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What a Small Community Means: Paul Forbes ’91

Paul Forbes has dedicated his career to urban education reform. Today he leads the Expanded Success Initiative (ESI) at the New York City Department of Education, which aims to improve college- and career-readiness for Black and Latino young men. ESI is part of the Young Men’s Initiative, an ambitious program created by Mayor Michael Bloomberg that served as a model for President Obama’s national program My Brother’s Keeper.

I was born and raised in Crown Heights in a home with two parents and three siblings. I was selected for Prep for Prep and got into Packer, but my brother and two sisters attended public high schools. Packer offered resources and opportunities that my siblings could not comprehend. Even at different schools within the public school system, their experiences varied widely. The story of the “haves” and the “have-nots” was playing out right before my eyes. 

When I graduated from Packer, my plan was to take a few years off before enrolling in NYU’s accelerated pre-med program. During that time my sister, who was student-teaching in East Harlem, took me to a talk by Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew.
Whether it was seeing a black man in this role, or his vision and ideas, I knew I wanted to work for him one day. 

Instead of NYU, I decided to follow in my two sisters’ footsteps and enroll at Hunter. During my senior year, I was recommended for the Hunter Public Service Program, which offers internships at not-for-profits, government offices, and city agencies. When the Board of Ed submitted an internship in their Office of Community Relations, I went to interview and told them, “No one else is coming. I’m going to be your first choice!” The rest, as they say, is history.

Going to Packer is an experience that I will never forget, as it gave me connections and opportunities that I know I would not have had otherwise. It also taught me what a small community means and what it can do. We try to provide that experience to students at ESI schools. Many of our schools have seen the benefits of creating single-gender advisories to create opportunities for young men to take down their guard and talk about some of the challenges they face day-to-day outside of school. That helps them come together better inside the school, which has reduced suspensions and improved how teachers communicate with their young men.

Since the Expanded Success Initiative is dedicated to working on race, class, and gender, we create spaces at ESI schools to talk about these issues. Those are the critical and courageous conversations we need to have to understand our own biases and how they affect policies, practice, and procedures. 

Simply providing access for our young people can make such a difference in the trajectory of their lives. It does not require millions of dollars, but it does require a committed effort, a mindset of What can I do with the resources around me? Most ESI schools take kids on college visits in 9th Grade. Sure, we would like to take them to see historically black colleges or Ivy League schools, but if we can’t, we’ll take them to see a CUNY school. They get a Metrocard, they get on the train, and they go. 

I don’t consider what I do work. It’s a calling. I genuinely love what I do. In my various roles over 20 years, I have always ensured that, whatever I do, I stay connected to young people and school communities. As often as possible, I take my young men to cultural events and social gatherings. I do my best to provide them access to an array of opportunities and options. Who knows which of those experiences will make the difference for one or more of them? 

This profile appeared in a feature on alumni in education published in the Summer 2016 issue of The Packer Magazine.

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