Beth Fertig is the contributing editor for education, covering the New York City public school system for WNYC on air and online at SchoolBook.org. She has covered education in the city for more than 15 ...
Getting Schooled With Jumaane Williams
Tuesday, August 14, 2012 - 07:15 PM
Councilman Jumaane D. Williams said in this WNYC profile that he used his experience in the public schools, from kindergarten to a master's degree, as a guide for what works and what doesn't work so well in the school system.
But his story is different from most students because he has Tourette's syndrome. The uncontrollable movements and vocal noises are clearly noticeable, but they have more slowed him down than prevented him from achieving his goals.
On a recent summer day Mr. Williams paid a short but active visit to a summer camp at P.S. 269 Nostrand in his Flatbush district. The 36-year-old, with an aide's help, challenged a couple of teens to a game of two-on-two basketball.
In the classroom he was a bit more serious, talking to students about the city budget, but he used humor to acknowledge his disability. As his chest moved and he made coughing noises, his explanation of Tourette's made the students laugh.
"Yes, I have involuntary movements and vocal sounds," he said. "I don’t know who still watches 'The Simpsons' but Bart said he had it. Or if you watch 'South Park' Cartman said he had it cause he was cursing all the time."
While Mr. Williams isn't known to dwell on his disability, he is candid about it with young people. He knows the statistics are poor for students with learning disabilities and behavior problems - about 30 percent of students with disabilities graduate on time with full diplomas from the city's public schools - and he said he wants to serve as a positive example.
"Too often, particularly I believe, young black and Latino students, if any of these kind of things exhibit they try to push them to special ed," he said. He added that special education "needs to be there and services need to be provided, but that’s generally just where they send everybody they don’t want to deal with."
Mr. Williams said he feels like his life easily could have gone in another direction. When he was diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome in middle school he was almost expelled for bad behavior, said his mother, Patricia Williams.
"Back then there wasn’t a lot out about Tourette’s so many of the teachers didn’t understand what Tourette’s was and he got punished quite a bit for his movements and being unable to keep still," she said. Speaking in her home in southeast Brooklyn's Flatlands neighborhood, Ms. Williams credits a fifth grade teacher with helping him stay in school.
It also took a fair amount of parent advocacy. Ms. Williams, who was a pharmacist, educated herself and the school. She got involved with the Tourette Syndrome Association, and her son appeared twice on the Maury Povitch show. But she resisted having him classified as a child with special needs – even though that could have gotten him extra help.
"I didn’t want him to be handicapped," she explained, adding that she feared he would use it as a crutch. "So I got information for them to give time out when he needed time, have him sit away from a window, sit in the front, get extra time for his exams."
Mr. Williams grew up in Starrett City and was attending the academically selective Philippa Shuyler Junior High School. His mother enrolled him and his sister in after-school programs at the Harlem School of the Arts. Mr. Williams took up guitar and drama, and also sang with the All City High School chorus.
His mother said he never had tics when performing on stage; Mr. Williams's first love was acting. He still participates in community theater. It was in college that his interest in politics developed although it wasn't always successful, he said, recalling a student election at Brooklyn College.
"I ran for president and lost by 95 votes, I will never forget that," he said.
Mr. Williams tested into Brooklyn Technical High School. But he needed to go to summer and evening classes in order to graduate. When he went to Brooklyn College it took him seven years to finish his four-year degree because he continued to have trouble focusing.
"I always knew I could do it," he said. "It just takes me a little longer."
He went on to earn a masters in urban policy administration at Brooklyn College. Later he became a housing activist and eventually ran New York State Tenants & Neighbors. In 2009, he defeated incumbent Kendall Stewart to win his council seat.
Council members describe Mr. Williams as a cheerful colleague who sings Stevie Wonder's "Happy Birthday" whenever a colleague has a birthday, and who can get equally passionate about issues large, like gun violence, and small, such as uneaten school food.
He has become well known as a critic of the police department’s stop-and-frisk policies. Last summer, he and a council aide were briefly handcuffed by police at the West Indian Day parade when they got into a dispute about a closed sidewalk. He currently co-chairs the council's Gun Violence Taskforce.
Within his district, those who know him say Mr. Williams is very focused on results. Council members routinely give out thousands of dollars each year in discretionary funds to local non-profit groups. Mr. Williams took a novel approach, requiring all the groups in his district to take a class before they could apply for council funds. Marjorie Momplaisir-Ellis of the community group CAMBA said she was pleasantly surprised by the mandatory lesson.
"The training was actually good. It was done by an industry expert and they had specific outcomes for the community already outlined," she said. "We were even learning what the graduation rate was at different high schools."
When he runs for re-election next year, Mr. Williams said he wants to be measured on results, particularly when it comes to shootings, after-school programs and education. He calls himself a "proud Brooklyn public school baby" and said he remains positive about the city school system.
"I call it a jewel that needs to be polished," he said. "So right now there’s a little scuff marks here and there and I think if we polish it up we can do really good things."