Black History Month 2020: Sherley Bretous creates opportunity, representation for students of color in STEM

At the charter school in Cambridge that she leads, Bretous said it’s important to her that students see women and people of color in the sciences.

BOSTON — She hated school as a little girl, but Sherley Bretous, the executive director of the Benjamin Banneker Charter School in Cambridge, loves her job as an educator and leader.

Growing up in New York City, she wanted to be outside gardening. “Gardening was a big part of our lives. Playing outside was a huge part of our lives, and that didn’t translate well into school. It was, ‘paper, pencil, following rules.’ So young Sherley [was] mischievous,” Bretous told Boston 25 News.

Her parents are Haitian immigrants. Her father owned a cab company, and when a car broke down, Sherley got to watch him fix it.

“I love the mechanics of things work, why things work,” says Bretous. “It worked for me because I was able to use my hands. And so as a student, I was able to do better as I was able to do things.”

As Sherley’s love of engineering and the sciences grew, so did her awareness of the glaring under-representation of women of color in STEM: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. According to federal labor data, African American women account for less than 3 percent of the STEM workforce.

“It was really hard when I was growing up because science was not something that girls did, and there weren’t very many accolades for when you did well in school around science,” Bretous explains. “So, a lot of times, I feel like I was being pushed towards reading and writing well.”

Bretous went into education. She was in teaching school in the 90s, when she says she got an offer she couldn’t refuse: join the staff at a brand new STEM charter school. The K-6 school was founded by a group of African-American teachers focused on closing the STEM achievement gap for kids of color.

“I hadn’t even dreamt the possibility,” says Bretous.

Bretous says kids of color need access, opportunity, and representation to succeed. A recent study from three universities found exposure to at least one black teacher in grades three through five increases the likelihood that persistently low-income students of both sexes aspire to attend a four-year college.

“It was really important for me that our students at Banneker see women of color; people of color in the sciences,” says Bretous. ”There’s no doubt in their mind that they can do whatever they want to and that’s what I want them to feel all the time. I want them to know, nothing is impossible as long as they’re willing to work hard for it.”