You probably saw Steve Perry on CNN’s "Black in America 2" special. He was the featured educator who started and runs the Capital Preparatory Magnet school in Connecticut. The high school, over a five-year span, has sent 100 percent of its graduates – mostly Blacks and Latinos - to four-year colleges.
Passionate about what he does and disturbed deeply by the current state of disrepair in the American public education system, Perry says, “It’s something I feel I’m called to do. I always wanted to help people.”
Raised in working class Middleton, Conn., near Hartford, Perry says he, like many of his students, came from an economically disadvantaged background. He’s quick to insist, though, that poverty or social circumstance are not reasons to underperform in school or for us to set lowered expectations for our kids.
BET.com spoke with the author (his latest book "Man Up" spells out how the Black community can save itself), social entrepreneur and father about his life, what America must do now to address our education crisis and the secret of his school’s success.
You say you’re “called” to do the work you do. Why?
I always wanted to help people. I went to Social Work school and worked in Philadelphia’s public schools. In that job, I spent 45 minutes with a kid and returned him to the environment that brought him to me in the first place. How is that helping? I ran for state representative at 26 and lost. I wanted to make a change through social work, then politics, but realized that was not the way for me.
That was your 'aha' moment? That’s when you decided you wanted to be an educator?
No. It was when a young sister with a kid came to me and asked me, “Why do all the rich kids get to go to college?” It was more of an indictment than a question. I’m not keen on taking excuses from people so I couldn’t give her an excuse. At that point, I realized I needed to go back to school for a master’s and do what I had to do to get started.
Writing books. Teaching. Public speaking. You’re on a roll. How do you do it all?
Just today, in fact, I was in New York speaking at a fundraiser for a school former NBA player Manute Bol is building in Sudan. I work hard because I want to do well. I want to build a bridge for other people to improve their lives. My son is Mason and his middle name is David. I want him to be a builder and giant-killer. I want to create more brothers and sisters who can build and change giants.
Educating young people, what’s one lesson you have learned?
I wanted to run an all-Black school with an all-Black staff. I said, 'let me just get all the brothers down here and we can start this.' I learned two things: It was naïve of me to think that only Black people cared about Black people or all Black people cared about Black people.
When do you feel most rewarded?
I was talking to one of my students – a kid from the same housing project that I grew up in. He said, “You went to an Ivy League school. You could be making more money. Why do you do this?” I told him I want to do something meaningful with my life. A while later, this same kid told me that he used to want to be a physical therapist but now he wants to be a principal because he feels that’s where he’ll touch the most lives. That’s giving birth to another principal. I told him he could do it but he had to be better than me.
You’re critical of Civil Rights-style politics.
Civil rights relics want to blame the government for everything. They are still fighting the fight of the 1960s. We fought the laws in the 1960s and I give them their due for doing that. But in towns like Atlanta and Washington and Newark, Black people run the city. We are the preachers, principals, pastors and elected officials. We have been given the keys and what have we done? Our schools are as bad as they’ve ever been. We have lost industries in every city and we’re doing nothing about attracting new kinds of businesses – businesses of the future – to our cities.
Who are some examples of Civil Rights-style Black leaders?
Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West, for example. They talk about the problems then they go and teach at Georgetown, Princeton and Harvard where there aren’t many poor Black students.
What’s the biggest problem with our education system?
The teacher’s unions are the death of public schools. They create an environment that is contentious. It’s the administration against the teachers. The teachers against the administrators. Everybody has a union. When was the last time you’ve heard the teachers union fighting on behalf of the students? When will they be fighting for longer days and what the students really need? I don’t get paid overtime. You don’t get paid overtime. People say teachers are underpaid, but relatively to the general public -- to basketball players, etc.
Is the Obama administration doing enough?
Their policy hasn’t been clearly defined. They need to come harder and make it clear that failed schools will be closed.
What’s one secret to your school’s success?
Our kids go to school year round. If I taught you how to do something and then I don’t revisit it for a couple of months, what happens? Black and Latino students lose about two months of information in the summer and then have to catch up in the fall. Then, what happens in November? The starts and stops kill our students.
What about parents? How responsible are they for the crisis?
Parents are blame-able, but they are not accountable. Parents could definitely help but they don’t often. But let’s say they did. Even as a person who runs a school, I ain’t teaching my son Chemistry. That’s like the Piano teacher saying to me, well Dr. Perry we’ll teach your son the piano if you know how to play the piano. Then why am I paying the teacher? What I do hold parents responsible for is allowing this crisis in our education system to continue.
Do the kids themselves have a role?
What did our kids do wrong but be born? What did they do to deserve to be educated (or not educated) in the schools they’re in? The longer they stay in these schools, the more their scores go down. It’s criminal. Our kids will go through fire for somebody if they believed that person cared about them.
What should be our first step in improving the education system?
Vouchers. Vouchers. Vouchers.
You know a lot of people disagree with that option. They think vouchers undermine our public education system.
I believe in vouchers wholeheartedly. Students need to be given the choice. We need to look at our education crisis more honestly. Right now kids aren’t being educated properly and they have no options. Something has to change.