LINDEN, NJ — When Kcyronne Zahir was growing up in Newark in the 1980s and 1990s, he was a student who could have gone either way. He could have worked hard to build a productive life, or he could have been overlooked and lost to the streets.
He credits his mother — a former Black Panther — and athletics with keeping him on the right path.
“My mom was very strong, and she wouldn’t let me go astray, and the fact that I was playing sports, it kept me afloat long enough,” he said.
“But on any given day, I could have been your worst nightmare.”
Today, Zahir is director of the Linden Public Schools’ alternative high school, housed at the Academy of Excellence in the former St. Elizabeth elementary school. The program offers smaller group settings that allow educators to meet students’ unique educational and behavioral needs outside the traditional high school.
Zahir’s own teenage years help him to support and empathize with students working to overcome specific challenges.
“I used to be that kid,” he said.
Zahir took over the alternative program in 2016 after serving as principal of McManus Middle School and School No. 2, and as vice principal at schools No. 1 and No. 4. He began in Linden as a health teacher at McManus and Soehl middle schools in 2000, and has been an administrator for 16 years.
This year, he has a new title. In addition to being the alternative school director, Zahir is now also the district’s director of equity in education, tasked with making sure that every student in the district gets an equal shot at a quality education.
“It’s not new for me. It’s what I was already doing on my own,” Zahir said. “It’s right up my alley.”
Educational equity is the principle that students be given support and resources based on their individual needs, so that all students have an equal opportunity at success.
“We are trying to eliminate the opportunity gap,” said Zahir, who is known to his students as Mr. Z and to his colleagues as just Z. “A lot of times, we say the achievement gap, but it’s really about the opportunity. Everybody’s not going to get 100 on the test. Somebody’s going to get a 75. That’s just how the world works. But for that person, that may be the pinnacle. So we have to meet everyone where they are, then scaffold and build them up, and make them a better and stronger person overall.”
Superintendent Marnie Hazelton approached Zahir with the new position shortly after she took the helm in July.
“Mr. Zahir’s appointment as director of equity in education here in Linden comes at a very critical time in our nation’s history,” she said. “Linden Public Schools created a 2016-2019 Comprehensive Equity Plan to correct prior noncompliant areas. Our plan met both the intent and spirit of the New Jersey Department of Education’s legal mandates for providing equity for students and staff.
“Mr. Zahir’s vast experience and success in working with our students will enable him to take the Comprehensive Equity Plan to scale and provide ongoing professional development for staff on how to provide equal access and support for all students. Mr. Zahir will bring an unwavering passion to his expanded role, and he is the best person to take on this challenging position.”
The opportunity gap presents itself in many ways, including messages that may not get to all communities. The district has begun to address this by sending out communications in Spanish, Polish and Haitian Creole, the three most prevalent languages among students’ families aside from English.
Zahir said equity demands that schools go further than that.
“It’s one thing to tell someone about something if they still don’t know where to go, how to find it, and how to do it,” he said. “Sometimes you have to hold someone’s hand all the way.
“Equity is about showing what is out there and how to get it, as opposed to saying, ‘Well, we did say this.’ We may do a good job of disseminating information, but we’re not doing a good job of following it up, explaining how it works and explaining how it’s beneficial to all.”
He pointed to the international baccalaureate program at Linden High School as an example. Many parents know that the I.B. program is the most rigorous course of study at LHS, giving students a head start on college-style work and college credits. But many may hold misconceptions on who the program is open to or how it may benefit a specific student.
“Many parents don’t know that their son or daughter can apply to be in the I.B. program,” he said. “You don’t have to be an A or B student. It’s open to everyone. But most parents don’t know that, especially the black and brown parents. They think their kid isn’t good enough.”
He said that simply taking that step into the I.B. program can make a difference for students who may have struggled before.
“Putting them in that environment can change the entire trajectory of where they are headed, because then they will be around other people talking about something a little different,” Zahir said. “And the minute the teacher sees someone coming in for that program, their perception is that this person is about business. They don’t see it as, ‘Oh, here comes this troublemaker.’”
In his new position, Zahir is heading a team of about a dozen administrators who will be crafting the district’s long-term equity plan. The team consists of Hazelton, Assistant Superintendent Denise Cleary and several principals from elementary, middle and high school levels.
The team will be attending virtual workshops offered by the University of Pennsylvania through the spring to help them create and deliver an equity plan, which will likely be part of the district’s five-year strategic plan.
“This is not going to be something that happens overnight,” Zahir said. “We have a lot more work to do before we deliver our plan to the staff. I think we’re going to spend the majority of this year really honing and developing what we want to deliver to the staff. If we do it sometime in the springtime, that would be great. Because this is so new, we really need to make sure that we’re tight before we go and put something else on the teachers’ plate.”
He said the plan will be driven by data in an effort to find inequities and address them.
“It’s not a pie-in-the-sky thing, or just, ‘I think that. …,’” Zahir said. “We’re going to look at what the data is showing. Where are we missing this? Is it strictly in the classroom? Is it something at home? We can all say we think we know, but we want to take a good look and dive into that data to see what it really tells us. That will really drive the direction that we head in.”
He said this task presents a big challenge but said, “That’s the beauty of it.”
“I really do think that with the staff that’s on our team, they’re going to learn so much, that they are going to look at education differently for the rest of their lives after this.”
Understanding the many different cultures that make up Linden is a big part of making sure students feel comfortable in their schools and classrooms.
“We have cultural things that are going to have to be shared,” Zahir said. “These cultural things are sometimes missing in the classroom. People talk about, ‘We need a black teacher.’ It’s not that a black teacher is better than the white teacher. It’s just that there are some cultural things he or she recognizes. And that matters to a certain extent, and that small piece can be the difference in igniting a great mind.
“We have the demographics in the town, so we pretty much know what our classrooms are going to look like. So we have to know some of the cultural things about these students so we know why he did this or why she did that.”
He gave an example from when he was principal and was dealing with a student from a culture that he was not familiar with.
“I’m talking to this young lady, and she’s not looking me in my eyes,” he said. “I learn that, culturally, they don’t look men in the eyes. So she’s not being disrespectful to me. That helps me get through to that student, so I’m not ready to say, ‘You’re suspended from school for being disrespectful.’ And we do that too many times, because we don’t understand them culturally.
“If we’re talking about equity and closing the opportunity gap, we sure as heck better talk about culture. And that’s going to be one of the pieces that I add to this. That’s what students really respond to.”
Eliminating racial inequities is a big part of the push for equity, but Zahir wants to make it clear that that is not all this is about.
“This job is not the director of race relations,” he said. “We talk about being anti-racist, but we really need to talk about anti-bias. We’re going to deal with the LGBTQ community as well. That group comes from all different cultures. We have to make sure they feel comfortable in that classroom and with that teacher.
“That community is growing, and right here in our school district. And we have to address that to make sure those youngsters come in there realizing that’s a safe space.”
“It’s no different than that Latino kid who thinks, ‘They just don’t understand me.’”
He gave the example of a transgender student who wants to be identified by a certain name and pronoun. A teacher must be able to understand and meet that student’s needs.
“We have to make sure we are aware of that,” Zahir said. “That’s an equity piece as well. Making sure to make that person feel just as included. We can’t say, ‘I’m not trying to figure out all this stuff, what to call them. …’ No, no, no. Then you’re doing a huge injustice.”
He also pointed to the needs of students who come from low socioeconomic status, regardless of their heritage, as a group that needs support from educators.
“So let’s not talk about equity and just say, ‘Oh, we have to give the black and Latino kids more,’” Zahir said. “No, no, no. Let’s make sure we are giving a complete package to everybody.”
Zahir knows what it’s like to be “that kid.”
“You have no idea who I was before I became ‘Mr. Zahir,’” he said. “I was that kid, the one that no one wanted to be bothered with. The only thing that saved me was athletics.”
He said he made it through school because he needed to maintain his athletic eligibility. But playing football and running track also taught him how to prepare, how to deal with adversity, teamwork, how to trust others.
It also made college a more realistic dream. He went to Montclair State University, where he was part of the track team. He obtained his master’s degree from St. Peter’s College and is working toward his doctorate at Trident at American InterContinental University.
He wants to make sure through a renewed focus on equity that Linden students who might otherwise be left behind are supported and given a fair opportunity at that kind of future success.
“It’s something that, if we do it correctly, we can reach a lot of students,” he said. “Let me start at the same starting point as the person next to me. Give me the same amount of time, give me the same amount of support. And watch how I flourish.”
Photos Courtesy of Gary Miller