Brooklyn's John King tapped to lead school reform efforts, says school saved his life
BY RACHEL MONAHAN, DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
Sunday, September 20th 2009, 4:00 AM
John King who will be the Senior Deputy Commissioner for P-12 Education at the New York State Education Department.
The man tapped to become the state Education Department's second in command next month says school saved his life.
Orphaned at 12 when his elderly dad died four years after his mother, John King shuttled between relatives.
"From fourth grade on, school became a refuge from a really difficult home situation," said King, a strong charter school proponent who will head the state's school reform effort.
"School provided a lot of structure, a reliable routine, adults who cared about me and challenging and interesting things to think about."
Born in Flatlands, Brooklyn, to parents who were public school teachers, King's educators filled a gap in his life and informed his views of the many gifts of education.
"One of our jobs is to provide a lot of structure and safety - not just physical safety but emotional, intellectual safety so kids can really be kids at school," King said.
His teachers' support is why every year since nursery school, King, 34, has gone to school - as a student, a teacher or a charter school leader.
King still recalls Mr. Osterweil, his "great" fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at Canarsie's PS 276.
Osterweil required the class to read the newspaper every day and report on a specific country. The class also acted out an adapted version of Shakespeare.
"It was really fun to act out 'Midsummer Night's Dream,'" King said. "That was a really amazing experience."
At school, King could be a kid; at home, he learned to write checks to pay bills and keep the electricity on and to raid his father's cash drawer to buy groceries as his dad slipped further into Alzheimer's disease.
"I didn't have any way to process the unpredictability and just really strange and difficult things that were happening," he said. "I was scared a lot."
He describes seventh-grade - the last year of his father's life - as the most difficult year.
But his teacher at Mark Twain Junior High School in Coney Island helped keep him focused on his studies.
"I wasn't thinking about home. I was thinking about the Aztecs - or whatever it is we were studying," King said.
"That was really important and sustaining for me."
After graduating from Harvard and earning a master's in education from Columbia, he taught social studies at a charter high school in Boston.
His students arrived unprepared, he said, which ultimately was his inspiration to found Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Massachusetts.
That school became a star, ranking first this year on the state's eighth-grade math exam.
While still attending Yale Law School, King returned to the city of his birth to be director of what's become the charter school network Uncommon School.
He has since followed in the footsteps of the father he never knew well, as he oversees the Excellence Boys Charter School of Bedford-Stuyvesant.
King Sr. was the city's second African-American principal in the same building where Excellence is located. "It was an amazing experience," King said. "I didn't have a connection to that part of my father's life."
His father rose to the second-highest education slot in the city, and King is headed to Albany to occupy the same position statewide.
Looking forward, he says: "There are just a lot things that make it so kids have to grow up really early and have to deal with things that are really challenging."