By Nayaba Arinde
An overhaul of traditional strategies used in the New York City public school system may be in the works if speeches delivered at Bed Stuy’s iconic Boys and Girls High School are to be taken at face value.
In the very building which hosted the likes of South African President Nelson Mandela, and political prisoner Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt; the pride of late, great Principal Frank Mickens was packed to the very high rafters with New York City mostly Black and Brown principals, vice principals, teachers, paras, superintendents, and associated school workers.
Eagerly each waited for what they hoped were inspirational and reaffirming words from Mayor Eric Adams and Schools Chancellor David Banks.
They did not know if they would hear about more school cuts, or devastating impacts caused by increased class sizes. They definitely wanted answers to burgeoning questions that have made teaching in New York City a political community football over the last few years.
Striding out to fellow Brookyntite Jay Z’s ‘New York State of Mind,’ Adams reveled in his much-hyped pop culture persona. It was a receptive crowd. Any naysayers kept their usually vocal thoughts to themselves.
Electeds were sparse, but so were the seats. There were city-wide educators aplenty. Activists too. UFT head Michael Mulgrew sat in the middle front row, alongside former Assemblywoman Annette Robinson. City Council Education Chair Rita Joseph and William A. Morris IS, Staten Island school principal Kojo Campbell took it all in. Daniel Goodine from Men Elevating Leadership and Anti-Gun Violence Czar A.T. Mitchell from Man Up. Inc., were amongst the community organizers and cure violence activists present.
Adams told the crowd that teachers have a way of changing the trajectory of a young person’s life. A kind word, a gentle persistent nudge to the re-focus of energy can have a young person achieving their highest heights. Whilst he said he has a degree of optimism “every time I walk into a New York City public school,” he admitted that ‘These are challenging moments for us, and I’m concerned.”
Schmoozing on the stage for just a hot minute during the introduction, Adams and Banks talked sharp fits and books being read.
Animated and excited, delivered with the great panache of a forty-year public school education advocate, Banks first paid homage to “Mick’s House,” as he walked to give deference to a framed picture of the beloved local legend Frank Mickens.
With his brief PowerPoint, Banks assured teachers that as a former teacher, school safety agent, founding principal of the Eagle Academy Foundation, and Chancellor for the past 20 months–he understood every angle.
Take-aways from the hour-plus feel-good-factor Wednesday morning event include Banks’ focus on ensuring that: all students were solid confident readers by the third grade, developed a good sense of career-focused-learning, understood financial literacy, and had a rounded education to be able to compete in the global economy.
Beginning with the question: “What is the purpose of school?” Banks said that the 2023-2024 school year “brings so much possibility; across every borough and every classroom… Our kids spend their entire childhoods in school. Our city spends billions of dollars on our schools. How do we help our kids realize their brilliance? If we don’t have a clear answer to this question, then we have no goal and no growth.”
With that in mind, Banks announced the mission: to ensure each student graduates on a pathway to a rewarding career and long-term economic security, equipped to be a positive force for change… “through what I call Bright Starts and Bold Futures: we give our kids the foundational skills—literacy, safety, emotional wellness—for Bright Starts, and we prepare and empower them to build Bold Futures, futures that give them meaning, sustain them financially, and propel them to be leaders in our communities.”
Almost like stating the obvious, Banks noted, “If a school does nothing else, it should teach kids to read and write and think critically so they are equipped to solve the issues of our time.”
However, “in 2022, 51% of our students – including nearly two-thirds of our Black and Latino students – were not reading at grade level.”
There has been a problem with the way students have been taught to read all these decades, Banks declared with the “failed approach called Balanced Literacy. We told our kids to use pictures, for example, to guess the words on the page, instead of actually sounding them out. We are fixing that playbook, starting right now.”
During the spring and summer, the Chancellor said, “We trained thousands of educators in the science of reading. Over 90% of our early childhood programs are rolling out unified instructional materials that support reading and writing at the earliest ages.”
At the same time, he said, with a nod to Adams’ own personal youth dyslexia revelations, “We are universally screening our students in grades K-9 so we can identify, far more comprehensively, students at risk for dyslexia. And we are laser-focused on the proven, intensive interventions – and the training our staff need to deliver them – to support students who are struggling.”
Letters are one thing, numbers are another.
Banks acknowledged, “In 2022, 62% of all our students – including nearly 80% of Black and Latino students – were below grade level in math. We know that as our kids become stronger readers, their math proficiency will improve as well. You can’t solve a word problem if you don’t know how to read it. We also know there is work to be done to improve our ‘math playbook,’ and we’re already zooming in on Algebra 1, a foundational course for higher-level math, by launching a single, high-quality curriculum in over 250 high schools, along with intensive professional learning.”
Recently retired Brooklyn Tech math teacher Samuel Adewumi told Our Time Press that while “I think they need to start earlier than algebra to fix the issues with math; I commend the work that Chancellor Banks and his team is doing to remedy the many issues we have within our school system. We concur that giving purpose to why students go to school is a major step that needs to be continuously reinforced by the school community. Bright Starts Bold Futures is innovative, and addresses many of the concerns of students and families.”
Adewumi, was a teacher for 20-plus years, a current football coach, and is the founder of CASPrep NYC test prep for SAT, SHSAT, and State Assessments.
Understanding numbers is fundamental, he concluded, “I also believe it’s appropriate to take a deep dive into math instruction the same way as was done for reading instruction. We need to investigate going back to fundamental math instruction in the same way we have returned back to phonics. Building mathematicians from the ground up is vital and necessary. We hope the Chancellor will be given the opportunity to continue to transform our school system.”
Schools have 8,000 plus early childhood classrooms, said Banks, in which, “We are ensuring quality learning environments for all children. This also means we are adding more than 1,000 seats to our incredibly effective specialized programs for students with disabilities, so families can access a high-quality education close to where they live, rather than across the city. In the same vein, we’ve opened 77 new bilingual programs and 36 Gifted and Talented programs since last fall. We are responding to family demand in every neighborhood.”
Meanwhile, on Tuesday 19th, September, 2023, one 18-year-old, and two 17-year-olds were slashed as school let out at Brownsville Academy High on East New York Avenue.
Quoting Mayor Adams, the school’s Chancellor stated, “Our kids cannot learn if they are not safe, healthy, and engaged. To ensure this, we are installing high-tech door-locking systems across our schools. We’ve expanded one of my signature initiatives, Project Pivot, to 250 schools, to mobilize the full community on the issue of safety. There’s an old saying: it takes a village to raise a child. The folks involved in Project Pivot are that village, and we will do this work together.”
He asked members of the Project Pivot organizations to please stand.
With the “It takes a village,” outlook Banks urged Community-Based Organizations to, “Help us keep the learning going throughout the year! Whether in our after-school programs or our wildly popular Summer Rising program, you bring a critical layer of social-emotional support and enrichment to our communities, and we need you.”
Danny Goodine of M.E.L said he appreciated the nod to the inclusion of community safety organizations like his own.
“As the Mayor and Chancellor spoke about working with Community Based Organizations as a village, we Crisis Management System groups are the boots on the ground. Indeed, we need to be called upon holistically, and not just for vigils and shooting responses. We need to continue our original work of being proactive, and just reactive to shootings and stabbings – like the one at Brownsville Academy this week.
Our grassroots organizations interact with our young people every day and night. They know us. They trust us. The City should partner with us so we can anticipate and head off some of the crucial issues our students are facing.”
While post Pandemic-era school dropout numbers are still resonating in the city, Banks declared, “We are welcoming every student who crosses our doorstep, including over 26,000 students in temporary housing, many of them migrant students, who have arrived in our city over the past year and a half.”
Tackling the issue of Bold Futures, Banks said that historically, a twelfth grader leaves the school system with a diploma—and not much else. They might have a dream of college or a career, and maybe even an acceptance or offer letter, but not the means to achieve those goals.
Thus, disappointing stats occur. For example, he said, “In 2011, we had about 74,000 students enter ninth grade in New York City. Four years later, only 52,000 of these students graduated high school. By 2021, six years after graduation, how many of them do you think earned a four-year degree? 20,000. Just 27% of the original ninth-grade cohort. And, what’s worse, of those 20,000 students, less than half were Black or Latino, despite being nearly 70% of the original cohort. We like to say that we are preparing our kids for college and beyond…No, we have not!”
As the audience gasped at the horrible statistical defeat, the effervescent educator responded with their “career-connected learning,” Pathways work “is rewriting this script. By 2030, every single one of our students will leave us with a concrete plan for a rewarding life path. That plan will be bolstered by access to paid work experience, early college credit, career credentials, financial and digital literacy, and significant mentorship and guidance.”
These programs, he added, will include FutureReady and Modern Youth Apprenticeship initiatives, leading students to high-tech, high-demand jobs: cybersecurity, software development, diagnostic medicine, and business management, etc.
Schools will also partner with some big names having students gain sustained career exposure over four years. Our Modern Youth Apprenticeship, the gold standard of career-connected learning, offers paid, multi-year placements in the private and public sectors. Ninth and tenth graders at these schools take courses in career readiness, and then upperclassmen can apply to spend half a day, four days per week at apprenticeships. We had nearly 60 schools join our apprenticeship program last year, and in combination with FutureReady, we enrolled nearly 8,000 students in career readiness coursework this past spring.”
At the same time, “This fall, CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez and I will be sending a letter to all NYC Public Schools seniors, confirming there’s a place for them at the City University of New York. We’ll have news on our admissions work with SUNY (Chancellor John King) in the coming months.”
As Climate Week closes out, Banks proclaimed, “NYC Public Schools are the largest contributor to the city’s solar energy goals, with 81 solar installations across our schools to date. We are growing both our climate education efforts and our focus on green career paths, and we are launching Climate Action Days across our schools.”
With New York Public Schools utilizing all the virtual educational options now available, “Who says it should take four years to graduate high school?” Banks asked an intrigued audience. “Any student who is prepared to put in the hard work should be able to enroll in class on Saturdays, or in the evenings, to accelerate their progress toward graduation.”
Bold Futures already has two remote options for high schoolers, he told the assembled audience, “A fully virtual school and a hybrid option. And through a separate program, over 2,500 of our middle and high school students are enrolled in specialized courses, offered virtually, that aren’t available on their own campuses, from AP classes to world languages to electives. We are working toward a world where every high schooler, and many middle schoolers, can opt into high-quality online coursework, coursework that is more flexible and provides more opportunities than a standard brick-and-mortar classroom.”
Also, Banks added that spending on minority- and women-owned businesses is due for an increase. “In the 2021 fiscal year, before I entered this office, our agency spent about $224 million on MWBEs, less than 3% of our overall vendor spend. We promised to do better. In the first full fiscal year of this administration, we grew our MWBE spending by nearly 140%, to over $535 million. We are setting increasingly ambitious targets—including our 30% MWBE subcontracting goal—and changing our procurement policy and procedures so our spending reflects the communities we serve.”
Preliminary news is that the 2023 state test scores have “more of our students on grade level and meeting the State’s learning standards, with significant gains in math and increases in ELA as well. We also saw proficiency growth among the students we have historically let down: students of color, multilingual learners, and students with disabilities. These results tell us: we’re on the right track.”
He added that community involvement “in this global economy, [has] too many of our kids sitting on the sidelines. In 2021, women accounted for just 35% of our country’s STEM workforce—despite being half our population. And that STEM workforce was only 15% Latino and 9% Black. We need to get our kids in the game – for the sake of our children, and for the economic future of this city.”
Banks understood the assignment presented as he thanked NYC public school parents, volunteers, elected parent leaders, principals, assistant principals, teachers, counselors, secretaries, cafeteria workers, paraprofessionals, school aides, parent coordinators, school safety agents, custodial engineers, families, elected officials, and community members, and so many more. He ended his address by stating, “I am honored to have all of you—educators and more—as partners in this work. Thank you for all you do, and let’s soar on behalf of our children.”
However, not everyone was enamored with what they heard, “The Chancellor’s State of the School address has unfortunately failed to capture the essence of the amazing and hard-working teachers of our city that are in great need of pay upgrades,” Jamell N.A. Henderson M.P.A., M.P.P. “The Chancellor’s remarks have failed to address the rising and threatening power of Charter schools and the overtaking of space and resources owed to public schools in Black and Brown communities that are still in need.”
Henderson, a Brooklyn-born and raised Doctoral Student, at the College of Staten Island, and a 4-time Graduate of the City University of New York, told Our Time Press, “As someone who has experienced the amazing experience of public school education, from P.S. 235 in ’91 to CSI months away from my doctorate, it’s an urgent need for the Chancellor to stop playing with our children, have the boldness to incorporate true change with our parents at the table and ensure that the stories, experiences and voices of our students are presented at the highest level for their success in our schools.”
From mental health to extracurricular activities that are beyond the stigmas of the communities, Henderson added, “There needs to be an investment that keeps our children and young adults safe from P-K to CUNY and beyond and it starts with hearing from our communities directly.”