Eagle Academy Founder and CEO David Banks was recently appointed by Mayor-elect Eric Adams to become the New York City Schools Chancellor in January.
Banks is a pioneering educator with decades of experience in the New York City school system. Born in Crown Heights, he attended public schools and credits two inspirational teachers for inspiring him to become an educator. He began his career in 1986 as a teacher at PS 167 in Crown Heights. After working as an Assistant Principal at PS 191, he co-founded the Bronx School of Law, Government, and Justice before founding Eagle Academy, a network of district schools that serve low-income Black and Latino boys in grades six through twelve. Eagle Academy schools currently have a campus in each borough and consistently outperform other City schools.
Schneps Media recently had the opportunity to interview Mr. Banks on his plans for running the nation’s largest school system. The following interview was lightly edited for clarity and length.
Schneps Media (SM): Yesterday on WPIX you floated the idea of having more elite schools with different admissions criteria. Can you expound about that and does this mean you are okay with the SHSAT at the current Elite schools?
David Banks (DB): What I’m doing right now is working with Mayor-Elect Adams and his position right now is he doesn’t want to change admissions criteria for the current schools, and so the notion of creating more specialized schools is something again that the mayor-elect has talked about. And those additional schools would have a different set of admission criteria. Maybe instead of just accepting students that take the test, we’ll look at other things like community service and teacher recommendations. It could be a number of things. We haven’t settled on it yet. I’m just saying that it is possible to have a different set of admissions criteria. Maybe just taking the top students in the 3-to5% of the graduating class from middle school and opening it up. I think these students have already proven that they’re the most accelerated hardworking learners in our middle schools. And so you’re looking at different approaches, but we don’t have a stated position on it yet. I’m not even in the office, but it’s offering just kind of a general, big picture vision here.
SM: Mayor-elect Adams has mentioned on the campaign trail more of a year-round school year. Do you have any ideas on how you would like to see the school year change – for example four days a week instead of five during the school year and institute that as year-round schooling?
DB: Again, it’s still an idea that has to be developed and we have not developed it as of yet. What we are saying is that we want to be taking full advantage of all the time that we possibly can. It’s going to be critically important. That means what do you do after three o’clock for the use of extended learning time, or use Saturday, something that we do at the [Eagle] Academy. A lot of our boys come to school on Saturday, as well. And then there is summertime. For many of our kids that’s a dead zone where there’s nothing going on for two months. We want to take advantage of that. It’s really important. That’s something that came to light with what’s been happening with COVID where so many of our kids have really fallen even further behind.
But that does not necessarily mean mandating that all teachers have to work Saturdays or after school, or in the summer. We will certainly look at opportunities for teachers to get additional pay, but we also want to engage community-based organizations. There are thousands of community-based organizations across the state who are ready to lean in and we want to provide an opportunity for them to provide additional support after school. So you know, a young person may go for basic core work with the regular teachers during the school day but after school, maybe they’re working with the Children’s Aid Society, Good Shepherd, or all the other organizations as they work in these spaces. Utilizing places like the PAL 9Police Athletic League).
SM: The needs of Special Needs kids is pretty broad, but what will be your immediate initiatives for kids with special needs in public schools?
DB: Access to services is so critically important. I can’t say what would be the thing most immediately needed, but I’m literally just coming from visiting the Windward School on the Upper East Side. It’s the preeminent but private school in New York State for kids with dyslexia. So I think one of the first things we’re going to be doing is screening to identify the many kids in our system that have never been identified with these learning disabilities.
We’re going to have to develop a level of professional development and training for each student where they’re able to help provide a level of deeper context for the teaching of reading. The basic approach that we use right now is something called balanced literacy. I think this has been a failed approach, and particularly for black and brown kids. I certainly would like to see us return to a phonetic approach to teaching reading, which I think is based in real-time. That’s what they do at the Windward School, and they turn the lives around of so many young people. The challenge is that a place like Windward is a place that pretty much is for affluent families, overwhelmingly white families who could afford to take a course. But I don’t think you need to be white and afford to learn how to read and so that’s what we’re going to be committed to doing. A full-on redirection of our school system and teaching our kids the fundamental nature of how to read. It’s going to take them a while and it won’t happen overnight, but our commitment will begin on day one.
SM: What common ground with the United Federation of Teachers union would you point out as a starting point to working with them in partnership to improve city schools?
DB: I think the UFT as a union should be focused on how to provide the best experience for the teachers. I want the teachers to have that joy of teaching, and you get a joy of teaching when you have a level of success.
The UFT currently has a bill that they’ve been promoting on reducing class size. I don’t know that we’ll be able to do that for the entire system, but in areas of the greatest level of overcrowding, we can work very closely with the teachers union on that. We want to be able to offer up a little bit more autonomy throughout the schools, particularly in the middle and high school level, to be able to help create a curriculum that will work best for the population that they have.
We want to be able to offer that kind of freedom to schools, but it’s got to be what I call earned autonomy. You can’t tell me that you want autonomy when all the kids are at a failing school. So we’ve got to put some basic metrics in place. I’ve been a union member have throughout my career as a teacher as part of the UFT and was a CSA [Council of School Supervisors & Administrators] union member when I became an assistant principal and a principal. I believe in what unions represent, but there are limits. We want the union to be partners for the greatest good of what needs to happen in our schools and for our teachers.
SM: What best practices instituted at the Eagle Academy would you like to institute across the DOE?
DB: We’ve solicited community-based groups and we’ve solicited individuals who served as mentors with our kids. At every school are a number of kids that would really struggle. If they had a mentor it could be transformative for them. That’s one. We also always used the mantra of the 100 black men organization which is they will be what they see and what does that mean? That we got to expose them to people and careers that will help them to dream of a great possibility. How can you dream of becoming an investment banker if you’ve never met one or the dream of a career in the biotech industry if you’ve never seen anybody who’s ever done that?
Those are things that we do at Eagle, which creates the aha moment for the kids to get the lights to go on and help to put context for their learning. That’s what we’ve done and I think that we can absolutely scale. We want to get corporations across the city to provide internship opportunities for all of our kids. We think that that’s something that is doable and we will be very focused on it across the system. Childhood college access. That’s a big deal we do at Eagle. We take them to different colleges. We have called representatives from universities across the country who come in and meet with parents. We have kids who are in college now who come back to the neighborhoods that they grew up in and talk to the kids about how exciting it is to go to college.
SM: Finally, If you were to revisit your tenure as chancellor in 10 years what accomplishments would you take pride in seeing?
DB: A very reimagined school system. That kids are not locked in on day-to-day school. That you’ll school connected to mastery learning and not the traditional 45 minute period that you have in high school for four years until we graduate you. I would love to engage in mastery learning where magic kids could graduate high school in three years if they’ve mastered all the content, providing that type of incentive. I want to see kids in high school openly engage in the corporate space through internships. I want to see a teaching course that has been exposed to what the 21st-century economy and workforce really look like. Teachers have no idea what it means to work at Google or Microsoft. I want to see them in a professional development experience. Those are some of the things that I was like.