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Regents select African American as chancellor, first in board history

Regents Chancellor Lester W. Young Jr.

Regents Chancellor Lester W. Young Jr. Credit: Hans Pennink

Lester W. Young Jr., a former Brooklyn educator with more than 50 years' experience, on Monday became the first African American to lead the state's Board of Regents since its founding in 1784.

Young, 73, was elected Regents chancellor unanimously by the 17-member board. He noted that he takes over the state's education policy panel during a critical time — when the COVID-19 pandemic has "upended school systems around the world."

In coming months, the board will grapple with a wide range of controversies, including state testing and high school graduation standards.

Regents this week also are interviewing candidates for the permanent post of state education commissioner. The interim commissioner, Betty Rosa of the Bronx, commented that the selection of an African American as chancellor, or chairman, of the Regents board represents a win for race relations.

"Another barrier broken, another step in the march toward equality," said Rosa, who preceded Young as chancellor and is widely considered a front-runner in the search for a permanent commissioner.

Roger Tilles of Manhasset, who represents Long Island on the Regents board, said Young has done "an amazing job" since his initial appointment to the board in 2008. Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president of the New York State United Teachers union, described the new chancellor as "the right choice" to deal not only with effects of the pandemic, but also with continuing inequities in the public education system.

As a Regent, Young pushed for establishment of a statewide My Brother's Keeper program that focuses on mentoring young minority males. The program at the national level was initiated by former President Barack Obama.

One Long Island school district benefiting from My Brother's Keeper was Lawrence, on Nassau County's South Shore. William Moss, director of academic affairs at Lawrence High School, said his district has received more than $1.3 million in funding through the program to reduce student suspension rates, encourage accelerated enrollment in advanced math and science courses and help students in other ways.

"The influence of My Brother's Keeper is powerful," Moss said.

Young was born in 1947, the son of Lester Willis Young, a Jazz Hall-of-Famer and saxophonist who performed with Count Basie and other prominent musicians in the 1930s, 40s and 50s and died in 1959. While much of the Regent's professional life has been spent in Brooklyn, he now resides in Whitestone, Queens.

Young the educator served first as a teacher and guidance counselor in New York City, then later in a wide range of administrative positions at both regional and state levels. He was principal of PS 183 in Brooklyn, which was recognized as a school of excellence by the U.S. Department of Education.

From 1988 to 1993, Young was an assistant and associate commissioner of the New York State Department of Education. In 1993, he returned to Brooklyn, where he was appointed superintendent of a community school district and later senior superintendent for four districts.

After retiring in 2004, Young served four terms as a state Regent at Large for the state. He co-chairs a Regents committee in charge of elementary and secondary education.

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