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City Scuffle:Derrick Dorsey seeks dialog on the School Board

Born in Syracuse, raised in Pioneer Homes, Derrick Dorsey recalls a moment in 9th grade at Corcoran High School when his math teacher pulled him aside. “He knew I was a leader and knew that I could make a difference in the classroom setting. It took him five minutes to do that. It was a life changing experience for me.” Now 45, Dorsey points to the encounter as a driving force in his campaign as a Democrat for a seat on the Syracuse Board of Education. “What I’d like to do is create that environment in our school district,” he notes, “a thriving school district which encompasses teachers, educators meeting with parents, meeting with community leaders, meeting with administrators.”

At the time of that jolt of inspiration, Dorsey remembers, he was thinking about getting a job at Carrier like his dad. “I wasn’t thinking college at that point,” he says. “But after that I was thinking college. I was kind of hoping through my athletic ability that I would receive a scholarship of some nature. But at that point I was also thinking that I could receive something through academics.” Both converged at SUNY Fredonia, where he garnered All-American honors in track and field. He feels he has been making a difference in this community for the past 20 years, currently as director of the Inter-Faith Works Community Wide Dialog on Ending Racism.

Dorsey believes that dialog belongs in the city school district curriculum. “Bullet five on Superintendent Contreras’s strategic plan is engaging community organizations and agencies, looking for those resources in the community that could help advancing the school district’s agenda: Great Expectations. In the community wide dialog we partner up city and suburban schools at the high school level to talk about four key concepts: institutional and structural racism, stereotypes, white privilege and allies. Allies to me is the most important. How do you step in and interrupt the racial joke, interrupt bullying, not meeting with violence, but meeting with tools in your tool box that defuse the situation?”

He realizes, however, that to experience such an intervention, youth must be reached in the school setting, and more than 50 percent of Syracuse students drop out before graduation. “Parent engagement,” he maintains will impact the drop-out rate. “Parent involvement. I know Monique Wright-Williams is doing some great things with Parent University. It’s creative ideas like that that will allow us to engage parents to realize that they are not adversaries, but teammates of the educators. I co-chair the Code of Conduct Committee for the district and suspension rates is something we’re looking into. What are the things in terms of intervention, before we get to the consequence of them losing instruction time? Are there tools educators need in their tool box to help them with classroom management.”

Dorsey believes he would bring a skill to the Board that doesn’t exist now. “It’s the skill of dialog,” he says, “and that’s what I do for a living. And that is everyone is valued, everyone is allowed a voice, and everyone gets an opportunity to not only be heard, but hear. Without setting up ground rules it’s using the process of dialog to make effective change, and using the process of dialog to address conflict. After what he calls several intimate conversations with George Weiss, the founder of Say Yes, Dorsey feels, “The program takes the hopelessness out of academia for people who look like me. Growing up in Pioneer Homes I knew I didn’t have the resources to go on to college. Not by my parents paying for it. But if I had something in place that said if you can get accepted to an institution on your own merit, that we’re going to pay for your education, that’s hope.”

Dorsey also points to physical needs. “We need classes that are wire ready, wifi ready. We need smart boards in every classroom. There is no reason for us to say we have great expectations for all of our students when we don’t have the resources to level the playing field.” He feels a county-wide school district creating wide spread diversity could foster the sharing of resources and level the playing field, but politically would be a huge challenge. “You would ask a lot of people to give up what they have and a lot of school districts are satisfied with what they have.”

Reprinted with permission from the Syracuse New Times. Walt Shepperd was named Writer of the Year three times by the New York Press Association.

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