our generation.” Sacrifices that others had made for me are what made Princeton possible and inspired my interest in educational equity. I needed to do my part.

Five years after my graduation, I’m proud to call myself a teacher. I did not always know I would be in a school this long, but I quickly fell in love with the movement and the students and families I serve. I’m now the founding dean of students at Coney Island Prep, a 5-12 public charter school in South Brooklyn. Our mission is to ensure that all our scholars develop the character and academic skills necessary to succeed in college and beyond. Our founder and executive director also happens to be a Princeton alum. Not bad for “In the Nation’s Service.”

Teaching English, writing, and social studies gave me the opportunity to help my students develop the tools to examine their world and the language to find their own voice. November 5, 2008, stands out in my mind as a day I especially remember feeling privileged to be a teacher and a Princeton politics grad. One day after a historic election, it was empowering to help my students articulate their reactions and put the significance of their ideas in perspective. An annual “Social Issues” unit was also a favorite. My students would research societal problems from gang violence to global warming and connect with their research through personal anecdotes.

My department’s intense focus on writing, research, and even quantitative analysis translates well to skills I need in the classroom. Whether it is teaching my students to write their first essays or performing question error analysis in preparation for state tests, teaching is inherently a public interest endeavor.

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