The Harlem Children’s Zone helped Jerry Perez end up in the perfect job, yet his trajectory began when his sisters participated in its after-school program in the 1990s when the organization was called Rheedlen.
He was not in the program, but his sisters Mona-Lisa and Sabrina, who went on to work for HCZ, participated as teens at the Booker T. Washington Beacon.
“I could tell there was something different about my sisters,” he remembered. “They were able to see their future in a way that they couldn’t before.”
Mr. Perez was graduating from high school at a time when his peers only thought about getting jobs. He was accepted to a college in Ireland, and his sisters urged him to go.
“My sisters were influencing their older brother, their younger cousins and their friends,” he said. “They were spreading this wealth of information around.”
Though his dream was to learn animation for science documentaries, his first job was with MTV and he ended up in project management. After 9/11, he wanted to give back and began to volunteer at the Promise Academy®, tutoring elementary students in science after school.
He recalled that the then-principal, Tonya White, “saw something in me and saw the kids were completely engaged.” She urged him to become a science teacher and he eventually joined the high school staff.
“I want students to know they have a role to play in the sciences,” he said.
Mr. Perez said that another teacher told him that if she asked his students who was his favorite, each would say it was them. He said it was because he spent the time with each student so they got to know each other, building trust — both with them and their parents.
“That’s what I really want them to take away from my classroom — trust in your teachers and trust in the process and your own level of hard work.”
He recalled a note he got from one student who had done well on a standardized test. The student had written that she couldn’t have done it without him. He said he copied the note and gave it back to the student with a rewritten message saying the student had done it herself. He said he appreciated the thanks, but “I wanted her to know she could do it next year without me. I didn’t take the test. It was her brain, not mine.”
“These children’s lives are at stake,” he said. “This is their whole future. That has to mean something — to me it definitely means something.”
At the Promise graduation next June, Mr. Perez will watch as the first class he taught in fourth grade will get their diplomas and go off to college. “I am excited for them,” he said. “I’ll be sad to see them go, but knowing that’s the way it should be. It’s time for them to do what I did too — to try new things.”