Lester Young Jr. Makes History as State’s first Black Chancellor for Board of Regents

Reema Amin, Chalkbeat New York

The state Board of Regents made history Monday, electing Lester Young Jr., as its first Black chancellor.

A former New York City educator and administrator, Young has worked in public service for five decades, serving on the board since 2008. He takes the helm of the board at a particularly challenging time, as the state’s roughly 700 districts approach a full year of disrupted in-person learning, and face grave concerns about potential learning loss, enrollment declines, and budget gaps. Districts are also awaiting guidance on whether state standardized exams will go on this year.

When accepting the nomination, Young highlighted that the country has been dealing with two crises over the past year: the coronavirus pandemic and a new racial reckoning stemming from incidents of police brutality.

“[The pandemic has] further exposed longstanding educational inequities, particularly impacting our most vulnerable,” he said. “We must use our leadership opportunity in this moment to set in motion the policies and practices that will enable the over 700 New York state school districts to rethink school and schooling in ways that will transform learning opportunities for all students, teachers, and school leaders alike.”

The chancellor post has been vacant since August, when Betty Rosa resigned to serve as the state’s interim state education commissioner — the third person to hold the temporary position since September 2019. Rosa’s election as chancellor nearly five years ago marked a new era in education in New York, as she was a vocal critic of controversial policies that her predecessor supported, such as the Common Core learning standards and a new teacher evaluation system. Young will lead the board amid a very different landscape, and several education organizations are hopeful he will focus on addressing the inequities that have only become more glaring during the pandemic.

As chancellor, Young will work closely with Rosa and whoever eventually fills the state education commissioner role. He also will work behind-the-scenes to build consensus among the board’s members on various policy decisions. The chancellor is also responsible for appointing Regents to different work groups and committees that oversee education policymaking in New York, including pre-K-12 education, which Young currently heads, along with early childhood learning, and the board’s search committee for a new commissioner.

Young also chairs a work group to improve outcomes for boys and young men of color — an issue that he’s taken particular interest in during his tenure on the board. The department credits Young with leading the charge to establish the state’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

At meetings, he often questions how various policies will affect students of color or asks for data that would illustrate that impact. When state assessments and learning standards became a flashpoint in New York, Young said, “When it was only the children in our urban communities that were struggling with state assessments, you didn’t hear a word. No one said anything, the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper reported at the time.

The son of late jazz legend Lester Young, he grew up in Brooklyn.

Young started his career with New York City public schools in 1969, serving as a teacher, guidance counselor, principal, a supervisor of special education, according to the state education department. He left in 1988 to serve at the state-level as an assistant commissioner, helping to oversee school improvement and bilingual education, among other roles.

He returned to the city education department in 1993 to become the superintendent of Brooklyn’s District 13. There, he helped establish two high schools. Seven years later, he was appointed as a senior superintendent coordinating services for four Brooklyn districts.

He retired from the city in 2004 and went on to teach at Long Island University’s Graduate School of Education before being appointed to the Board of Regents in 2008.

Several education advocacy groups and officials celebrated Young’s election. In a tweet, Chancellor Richard Carranza said it was a “wonderful day for the children” of New York.

Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president of the New York State Teachers Union, called Young “the right choice” for guiding schools through the pandemic and in addressing educational inequities.

Dia Bryant, deputy director and chief of partnerships officer for Education Trust-New York, said Young’s historic election as the board’s first Black chancellor “honors his invaluable contributions as an advocate for educational equity for all students.”

“We look forward to Chancellor Young’s leadership and to working with him to pursue policies that improve education for students who are historically underserved by our education system across New York State, something that is even more critical at this moment in our state and nation’s history,” Bryant wrote in a statement.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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