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Could NYC families once again have a remote option? Incoming Chancellor David Banks says yes.

December 17, 2021 Alex Zimmerman, Chalkbeat New York
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Incoming Chancellor David Banks signaled on Monday that New York City may once again offer a remote option to students as coronavirus cases are on the rise.

“In listening to parents, it’s really important, I think, to provide some level of a remote option,” Banks said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “Of course, the most important thing is for kids to be back in school, we get that. But I think what’s also critically important is that we recognize that some parents are still fearful, legitimately, about the pandemic — about our ability to keep their kids safe.”

Banks, who will not officially assume the role of chancellor until January, said he’s not yet sure if such an option will be made available this school year.

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Spinning up remote learning in the middle of a school year would represent a major victory for parents who have been lobbying Mayor Bill de Blasio for such an option for months. Some have kept their children at home in defiance of city rules that require in-person attendance.

But it would also be a massive logistical undertaking that would raise questions about whether instruction for in-person students would suffer as a result, as teachers’ time may be diverted toward fully remote learners. It’s unclear such a shift could be pulled off without significant disruption in the middle of a school year.

Banks’ comments came during a wide-ranging interview with Chalkbeat that touched on several key issues.

He indicated many elementary schools need to overhaul the way they teach reading. He may use an influx of funding to help address gaps in special education services. And he’s “not a big believer” in selective-admissions policies that often sort students according to their grades and test scores. (Banks has said elsewhere that he is in favor of expanding gifted programming and specialized high schools, however, programs that are screened generally enroll few Black or Latino students.)

Banks, who previously helped launch Eagle Academy, a small network of public schools geared toward boys of color, also spoke about what strategies from those schools he’d like to scale up systemwide.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, left, stands on stage with students and the Eagle Academy President and then0CEO David C. Banks, during the Foundation’s annual fundraising breakfast, Friday, April 29, 2016, in New York.
AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In your opening speech, you said that it’s a ‘betrayal’ that 65% of students of color aren’t considered proficient in reading or math, and that big changes are needed. What concrete changes do you think could improve those numbers?

First of all, I think that it is a betrayal. I think our fundamental approach to how we’re teaching is flawed.

So let me give you one example, which I think is the basis of what we’re going to be looking at as we come into Tweed [the education department’s headquarters]. A lot of our schools across New York City are teaching at the earliest grades through a balanced literacy approach. And I think there’s growing research that’s been talking about the fact that balanced literacy has not really worked, and particularly for Black and brown kids.

The phonetic approach to teaching of reading is something that I think has been missing. I think it’s a part of the reason why so many of our kids right out of the gate find themselves behind. They’re not learning to read early enough so that they can then read to learn and so everything we do is we’re spending a lot of time playing catch up. Our system needs to absolutely ensure that all the kids can read. That should be the fundamental premise of the department of education. If we fail in that, shame on us.

How would you actually realize that shift? Schools have a lot of autonomy over the curriculum they choose — would you require that they choose a specific alternative?

Not locked in on that just yet. I’m just giving you a big picture thinking here. A lot of these things are going to be addressed in the coming weeks as we get there, and I’m able to do a full-on agency review. And we’ll figure out the best path forward. And these are things that the families have said to us, and not even just what I’m telling you I think is the problem.

Both you and the mayor-elect have indicated that you’re interested in replicating schools that are doing good work. But opening schools, especially as enrollment is declining in the city’s traditional public schools, could lead to closures. Is that something that you’re considering?

Yeah, there’ll be a combination of things. What the mayor-elect said was, we want to scale excellence. So that does not necessarily mean we’re going to continue to open up lots of new schools. We’ll open up more schools as appropriate and as the demographics in the population would indicate is appropriate.

But when we say, ‘scale excellence,’ let me tell you what I mean. If the Bedford Academy, as the mayor-elect referenced, is a great school and doing great work, there are going to be moments when we’re going to try to actually open up another Bedford. But more importantly, we’re going to try to find: What’s that formula that Bedford is using that is working? And how do you train other schools in how to do that?

Dan Weisberg is going to be your top deputy. During his time in the Bloomberg administration, he tried to make it easier to push weak teachers out of the classroom. Is that something that you’re planning to pursue?

Not necessarily. Listen, we want strong teachers in our system. I am more focused on trying to help our teachers to get better. That’s going to be the big focus.

Whenever you have teachers that are just not up to the job, even after the level of support that you should provide them happens, then, of course, we don’t want teachers in there that are just wholly ineffective. But I do believe that our teachers and our schools can get better. Far too often, our teachers are told to get better, and we don’t expose them to what excellence really looks like. That is going to be a framework that I work from, which is to show those other schools that are struggling — expose them to great teachers and great practices that are happening in other schools.

Control over hiring and firing is obviously important to lots of school leaders and I’m wondering how much control you think principals should have over how they run their schools?

I was a principal for 11 years. I was the founding principal of two different schools in New York. And I believe deeply in a level of autonomy for principals and schools. But it’s what I call ‘earned autonomy.’ And that means we’ll have a set of metrics that are designed so that schools are clear about the kinds of things that we think are important for them to achieve. And if they’re able to achieve those, they’ll be given a bit more autonomy and flexibility to make decisions at the local level. That’s where I come from; that’s what I believe in.

What metrics would you use to hold schools accountable? What do you think are the right ways of thinking about that?

Don’t know just yet. I’ve got some thoughts that I don’t really want to share just yet.

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