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Exclusive Interviews With Two New Members, New York State Board Of Regents - Dr. Lester Young

Last March, the joint session of the Legislature of the State of New York elected Dr. Betty Rosa and Dr. Lester W. Young Jr to the state’s 16-member Board of Regents. The Board, established in 1784, presides over The State University of New York and the New York State Department of Education. Its members serve five-year terms, with a regent for each of the state’s 12 judicial districts, plus four regents at large. Regents receive no salary. With the recent announcement by Dr. Richard P. Mills that he will be stepping down as New York State Commissioner of Education and with a newly appointed Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, Education Update thought it a good time to catch up with the Regents’ newest members and get their take on state and national challenges and priorities.

By Joan Baum, Ph.D.

How appropriate that Dr. Lester Young serves as Regent-At-Large because he certainly has an admirably large view of his role, coming to it with years of experience as Associate Commissioner with the New York State Education Department, Associate Professor at Long Island University’s Graduate School of Education, and previous positions in teaching and guidance as well as supervisory roles in Special Education Services, not to mention having also served as a principal, a superintendent and as a senior executive for Youth Development and School Community Services in the city system. As the founder of the college-prep Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Brooklyn, he takes particular pride in having established a model that other schools have used in establishing similar missions. 

Himself a product of New York City public schools, Dr. Lester went on to earn a B.S. in Behavior Science (majoring in biology, with a minor in psychology), an M.S. in Guidance and School Counseling and an Ed. D from Fordham. He retired officially in 2003, but his soul never got the message. He willingly accepted the invitation to be considered for the Board of Regents because of continuing challenges facing the city – especially those relating to “disparity in student achievement.” He prefers the word “disparity” to “gap,” he says, because “gap” unfairly puts the onus on the students, while “disparity” suggests that an opportunity is in the offing.

His number-one goal is to help put in place, and soon, a coherent early childhood program, an objective totally consonant with emphases expressed by President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan. No money? Do people fear that the choice will be between education v. health care?  He doesn’t buy into the dichotomy. Priorities must be set that will determine how money can be spent wisely. Research continues to show the importance of early childhood years— some studies even cite 0-5 – but Dr. Lester is content with focusing on age three and up, though he notes that many children who go through pre-K programs successfully lose steam by the time they enter  3rd grade. There must be continuity.

Moreover, pre-K alone is no answer to the education crisis unless such programs are universal, compulsory and full day. How ironic, he points out, that when everyone worries about funding, money goes unspent:  many people don’t want a half-day pre-K program and so they don’t opt to use the set-aside money. He adds, however, that some communities really don’t need state-supported pre-K, and he’d like to work on how best to target those communities that do. Perhaps challenge grants might be a way to go. But the problem is still more complicated. For example, in thinking about funding districts in need all over the state but particularly in rural areas, transportation issues are crucial, and expensive. His larger point is that the issue of education is larger than most people realize.

Despite the overwhelming number of challenges facing the Regents, however, Dr. Young has hope of moving ahead on policy recommendations. The Board is the only body in state government that is truly independent, he points out. The Board of Regents, not the governor, appoints the State Commissioner of Education.  And he takes heart from the directness of  President Obama – he may be the first chief executive to do so --  to speak out directly about the drop-out crisis in the country.

He’s for national standards but more so for a national curriculum and for getting schools with teacher education programs to take responsibility for their students even after graduation, especially new teachers.  He’d like to see more courses in cultural diversity in schools of education and cooperation between such institutions of higher education and public schools in the areas where the universities are located. As for merit pay?  His answer reveals a discriminating intelligence: incentives are good but not necessarily good policy for the over 700 school districts in the state. You don’t change a system by rewarding individuals. Yes, high-quality teachers should get paid more, but the larger issue is trying to make the profession itself competitive.



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