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Rafiq Kalam Id-Din II ’00 uses lessons from the law to build a new model for education

As a student teacher during his dual bachelor-master’s degree program in education at the University of Virginia (UVA), Rafiq Kalam Id-Din II ’00 began to formulate an idea for a new model for education, one that would restructure schools to better meet students’ needs.

But it was when he worked as an instructor at Camp Dogwood Summer Academy near Charlottesville, Virginia, and met the camp founders, that he realized that law school might help him make this concept a reality. Beatrice and Anthony Welters ’77, co-founders of the AnBryce Foundation, a philanthropic organization that creates and supports programming for under-resourced communities, had started the camp for school-age children.

Rafiq Kalam Id-Din II ’00
Rafiq Kalam Id-Din II '00

“It was in my conversations with Bea and Tony that I started to get an idea about what it would take to produce systemic change, and that the pathway through law school would be the most impactful,” says Kalam Id-Din.

Kalam Id-Din is now the founder and managing partner of Ember Charter School for Mindful Education, Innovation and Transformation in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Ember, which opened in 2007 under the name Teaching Firms of America Charter School, serves around 540 primarily low-income students from kindergarten to tenth grade. It takes its organizational structure from a law firm: students are called clients, and teachers enter as associates and eventually become partners. Kalam Id-Din says this model provides a better forum for collaboration and empowers teachers—who he believes are the best informed about their students’ needs—to make a difference in students’ lives.

His time at NYU was important preparation, Kalam Id-Din says: “I knew I wanted to go to NYU Law, because it was known as the place that was committed to supporting lawyers who were interested in social justice and using the law creatively to forward this kind of mission.” Kalam Id-Din served on the NYU Law Review, was a member of the Black Allied Law Students Association and president of the Student Bar Association, and taught at the High School Law Institute. Among his mentors, Kalam Id-Din says, were NYU president emeritus and former NYU Law dean emeritus John Sexton, his civil law professor—who he says is an invaluable supporter of Ember—and the late Derrick Bell, who taught his constitutional law course. “He was such an amazing mentor and thought partner as I was really trying to form and test out my ideas about how do I disrupt racism, how do I disrupt inequity, how do we start a different path,” says Kalam Id-Din of Bell.

The Welters remained important mentors, he says, noting that they encouraged him to focus on developing new skill sets. “It was such counterintuitive guidance to say, ‘Don’t play to your strengths—certainly continue to work on and support those, but focus on developing your weaknesses, your knowledge gaps. That’s going to make you a holistic, strong leader,’” says Kalam Id-Din.

After NYU Law, Kalam Id-Din spent three years as an associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, and it was there that he came up with the idea to structure schools like law firms. “I’m learning from people who are more experienced, and I’m doing the work at the same time,” he recalls. “It occurred to me: ‘What would happen if we put that same relational transaction at the center of how schools are run?’” Kalam Id-Din says that he envisioned a structure in which teachers would be in charge of decision making and curriculum planning in what he came to see as a “teaching firm.”

To reconnect with the educational sector, Kalam Id-Din took a job as the director of the AnBryce Foundation, where he worked on programing for NYU Law’s AnBryce Program, including spearheading the 1L AnBryce Summer Associate Program and creating new advising structures. “Bea and Tony basically said, ‘What would have made the experience of law school more impactful for you as a first-generational student? Now go build that,’” he says.

After four years with the AnBryce Program, Kalam Id-Din received a fellowship through Echoing Green, an investment organization for social entrepreneurs, which provided the seed capital to launch the Teaching Firms of America Charter School in 2008. In 2017, the name of the school was changed to Ember Charter School for Mindful Education.

What makes Ember unique, besides the firm-like structure, Kalam Id-Din says, is a focus on what he calls the “human development model.” This includes trying to keep teachers with the same ‘clients’ for multiple years, and incorporating mental health curriculum into every grade level. “Our students, in particular, are extremely likely to have witnessed violence or experienced trauma…and part of our model is to address and aid and nurture the full life of our students, so we focus on making sure they have the resources they need, the support they need, that they have agency, that they have dignity, at every level,” Kalam Id-Din says.

“The narrative of so many charter schools and even private schools that try to attract poor Black and brown students is that they want to give you a ticket out,” says Kalam Id-Din. “That’s not our message at all. We want them to know: ‘How do you stay in touch? How do you help transform? How do you become a catalyst for the change in your community?’ It might require a journey away for a time to go to college or whatnot, but you’re coming back with this idea because you’re focused on the person you’re becoming, which is a leader, social entrepreneur, social engineer. This is in the DNA of our mission.”

In addition to his work with Ember, Kalam Id-Din has founded the #BlackLedSchoolsMatter initiative and co-founded the NYC Coalition of Community Charter Schools and the Black-Latinx-Asian Charter Collaborative. In October, for his work addressing systemic racism in schools, Kalam Id-Din was acknowledged as a Black Voice for Black Justice by the Black Voices for Black Justice Fund. He has also maintained close ties to the Law School, and currently serves as president of the Law Alumni of Color Association.

“The Law School, for me at least, really empowered me with a way of thinking and problem solving, and I don’t know where else I would’ve gotten it,” says Kalam Id-Din, adding, “I think NYU [Law]’s the kind of place that nurtures the kind of empowering experience I’ve had, and for that I will be forever grateful.”

Posted December 16, 2020