Sean Combs a.k.a. Diddy, performing in 2006, by Arthur@NYCArthur.com
Sean “Diddy” Combs, aka Puff Daddy, is opening a charter school in Harlem.
This news might seem out of the blue, but to me—someone who lives in Harlem, teaches in Washington Heights, and has observed the educational landscape for close to a decade—it feels like a tired storyline: Harlem’s now-wealthy son returns home and brings the world’s riches to save the children from squalor—a modern-day, black Robin Hood.
The news also raises serious questions about the charter school’s president, Dr. Steve Perry. Perry made a name for himself as the principal of Capital Prep Magnet School in Hartford, Connecticut, which boasts a 100 percent graduation rate for its low-income black children. His fervor for reform landed him a spot on former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien’s featured series Black In America 2, where he sparked hundreds of conversations about the plight of black and brown children. These connections led to speaking tours, the book Push Has Come To Shove, and eventually a show on TVOne named “Save My Son.” At the peak of education reform mania, he was a regular guest on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show, battling world renowned educational researcher Linda Darling-Hammond (and losing).
With all these plaudits, one would assume that Mr. Combs chose just the right educator to oversee his platinum ship. Yet, evidence from personal accounts (here and here) as well as education data reveals that he is hardly the great educator he promotes himself to be.
In addition, it isn’t clear to me how creating a non-profit of any sort, especially a school, is somehow a boon for all involved. According to the New York City Charter School Center, as of 2015-2016, there are 46 charter schools in Greater Harlem (East Harlem, Harlem Proper, West Harlem), 39 in Harlem. Charter schools are so ubiquitous in scope and resources, they easily overshadow the various public, private, and parochial schools in the area. At 4 P.M., the streams of blues and burgundies fill the sidewalks, bus stops, and subways while advertisements scream “free public schools for your child,” as if that’s not already in the intended message of “public.”
With so many charter schools, plus all the other types of schools in the area, I’m not exactly sure what purpose another charter school serves. For the last couple of years, I’ve seen Dr. Steve Perry stomping through Harlem as “America’s Most Trusted Educator,” making connections with parent groups supportive of the education reform agenda. While one of his partners in education reform, Michelle Rhee, has faded as an education reform star, Perry continues to grab the spotlight, reinventing himself after he get into trouble with his vitriolic speeches both on and offline.
Many parents of color have hope for Diddy and Perry. When the press release for the new Combs-sponsored charter school came out a couple of weeks ago, it was met with adoration and jubilation, as if a new movement had been created for a school that actually cared about the students of Harlem.
But this is the same, tawdry claim that Harlemites have heard for decades. It’s sad not just because of struggling schools but because people are still looking to outsiders making outlandish promises.
American culture nowadays equates celebrity with expertise. That’s why Donald Trump can run as a legitimate contender for President of the United States, and Diddy gets a lot of press for starting up a school, but experienced K-12 educators rarely get asked to speak publicly on education. Celebrity magnifies any and all efforts, and, conversely, any and all flaws with these efforts.
And unlike Andre Agassi, Deion Sanders, or Magic Johnson, all of whom have teamed up with charter schools, Mr. Combs has attached his name to a project deep in one of education reform’s largest workshops. This is a neighborhood where charter heavyweights like Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, Harlem Village Academy CEO Deborah Kenny, and KIPP New York CEO David Levin already make their presence felt.
Real estate agents continue to sell off bits of Malcolm X’s old stomping grounds to six- and seven-figure charter-school vultures who get paid by the public and proudly proclaim that they are helping neighborhood kids by exposing them to “good” black kids. While public schools continue to hang in limbo in co-located facilities with schools that sap funds and students from them, policymakers send their own children to private schools.
That two successful black men are shining a spotlight on an underserved kids in a poor neighborhood seems admirable at first. But Diddy ushering in Perry is just one more distraction from the core issues affecting Harlem and many other neighborhoods across the nation that need our attention. The issue isn’t necessarily in celebrity; it’s that too many people need celebrity in order to believe in Harlem as a people, even when, at this juncture, the founders are far removed from the educational plight of the people here.
Perry, like so many monorail salesmen and women that have come before him, steps into Harlem with bluster and pomp. A small part of me wishes him well for the sake of those students who will cross those doors in a few months. A larger part of me, however, sees this as two steps back from educational equity.
Harlem needs a different kind of capital, and it’s not Capital Prep.
José Luis Vilson is the New York City Progressive Education Fellow as well as a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist in NYC. He is the author of This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, and has spoken about education, math, and race for The New York Times, Education Week, The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, Huffington Post, Edutopia, GOOD, and El Diario / La Prensa, NY.