It started with a letter.

P.S. 5 Dr. Ronald E. McNair fifth grader Chane Grandison put pen to paper to call on his local member of congress, Hakeem Jeffries, to fund classes on equity and understanding.

In his letter, the Bed-Stuy elementary student told Jeffries, as a young Black man, he had never really taken notice of race relations.

“I mostly like to spend time playing with friends and playing video games. Recently I’ve noticed how troublesome racism can be, and how divided our country really is,” he wrote.

“It is hard at times to understand how the pigmentation of a person’s skin is considered a threat or menace to society. What causes the fear of Black men?”

On the letter’s receipt, forwarded to the congressman by Principal Lena Gates, Jeffries knew he had to go to P.S. 5 and see the school’s work for himself.

Although Grandison wasn’t there to show the congressman through, on Wednesday Principal Gates, staff and former students Serenity Dixon and Jada Warren — the pair of young activists behind New York City’s first shower bus for homeless people – gave the congressman a full tour.

And one thing was abundantly clear: P.S. 5 is the place for leaders of the future.

Photo: Anna Bradley-Smith for BK Reader.

Messages of social justice, art works inspiring collaboration, lessons in U.S. history and calls to action filled the hallways. Jeffries toured classrooms including a STEM lab fit with three robots, 3D printers and high-tech computer systems; a community bookstore students had created on noticing a need in the neighborhood; a music room full of instruments; and more, before cutting the ribbon on a new community supply pantry run in partnership with the Bed-Stuy Lions.

As Principal Gates walked Jeffries through the school, she said it was a place full of passionate and driven educations, where students got a deep and well-rounded education..

“We need to change the vision about our urban schools and what our urban students can do,” Gates said. “Because they can do so much.”

Gates said social justice and putting learning into real world situations was a top priority at the school, and the letter Jeffries had been sent was one of many students had written to the congressman.

“They did a lot of research into who our congressman is and what your responsibilities are to us as people,” she said. “So they’re able to express that and they also ask you a bunch of questions, some very real questions.”

She said throughout the pandemic and racial justice protests of 2020, students had been watching everything. “These children are our future, these are children that are looking at what’s been happening in our society.”

At the school, students were taught they had the responsibility to make change, and were asked how they would do that, Gates added.

“Teaching them at this age that they can make a difference, will make all the difference. We’re teaching them what that means and what you need to do that,” she said, adding: “If you’re going to write your congressman a letter, you need to know how to put a period at the end of your sentence.”

Photo: Anna Bradley-Smith for BK Reader.

Gates highlighted the efforts the school went to to provide top class programs to its students, including a flight simulation school, but also pointed out the gaps in funding that left the school unable to reach its full potential. She took the opportunity to call on Jeffries to help leverage connections with Washington and the private sector.

Something paramount, she said, was creating pathways between P.S. 5 and other elementary schools in the district to the districts middle and high schools, so students could have continuity in their education.

13-year-old Serenity Dixon asked the congressman how he would ensure she and other students would get the same opportunities at middle school as they did at P.S. 5.

And he pledged to help, saying he was impressed by the “amazing and excellent” education the school provided.

“But if there’s no continuity that interrupts your ability to grown and continue the incredible development we’ve already seen.”

Jeffries said he would get the new Schools Chancellor Meisha Ross Porter and new mayor to visit the school and see the amazing work it was doing, in order to build pathways.

“And then figure out how to bring some resources from Washington D.C., not just into the school but into the whole community district so we get that kind of continuity.”

On the last stop of his tour, Jeffries was taken outside to the school’s latest project in the works – a courtyard that will soon be a vegetable garden where students can grow, and hopefully cook, their own food.

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Anna Bradley-Smith

Anna Bradley-Smith is Brooklyn-based reporter with bylines in NBC, VICE, Slate and others. Follow her on Twitter @annabradsmith.

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