Mayor-elect Eric Adams’s appointment of David Banks as his schools chancellor is a strong start. Banks will bring to this difficult job decades of experience working inside and outside the nation’s largest school system in such organizations as the Eagle Academy Foundation, the Urban Assembly, and New Visions. He should understand not only that change is possible within the system, but also that to be successful and innovative, schools need the technical and political support that external organizations can provide.
Banks’s record provides reason for optimism. In the 1990s, the city Board of Education often seemed resigned to the dreadful performance of the Bronx’s long-established high schools. Banks’s first high school—the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice—as well as the Bronx Leadership Academy, which was started by my former colleagues in South Bronx Churches, challenged the board’s non-responsiveness. Working from the outside, these schools (and the organizations that sponsored them) demonstrated that the Bronx’s high school students were capable of much more.
Other Banks efforts have had similar success. In 2001, working with New Visions, the Bronx Superintendent of Schools adopted the process used to start small high schools like the ones above and applied it to a new generation of schools. It was under this project that Banks inaugurated the Eagle Academy for Young Men, the first all-boys high school to be created in the city in decades. A year later, new mayor Michael Bloomberg and chancellor Joel Klein expanded this effort across the city. Over 12 years, they overhauled the city’s public high school system. Today, 256 district schools and 52 charter schools launched in those 12 years serve the city’s students. The initiative was a lesson in the strength of community-school partnership.
Banks’s years of navigating both the school system and the broader state and city political environment will serve him well in his new post. Of course, some new schools fail; Banks should ensure the system consistently reviews school performance and take dramatic action where necessary.
He should also avoid the educational failures of the outgoing mayor. Bill de Blasio favored centrally mandated system-wide reforms over local, school-focused efforts. The record is clear: his expensive central programs did not improve low-performing schools and have not increased opportunity for students in the city’s worst-off communities. His push to redistribute seats in the highest-performing schools pitted community against community instead of setting up more high-performing schools.
Finally, Banks inherits a system greatly weakened by school closures and uneven remote instruction. We know that enrollment is down, but the system has yet to indicate where the missing students have gone. Outgoing chancellor Meisha Ross Porter, who began her career in Banks’s schools, has quietly steadied the ship and opened schools for live instruction. But while things are better today than they were in January, Banks has considerable work to do. Getting students fully engaged in day-to-day live instruction with high rates of attendance must be job Number One in reversing the learning losses of the last two years.
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