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Incoming Chancellor David Banks says NYC’s school system is ‘fundamentally flawed’

December 13, 2021 Alex Zimmerman, Chalkbeat
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Mayor-elect Eric Adams and his newly announced schools Chancellor David Banks vowed Thursday to upend New York City’s education department, offering pointed criticisms of the city’s vast education bureaucracy and promising to better serve its most vulnerable students.

Outside of P.S. 161 in Brooklyn, which Banks attended through the fifth grade, the pair repeatedly noted that roughly 65% of students of color are not considered proficient in reading or math, and argued that the education department’s $38 billion budget is not producing the results it should.

“If 65% of white children were not reaching proficiency in the city, they would burn the city down,” Adams said.

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Although they did not offer many specifics about how they plan to boost achievement for the highest-need students, Banks and Adams — who both attended the city’s public schools — began to outline some priorities.

They emphasized early childhood programming, a plan to launch universal screening to identify students with dyslexia, improving students’ access to healthy food, and ensuring that more students are exposed to career options before they graduate.

The Tweed Courthouse in Lower Manhattan, headquarters of the city’s Department of Education.
Photo by Upsteateherd/Wikimedia

Adams also indicated that he wants to replicate schools that have found successful models, including traditional public schools, charters and even religious schools. “Wherever we find excellence, we’re going to duplicate that,” Adams said.

That approach is reminiscent of the “portfolio model” of school management that some cities have embraced, which involves expanding the schools seen as effective and closing those that don’t measure up. (Banks hasn’t said whether he would close schools.)

In some of his most fiery comments, Banks said the city’s students have enormous promise but are stymied by a system that often doesn’t serve them well.

“Every young person who attends our schools across the city is filled with brilliance, potential promise, and gifts,” he said. “They exist in a school system which is fundamentally flawed.”

Banks vowed to shake up the education department’s bureaucracy itself, indicating that administrators who work in the department’s headquarters may be redeployed to work closer to schools.

“Here’s the question that will be asked of everybody who works throughout this department: If you left, and your job disappeared tomorrow, would that change anything that’s going on in any of our schools?” Banks said. “There needs to be a transformation and it will start at the top.”

Banks indicated he would involve parents, students, and educators in key decisions as chancellor — saying he would never make a major announcement without their input.

“The answers to how we re-engineer the system exists in the hearts and the minds of the teachers, the principals, the children, and their families,” Banks said. “If we want to create an innovative school system, you cannot do that without engaging the community.”  He noted that he plans to elevate students’ voices by ensuring there is a student government at every school.

In some ways, Banks and Adams’ comments represented a direct repudiation of the prior administration, though neither have yet articulated exactly how they will approach education policy, or even staked out a signature goal such as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s successful push for universal pre-kindergarten. At the same time, Adams has praised some approaches that mirror de Blasio’s, including providing schools with resources such as eyeglasses and washing machines so students’ basic needs are met.

P.S. 161 on Crown Street, Chancellor David Banks’ alma mater.
Google maps photo

Adams, who did not consider many other candidates to lead the nation’s largest school system, said that he has been in conversation with Banks for years and did not feel a need to conduct a broad search, noting that he wasn’t looking for someone with Ivy League credentials or complicated philosophies of education.

“I didn’t have to do a national search to find someone that don’t understand our city,” Adams said to cheers from the dozens of supporters that assembled for the announcement.

At the press conference, Banks emphasized his own roots in New York City, holding up a photo of himself when he was a fourth grader and another photo of a cherished teacher who taught him about Black history at P.S. 161.

Banks also has a long track record in schools — even working for a year as a school safety agent. His teaching career began in Brooklyn in 1986 and he eventually became the founding principal of a school in the Bronx in 1997.

In 2004, he helped launch the Eagle Academy, which was designed to serve boys of color and has now grown to a network of six schools, one in each borough and another in Newark. (At Thursday’s press conference officially announcing his appointment as chancellor, Banks was surrounded by Eagle Academy educators and students as well as his parents and other relatives.)

Launching Eagle Academy has given Banks an intimate sense of the city’s education landscape, though he has never held a high-level administrative job within the department or run a large organization. Banks’ current role is the head of a foundation that helps support the Eagle Academy schools, which are operated and supervised by the city’s education department.

Banks takes the reins at a tumultuous moment, as the city’s schools continue to be disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic for a third school year. But he also has an influx of resources at his disposal, including billions in federal relief money and substantial funding increases from the state. Among the most critical decisions he’ll face is how to spend it.

The incoming chancellor has also begun to assemble his cabinet. He has tapped Dan Weisberg — who runs an organization focused on teacher quality and handled labor issues under Mayor Michael Bloomberg — to be his top deputy. That move is likely to raise eyebrows with the city’s teachers’ union, which has previously clashed with Weisberg.

Michael Mulgrew, head of the teachers union, did not attend Thursday’s press conference but put out a supportive statement about Banks’ appointment. (The principals union chief attended the event in person.)

Banks was less eager to address some of the hot-button issues he’ll soon have to tackle.

“Don’t ask me about gifted and talented today,” Banks said, referring to de Blasio’s proposed overhaul of the program.

“Don’t ask me about specialized high schools today. We will have answers for all of that. But today is the day to celebrate.”

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