In August, as part of our summer writing workshop at YouthComm, we had the opportunity to interview New York City Schools Chancellor David Banks. As journalists, we spent time researching the issues we cared about most, such as student disciplinary practices, teacher layoffs, and specialized high school admissions. We met as an editorial team to develop different questions so we could cover as many topics as we could in our allotted 45 minutes with him.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Kayla Ruano-Lumpris, junior, Brooklyn Technical High School: Earlier this year, you announced your plan to have the 45 sitting superintendents reapply for their jobs. Fifteen out of 45 of the districts in New York City ended up with a new superintendent. There seems to be a lot of pushback against this plan. But in an article in the Daily News, you’re quoted as saying “[W]e promised our students bold action, and each of these leaders is prepared to step into this newly reimagined role of superintendent to deliver on that promise.” So I was wondering, are these new superintendents improving the school experience for students? And if so, how?
Chancellor Banks: It’s still very early; they just got started a couple of weeks ago [at the time of this interview]. I have already gone to a couple of community forums, where, for example, Sean Davenport, the new superintendent for District 5 in Central Harlem, was welcomed by the community and celebrated as the superintendent. There were 250 people. It was packed, and it was just a beautiful way for the community to say, “We are with you.” To me, it was an ideal example of the kind of thing that we’re actually looking for because I think above all else, what I’m looking for from folks who are in that role is to recognize that you are being responsive and you are a part of a community.
But I think that across the board, all superintendents have laid out their plans for the year, they’ve met with families, they’ve met with principals at the schools, and have started to engage everyone to co-create what they think is the best path forward for their district.
Every district is a little bit different. While they have the same basic needs, every community has its own flavor, and we want all of our superintendents to be in tune with the flavor of their district. So…to be continued.
Kayla: As a rising junior at Brooklyn Technical High School, I’m part of a small minority of Black and Latinx students. When Richard Carranza was chancellor and Bill de Blasio was mayor, there was a lot of discussion surrounding their views on the SHSAT (Standardized High School Aptitude Test). But since you were elected Chancellor, I feel that there’s been a lot less media that publicizes your opinion on the SHSAT. So I was wondering, what is your opinion on the SHSAT? And how do you plan to get more Black and Latinx students into the specialized high schools?
Chancellor Banks: That’s a great question. When I was in school, the specialized high schools, particularly Brooklyn Tech, had a much larger percentage of Black students, and that changed a lot over the years. Part of the reason why you haven’t heard me talking a lot about the SHSAT is because I think we put way too much emphasis on the specialized schools. There are a lot of public schools in the city just as good as Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant, or Bronx Science, but you don’t hear people talk about those schools a lot.
But more importantly, we have traditional schools in the neighborhoods where most kids live. That is where I’m going to put most of my efforts. I grew up in Southeast Queens in a place called Cambria Heights. There were a lot of really bright kids who lived in that area, and almost none of them went to the local high school because it did not have a good reputation, so everybody left the neighborhood and went to other parts of Queens and beyond to go to high school. In middle school, my commute was two hours a day. Why? Because my parents wanted to make sure that I got a good middle school experience.
Kayla: Do you have any specific strategies for improving the quality of schools in underprivileged and low-income neighborhoods?
Chancellor Banks: I have a couple of feelings about the SHSAT. For one, I appreciate the objective nature of just an exam, and someone who does well enough on the exam gets into the school, but I also think that on its face, there’s something wrong with the way the system actually plays out. Stuyvesant High School took in 1000 students last year, and only one Black student. There’s something wrong with that. It’s a public school, not a private school, and one young man like myself is 1 of 1000 students that can get in. There’s a lot of work that has to go into creating more opportunities, particularly for Black and Latino students, to have access to those schools.
And again, this is reinforced because when I talk to a lot of young people themselves, they say that they feel like the schools they are going to are not good quality schools, so everybody’s trying their best to get into Brooklyn Tech.
Well, why can’t we build more schools that are high-quality schools? Brooklyn Tech is great, but we should be able to build other schools that are also phenomenal. So my effort and energy is going to focus much more in that area because there was a lot of talk during the last eight years about diversity at Tech, and the numbers still haven’t really changed.
We talked about it a lot but the numbers didn’t dramatically improve, and I actually think that there’s a different way for us to go about it. At the end of the day for me, it’s not about a specific school, it’s about: Are we creating high-quality experiences for kids in schools? That’s much more important to me than any particular school. We’re trying to improve the whole system.
That’s why I spent so much time getting the right [district] leaders, because you have to have a superintendent who’s really good and has the mindset that “If it’s not good enough for my own child, it’s not good enough.” Establishing a set of higher expectations is number one.
Number two, you have to engage the community because they will let you know what’s important and the kinds of things that they’re looking for. There’s also a level of professional development and training that the teachers have to have in those schools to ensure quality experiences.
Finally, I think that the way we engage students in so many of our schools is not good, even in some of our better schools. We like to rate some of our schools as really good because kids do really well on standardized exams, and yet, when I talk to you about how the earth is being impacted everyday by decisions that are made by countries around the world, people have no clue about that because they didn’t study it.
I talk about politics and understanding how this government operates as the United States, but most Americans don’t even vote. That is such a shame. But I’m convinced that people don’t vote because we in the schools haven’t helped them understand why it’s important to vote and how voting actually impacts your lives. You need to understand that very clearly.
How many of you just by show of hands have ever been to a community planning board meeting? (No one raised their hand.) Most of you are like, what is that? Right? Yet that’s a basic foundation of democracy. It’s a group that helps to make the decisions around who’s gonna get a license to open up the neighborhood bodega. What’s going to happen with the library? Most people don’t want to think about it. Because you’ve never been exposed or you’ve never been taught.
If I asked you to write a paragraph right now on what the attorney general does for New York State and show me the difference between what they do and what the U.S. attorney does could you do it? Or, what’s the distinction between the responsibilities of the state senator and the state assembly person? Most people don’t know it, including students.
Why? Because you’ve never been taught that. Because it wasn’t on one of the tests. I want you all to have an experience that is much deeper than what you have been seeing in all these tests that you take. Do you know about personal finance? How money is made in America? How to save your money? How to earn money? How to invest money? How Wall Street works? And that you can be actually investing right now and making money right now?
How can you be youth leaders in your own communities? Most of us have no idea. We just go to school every day. School has not been relevant to our everyday lives. I would love for you to be in a position where you go to school every single day, and you hear about where your life is headed. How you’re building your way towards your own careers, pathways to success. And understanding financial literacy so you can help yourselves and even your families.
There’s going to be a different curriculum that we have to use, different training for our teachers, because many of our teachers don’t even know about the things that I’m talking about. The whole system needs to be revamped.
Students don’t have the technology skills that they need. They don’t understand civics and how the government operates. I want to dramatically change all of that. If you all are going to help change the world, you have to know how it works. You can only be the future if you are prepared. You are great, you are brilliant, all of you, but our system has not tapped into your brains and connected your brilliance to what really matters in the world. My father would always say there are three kinds of people. People who make stuff happen. People who watch stuff happen. And people just wake up and say, “Hey, what happened?”
What are we producing as a New York City public school system, so that so many of you can come out of here able to make stuff happen? You could be creating new technology that can change the world, right while you’re still in middle school or high school. And it will make the school experience so much more relevant for all of you, right now.
That’s why programs like yours are really what we’re talking about. You’re figuring out how to connect with what you’re thinking. You’re writing. You’re developing your communication skills. That’s what an educational spirit should really be.
Note: In September, Chancellor Banks announced a new program for hands-on education, in which 3,000 high school students will be placed in paid apprenticeships.
Erika Yeung, junior, Bard High School Early College Queens: As of June, nearly 77% of all New York City district schools have experienced enrollment decline, or roughly 1200 out of the 1600 schools in the system—which, in turn, means a lot of teachers have lost their jobs. You were an educator in the past; I assume that it’s difficult seeing teachers being let go due to inadequate funding and budget cuts. You hope to rehire all the teachers in the pool, but what if you can’t?
Chancellor Banks: Let me offer some more context on that.
First, we haven’t lost teachers. Some individual schools may have lost teachers, but the teachers themselves have gone from one school to the next. We have not suffered dramatic losses. Interestingly enough, even though we haven’t lost teachers in the last few years, we’ve lost 70,000 families and students that have left our schools. And in the last five years, we’ve lost 120,000 families. That’s a lot of people. But yet, we haven’t lost any teachers. In fact, during the last few years, our teacher hiring kept going up, even as our student enrollment was going down.
I think what you’ve heard about recently in the news was related to school budget issues. As enrollment has dropped in some schools, we’ve started to “right size” their budgets. They’re getting the budget that is, by a formula, appropriate for the number of students that they actually have. In other words, if you have 1,000 students in your school, you get a certain budget. If you have 500, you don’t get the same budget as if you have 1,000.
So what we’ve done is to say that we’re going to actually start giving the schools the budget that’s commensurate with the [number] of students that they actually have. [While many schools have lost students] we’ve had over 400 schools that actually had a rise in population.
[If school A lost students] and school B gained more students, well, you may have lost some teachers in school A, but they didn’t lose their jobs. They just went to school B where they’re needed as well.
Now sometimes teachers are not happy about that and I understand that because, if you’ve been a part of a school and kids know you and you’re part of that, it’s like part of a family. So all of a sudden, when the kids hear, you know, that Miss Robinson is leaving, they’re very upset. But Miss Robinson didn’t actually lose her job. She just wound up going to another school, which actually needed more teachers, so that’s what’s actually been happening in New York. We haven’t seen a dramatic loss of teachers.
Note: The Department of Education recently announced that schools that haven’t enrolled the number of students they expected by the October 31st deadline would have to pay back the Department of Education for the extra funds they received– a practice that had been halted during the pandemic. As a result, some schools will have to let teachers go or “excess” them. Excessed teachers stay on the payroll, but break bonds they have built with students and must find new positions.
Israa Belbaita, senior, NYCiSchool: In articles I read in Chalkbeat and the Daily News, making schools safer and more comfortable for students is a big theme in your plans for NYC public schools in the coming year. You touch on the new technology being developed to substitute metal detectors. You are quoted in the Daily News as saying: “They are metal detectors but they’re not metal detectors that you would even see. They pick up whether someone has a weapon,” but “kids could walk in like it’s a normal school day without going through any issues and they don’t have to take off their belts and shoes and take everything out of their pockets.”
So we will have “new technology” that is replacing metal detectors and checks for weapons without students even knowing? How does this differ from the dehumanizing process of walking through metal detectors? And what makes this less dehumanizing besides the fact that students just can’t see the process happening?
Chancellor Banks: Wow. First of all, the question is very strong, very strong voice, very clear, and powerful. What I’ve heard from a lot of students is that they want to be safe. Surprisingly, many of them have said, you know, keep the metal detectors because we’ll feel assured that weapons are not coming into the school.
The police commissioner actually had a meeting with about 45 students [recently], and I was really surprised. Overwhelmingly, all the students were like, “Don’t get rid of the metal detectors.” However, they said we’re not thrilled with metal detectors. Nobody wants to feel like you’re going through a dehumanizing process, right? I don’t like to go into a building and have to take everything out of your pockets and take your belt off. That doesn’t feel good. That’s not the way we should feel when we have to go to school. To do that every single day? That’s not a good feeling.
We have been meeting with different companies. We haven’t settled on the company yet. But we’ve been meeting with different companies who have some potential new technology where you can actually come into school. You don’t have to stop, school safety doesn’t have to stop, you don’t have to take everything out of your pocket and run your book back through and feel like you’re going to prison.
Some companies have already developed technology where you could just walk in. But if you had a gun in your book bag or something, it would pick it up right away and they would stop you, but it doesn’t identify almost anything else. So if you had a knife or a box cutter or any other kinds of things–brass knuckles–this technology so far wouldn’t pick up those things. Just a gun.
Again, the whole point of it is to make sure that we’re keeping our kids safe. Nobody–I’m sure none of you–wants to be in school where someone can bring in a gun or any kind of a weapon. And yet you also don’t want to go through the dehumanizing process every single day. The goal is to ensure that you’re safe and you don’t have to go through that kind of a process at the same time. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re close.
Erika: DOE data have shown that from 2017-2021, suspensions in the NYC school system have plummeted by more than 42% even though there’s a rise in school crime rates. In March, it was revealed that 84 school safety personnel were injured due to student misconduct, and 56 of them needed hospital treatment because of these occurrences. According to an educator, there have been educators who are “getting kicked at, spit at, cursed at, things thrown at [them] and the kid is back the next day like nothing happened.”
If suspensions have been reduced because they don’t seem to reduce misconduct, what disciplinary measures should be introduced instead? Some schools implement restorative justice practices with positive results. What do you think of that as a possible city-wide implementation?
Chancellor Banks: I was a school safety officer at Clara Barton high school in Brooklyn. I wore a uniform and did the job of a school safety agent many years ago. And I come from a police household; my father was from the police department, and my brother. But I will tell you that we’ve had to try to find the right balance between discipline—kind of a righteous discipline—if you will, and ensuring that we do not have draconian laws that throw our kids out of school for every little thing that they do.
They have schools that say that they are zero tolerance schools. I think that is, on its face, completely unjustified. You should never have schools that are zero tolerance. It’s an oxymoron to me. Schools are places where kids make mistakes, they do dopey things sometimes, and they have to learn from it. That’s what it means to be a kid growing up, and you do stuff that you come to better understand later.
Zero tolerance is particularly [unfair] for black and brown kids. Kids who might do the same thing in other schools were not suffering the same kind of punishment. For example, somebody said something smart to the teacher in one part of New York and they got a talking to, and in another part of the city in a different kind of school, with kids of color, you’re suspended for five days.
And when you miss, you know, three days of school, the research shows that the effects on your GPA, and your academic performance, are substantial.
We have kids who have been thrown out for every little thing. And it wasn’t like it was actually changing behavior. The same way we have a lot of people that we lock up and we send them to prison: just punishing people is not changing behavior. You change behavior by how you teach people. And so that’s why the ideas around restorative justice were so critically important. You have to help young people understand the errors of their ways.
And you engage other young people in that process as well. Sometimes kids learn more from their peers. Like “Hey, man, come on, you know, that wasn’t right. And you owe Miss Williams an apology,” as opposed to “We’re not even trying to hear any of it, we’re throwing you out for the next two weeks.” And you just go home and watch TV and we bring you back, as though that somehow was supposed to change behavior. It does not. So that is a big part of what it is that we will focus on.
Note: After pressure from advocates, New York City plans to spend $21 million on restorative justice programs this school year.