David Banks Credit: Contributed photo from Banks

On a frigid Wednesday morning last week, dozens gathered behind P.S. 161 in Brooklyn to welcome the city’s next Schools Chancellor David C. Banks. 

Banks stood at the front of the podium with Mayor-elect Eric Adams, recently returned from his Ghana trip, as well as several other supporters and community members. He and Adams  appeared much more like preachers surrounded by an adoring congregation than leaders heading a press conference. The crowd, filled with family and students of Banks, chimed in with enthusiastic applause despite the bitter cold.  

“I wanted to see the character of the man I was going to turn my babies over to,” preached Adams. “How sound are you for this battle we are in front of. This is a real fight.”

Pre-COVID-19, the graduation rate among Black and Hispanic high school students in 2019 was about 13% to 15% lower than that of Asian and white students even though graduation rates had reached an overall record high, according to the mayor’s office. Adams said that it was far past time for the city to stop pretending that a huge percentage of Black and Brown children never reaching proficiency is “normal.”

Banks is a nationally recognized education leader, the president and CEO of the Eagle Academy Foundation, and was principal of the all-boys public school Eagle Academy for Young Men. Adams said at the press conference that it took him eight years to interview a suitable candidate for his appointment of chancellor (conceivably because he planned on being mayor while Bill de Blasio was in office). After that lengthy process, Adams settled on Banks as the next schools chancellor to be sworn in with him next year. 

In 2004, Banks and the 100 Black Men, Inc. established the first Eagle Academy for Young Men as a part of New York City’s high school reform initiative. “People are not focused on Black and Latino males, so to create a place for them was considered innovative. Something out of the box,” said Banks.

The organization chose to start the all-boys academy because in the integrated schools boys were still getting left behind in areas such as attendance and academics. Much more so than girls who were still managing to achieve, said Banks. 

“They just need people to love them and to say ‘we’re going to support you and have high expectations.’ That they’re not a threat because people see Black and Latino boys as threats as they get older,” said Banks. “They live in a system that doesn’t affirm who they are, so they start to take on that identity of negativity.”  

Banks grew up just around the corner from the elementary school where the conference was held on Montgomery Street in Crown Heights with his larger-than-life family. He said that his family and community instilled in him the same principles he used as a bedrock for his “progressive” educational philosophies later on. 

“I had so much fun. It was an idyllic kind of childhood,” said Banks. “In many ways that was my base.” For his students, who often grapple with unstable homes, a fear of police, gang activity, and larger societal narratives, Banks said that he strived to create the same ideal of safety and comfort at his schools.

During last year’s onslaught of the COVID crisis, Banks was a member of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Taskforce to Reopen Schools. In criticism of former Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, Banks said he would have been much more upfront and direct with school staff and community-led in his effort to get a handle on the pandemic. He plans on attacking the ongoing COVID crisis, with worrying variants and school closures, by “showing respect” and “asking the teachers and principals [and students and parents] what they think.”

Banks, who was briefly a school safety agent himself, said that safety in schools is paramount for students. He believes in addressing the emotional wellbeing of students in addition to physical safety. “We’re going to continue to do whatever it takes to ensure that weapons are not in school, but also we want to build on making sure kids are emotionally safe,” said Banks. 

Because of the COVID crisis, he said there were many school safety officers lost. He plans on hiring back the “appropriate amount” of officers and maybe looking into changing the uniforms so they don’t so closely resemble cops.

Outside of the crisis, Banks said that he wants to move away from a reliance on standardized testing and revamp the Gifted & Talented (G&T) program without necessarily eliminating it. “I’m talking about how we develop leaders,” said Banks. “Our standardized exams don’t generally measure those kinds of things. They don’t measure critical thinking or progressiveness.” 

At the moment, de Blasio has plans to “overhaul” the G&T program while permanently ending the screening of kindergarteners. Banks said he’d implement a system where the definition of ‘gifted and talented’ is expanded to include things like artistic ability. He said there should also be an increase in the availability of open seats in the program for Black and Brown students. 

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here: bit.ly/amnews1

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