Bridging the Opportunity Divide

A First-Generation American Became NYC’s Deputy Mayor. Can His Pre-K Push Offer Kids The Same Success?

July 14, 2015
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A First-Generation American Became NYC’s Deputy Mayor. Can His Pre-K Push Offer Kids The Same Success?
New York City Deputy Mayor Richard Buery speaks at an event announcing the next phase of the Young Men’s Initiative, Jan. 30, 2015. Courtesy Office of the Mayor
The Big Apple's push for universal pre-kindergarten could jumpstart education for 70,000 children.

Richard Buery’s childhood weaved between two very different versions of New York City. The son of Panamanian immigrants — a public school teacher and a lab manager — he was raised in East New York, a section of Brooklyn notorious for its violence and poverty, The local schools have a 13.5 percent dropout rate, and one-third of families live in poverty. “East New York is a community that has not always felt that we had City Hall by our side,” Buery says. Abandoned lots and failing schools were all he knew of Gotham until he was accepted at Stuyvesant High School, one of the city’s nine elite magnet schools.

“It was my first experience meeting people and having friends who weren’t black and Hispanic,” he tells The New York Times. “For the most part, it was my first time meeting folks from wealthier communities and wealthier families. And it really made very real to me the truth about educational equality and the difference between what it means to be a child from a place like East New York and a child in a neighborhood like Park Slope or the Upper East Side.”

Buery (rhymes with “jury”) recognized the opportunities within his reach: Stuyvesant led to Harvard and, later, Yale Law School. In his mid-forties, he’s now the deputy mayor managing strategic initiatives for Bill De Blasio, the progressive Democrat elected mayor in 2013. Buery’s largely focused on implementing the mayor’s push for early childhood education in The Big Apple. The second year of free, full-day pre-kindergarten class is right around the corner, and his office is aiming to have it be “universal,” an accomplishment that would mean there’s a spot for all 70,000 New York City children who want one. That’s a “small city” of bouncing four-year-olds who’d otherwise be with babysitters or private classes, the Times’ editorial board notes. In essence, Buery is responsible for adding an entire grade level to what’s already the nation’s largest school system, New York Magazine adds.

“Our job is to make these two New York Cities one,” Buery said on his arrival in office last year. “It’s been my mission in life to help families work their way up the economic ladder. No agency, no community group can do that alone. It takes sustained and far-reaching coordination to drive that kind of change. This administration won’t let bureaucracy or business-as-usual stand in the way of the progress we’re going to make for children and families.”

After racking up two Ivy League degrees, a clerkship for a federal judge and a post as staff attorney for the Brennan Center for Justice, Buery had a revelation. “I knew that I did not want to be a lawyer,” he admits, “but I did not have a career plan after college other than wanting to continue a commitment to social justice.” During an assignment challenging the construction of petrochemical facilities in low-income minority neighborhoods in Louisiana, Buery realized that he identified more with the community organizers’ struggle than any courtroom proceeding. “It occurred to me that I would rather have their jobs than my own,” he says.

“Anxious to build organizations of my own,” Buery returned home to East New York. He established two nonprofits: iMentor, a program that’s guided 13,000 students through the college application process with in-person and online mentoring, and Groundwork, Inc., an organization that worked with families in Brooklyn’s public housing projects. “What he wants for East New York is what every middle class family wants for their children,” one of Buery’s colleagues at Groundworks, Inc., told a blogger. His success in doing so — math and science scores improved 36 and 41 percent, respectively, in the program’s first five years — drew the attention of larger charities, including one of New York City’s oldest and most respected child welfare organizations, the Children’s Aid Society.

In 2009, at age 37, Buery was appointed the first black leader of Children’s Aid Society, and the youngest since its founding in 1853. From his early experience founding nonprofits, the broad-shouldered Buery honed an entrepreneurial impulse. At Children’s Aid Society, he learned how to manage a colossal agency of 1,100 full-time and 700 part-time staff. He brought a data-driven approach to the charity’s programming, tracking young participants to measure their successes.

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Those skills have come in handy in his new post as deputy mayor, where Buery is coordinating a couple dozen agencies, his staff says. Luckily, the city isn’t building a program from the ground up. Two years ago, figures showed 20,000 pre-K spots — about one-third of the total needed. Buery’s expanding on two fronts: half-day programs are being lengthened into full days, and new classrooms are being added wherever they can fit them, often at community-based organizations like Catholic Charities or Union Settlement Association.

There’s plenty of challenges ahead for New York’s universal pre-K expansion. Too many classrooms, reflecting the neighborhood demographics, appear segregated by race and socio-economics — exaggerating the worst patterns in their surroundings, rather than adding diversity. One of the most vocal critics, Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at University of California, Berkeley, has argued the expansion does more to benefit middle-class children than the poorer students it’s aimed at.

And then there’s the bruising fight with Gov. Andrew Cuomo that practically came to blows over mayoral control of city schools. (De Blasio, who fought for permanent control, was prepared to settle for three years; instead, Senate Republicans in Albany gave him just one.)

But with September approaching, Buery can tick off a number of successes. State funding — about $340 million a year — is locked in for the program’s first five years, totaling $1.5 billion. Enrollments have also increased for the second year, close to projected totals. In June, De Blasio announced that 57,000 children had been guaranteed a spot in their top three choices, though another 10,000 youngsters were placed in schools that didn’t even appear on the parent’s list of a dozen choices.

Soon, the visions from Buery’s childhood, of separate and unequal cities, may become a detail of the past. If universal pre-K lives up to its “historic and transformative” promise, it will level the playing field in the New York City’s schools and check inequality in the long run. Fifteen years from now, a kid like Buery from East New York, from South Bronx or Central Harlem might look back on this moment as the first step of his own journey to Harvard.

“To those who think that this mayor is too ambitious or moving forward too quickly, I just want to emphasize that if you say that, you really don’t know this city,” Buery says. “There is nothing that we cannot do when we come together.”

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