“Nothing is Bigger than Service”: Jerel Bryant ’07 on Becoming New Orleans School Principal after Service at Dwight Hall

I

n 2007, after graduating from Yale with a degree in History, Jerel Bryant joined Teach For America. He was part of a large cohort deployed in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Upon arrival, Jerel met a community in recovery, still rebuilding from decades of education inequality and from the natural disaster that decimated school and community buildings three years prior.

Since his initial Teach for America placement, Jerel stayed in NoLa, growing with a city that has done much to grow Black American culture and American culture at large. Within five years, he became principal of George Washington Carver High School, an open enrollment historically Black charter school in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, a school that had been destroyed by Katrina. Carver alumni rallied to keep the high school open and then rallied again to preserve its traditions when Collegiate Academies, the school’s current operator, began managing it. Jerel began his service to students and community in this context, navigating histories and relationships and natural disasters that preceded his placement into the city and into Carver. By collaborating with the community, other school leaders and teachers, and by putting student needs above all else, Jerel has helped raise the standard for academic growth and potential that each Carver student will take with them upon graduation.

Partly underlying Jerel’s motivation for service through education and for including community in these conversations is Jerel’s experience at Dwight Hall as a mentor for the Jones-Zimmermann Academic Mentorship Program (J-Z AMP™) in Wexler-Grant middle school in New Haven. “What was most revealing about my time as Dwight Hall,” Jerel said, “was the tutoring and mentoring aspect, recognizing that nothing is bigger than service. I don’t think I quite understood how transformational it could be.” Understanding the importance of mentorship and education also came partly from Jerel’s upbringing in Harlem, where “a couple of guys who grew up in the neighborhood who had gone to Ivy League schools and had further education with grad degrees came back to open an after school program” that Jerel attended in first and second grade. That experience is evidence, Jerel said, of how one person can change a kid’s educational trajectory and have an immediate positive impact.

With Dwight Hall, Jerel worked with New Haven public school students and found himself presented with a real-life opportunity to learn from doing and to potentially impart the same trajectory-altering impact that had once been given to him. Jerel remembers vividly the way Wexler students’ eyes expanded going on a field trip to New York City. In that moment, it wasn’t about the “time and logistics and productive paranoia” that teachers deal with every day; it was about helping the students have moments to see the world as bigger than their present moment and as being full of opportunities that included and were accessible to them. Jerel said the trip “made me hungry or to create more moments like that, even if they weren’t through a field trip.” When a sixth and seventh grader expects you to be there, he recalls, it’s an important responsibility to hold yourself accountable and to show up with consistency and “purpose and positivity.” Jerel notes that his relationship with students isn’t one-sided. “It’s a different type of learning,” he said, but learning nevertheless and learning “that was energizing and fruitful and gave me a ton of perspective, about what [education] could be.”

Jerel’s experience at Dwight Hall influenced his decision to join Teach for America. “There was a real community at Dwight Hall,” he said, “And it wasn’t theoretical.” Even though at Yale, “it’s really easy to lose perspective about what’s actually happening in the real world… for me, I found it not just intellectually but a spiritual grounding to get to be at [Wexler] and then return to campus.” His senior year at Yale, Jerel found himself asking, “What would it take for kids who looked like me to enjoy school in the ways that I did?” The throughline of these questions, Jerel recalled, were the teachers who brought purpose and positivity to the classroom. “Dwight Hall gave me tangible moments to reflect on, palpable experiences that allowed me to think, ‘Could I see myself in a school for X number of hours a day teaching kids?’ ‘Does that give me energy?’ And the answer was resoundingly yes….I’m not here in New Orleans 15 years later if it’s not for my experience at Dwight Hall.”

With Teach for America, Jerel found himself learning and pushing for more for the kids he was serving. “Teach for America does a really, really good job of getting you to believe that even in two years, your work can make a substantial difference for a number of kids and a community. Once I got into it, I didn’t think I was very good after two years. I wasn’t. And that’s what compelled me to keep going. I want to do this, and I want to do it well.” Jerel had seen evidence in his own life of the power that a committed educator could have in a space. “I want to be one of those people,” he said. After his time with Teach for America ended, Jerel stayed in NoLa, partly because he wanted to help rebuild the city following Katrina, but also because of the opportunity to be on the ground for a city and community that needed it.

Jerel Bryant joined George Washington Carver High School as principal. The school is one of the oldest historically Black high schools in New Orleans located in the Ninth Ward, the historical cradle for the city. It is the high school most strongly associated with the Ninth Ward. Its buildings had just been destroyed by Katrina. It was at risk of being shut down. And in the midst of this uncertainty, Collegiate Academies, the charter system that Jerel had been working for at a school nearby, steps in and begins transitioning Carver to a charter school. Before Carver, Jerel said, “I worked at a school for three years that was seven minutes away. The difference between those two places was a lesson that I’m always grateful for because I think I went in [to Carver] thinking what we did [at the other school was] going to work here, and eventually many things did work, but I wasn’t nearly as responsive enough to Carver’s community-specific history as I needed to be.”

Becoming principal of Carver in this context was a challenge, yet it was also an opportunity. Jerel responded to community concerns, talking with alumni who were uncertain about the intentions of educators they didn’t know and who didn’t yet know them. By collaborating with the community, Jerel learned why a specific shade of green mattered; he learned the cultural importance of the band and a specific song they played. With these conversations, Jerel joined the community in uplifting students and promoting the same goal: “We want kids to have incredible experiences. We want to do our best to serve all types of kids and we want this school to capture the greatness it deserves.” From this experience, Jerel’s definitions expanded–what “pride can look like and what achievement can look like” and what it meant to build “an experience that reflected both the chapter we were trying to add… while respecting and elevating what has made the institution matter for generations of alums.”

Jerel’s dedication to students has tangible results. Carver High School has led the city’s high schools in academic growth. Carver’s graduation rate has increased by 15% in the last five years. “What’s funny to really think about how the school has grown and developed,” Jerel said, is that “it’s the same kids as before. We’ve just become better at serving them.”

The school has grown in other ways, too. Jerel takes it as an incredibly powerful mark when staff members send their kids to Carver when they could have chosen a number of other schools. Carver’s relationship with alumni in the community has also grown. “We have several teams and programs right now that compete for district championships and for state championships,” Jerel said. But the biggest determinant of school success is helping create an environment where students believe “that college is not only possible but our kids deserve to go there. We’re far from our vision of preparing all scholars for college success, but .. .I am proud through our challenges and our growth that the expectation has been elevated for the school and for our kids.”

The impact of Jerel’s service extends past his daily work with Carver’s 800 students, whom he knows almost all by name. It extends past being twice honored once locally and once nationally as the inaugural Teach for America Collective National Advisory Board (NAB) School Leader of Color (SLOC), receiving Louisiana’s High School Principal of the Year award last year, and soon to be promoted to CEO of Collegiate Academies. It extends past any one moment at Dwight Hall. What Jerel is working toward is intergenerational change where the community he serves has options, where education is not the limiting factor, where students grow to have families that are afforded the same options Jerel is working to create now.

“One of the many beauties of going to a place like Yale,” Jerel said, “is you become clear on a standard. … I think that’s why it’s in part so valuable for Yale grads to be in this work–not to tell people what we know, not because we think we’re the smartest people in the room, not because of the degree, but because we’ve been afforded a standard. And we can all generally accept that if you meet this standard, there’s a lot that you can do in this world. My ultimate goal is to graduate more and more and more kids that are prepared for that standard.”

To any future Yalie considering a path similar to Jerel, he says, “you have almost nothing to lose and everything to gain.” The change that we want to see happen here begins now in the classroom, in Dwight Hall, and in the paths we choose to take from our present moment.

Photos from the October 15, 2019 Issue of Gambit, available online here

About the Author

Lydia Burleson

Lydia Burleson served as the Communications and Alumni Engagement Associate for Dwight Hall at Yale, Center for Public Service and Social Justice from June 2021-June 2022. A first-generation low-income student from rural Texas, Lydia graduated from Yale cum laude in 2021 with a degree in English and a nonfiction creative writing concentration. During her college years, Lydia increased awareness of marginalized voices with the public writing she did for The Yale Daily News and the Yale Admissions office. Her Dwight Hall experiences included free college advising with student-led member groups REACH and Matriculate. Dwight Hall empowered Lydia to uplift other disadvantaged students and to increase access to education for people who might not have otherwise received these resources. She is currently completing an English PhD at Stanford University with a Knight-Hennessy Fellowship.