Syracuse University Magazine

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José Luis Vilson ’04

Elevating Educator

It’s a long way from the Lower East Side projects of Manhattan to the White House, but José Luis Vilson has made the trip—three times. The most recent was for the Symposium for Innovative Ed-Tech: Sustaining the Momentum, hosted by the White House and U.S. Department of Education in December. Vilson represented EduColor, an advocacy group he founded to pursue equity and inclusion in education. 

As a child, Vilson attended P.S. 140 on Ridge Street, between East Houston and Delancey, with mostly black, Latino, and Asian children. “I learned empathy for the people struggling the most out there,” he says. “I witnessed the way poverty affected my friends and family members.”

Vilson graduated from the College of Engineering and Computer Science with a major in computer science. He’s putting his STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) mastery to work teaching seventh- and eighth-grade math at the Inwood Intermediate School, in the Washington Heights/Inwood neighborhood in upper Manhattan. “Many students don’t graduate high school specifically because of algebra,” he says. “I want to make sure my students are fully prepared for the arduous task of transitioning into high school. I break down the subject for them in their own language, and try to make them self-sufficient through questioning and observation. I want them to create their own ‘tool belt,’ so when they face a math problem I’ve never taught, they can solve it through things I have taught.”

Vilson, whose heritage is Dominican and Haitian, chose the school so he could work with vulnerable youth. “The neighborhood reminded me of my own,” he says. “As a Spanish speaker, I connected culturally to the students. I wanted to use that to help students see themselves in the math material, and close the opportunity gap for students who normally get stuck in math.”

It’s not all about numbers. Vilson says students need two big ideas at the same time: love and academics. “We must care about students as people first, then as academic individuals,” he says. “Once we’ve built those relationships, we can create an environment for intellectual exploration and understanding.”

Outside the classroom, Vilson writes about education issues and focuses on EduColor, an organization of educators, parents, and students that initiates national conversations about policy and pedagogy (www.educolor.org). “More than anything, I’m pushing key stakeholders across the country to reconsider and redesign the educational experiences of students, teachers, and parents for a more fair and just school system,” he says.

EduColor runs a monthly Twitter chat. Vilson’s book, This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, is a textbook at a number of education colleges. He’s appeared on numerous media outlets, and is president emeritus of the Latino Alumni Network of Syracuse University. He was recently selected Star of the Year by the Hispanic Coalition NY. “I’m hoping this award helps to elevate my message around education, and across society in general,” he says.

The message is getting through to students. He relates the story of Steven, one of his first charges. “Steven was super smart, but he fashioned himself lazy,” Vilson says. “After plenty of pushing from me and his social studies teacher, he graduated. Five years later, a tall, clean-shaven guy comes into the main office and asks for me. When he saw me, he said, ‘Mr. Vilson!’ He told me that, after our prodding, our message finally clicked in the middle of high school—just as he was about to drop out. After that he aced his classes, graduated, and matriculated into MIT. My mouth was agape listening to his story. I just hugged him and said, ‘Thank you.’” —John Martin