David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

As the school year begins, I had opportunity to sit down with Schools Chancellor David Banks to ask him about the unique challenges facing the city’s public school system and how his agency is responding:

Describe some of the challenges of enrolling 19,000 migrant children into the public school system. What special resources do these students need? 

Last year, we spent approximately $125M to support asylum seekers. The challenges have not been with the influx of students per se but rather our ability to get the funding and resources we need to provide supports for these families. And despite the challenges, our school communities have absolutely risen to the occasion, welcoming our newest New Yorkers with open arms. I visit schools constantly, and I am deeply inspired by what I’ve seen: students translating for their new classmates, PTAs organizing food and clothing drives, and so much more. 

We continue to quicky enroll hundreds of students a day, and in some cases, our schools closest to shelters are filling up. We don’t want to send a family at a shelter in Brooklyn to a school all the way in the Bronx, so we are looking at schools nearby with available seats and placing students strategically. We also have staff on site at shelters and HERRCs to support families with enrollment paperwork.

As far as resources go, perhaps our most important resources are our 5,100-plus teachers with bilingual or English as a New Language certifications – who, as of last week, are now able to teach under that certification without losing tenure they’ve gained under another teaching license. This will ensure we are maximizing the number of teachers who are best positioned to support our newest students.

There has been a recent uptick in Covid cases. How will the DOE tackle limiting the effects this time around on academic proficiency and classroom instruction?

There is a great deal of work we’re doing to address learning loss and accelerate growth – and this work was needed even before the pandemic. In New York City, 51% of our kids are not reading on grade level. In fact, 64% of Black students and 63% of Latino students are not reading on grade level. We are sounding the alarm on this literacy crisis, which was certainly compounded by Covid, but also predates it. 

This year, we are rolling out NYC Reads in nearly all of our Early Childhood Education programs and nearly half of our districts serving K-5 students, with all remaining ECE programs and elementary schools following suit next school year. NYC Reads pairs high-quality literacy curriculum – backed by research in how kids best learn to read, known as the “science of reading” – with intensive coaching and support for our teachers. This shift is going to truly move the needle for our students, with ripple effects across their entire academic careers. So in short, we are combating learning loss with a laser focus on building every one of our students into a strong, confident reader.

DOE is looking at a $730 million budget hole next year with the expiration of federal stimulus funding, which helps fund critical education programs including the city’s Summer Rising program.  Are you concerned these programs may be at risk?

Yes, we certainly are concerned — we have been very vocal about the state of our budget once federal stimulus funding expires. In addition to the programs you mentioned, stimulus dollars support our Community Schools and a variety of learning loss programs. These funds have also allowed us to hold schools harmless, despite enrollment loss, as we finalize their budgets. We are facing very tough decisions, and the truth is, we can’t fix this on our own. Without local and state support, these programs are simply unsustainable, and so we will continue to call upon our partners to help address this looming problem.

After two years as Schools Chancellor, what has been your proudest achievement? If you could turn back the clock, what would you do differently?

In taking this job, I committed to rebuilding trust between NYC families and the school system that serves them. That requires deep and meaningful family and community engagement – and it also requires action. I’m proud of the steps we’ve taken to make good on the fundamental promises of school: keeping kids safe, teaching them to read, and preparing them for bold futures. From NYC Reads to FutureReadyNYC, my administration is not just talking the talk. We are walking the walk and taking action to earn back the trust of our families.

As for something I’d do differently? You know, it’s a tough balance when you’re trying to act with urgency while also planning thoughtfully. A part of me wishes we could have launched some of these key initiatives even earlier in my administration – but at the same time, that would have meant a much smaller window for engagement and preparation. I think we’ve struck a good balance – and I’m excited to see how these initiatives unfold at our schools this coming year! I firmly believe that the best is yet to come.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 175 years. The views in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s Web site: www.cssny.org.

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