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NYC’s Chancellor, David Banks, Has Proved Public Schools Can Improve

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NYC’s Chancellor, David Banks, Has Proved Public Schools Can Improve

New York Post January 12, 2022
EducationPre K-12
Urban PolicyNYC

Mayor Eric Adams believes School Chancellor David Banks can make a difference in the education system.

Despite its size — more than 930,000 students even with recent losses — New York City’s public-school system is amenable to improvement. We know this from the first 12 years of mayoral control under Michael Bloomberg and his chancellors. And while the last administration failed to implement positive changes to the degree capable, there’s hope for the new one.

Mayor Eric Adams’ schools chancellor, David Banks, brings to his job a unique perspective. He worked for decades to create and grow innovative public schools within the system while engaging private and nonprofit organizations to leverage the freedom and resources that these schools needed to succeed.

Banks’ career in education began before the onset of mayoral control, in the last years of the old Board of Education system, which was notoriously resistant to change. The nonprofit Urban Academy chose Banks to be the first principal of a school it designed, the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice. The school was part of a wave of small high schools opened in the mid-1990s as partnerships between community and nonprofit organizations and school-system teachers.

For decades prior to the ’90s, the city’s high-school graduation rate remained stuck at about 50%. In the South Bronx, some of the large high schools were graduating fewer than a third of their students. The new wave of ’90s schools, including the Bronx school Banks headed, was a response to these abysmal performance rates.

The pressure for change came from outside the system. Groups like Urban Assembly, South Bronx Churches and East Brooklyn Congregations demanded alternatives to the dropout factories so prevalent in their communities. Groups of teachers, too, were clamoring for change. They saw themselves as innovators stymied by the system’s control and eager to create schools based on their own unique approaches to teaching and assessment. That some members of those two groups, innovative educators and local community leaders, had many points of disagreement was of no concern. The failure of the city’s public high schools was so deep, it brought groups with differing views together.

By 2000, Banks’ school, as well as others among the new wave, was demonstrating inarguable success compared with traditional schools. So Norm Wechsler, then-superintendent of high schools in The Bronx, approached South Bronx Churches (with which I was working at the time) to invite us to partner with his office on a broader effort to create innovative new high schools in The Bronx through funding from the Gates Foundation, administered through the nonprofit New Visions.

Two years later, the leadership of the entire school system, under the direct control of Mayor Bloomberg and led by Chancellor Joel Klein, would adopt this effort. Banks once again took the risk of creating a new high school, the Eagle Academy for Young Men, the first all-boys’ high school in the city in many decades.

Today, 340 high schools, including charter schools, educating 65 percent of the city’s public high-school students, are products of this innovative period from 1994 to 2013. Thanks to them, the city’s high-school graduation rate has steadily increased from its former moribund 50% level: Overall, it’s surpassed 80% — and is 91% in the newer large high schools. They have also demonstrated that locally developed approaches can do as well as, and often better than, those from the experts downtown or in Albany.

As Chancellor Banks considers how his experiences with different mayors and chancellors might inform his own leadership of the school system in a time of unprecedented challenges, we can hope he continues to listen a diverse group of constituents in local communities, well-intentioned and innovative nonprofits and school-level educators.

One of the first things he’ll need to do is speak out against legislation proposed this week that would strip SUNY of its authority to OK new charter schools. Charters were a critical part of the transformation of the city’s high schools, and SUNY has won national acclaim for its rigorous approach to charter-school authorization and oversight.

Successfully organizing a diverse array of different groups — including charter schools — has served our schoolchildren well in the past and can do so once again in a new era of Big Apple school improvement.

This piece originally appeared at the New York Post


Ray Domanico is a senior fellow and director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute. Based on a recent MI report.

Photo by Terraxplorer/iStock