A Principal Known For Grit And Generosity
By Chuck Wilbanks
In ways that aren’t measured by cold statistics, Dez-Ann Romain’s leadership of Brooklyn Democracy Academy was a profound success. It could be found in the long lines waiting to get into the school’s basketball games, in the interest and dedication of her once-faltering students, and in the honor, respect and gratitude paid to her by her colleagues.
“She loved her kids, she loved her community, she loved service,” said Allison Farrington, principal of Research and Service High School in Bed Stuy, also a transfer school. “You could see it in how she and her students would look at each other. I can’t imagine what they are dealing with now.”
Ms. Romain, 36, died from complications from the coronavirus on March 23 as it swept the city. She is survived by her sister.
“She was caring, driven, had a vision and she carried it out,” said Andrew Brown, the former principal of BDA who hired Ms. Romain as his AP in 2015 and then pushed to have her take the reins when he became principal of Judith S. Kaye High School. “I left the school in a good place, but I knew she was the right person to move it forward. The things I couldn’t do or didn’t have enough attention to detail to do — she got them done after I left.”
Mr. Brown described programs Ms. Romain took on, such as the large mural guided by a professional artist but painted by students, her funding and completion of the school’s hydroponics (plants) and aquaculture (fish) programs, and her desire to give the school a more traditional, warm feeling.
“Transfer schools are viewed as last-chance places,” said Mr. Brown. “They’re not like a school in a suburb with a mascot and homecoming dance. She wanted the kids to have that sort of encompassing experience, with school colors, camaraderie and success. And she wanted the students to be successful not only in high school but in post-secondary education and as adults. She succeeded in all of that.”
Mr. Brown noted how she changed the physical appearance and even infrastructure of the school, including installing new lockers, such that when he returned for a visit a year later, “It was jaw dropping.” He and others said they were amazed at the way she helped feed the Brownsville community with the largesse from the school’s fish and vegetable cultivation programs. “It was really impressive to me how she opened that space up to the community.”
Julia Forman, who works with transfer schools at New Visions for Public Schools, said Ms. Romain was particularly proud of her work trying to build career pathways for the students, including jobs in healthcare and jobs stemming from the hydroponics labs. “The fact that they took all the greens from hydroponic tanks and would make lunch and dinner and donate that food back to the community, that was the essence of who she was,” said Ms. Forman.
Her dogged determination to her work caught the eye of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. In an interview with CSA News, Mr. Adams recalled how she came to his office and made an impassioned pitch for more funding for the aquaponics program. She told of how young people were learning, analyzing the plants, and getting vegetables to the community.
“She said, I want to expand this and I need your help,” Mr. Adams said. “I recognized right away her energy and dedication and I wanted to help. We navigated the complexity of the DOE and we were able to move the idea to something real. When I visited, you could see that students were looking forward to going to school. That was her trademark – her belief that educators can reach students who at one time believed that they didn’t matter. She taught them that they do matter. I’m committed to turning the pain of losing her into purpose. We’ll continue her programs.”
She was also known for sharing her successes with colleagues. “I have a hydroponics lab now because of her,” said Ms. Farrington. “She put me in contact with the people who set it up. I have a pantry, but we didn’t have fresh produce. Now we do.”
Born in Trinidad, Ms. Romain came to the United States at a young age. Her passion for transfer students stemmed in part from her own experience growing up poor and finding her own path through education. Mohamed Q. Amin, a friend and classmate of hers at Far Rockaway High School who now heads a non-profit dedicated to economic opportunities for Carribbean immigrants, posted an anguished note on Facebook: “As Caribbean migrants, being raised by low-income parents in the “ghetto,” we were considered “at-risk” young people,” he said, but went on to recount their time together in student government and how they made the National Honor Society, and how she encouraged him to come to her school’s job fair to describe his work.
She worked her way through college as a hair stylist, noted Mr. Brown, who recalled how she would bring her equipment to BDA to teach students barbering skills and to give them haircuts as well. She became a special education teacher before going on to leadership positions.
“Words cannot express what the passing of Principal Dez-Ann Romain means to our city’s school leaders,” said CSA President Mark Cannizzaro. “We join her family, friends, students, colleagues, the New Visions community, and all NYC educators in mourning this heartbreaking loss. She represented the very best of our city and its public schools— an inspiring, compassionate professional who worked tirelessly to provide all children with opportunity. She saved lives. To her present and former students: You were her mission, and we know that you will honor her legacy as you each carve out your unique path.”
Ms. Farrington, choking back tears, tried to put into perspective the special place that transfer schools inhabit in New York City, and the role that Ms. Romain played in that world.
“As a leader of a transfer school, you become a little bit lawyer, doctor, barber, nurse, cook, cleaner, teacher, friend, and counselor,” she said. “You become everything to everyone. It is a thankless job, because you are dealing with the most marginalized, the most vulnerable, the most forgotten group of kids. People don’t look at them like they’re children because of their age, but they’re children. For this woman to be 36 and have students are 21 — they’re like siblings. Brownsville is devastated because her institution is what was needed for that community to graduate students with high school diplomas.
“More importantly, we’re not able to physically see and support these children. That’s really hard. Transfer school kids come to school to be comforted. They come to be hugged, to be loved. There’s no building right now to come to. There is no principal for them to come to. This is the ultimate level of devastation for these kids. I can’t hug a student. I can only email them. The nature of the job we do is to comfort them, to provide them the basic needs, the love needs. We can do remote learning, but we can’t do that remotely.
“They’re used to loss, used to violence, used to not being cared for. But now they have lost a great leader.”