Kevin: Each year, New York City schools educate nearly a million children in 1,800 schools, making it the largest school district not only in the United States but in the entire world. With so many students in such a dense and diverse area, New York has become a proving ground for all sorts of new solutions in education. What can we learn from what is working in this school system? How can the system be improved to offer the best possible education for students in New York and elsewhere? Oh, and what is the future of education? This is What I Want to Know, and for our very special 100th episode, I'm joining my good friend David Banks in person in New York to find out.
Kevin: David Banks is the chancellor of New York City Public Schools. He has served in a variety of roles in the New York City system and was the founder of the Eagle Academy for Young Men, a successful college prep model that has expanded into all five boroughs of New York, as well as Newark, New Jersey. David is a champion of high-quality education, especially for boys of color, and a true community leader. David, it is a pleasure to be with you here in New York. Welcome to the show.
David: Appreciate you, man. Listen, to be here is an honor, to be your 100th episode guest. I'm looking forward to the conversation.
Kevin: Well, David, we've known each other for a while, and as I was looking at your background, because I do know you personally, but you came from good stock. It was clear that, growing up, you had parents who were engaged. That must have instilled some value in education even at an early age.
David: Oh, listen, if every young person in America had Philip and Janice Banks as their parents, we'd be all right in America. I was very, very blessed. My mom and dad raised three sons. I'm the oldest of the three, and my brother Phillip came a year later, and Terry came two years after that. So they were wonderful and amazing, not only just instilling the importance of education, but the importance of learning about our own history, Black history, knowing that we stand on the shoulders of people who fought, bled, died, sacrificed for us, and that we had an obligation to get our education, but also be ever mindful that we had an obligation to give back to our community and make our community a better place. So each one of us has tried to do that in our own way.
My brother Phillip went on to follow my dad onto the New York City Police Department and rose up to the ranks of the chief of the department, the top uniformed cop in the city. And today, Phillip is the Deputy Mayor for public safety, and my youngest brother, Terry, just retired about two weeks ago after a full career in the New York City Transit Authority. So we covered all the civil service sectors in the city.
Kevin: Well, you know what's interesting? When I met you, and we'll talk about Eagle Academy, I knew of Phillip Banks, your father, but didn't know the connection.
Kevin: Because he was legendary, and, being one of the first African Americans to rise up through the ranks, helped make a lot of other careers, including your younger brother; but you must be proud of all he did.
David: Oh, my dad is my hero. He really is. And not enough young men can look up to their father and say, that's my hero, but that's who my dad was for me. He did almost three decades as a New York City police officer, rose up the ranks and served as an inspiration to a lot of folks, including the current mayor, Eric Adams. Eric, as a young officer in the police department, looked at my dad as one of his mentors and role models, and my dad was a mentor and role model to so many other young people, including my friends, who not all of them had dads that they could look up to as good dads. And that's what my dad ... My dad is still the coolest guy that I know. I talk to him every day. He's just a wonderful and amazing person, and I've been very blessed to have him as my role model.
Kevin: Yeah. It's interesting, David; you and I share that. I had a father who was a pharmacist, first in his family to go to college. He provided that same similar leadership and guidance and role model for me, and so I could definitely connect with that. When you're a lawyer by training, which a lot of people don't know, you ended up teaching. How did you decide, “Look, I don't want to practice law.; my passion's in education”?
All my life, I had thought about becoming a lawyer when I was a kid in school, and folks would say to me, you’d make a really good lawyer. So I thought I'd be a lawyer one day, and it was always in my mind from the time I was a kid. But I started to teach when I got out of college, and I had never taken any teaching courses in my life, but I just stumbled into education, and I loved it, but I still wanted to pursue my dream of becoming a lawyer. So while I was teaching during the day, I was going to law school at night, at St. John's Law School out in Queens. And in fact, Kevin, I was living in Jersey City, New Jersey, at the time and teaching in Brooklyn and then going to Queens to law school for four hours every night, Monday through Friday, never getting home before midnight for four years.
It was a real sacrifice. I left, went and worked for the New York City law department, worked for the state Attorney General's office, but then during that time, realized that where my passion really was, where I was supposed to be in my life, was helping young people figure out their dreams. And I helped them to do that. And so I just decided to shift. Some people thought I was crazy. They said: you went to law school all of those years to do that. Now you're coming back into education. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to pursue the calling that is placed on your life. And that's what I do.
Kevin: I tell my sons this, and I talk to a lot of young people as I know you do, young men, young men of color in particular, and many of them because of all the options out here today, they're not sure which way to go. And often similar to your situation, they've been told by peers, parents, colleagues: You need to choose this because this is the way you can make money. This is stable. I know you must have gone through some mental gyrations trying to figure it out. You were in law school; you spent that money, all that time and energy. What made you finally say, you know what? I know I did all that, but I’ve got to follow my passion.
David: My dad used to teach me. He said, "At the end of the day, our time on earth is like a vapor; we're not here that long." So you have to make your life purposeful, and it's important that you decide ultimately on what it is that you're supposed to be doing, and what that is which is going to make you happy. And so that's very important to me. So it's less important to me what other people think about what you should be doing. It's important that you are engaged in something every single day that gives you joy, gives you excitement, and gives you purpose for your life. And so, I absolutely took some time.
David: Went with my dad and my brothers, we went to the Dominican Republic for about a week, and I would get up every morning and just listen to the ocean, man, as it was rolling in, and it was like communing with God for me to say, what should I be doing now at this stage in my life? And it was in that moment on the beach in the Dominican Republic that it became clear to me: Education is where you're supposed to be, helping young people achieve their dreams. Yeah, you can do this legal stuff, you can be engaged in the political process. There are a lot of things which piqued my interest, but at the end of the day, it became clear. So, as you can tell, I'm a person of faith, and that's what I heard in my own spirit, that that was what I was supposed to be doing, and I pursued that.
Kevin: David, we've talked, known each other for several years; I've never heard that story about you being on the beach. Man, that's going to be a great movie. When they do that live story, that's going to be a serious piece there. Once you decided to get into education, at some point in time, you had the vision for the Eagle Academy and an incredible, incredible school. That's where we met. And I was so impressed how these men of color, young men of color that were part of this school and this program that you created had a sense of purpose, a sense of destiny, a passion around learning. What led you to just conceptualize and then actualize this school?
David: When I was a young educator, I was an elementary school teacher. I taught fourth and fifth grade, and I saw even at those early years, so many young men were the ones who were the biggest problems in the school. They were the ones that the teachers would pull their hair out just trying to deal with some of these young men and didn't really know what to do with them.
Kevin: Even in elementary school.
David: Even in elementary school, I saw at their earliest stages, and I had a gift for working with the young men. They were me, and I knew how to speak to them; I knew how to engage them, but I could see so many young men who were struggling. So even as I went further on in my career, you would hear all the time about all the negative indicators were always boys and boys of color, and there were conferences that organizations would have and panel discussions. People were writing books, white papers. But I said, "At the end of the day, it seemed like the most you could hope for was a good afterschool program for maybe 20 boys." That was as good as it was going to get. And I refused to believe that that was as good as it could get.
I was a member for a long time of One Hundred Black Men, a civic organization made up of professional men who had long given back. The organization actually got started in New York City, and so we'd always done a host of things. We'd given scholarships to kids and mentored young people, and we were doing our civic duty, but then we had the opportunity to create a brand new high school. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was putting money into the city for high school reform. Mayor Bloomberg was in office in New York, and it was at that moment that we had the opportunity to do something. And Hillary Clinton was actually the senator in New York at the time. We met with her, and she said, "You want to start a school for Black and Brown boys that's going to really help them to achieve their dreams? Count me in." And so we had all of the political support. I don't count myself as the founder; people refer to me that way. It was the organization, One Hundred Black Men …
Kevin: Yes. Yes.
David: ... who founded it. And I became, in many ways, the face of it. And ultimately, it was set up for me to be the founding principal, and I recruited all the students and the staff and put it together. And as we sit here today, now we have six schools: one in every borough in New York, one in Newark, New Jersey: 3,000 young men. We've graduated close to 3,000 now, sent them to colleges and universities all over the country. What Eagle Academy represents is hope and possibility. That's really what the legacy is, that all of these negative stories that we see about so many young men of color don't have to be that way. You just need a deeply caring community who will lean in and say: not on my watch.
David: There's nothing wrong with these young men. They need a proper level of guidance. Many of them are growing up without fathers in their lives, and they need the proper guideposts. That's what Eagle Academy provides.
Kevin: This speaks to your overall approach to teaching and learning our young anyway, but this particular focus on the needs of young men of color, young boys of color, which you alluded to: You had that knack and that instinct on how to engage these young people, even teaching elementary school. And I know you weren't the founder; One Hundred Black Men, they were really the driving force, but you actually put the blueprint in place as the founding principal. When you bring in new teachers, and I know you're going through some of this now on a bigger scale in New York, what are some of the rules of the road or suggested approaches on how you engage these disaffected young boys of color, even from the beginning as you try to build a relationship?
David: Fully engaging these young guys to believe in themselves, because that's what we are really talking about. How do you get them to believe in their very own possibility to be successful when the world tells them on a daily basis, consciously and subconsciously, that you cannot be successful? Every time they look at those images on TV and they see the images, these negative images, violence that's created, they always see themselves in those places and spaces. When they're in school and they have teachers who don't really understand who they are and don't see the greatness in them, who don't have the highest of standards for them.
So they get all this negativity on a regular basis. So what we do at Eagle, it's about how you shift culture and establish a culture that says: We believe in you. I know who you are. I know the greatness that is within you. And the way you do that — you have to properly train the teachers to deeply understand that. And when I was interviewing teachers a lot of times, first of all, I'd say: Do you have any brothers? Particularly if we had women.
Kevin: Yeah, yeah.
David: Say, you have any brothers? Have you ever been around boys?
Kevin: That's a starting point.
David: Because there are times where teachers will see boyish behavior as negative behavior, and it's just boys being boys. Being silly, they fool around. They like to slap each other in the back of the head.
David: Tell corny jokes. That's what boys do.
David: You have to understand that. They don't always take the shower the night before they go to school. Then number two, you just have to deeply understand that they can be great and that you're going to do everything you can to help them. And we've engaged other organizations, even beyond the One Hundred Black Men, to be mentors. And one of the boys at the school described it one day; he said, "A young man without a mentor is like an explorer without a map." See, think about it.
Kevin: Several times I've been to a couple of your graduations, and one thing, and this does relate to the approach you're taking as chancellor of New York Public Schools, New York City Public Schools. One of the things I was impressed with was your focus on community. That is this idea that a school is not an island, and part of it is the mentors that come in, but also just this idea of building a learning community and wrapping the kids around that. Talk about this idea of the community and schooling and why that is so important.
David: Critically important. First of all, I am the essential person that comes from the community, personally. I understand the community; I see the community through an asset-based lens. A lot of times in Black and Brown communities, educators see the community through a deficit lens about all the things that they can't do. I don't see it that way; I never did. And I know that when you help parents and families and community members understand, they all have something to bring to the table. It affirms them, and they can be even more supportive to the school. I tell our educators all the time: Schools are not islands unto themselves. They were designed to be parts of a community. They are part of a community, and you've got to know who the community is in order to get the most out of the community, to be in support of the efforts that teachers and educators engage kids with every day. When you hear educators talk about my building, you'll hear principals say that …
Kevin: Yeah. Yeah.
David: ... what goes on in my building.
David: That's a very limited way of thinking about the educational experience.
Kevin: I'm smiling because I've heard so many principals say that.
David: Oh yeah, it's a thing that they do. It's an ownership.
Kevin: Yeah. Yeah.
David: But sometimes what they miss in that is that the true education does not happen simply within the four walls of your school. We want our kids to be citizens of the world, and you can't be a citizen of the world with a neighborhood mentality. You've got to be able to see well beyond the four walls of your school, well beyond the block that you grow up on. And in order to do that, you have to provide a level of exposure. That's why we’re bringing in community members or guest speakers, business leaders to come in who can tell their story. So when young people hear, they're motivated, they're inspired when they hear from people, many of whom grew up in neighborhoods like you grew up in.
David: They were once you, and now you hear their story, it demystifies the process.
David: Because if they see you walking there with a sharp suit, nice tie, you looking good, you look like a finished product. Many of them don't think they could ever be where you are. They need to hear your story about how you once were where they are, and these are the things that I did, and these were the mistakes that I made, and these are the lessons that I learned. When you share that and kids can make a connection to that, that's what makes all the difference and tells them: I can be that too.
Kevin: You're taking that same approach on a massive scale. New York City Public Schools is by far the largest school district in the country. You're in the hotbed; you're in the spotlight. You have a great longtime lifelong relationship with Mary Adams who appointed you as chancellor. As you took this task on, how did you think you could approach that and replicate some of the core principles and ingredients you had at Eagle Academy, which led to undisputed success in terms of kids' output and kids' commitment to growth and personal productivity? There's no question, and by any yardstick Eagle Academy's a massive success, but how do you take that and what you learned there and then translate it to the largest school district in the country?
David: First of all, I'm not intimidated by the size of the organization. People say to me all the time: You’ve got the hardest job in the city and the country and those kinds of things. But in many ways, I look at it as a mom and pop. And it can be shaped in a way for real success, but there are some very specific things that you have to do. So, one of the things that I did was we used to have a position called executive superintendents, which were above the superintendents, which was just a whole nother level of bureaucracy that was added. I eliminated that basically on day one, and I fortified the role of superintendents. The superintendents play a critical role within their particular district, and we've got 45 superintendents around the city, each one of whom has a district which is as large as most school districts around the country …
Kevin: Around the country. Yeah.
David: ... and the chance. Absolutely.
David: So we eliminated that. And I think what we've been working really hard to do is to give them the support that they need because they're the ones that work most closely with the principals. But it starts with: What is the vision of the leader? And you have to tell that story, and you have to share those values, and you have to make it very clear. One of the things I talk about all the time is that I make a sports analogy, so there's a reason why kids will work really hard on the football field. They'll do those wind sprints; they'll do those pushups; they'll put in that effort. Why? Because they're very clear on what the goal is. They're trying to win the chip.
David: They're trying to win that championship. They're trying to get that trophy. It's very clear what we are aiming for. In education, it's not clear at all. Kids just go to school every day, and are not super clear about: What's the end goal of all of this? Well, for me, it's what I ultimately want to see for every student that graduates from our schools: I want to see them on a pathway to a rewarding career and working toward economic prosperity, and I want them also to have the tools to be agents for social change. That's a mission that we've made clear to all of our schools. I don't believe in just the routinization of going to school. You can go see kids in almost any class randomly, and you ask them, What are you doing? What are you working on? And they'll tell you: I'm doing my work.
“Doing my work” is just code for, I don't even know why I'm doing this. This is what the teacher has us doing, this assignment. I'm just going through the motions. They don't know where all of this is supposed to lead. That's what we have been framing much more clearly for all of our educators as well.
Kevin: Yeah. This is a big thing, David, because with educators starting in ed school, they are taught to focus on some things other than that, for instance, they talk about proficiency and test scores. And sometimes it's like when you are out of school, when you graduate, out of mind, we’ve just got to get you through that gate, if you will.
David: That's right.
Kevin: So, how do you change the culture of the education community?
David: You've got to inspire the people. They've got to know what the vision is, and then you've got to say it over and over and over again, and then you have to put the pieces in place so that people can actually work to implement that.
Kevin: Yeah. Yeah.
David: And so, first of all, making the vision clear is what we've been doing. And I can see it because, as I travel around the city, you can see how the schools are working overtime because they're very clear about what our vision is. And it's an amazing feeling for me to go to Staten Island and Queens and Brooklyn and the Bronx, and no matter what school I go to, folks have the mission. They've got the pillars of what we're trying to do posted on their walls. People are talking about it in their work. So it is working. They're engaging. So you have to start mentally. First of all, which is, what is the vision? What are we trying to do? And that's already, that happened. I feel really good about that. But I will tell you that here's been the biggest takeaway for me. I've been the chancellor now for 14 months. In order for them to activate on this mission, there's been one thing that has really prevented us from really even getting out of the gate. The fact is that we are not properly teaching our kids literacy at the earliest ages.
Kevin: Well, I was going to ask you about that. This whole idea of literacy and reading: It is plaguing the country.
David: Absolutely. Kevin, it is amazing. We have an annual $38 billion budget in New York. Think about that. 38 …
Kevin: 38 billion.
David: That's billion.
Kevin: That's more than many countries.
David: Yes, absolutely. And yet, 65% of Black and Brown kids never achieve reading proficiency. In fact, the whole entire system is less than 50%. It wasn't always that way. Twenty-five years ago or so, we shifted our approach to how kids learn to read. And in my judgment, it has not worked, not only in New York …
Kevin: How do you change it back?
David: ... but around the country. So we are getting ready to make an announcement in about a week that is going to really lay out the details of what we're going to do, but we're not going to allow schools to just do whatever they want going forward. We're going to have a much more prescriptive approach, a much more phonetic focus on what it is that we're doing as well, that's going to be tied into it because we got away from that with this balanced literacy/whole language approach. That is not a bad approach, particularly for kids who maybe have a little bit more privileged background.
David: But by and large, we have to move in a very, very different way.
Kevin: But isn't part of it — because during March reading month, I had a lot of reading experts on the show, and I had one teacher who actually taught at the KIPP schools in D.C. who was known to bring kids up to speed as readers, kids that were viewed as lost or those who couldn't do it. And she said, "The most important thing," and it reminds me of some of the things you said, David, and how do you get your teachers to embody this? She said, "The most important thing is conveying to those kids they can do it."
Kevin: And that so many teachers that she works with subliminally and deep down convey that they don't even believe the kids can do it. How do you get that to happen?
David: You have to lean into the coalition of the willing. You have to create, as my friend Ron Walker would say, the conspiracy of care. You've got to lift up the people who are doing it and making it happen, and they've got to preach to the choir. They’ve got to tell all the other folks: this is the way to do it. So, it's one of our pillars; it’s what we call scale, sustain, and restore what works. You have to identify the places where it is working well, where the people are believers, and you have to now make those people, you have to demonstrate to the other folks, look at what these folks are doing.
David: They're right here in the city. They're working with the same kinds of kids that you are working with. Let them tell you how they got to where they are. See, when I say about teachers working within the four walls of the building, it's a mindset. Very often you're not even looking and seeing what other people are doing outside of the folks that are in your school. But right on the other side of town, there are people that are doing transformational work. So we are setting up a platform now where even on your phone, you'll be able to see the best teachers across the city. You'll be able to see them. You'll be able to sit with them being interviewed; you'll see them at work. We're putting all of that onto a platform where, even if you didn't visit the school, you want to see who are the teachers in the city that are best at teaching Shakespeare. We're going to lay that out.
Kevin: Let me ask you this. A couple more questions, David. How should we measure the success of a school, whether a school is working?
David: I think there are things like: What are our kids doing once they leave our schools? How successful are they becoming? We've launched a major, major new initiative: Career Pathways —
David: — which is about putting kids into places and spaces where they can have apprenticeships and they can take their rightful place in this 21st-century economy. We want to be able to measure the success of some of our schools based upon how well our kids are doing, whether it's college or career, and to make sure that they are really successful in those places and spaces. I'm ultimately trying to push our schools to adapt more of these project-based learning …
David: ... methods.
David: Which gets us away from just all of the high stakes testing. The kids really have to demonstrate their ability to do some things. I was at a town hall meeting yesterday, and the kids were reading a book, A Long Walk to Water, and talking about the civil war in Sudan and the fight over equity and access to good clean drinking water. And now these young people are presenting to a whole community of folks about what they're doing. They've already read the book. Now they've taken what they've learned from the book and they've transferred it into some level of action.
Kevin: Don't you think that where we're headed, it really reshapes the role of the teacher? They're more of a guide, but not a content deliverer because kids can get the content.
David: That's right.
Kevin: But the best way to pull out the critical and analytical thinking, like those kids you talked about when they were talking about the book they read, is to put them in a place where they can collaborate, learn about it, talk about it, share their thoughts on it, and then ultimately they can apply what they've learned in future ways in their careers.
David: Let me tell you a quick story. I was in my very first year as a principal, and all the kids were in the lunchroom, and there was one young lady, Dolores. She was a ninth grader. She's in the classroom looking out the window. Our school was right near a highway, and I said, "Dolores, you're supposed to be in the lunchroom. Why are you here?" She said, "I'm going, Mr. Banks. But I was so disturbed because right on the other side of the highway was a huge cigarette advertisement sitting on top of a building.” She said, "Look, it's staring right into our school like it's trying to encourage all of us to smoke. We should do something about that." Long story short, we stopped everything we were doing in the school for about two weeks. The kids in their science classes were studying about the harmful effects of nicotine on the body, and our law classes — they found out that the city council had actually proposed legislation banning the use of cigarette advertisers within 5,000 feet of schools.
In the math classes, they were outside measuring the length of a car to determine the estimation of how many car lengths between our building and that building to see if it fell within the proposed legislation. In their English classes, they were writing letters to the mayor encouraging to sign it, that bill, into law. All of this working together, the mayor's office ultimately got our letters. The mayor called us and said, "I'd like for you to bring about 25 of your kids to the bill signing. I'm going to sign that into law."
You know how empowered the kids felt about that, and maybe within 60 days after it happened, the kids were screaming. I stepped out of my office and I looked up, and they saw the city workers taking that cigarette advertisement down. A group of ninth graders: they made that happen by their voice. That's how I see the success of a school: young people who are empowered, young people who are critical thinkers, who take their learning in school and make it purposeful so that they can actually be agents for social change. That's what we want our kids to do. That's what I see a successful school being able to do.
Kevin: That really is being able to actualize your learning in a way that benefits the community. One last question, and we could talk about this, so many of these things, and this is what I really want to know. In your role as chancellor, you see education front and center, and when you think about the future of education, not just in New York but in the country, worldwide, where do you see it going? And project out the next 10, 20 years, and then talk about how we can get there, because there are so many opportunities and challenges and sometimes in education, we can get stuck in the day-to-day, but you've always had a vision that extends, as Churchill said, beyond what you can see. Where do you see this going?
David: I see a full-on transformation in the coming decades of education out of complete necessity. Our entire globe is in trouble. We start talking about the issues of climate change. We are going to have to begin to live very differently as a human species. Our entire planet is under assault. Based upon the stuff that we've done here as human beings, we are leaving it to successive generations to figure out their way to continue to survive. We've got folks working on trying to get to Mars and other planets. Our whole world is changing, and it's changing rapidly through the use of technology. Our school systems by necessity are going to have to change. We can no longer be limited to just that teacher that's in your room, because the technology now says you've got access to teachers all over the world.
David: This notion of sitting in rows for 45 minutes and then the bell rings and you move to the next class: That's going to be an archaic way for learning, and it's actually not the most natural way for us to learn anyway.
David: And it is diametrically opposed to the way the world of work actually happens. People are in businesses designed to solve problems. So, you've got to work cooperatively, and you've got to bring a skillset to bear on solving those problems. That's the way our schools are going to have to be as well. It's going to require dramatic change of our schools. That's why you need visionary leaders to help people understand it. Otherwise, we'll just continue to lead our districts like we've led them for a hundred years.
David: Education is one of the only places that you could still look at for a hundred years, and it basically looks the same as it did a hundred years ago. There are some good elements to that, but there are a lot of elements to that that need to change, and they need to change now in order for us to catch up and to be ready to take on the challenges that fully await us as human beings.
Kevin: David Banks, thank you so much for joining us for our 100th episode on What I Want to Know.
David: Thank you so much, Kevin.
Kevin: Appreciate you.
David: Appreciate you more.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want to Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcast, Spotify or your favorite podcast app so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. And write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want to Know.
David Banks is the New York City Schools Chancellor, head of the city's Department of Education.
He has served in various roles in the New York City system and was the founder of the Eagle Academy for Young Men. This successful college prep model has expanded into all five New York boroughs and Newark, New Jersey.
He is a champion of high-quality education, especially for boys of color, and a true community leader.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.