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Excellence Starts Early at Democracy Prep

By Jeff Mays | May 29, 2012 7:47am
Emmanuel George poses in the hallway of Democracy Prep in Harlem, May 18, 2012.
Emmanuel George poses in the hallway of Democracy Prep in Harlem, May 18, 2012.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — Emmanuel George thought his dream job would be returning as a teacher to the elementary school in Hempstead, L.I. where he grew up.

He was part of the same staff as his own second-grade teacher, and found himself educating many children of the kids he went to school with.

"I was going to retire there," said George, 35.

There was only one problem — he hated it.

"It was like the rules of what to do for the adults came before what to do for the kids," he said.

That led George to join Geoffrey Canada's Promise Academy Charter School. Two years ago, he was named principal of Democracy Prep's Harlem Middle School. Democracy Prep operates the top middle school in the city.

George lives in Riverdale with his wife, who is an English teacher in Harlem.

When did you figure out that you wanted to be an educator?

I knew I wanted to be a teacher by the fifth grade. My mom was a pre-k teacher for 26 years in Long Island so I was around it all the time. I saw my mom and all her peers. I also had good teachers, who not only gave me good school learning, but taught me about being a better person. I learned what it was like to be a black man in this society, that the expectations were higher and the level of leeway lower.

How did your education help you in your job?

I went to Livingstone College in Salisbury, N.C., in a teacher-education program specifically designed to get black men into teaching. The program taught us not only how to be good teachers, but the value of the position because so few black males are in education. Not enough black men are going to college and education doesn't have the prestige it deserves. We go for the majors with more prestige and more money. My program hooked us early.

What was your first job?

My first job was as a teacher in Greensboro, N.C., for $26,000 per year. My first day was terrible. I looked at my class and saw that I had 15 students whereas all the other teachers had 24. And then I realized I only had 15 students for a reason. It was tough. I realized just because I had a good education and was trained well that it wasn't enough. I had to be open to getting better quickly.

Why didn't you like working at the elementary school that you attended as a child?

Harlem's Democracy Prep Principal Emmanuel George said he wanted to become a principal to help make change.
Harlem's Democracy Prep Principal Emmanuel George said he wanted to become a principal to help make change.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

I realized that even if you had the best intentions, there was a limit to what you could do. That's where the seed got planted to be a principal. I received my Masters at the College of New Rochelle. I went to a job fair in Manhattan and I didn't even know what a charter school was. I worked for Promise Academy and Harlem Village Academy.

What are your feelings about the debate going on about charter schools and district schools?

When you look at what's happening at our inner-city schools I don't understand how people are worried about chairs, seats and space. Now that you have a child in a chair, the question is what are you doing for that child? The arguments are misguided because it has nothing to do with substance.

Democracy Prep has a reputation of being an academically rigorous and behaviorally strict school. What are some of the challenges?

The biggest challenge is getting all the students and family to believe the vision for this school is possible. A lot of the criticism we hear is that we are too strict and that we give too much homework. Well, if you want to go to Harvard, how do you think you are going to get there? Excellence has to start early. We are not crazy because we believe your child can sit in school and not run his mouth all day. We believe in no excuses point blank. Anybody is capable of anything. If you want to put in the effort, you can do it.

What's something your students would be shocked to learn about you?

I religiously play PlayStation. I have every PlayStation sports game you can name. I get the new Madden every year, NBA 2K12, boxing, FIFA. I could probably beat all of my students at the sports games.

What's the best part of your job?

I recently got a friend request from a young man in North Carolina who I taught in the third grade. He's now in his 20s. He reminded me of when his parents got a divorce. He thought it was his fault. I took him in the stairway and we talked. I explained to him that it wasn't his fault.

I didn't remember the incident until he reminded me. He said, 'I want to thank you for that talk. It made me realize I was not to blame for what was happening between my parents.'

He was able to speak with his parents after that. You understand the value of what you do when things like that happen. I get up everyday and don't feel like I'm going to work. I don't feel like I've had to work since I became a teacher.