How one teacher empowers Albany students of color

By Massarrah Makati
Jonathan Lajas, a social studies teacher at KIPP, teaches students online from his home on Tuesday, May 11, 2021, in Albany, N.Y.

ALBANY — The music crescendoed from Jonathan Lajas’ laptop.

“Bring ‘em out, bring ‘em out,” T.I. rapped.

“Let’s go, seventh grade,” Lajas said in rhythm at the end of the verse. “This is Team. Ba. Ra. Ka!”

The beat dropped.

“Ba, Baraka, ba-ba-Baraka,” Lajas rapped, bopping his head as his students watched from their Zoom squares.

Mr. Lajas’ recent Social Studies class at KIPP: Albany Community Charter Middle School had begun.

His technique is simple, yet original: At a South End-based school where 98 percent of the students are Black or Latino, Lajas works to empower young people in an education system that too often marginalizes their perspectives and experiences.

“My (teaching) approach has been to look at, what is it that New York state, or the educational system, wants us to teach the students?” he said. “So if it’s content, then I have to put it into context for our students.”

That ever-present back drop is the Black American experience.

It’s a particularly important context for students living in Albany, a city that has been divided along class and racial lines for nearly a century, a separation that then resulted in economic disparity in predominantly Black neighborhoods.

“The kids can tell they live in a world that is segregated,” said Lajas, who began teaching in 2009. “There are rules and laws for white people; there are rules and laws for us. There’s a quality of life for white people, then there is a whole different one for us.”

Every minute matters, as Lajas reminds his students repeatedly, and they quickly segued from the musical intro to the first task of their 50-minute class: the “I can” statement.

“The ‘I can’ statement reads: ‘I can read informational text in order to define words in context and describe the legalization of enslavement in colonial America,’” Lajas told his students, his voice booming with energy.

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