The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

NYC’s Black schools chief isn’t sure racial integration is the answer

As he rolls back diversity programs, David Banks says families just want a good neighborhood school

David C. Banks, the chancellor of New York City public schools, visits the Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology in Manhattan. (Yana Paskova for The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — When David C. Banks, future chancellor of the New York City school system, was growing up in a working-class Black family in southeast Queens, his father pulled strings to get him into a better junior high school across town. Banks and his brother left the house in darkness and took two buses to get to Flushing. In high school, his parents again believed the campus around the corner was unacceptable and sent the siblings out of the neighborhood.

The school they chose, Hillcrest High School in Jamaica, Queens, had been the site of integration protests from White parents when it opened in 1971, though when David arrived in 1977, he encountered little racial strife. He was elected vice president of his senior class, took advanced classes and ran track. “We got along,” he said. “We liked each other.”

It was the sort of positive multiracial experience that civil rights leaders had spent decades fighting for.

Now Banks, a politically well-connected educator who admires both Malcolm X and Mike Bloomberg, is in charge of the entire New York City school system, the nation’s largest. But he is not campaigning for integrated schools. And he does not think the sort of hunt his parents undertook is the best answer for today’s families.

“Sometimes our integration efforts can render really good fruit. But a lot of times we’re playing around on the margins,” he said in an expansive interview. “Historically, it’s been about how do we get a handful of Black students to be in schools with White kids who are better off. But what I always keep my mind on, and my focus on, is what about those other kids who didn’t get that opportunity? What are we doing about them?”

For years, advocates have decried racial and economic segregation in New York City schools, partly because it has been so rare for students in high-poverty schools to succeed. And New York City schools were among the most segregated, with about seven in 10 having racial demographics out of balance with their surrounding areas. Advocates prodded Mayor Bill de Blasio to take on the issue, and near the end of his tenure, pushed by the pandemic, he adopted changes.

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Those changes reduced the role of merit in admissions and made some of the most sought-after schools modestly more diverse.

Now de Blasio is out, and Mayor Eric Adams is in, with his friend and adviser David Banks at his side as schools chancellor. For the first time ever, New York has a Black mayor and a Black schools chief.

But racial integration is not on their to-do list, and they have rolled back many of de Blasio’s policies. In every case, the question is whether to allow top-performing students to have their own classes and their own schools. Doing so keeps many of their parents happy, but those classes and schools tend to be disproportionately White and Asian, so they also drive racial segregation.

Banks replies that Black and Hispanic kids can successfully compete for these spots. And, despite his own experience, the chancellor does not think most Black families care all that much about integration or gaining access to schools viewed as elite, which may require traveling across town like he did. They simply want better schools in their own neighborhoods, he says, even if those schools remain segregated.

“When I talk to families across the city, Black families, nobody ever talks to me about integrated schools, not even once,” he said, his voice rising. “It’s not what they talk about.”

In the end, he believes his legacy will rest more on what happens in the segregated schools that serve hundreds of thousands of New York children and less on the drive, however nice in theory, for racially diverse classrooms.

A thorny job

In 1974, Philip and Janice Banks moved their three sons from Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood to Queens, escaping gangs, drugs and violence. Philip, then a New York City patrolman, kept close watch over his boys as they grew. “If there was no homework, I’d get on the phone to the teacher and ask why,” he later recalled.

David, the oldest, thrived academically, went to Rutgers University and then worked briefly as a teacher. He left to attend law school. But a few years later, he was drawn back to education, now an administrator, moved in part by what he saw as a dire need for more Black male role models and by a spiritual guidance to work with young people. He became an assistant principal at an elementary school in Crown Heights, where he had lived as a young child. In 1995, he told a reporter that someday he hoped to be New York City’s schools chancellor.

Twenty-seven years later, Banks has the job, and some of the thorniest questions he faces are about admissions.

For years, de Blasio faced pressure from integration advocates, including his own schools chancellor, to desegregate the city’s schools, where today students overall are 41 percent Hispanic, 24 percent Black, 17 percent Asian and 15 percent White. When the pandemic made it impossible to administer tests that had been used for admissions, de Blasio finally went along, and he said he hoped the changes would be permanent.

For elementary school, de Blasio directed that gifted and talented programs be phased out.

In middle school, where students apply for admission, de Blasio disallowed the use of academic “screens,” such as tests or grades, used at the time by 41 percent of campuses to decide which students were offered spots.

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And for high school, de Blasio ended the practice in which sought-after schools each set their own admissions criteria. Instead, everyone who met a certain threshold was put into the top priority group and a lottery chose among those students.

Banks rolled back each of those policies.

For elementary school, he didn’t just keep gifted and talented programs. He added 1,100 seats to them, bringing the total to 3,500.

For middle school, Banks said the city’s 32 districts could each decide whether to use screens; for the coming admissions cycle, 59 out of 478 schools will reinstate them. (Students who don’t win admission to their top choices are placed at a school lower on their list.) Additionally, some schools are adding honors math and science classes for students with top grades, an alternate system to accommodate merit but one in which Black and Hispanic students are usually underrepresented.

And for high school, Banks raised the bar for grades needed to get top priority at the city’s most selective schools. He also left dormant a program that encouraged local districts to create their own diversity plans.

Together, these changes make Banks something of a centrist in this debate. He has kept certain reforms to admissions process but dialed back the most ambitious policies.

“What I’m trying to do is to be responsive to what the community is saying that they want,” the chancellor said. He lamented what he called a tide of families leaving the public schools. “So if there are families who are saying we want accelerated learning programs for our kids, I’m going to make sure that we can put that in place.” The views of the most privileged parents, he said, are “a very significant part of this equation.”

About 120,000 students have left in the past five years, with particularly significant drops among Black students and those from poor families, an advocacy group reported.

Banks also speaks bluntly about the value of merit.

“If you’ve got a child who works really hard on weekends, and putting in their time and energy, and they get a 98 average, they should have a better opportunity to get into a high-choice school than, you know, the child you have to throw water on their face to get them to go to school every day,” Banks said at a forum hosted by the Association for a Better New York in October.

Are these views in line with the desires of African American New Yorkers? Polling casts some doubt. In a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, 68 percent of Black respondents nationwide said they favor racially and ethnically diverse schools, even if it means some students don’t enroll in their local communities. (Only 35 percent of White respondents felt the same way.)

Integrated schools have more resources, more programs and more experienced teachers, said Ivory Toldson, national director of education innovation and research at the NAACP. “Black parents want a quality education for their children and insofar as we want integration, it has been to achieve that end,” he said.

School segregation is driven by long-standing housing segregation (which itself stemmed from racist government and lending policies), and for years, New York schools exacerbated those divides by drawing school zones to keep Black students out of predominantly White schools, even if they were nearby. Efforts to desegregate schools in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education were met with resistance and White flight.

More recently, the Bloomberg administration sought to retain more White and more affluent students in the public schools by creating more seats for gifted and talented students and allowing parents more choice in where their children attend school. Critics note that it was easier for the most privileged families to navigate this complex system and prepare their children for admission to what became in-demand programs. One result: Certain schools had an abundance of parents to volunteer time and money, and fewer students with concentrated academic and other needs.

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Integration advocates hoped the de Blasio changes would even things out, and they reacted sharply to the new attitude on display by Banks. Matt Gonzales, who directs an education justice center at NYU Metro Center, said he finds the chancellor to be “full of platitudes” and unwilling to consider the implications of a segregated school system. He is also put off by Banks’s focus on keeping affluent families happy.

“Most of the families here don’t have the luxury to threaten to leave the system,” Gonzales said. “We need to make policy based on those who don’t have the choice to abandon the system.”

Meanwhile, parents supporting a merit-based system were thrilled with Banks, at least initially. Kaushik Das, an Indian American father in Manhattan who serves as vice president of the local school council, met with Banks several times, including one-on-one at Banks’s invitation, and he came away impressed. “I like everything he had to say,” he said.

But he was furious after learning that none of the middle schools in his Manhattan district would resume filtering applicants by merit, a decision made by the local superintendent. “This is so disappointing on so many levels,” he wrote in an open letter.

A quest for Black excellence

In October 1995, hundreds of thousands of Black men rallied on the National Mall in D.C. They pledged to take charge — to improve their lives, their families, their communities. It was called the Million Man March, and David Banks, then 33, was there alongside his father and two brothers. He later called the march “probably the most impactful day of my life.”

Time Magazine put the Banks men on its cover that month: Philip Banks Jr., the father, with his three sons and three of their sons. The seven of them stood at attention, arrayed in front of the family’s Tudor house in southeast Queens, dressed in suits and staring with purpose into the camera. “We, Too, Sing America,” read the headline, a new take on a revered Langston Hughes poem. They told their story and vowed to get more active politically.

“People are looking for another Malcolm or Martin, and they shouldn’t,” David Banks told the magazine. “The problem is within us.”

The Banks family had traveled to D.C. with One Hundred Black Men, a high-powered and politically connected civil organization in New York. A few years later, leaders in the group grew alarmed by a Columbia University study that found that 75 percent of prison inmates in the entire state of New York came from seven neighborhoods in New York City. They wanted to do something about it, and they tapped Banks to develop a school for young men of color, which would be located in the roughest of neighborhoods.

There was little question it would be segregated — it was designed that way from the start. The idea of boys-only education was controversial, and no one was entirely sure if it was legal. But it won support from Sen. Hillary Clinton and Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who was pursuing his own education reform agenda. In 2004, the first Eagle Academy opened in the South Bronx, with Banks as its principal.

Clinton was one of the school’s earliest supporters, and she got to know Banks as the school was forming. “His passion for educating Black and brown boys was really impressive to me,” she said in an interview. She co-sponsored a legislative provision clarifying that single-sex schools do not run afoul of federal law, removing a potential hurdle to Eagle, and said she vouched for the program early on with the Bloomberg administration as well as donors.

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“I’ve talked to many, many people who care about education, but they sometimes have the idealism without the practicality, or they have the kind of grinding, you know, utilitarianism without the idealism,” Clinton said. “David was the whole package.”

Eagle Academy was built more on culture than curriculum. Incoming students attended a summer orientation where teachers spoke openly about how to avoid gangs and how to behave when stopped by the police. School ran until dinnertime, with activities and extra help on-site. The idea was to keep students off the streets and out of trouble. Each student memorized the poem “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley, and the Eagles recited it together: “I am the master of my fate,” they would bellow, reaching the poem’s conclusion, “I am the captain of my soul.”

“The secret sauce for Eagle Academy,” Banks said, was “how we got young men to believe in themselves — and then the power of possibility for their own lives.”

Banks’s approach differed starkly from Bloomberg’s emphasis on standardized tests. At that time, “the average mediocre principal was trying to get more money and stronger students — which meant more screens — to get higher scores,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, who was senior deputy chancellor under Bloomberg and is now president of Bank Street College of Education. “The schools David started did the opposite.” They were specifically built to serve the most disadvantaged kids.

Within a decade, Eagle Academy had a school in each of the five New York City boroughs and a sixth in Newark. Banks became president of the Eagle Academy Foundation, which raises millions of dollars in private donations for the schools.

Eagle is better resourced than other high-poverty schools, but that doesn’t make things easy for the students it serves. The schools have never posted high scores on the tests. But graduation rates are comparable to — and sometimes higher than — citywide rates, as is the share of students who went to college and stayed enrolled there six months after graduation. (This experience helps explain Banks’s aversion to using scores to judge students; in the merit-based programs he favors for the city, the metrics are grades, not tests.)

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But schools like the Eagle Academies are the exception rather than the rule for places with high concentrations of poverty, said Stefan Lallinger, a former New York City schools official who now works at the Century Foundation, a think tank that supports integration policies. Many students arrive with financial, social, emotional and academic challenges, he said. They also lack assets such as parents with time, money and political connections to help the school. “It is certainly possible to have incredible academic achievement for high-poverty schools,” he said. But it is far from the norm.

Banks said this is where he wants to spend his energy — helping kids stuck in bad schools, not facilitating a path out of them. Because even if a few escape, the vast majority will not. His ideas include urging principals to develop relationships with their surrounding communities and helping their students to see that they are connected to a larger world. “We have so many of our kids who in our schools, they’ve never been inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They’ve never even been in Central Park,” he said.

Banks has long understood that accomplishing his goals requires political skills as much as knowledge of education. His own politics, though, are hard to pin down. He has worked for civil rights leader Al Sharpton’s Senate campaign and the presidential campaigns of former senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, who ran to the left as he challenged Vice President Al Gore, and centrist billionaire Bloomberg. A white board in his office bore an inspirational quote from Bloomberg: “Show me someone who is never lost, and I will show you a loser.”

Most recently, Banks was a political adviser to Adams’s mayoral campaign, and ties between the two are deep. Banks’s fiancee is deputy mayor, and Banks’s brother, Philip Banks III, is Adams’s deputy mayor for public safety. The mayor’s girlfriend works with Banks at the education department, and earlier this year, Adams appeared in a documentary praising Eagle Academy. Before all that, back when Adams was a police officer, he looked up to Philip Banks Jr., one of the few Black supervisors he knew on the force.

Adams got to know David Banks through his work with Eagle Academy, and he said in an interview that he sought Banks’s advice on education over eight years as Brooklyn borough president. “I would call him whenever I went into a school,” Adams said in an interview. He said that he always had Banks in mind as a possible chancellor should he be elected mayor. “So it was a long eight-year interview … For those eight years, it showed me that he really understood how to move to transform education.

These relationships give Banks a degree of power and freedom that his immediate predecessors lacked, and Banks said the stories of battle with city leaders that he heard from career staff left him relieved that he doesn’t face that sort of tension.

Building culture

“Welcome to our humble abode,” a student said as the door creaked open to his technology classroom. Inside, teens were doing advanced computing. Some had part-time jobs working for big tech companies.

David Banks was here to spotlight a school — the Urban Assembly Gateway School of Technology in midtown Manhattan — that doesn’t get the sort of attention showered on the city’s most elite campuses. He hoped to make clear that New York children can get an excellent education at all sorts of schools, to try to end the “scarcity mind-set” that envelops parents who are fixated on getting their children admitted to a handful of top programs.

There are many great schools, he says — places like this branch of the Urban Assembly network, where 85 percent of students are Black or Hispanic and 68 percent come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Leading Banks on a tour of the school, tucked into the seventh floor of a massive building, Principal Kristina Dvorakovskaya emphasized the connections fostered between teachers and students, starting with home visits over the summer. They stopped to look at a display case with photos of teachers and students taken at their homes.

“This is how you build culture from the very beginning,” Banks said. He said he hoped to share ideas like this with other principals.

“Culture eats curriculum for breakfast,” Dvorakovskaya replied.

Banks floated through the halls with the practiced touch of someone who had been around politics for a long time. He delivered high-fives, snapped selfies and shook hands, holding on for longer than necessary. He listened and watched, and he doled out praise for what he heard and saw.

“Magic is happening every single day,” Banks said.

After more than an hour at the school, Banks headed for the doors, but he was beckoned into one last classroom. A group of students wanted to show off their United Assembly Gateway chant.

“When I say ‘UA,’ you say ‘G!’” a student bellowed.

“UA!”

“G!”

“UA!”

“G!”

“That’s what I’m talking about!” the student leader said with satisfaction.

Banks watched the scene, saw that it was a marker of school pride, of positive culture — the sort of thing that keeps kids excited about school. Opportunity, he believed, was not in short supply, not a scarce resource that parents have to fight over. City schools like this one may not be well known, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t delivering an excellent education.

He gathered with the students, posed for photos and smiled.

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