Bushwick Educator Receives Prestigious Milken Award

Bushwick Educator Receives Prestigious Milken Award
Princess Francois surprised withthe Milken Educator Award at MESA ceremony. Courtesy of Milken Family Foundation.

On November 20,  Princess Francois, the assistant principal of the Math, Engineering, and Science Academy (MESA) Charter School in Bushwick was surprised at a school assembly with the prestigious Milken Educator Award.  The award recognizes the nation’s most exemplary teachers, principals, and specialists in education since 1987, and honorees are celebrated with an individual, unrestricted $25,000 check.

Princess Francois did not plan to be an educator. She was attending Columbia University for pre-med and history with a focus on colonization, when she realized that people from a similar socio-economic and racial background like her did not arrive with the same skill sets and knowledge, and much of it seemed to do with where they went to school.

“In college, I was organizing a minority pre-med society, I was mentoring and helping a lot of students of color because I saw part of the issue is they were lacking a lot of skills from high school with math and science specifically,” Francois said. “Especially at Columbia, the expectations of what they want you to come in with versus what a lot of my peers that look like me came in with was a struggle.”

Born and raised in Prospect Heights to immigrant Haitian parents, Francois was sent to Catholic school instead of the local zoned one. After realizing the lag in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) at public schools in minority neighborhoods, Francois was inspired to join Teach for America (TFA) – an organization committed to expanding educational opportunities at under-resourced public schools.

During TFA, Francois was placed in her neighborhood’s zoned high school, the High School for Global Citizenship.

“I was serving exactly where I came from,” she said. “I fell in love with my kids, I was teaching chemistry, anatomy, and physiology.”

Beyond teaching, the young educator began taking on leadership roles and coordinating students’ activities and filling in gaps in the school’s programming.

“As I took on those roles, I saw changes occur,” she said. “If I can do this as a teacher, what impact would I have if I was the actual leader?”

The principal of the school Dr. Michelle Penn who is also a Black woman, was a role model for Francois, who mentored her through professional development and helped make the vision of taking on a larger role in education come true. After five years, Francois was ready to move on and became the assistant principal at MESA.

MESA’s focus is on providing a good quality education for children in the community, where that is more the exception than the rule. In Bushwick’s school district 32 only 64% of students graduate high school, with an 11% dropout rate. MESA has around 500 students, and 70 staff members. Regents pass rates in the last couple of years have risen, and over 90% of kids graduate.

Princess Francois (center) surprised with the Milken Educator Award at MESA ceremony, Principal Pagee Cheung on her left. Courtesy of Milken Family Foundation.

The principal and co-founder of MESA, Pagee Cheung, was a math teacher herself. After seeing a need in Bushwick for a school with a rigorous academic approach, she opened MESA seven years ago, to fill in the gap of underrepresented communities of color in STEM. She notes that Princess’ supportive backbone gives the students the foundation to transform.

“She is always connecting with the students beyond the academic level,” Cheung told Bklyner over the phone. “A lot of students come behind grade level and are able to catch up and feel confident, and that gives them a scaffolding and agency, and they start leading teams and getting scholarships.”

The principal says Francois is a role model not only for the students, but also for the staff, and very deserving of the Milken Award.

“We feel very fortunate to have Princess,” Cheung said. “We feel very proud of the community we have built, she’s got a great team of peers who support and rally behind her.”

Francois’ approach to the students is focused on relationship and community building and developing as a family no matter the different backgrounds. By creating traditions and involving the student body to vocalize their needs and interests, the educator is able to have a safe and empowering space to learn.

“I know what’s happening in their daily lives every single day and have close relationships with their parents, as well. I can see when they’re struggling, when they’re happy, when they’re sad,” she said.

They also aim to create real-world experiences for the students to expose them to more of the world outside of their communities.

One of Francois’ advisees, Victor Richarson, a 17-year-old senior at MESA, participated in the surprise Milken ceremony, excited to celebrate his advisor. Originally from Bushwick, his family was recently pushed out of the neighborhood — their building was sold. The tight-knit relationships within the school and with Francois helped him cope with the situation.

Victor Richarson (holding “2”) and students at Milken Educator Award at MESA ceremony. Courtesy of Milken Family Foundation.

“It’s been a great experience; her advisory is very supportive. She’s amazing, she’s basically helped me better myself and grow as a person,” he said, beaming with a smile. “Her and my mom both worked together to give me guidance whenever I’m feeling down or struggling with a topic in class.”

Julie Kwong has been a math teacher at MESA for three years. Francois was her coach for her first two years at the school, her first teaching job in her career.

“I’ve always been interested in being a teacher, I was ready to jump in, but didn’t realize how much support I would need in the relationship area,” she said. “She taught me a lot by not telling me to do {this or that], but by asking the question to help me figure out how to achieve success through my own [teaching] style.”

Kwong struggled, like many in the early stages of education careers, with student behavior management. Francois guided Kwong through professional development to transform the strategies and tools the young teacher had for her classrooms. Kwong says Francois has helped her remember that she is also a person, not just an educator, and step-by-step resolved classroom issues with her guidance.

“She really helped shape how I think about teaching in my classroom,” Kwong said, who is happy Francois received the award and thinks she deserves it. “She transformed me as a first-year teacher, and I can’t imagine all the people she has coached in her time in teaching and how that has positively impacted the students.”

Princess Francois. Courtesy of Princess Francois.

Francois doesn’t plan on stopping transforming modern education and creating more equity and diversity in STEM-related education. Being a Black woman herself, and discovering a lot of Black young girls have a high interest in STEM but not having the socio-economic and academic support, she would ideally build a school for Black females in STEM and see them succeed in those areas.

She started many initiatives at MESA–like the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee–around social equity and wants to continue having these conversations with staff and students. Receiving the award has helped Francois realize her work is important.

“This is affirming that whatever I’m doing, I should keep doing,” she said. “It inspires me to do bigger, better things in the future.”

Francois is planning to spend the check on her upcoming wedding in November 2020 and toward a house, as well as taking her mom on vacation.

In terms of Brooklyn education as a whole, Francois believes there’s still a lot to do.

“How can we increase the diversity of schools, how do you grant equal opportunities to all students and not just because you got through a selection process or your zip code?”

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