We recently interviewed the new Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education about the issues students face at school. Here are Chancellor Banks’ positions on budget cuts, school safety, the gifted and talented program, students’ mental health, and preparing young people to succeed after graduation. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Tina Zeng, Millennium Brooklyn High School: Based on New York Apple Seed’s 2020 briefing, school funding disparities persist even after the implementation of Fair Student Funding (FSF) in 2007. What plans do you have to make school funding more equitable?
Chancellor Banks: We just got 100% fair student funding this year for all schools, and I think it will go a long way to resolve this issue. But you’re right, there are still some fundamental flaws in the funding formula that still allow for a level of inequity. I do not have an answer just yet. It is a complex formula that drives school funding but I would tell you to stay tuned.
Tina Zeng: While my school is not underfunded, per se, three of our counselors were cut, reminding me of Mayor Adams’ plans for a budget cut in education. How will you maximize the improvements to our school system?
Chancellor Banks: You’ve got some really tough questions, Tina. We are at the beginning of the budget process right now. The Mayor, in an attempt to be fiscally prudent, offered up a 3% cut across every mayoral agency to eliminate the gap. We have not gotten to the final cuts yet. If people argue vigorously enough about certain programs that should not be cut, we have a chance to get those things off the cutting table. Part of the challenge is that the dollars coming into the New York City public school system will be reduced. Over the last five years, 120,000 students have left New York City public schools. Every time those students and their parents leave, a lot of funding goes with them—we get funded based on the amount of students we have. So I’ve got to build a system that parents want to come back to, and I’ve got to regain a level of trust.
Seohee Jung, Francis Lewis High School: What specific mental health resources could you provide students? I’ve thought of one idea: a “mental health day” for students, which would count as an excused absence. You could limit this to, say, three times a year, so students would not abuse this privilege. Do you have any other solutions?
Chancellor Banks: One of the things we’ve been encouraging schools to do is teach students the practice of mindful meditation. We’ve also given every school more funding to hire social workers and counselors. Many of the schools have connections with mental health organizations in the neighborhood that can help students and their families.
But sometimes, you can build your own muscles or strengths. Even if schools do not have official mental health days, per se, if you or another student feel like you’re having a really tough time, take the day. Take the time you need to heal yourself.
Mikeal Tutson, Brooklyn Democracy Academy: I’m a transfer student from Florida, where once, a student came to school with a gun. In my New York City high school, there was a stabbing. What do you think are the best disciplinary practices to prevent incidents like this? What are the steps that you will take to ensure student safety?
Chancellor Banks: There are no easy answers to this question. Although I’m grateful that there has not been a school shooting here, we still have too many instances of kids bringing weapons to school. First, we’re getting ready to graduate another group of school safety agents. We’ll be able to deploy them to different schools that have real needs. I was a school safety officer in Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn, where I wore the uniform and broke up fights in the cafeteria. I know what it means to be in that role. The school safety officer is an important part of the school community.
But safety, at the end of the day, is not just the purview of school safety officers. We have safety in schools where we have good school culture, with students who are looking out for each other. For example, a student had a gun in school today in the Bronx, but nobody got hurt. Another student who saw the gun went and quietly told an adult in the school. That is a form of school safety. We want to make sure no one gets hurt, and I’m working at that every single day.
Jasmine Deonandan, Townsend Harris High School: I was in the gifted and talented program from elementary to middle school. I recently read that you wanted to scale them up, rather than get rid of them like former Mayor De Blasio did. How will you make sure that students from underrepresented groups can gain better access to these programs?
Chancellor Banks: You have clearly done your research on this issue. Do you know how many gifted and talented seats we actually have in the city? Only 2600. That’s it. We have 1.1 million kids that go to New York City schools. So we want to expand that number greatly.
We’re going to help design more gifted and talented programs specifically in those districts where many Black and Latino kids live, to ensure that more kids of color also have opportunities.
One of the things I found out once I got here as Chancellor is that many of the gifted and talented programs are actually accelerated learners programs. There are some kids who just absorb material really well, really fast. And that’s fine and we should have room for programs for kids who are accelerated learners. But I also want to expand the programs so that more kids have a chance.
Winnie Lin, Francis Lewis High School: I read your opinion piece in the Brooklyn Eagle where you say that not enough graduating students are prepared for college or careers. What do you think are the root causes of students’ unpreparedness?
Chancellor Banks: I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job of giving all of our students, particularly at the high school level, real-world internships, or the opportunity to see different kinds of career pathways. You can go to school and get really good grades, but if you’ve never had an opportunity to see what it’s like to work at a place like Google, or to work at an investment banking firm, I think that we are not maximizing your educational opportunities.
Getting exposure can help to deepen and expand your understanding about a desired career and may help you realize, I don’t think I really want to do this. That’s valuable to learn sooner rather than later.
I also think that far too many of our kids graduate and don’t even know the basics around financial literacy, like how to open their own bank accounts, or how to make investments in the stock market. I think we owe that to all of you.
Winnie Lin: What programs or resources do you plan to implement in order to ensure that students are ready to excel in professional paths?
Chancellor Banks: I just hired Jade Greene, an expert in career pathways. That’s all about helping students maximize opportunities whether they go to college or not. It’s about helping them succeed at work in the 21st-century economy. We’re going to be meeting with principals and other leaders around our city to map out a curriculum and the best way forward.
Marylene Bioh, Beacon High School: Reading your Chalkbeat article, I was very interested in your statement about superintendents not having real authority in the school system. You said you wanted them to reapply to their jobs. How will that lead to a better outcome for students and ensure their efficacy in the school system?
Chancellor Banks: Several years ago, the Department of Education added in another layer right below me called the executive superintendent. I made a decision to eliminate that position. Many superintendents felt like they didn’t need another person on top of them. They wanted to be able to go directly to the chancellor. But I asked every one of them to reapply for their jobs. I want to make sure that they are the best people for the job. So I’m re-interviewing all of them myself and I’ll see if the way that they provide leadership is in alignment with how I see the New York City public school system. I think I owe that to every school in the district, to make sure they have the best leader. But here’s the catch: I’m not going to unilaterally pick that superintendent. I’m going to have the community also play a role. They will work with me and together we will pick the right leader for each school community.
Aimée Gladding, New York City Museum School: You said that schools need figures and teachers that can support students through tough moments and mental health issues. Teachers at some schools have filled out “DESSA” screenings for students, which measure various social and emotional literacy skills. These assessments are sometimes uncomfortable for students. If there are SEL assessments for students, it seems only fair that teachers should undergo the same assessments, since teachers should also be trained in those areas of relationship skills and empathy. Is there any plan that might implement emotional literacy requirements for teachers?
Chancellor Banks: We’ve heard that from a number of schools and students, as well as teachers, who thought that the screenings for the students are wholly inadequate and that the teachers also need trauma-informed training. To be an instructor is one thing; that’s just to teach subjects. But a teacher is somebody who not only knows their subject, but has great empathy for their students and will make sure to help and support them. But many of our teachers also need a level of support. We are tasked with being responsible for and taking care of all the kids, and sometimes we need somebody to look out for and take care of us, too. I’ve got to put in place as many things as I can to be supportive of all the students, and the staff, across all of our schools.
Aimée Gladding: Do you have any ideas about what that might look like?
Chancellor Banks: We’ve got a number of organizations that are looking to work with us to develop a plan. I’ve just had so many pressing issues since I got here–I’ve been here about two and a half months. Everything has been like an emergency from the moment that I got here [laughs]. So, I have been working to try to put as many of these plans in place. I think that a lot of the things that I really want to work on are things you actually won’t see until we move into the next school year.