Eric Dinowitz has become part of a new bloc of lawmakers. Yes, he might have just been elected to the city council, but he also represents a group of people who are not only running for office, but winning.
More teachers and school administrators are taking their classroom experience with them as they run for office. And before Dinowitz, someone else close-by proved once again there is an educator-to-elected official pipeline: U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman, the former middle school principal who defeated 16-term incumbent Eliot Engel in last year’s Democratic primary.
Not many congressional members are formers teachers, but it’s different on the city council where such a background is far more common. Dinowitz is among at least seven former educators representing parts of the city, although he’s the only one from the Bronx.
Just weeks ago, Dinowitz was a special education teacher working in the city’s public school system. Nevertheless, he believes the experience he had can provide a new, much-needed perspective when working in politics.
“We see the stories of hundreds and hundreds of children and families who are directly impacted not just by our educational policies, but by housing policies (and) by food policies,” Dinowitz said. “We see the impact of our city policies and the stories of our children and their families every single day in the classroom.”
Dinowitz has his sights set on many education-related policies. As of now, the seat is his through the end of the year. If he can win once again in the June Democratic primary, he’ll be representing the area for at least the next two years. But his immediate plans are clear: How the public school system will recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
The city should be focused on how to return all of its students back to physical campuses — safely — come September. But there are a lot of moving parts to that goal, Dinowitz said, particularly when it comes to addressing the emotional toll living in a pandemic has likely had on those just trying to learn something before becoming adults.
“Before the pandemic began, I was advocating for more social-emotional and mental health learning and support, both within the classroom with the structure of our curriculum and regarding hiring more social workers and guidance counselors,” Dinowitz said. “That need has expanded vastly after the pandemic. I taught throughout the pandemic, and whether it was my observation of my students or even what the parents would share with me, the No. 1 concern for parents wasn’t whether they would keep up academically. It was the social-emotional state of their children.”
Dinowitz also wants to address school segregation — particularly through the gifted and talented program and specialized high schools. His city council district is home not only to underfunded and neglected public schools, but also to some of the city’s most prestigious and costly private schools — not to mention two specialized high schools.
And regardless of where parents choose — or can afford — to send their children, Dinowitz believes every child should have access to the tools and resources they need to succeed.
“We need to recognize that the … lack of diversity within our specialized high schools does not begin in high school,” Dinowitz said. “It begins at birth. And it’s perpetuated when our younger children enter 3-K and pre-K and kindergarten. We need to address disparities much earlier in the day.”
Some of the ways Dinowitz feels specialized high schools can expand diversity is by allowing administrators of those schools to consider more than just the Specialized High School Admissions Test when looking for incoming freshmen. He also wants to add more high schools to the system designed to help students gifted in writing and other humanities subjects — subjects he said aren’t as represented within the system.
Of course, Dinowitz says he knows of the unfortunate reality of discrimination in the city’s public school system — whether academic, economic, racial or otherwise. And some of the public school system’s policies are facing renewed attention in wake of the recent trial verdict in Minneapolis where former cop Derek Chauvin was found guilty on multiple counts in the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed man Chauvin pinned down with his knee for more than nine minutes.
The guilty-on-all-counts verdict was historic, and the racial reckoning leading up to and during the trial left many questioning just what the role of police should have in society.
For instance, should law enforcement be in school buildings? The New York Police Department employs school safety agents, who are not trained police officers, but are nevertheless law enforcement professionals stationed in schools.
Some believe school safety agents, metal detectors and pat-downs have no place in schools. But Dinowitz isn’t among them — at least as far as safety agents are concerned.
“I wish we lived in a world where kids didn’t get into fights,” the councilman said. “I wish we lived in a world where kids didn’t bring knives into school. Fundamentally, we need to get to the root of why physical altercations occur between students (and) between adults. But in the moment, when those altercations are occurring, there is a role for school safety agents.”
But while Dinowitz believes that role shouldn’t be without anti-bias and anti-racism training, as well as a promotion of restorative justice tactics within schools. And more than anything, Dinowitz says he believes in the vital role schools play within their communities.
“Whatever is going on at home, or in their communities, or in their personal lives, our role at the school has to be to support every single student,” Dinowitz said.
“It is not just about their test score at the end of the year. We have to shift away from that mindset.”
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