A few years ago, we profiled Abeku Hayes, the Principal of New York City Montessori Charter School in the Bronx. He’s also a charter dad. His son Jason was a kindergartener at the school when we first spoke to him in 2016. We were inspired by Hayes, his work in his school, and his dedication to his son's education. We decided to tell his story again, as we close out the month of February and our series Making Black History Today.
"I came here because I was looking for a Montessori school for Jason. I was working as a principal in Brooklyn, but I saw they needed a turnaround principal – which is right up my alley. All I’ve done with my career is work in turnarounds."
That career has been spent in charter schools from New York City to Philadelphia and back again. Hayes has stuck with charters for so long because of the dedicated staffs that put children first, no matter what.
"There’s a world of kids that need schools like these. They need crazy adults hell-bent on making sure they succeed. That is something that is often lost in district schools – that sense of purpose and need. In a charter, we can do things to fit students’ specific needs."
That has held true with NYC Montessori as this school is an option that Hayes, as a parent, needed badly for his son.
When it was time to enroll Jason in school, Hayes’s wife was diagnosed with kidney failure and lupus. Jason has struggled to cope with his emotions over his mother’s illness, and Hayes was concerned that if he was in a district school, Jason’s emotional outbursts would be seen as an inability to learn. He needed an alternative option to help his son thrive.
"I wanted a school for Jason that would allow him to move at his own pace," Hayes said, "That is exactly what the Montessori model offers, but Montessori schools in the city are all private -- except for this charter."
Finding a public school with the perfect model for Jason’s needs, along with the added benefit of being a charter, was like a dream come true. The chance for Hayes to go to school with his son made it more appealing, but after interviewing for the position he was not so sure it would work out as he was hoping.
The school was approaching renewal and needed a lot of work. Hayes says he felt turning the school around could be an impossible task, but a conversation with his wife changed his mind.
"She told me, 'If you want this option for our son, but you don’t think anybody can fix this school, then do it yourself. Put your money where your mouth is,'" Hayes said.
Hayes started at the school this year, but Jason was put on the waitlist and instead started the school year in a district kindergarten. Hayes said the district experience, while extremely brief, was not a good one for his son.
"Their immediate reaction to his outbursts was that he needed to be in an autism program. Jason does not have autism, he’s been tested. But the district wouldn’t hear it. As a parent, I had no choice. And even though I am an educator, I felt like the people at the school didn’t even treat me like an equal at the table."
Hayes didn’t want his son to be shuffled away, and he didn’t want his concerns to go unnoticed. Jason was eventually taken off the school’s waitlist, and is succeeding academically and loving his kindergarten year at the school. Hayes takes none of this for granted.
"The opportunity my son has is very different from other children. But what is so great about this school is that we are providing access for children who would otherwise never have it."
He went on: "Children need to be able to read and write, they need to be able to do math, and they need to do it all at a rigorous level. We’re going to make sure they can do that."
And thanks to having this option, Jason has a great chance to continue to grow and succeed in a caring environment that lets him move at his own pace. And the school is moving in the right direction, having just been renewed for three years. As Hayes juggles the hats of educator and parent, he has found a school that fits his son’s needs, making him a real charter school champion.