As the youngest person to head the Children’s Aid Society in 150 years, Richard Buery Jr., 39, arrived on the scene with a vision of social entrepreneurship. A Brooklyn native, Buery spent his years after Harvard and Yale Law School founding two companies aimed at helping needy children and their families. He spoke candidly about his educational vision for the city’s most vulnerable children, and about how New York’s government is failing to do its part to help those children succeed academically and professionally. What follows is an edited transcript.
City Hall: What’s the biggest difference for you between working for your own start-up and working for a city institution?
Richard Buery: The difference in coming to a place like the Children’s Aid Society is that I’m somewhat of an unknown quantity here. It takes time to build up the kind of trust that I think people kind of take for granted in an organization that you built.
CH: In the past, Children’s Aid has partnered with the Department of Education to create community schools, and now the agency is opening its own school. How did that come about?
RB: What we found in our 20-year-old partnership with the Department of Education is that there are multiple legs to a great school. A great school needs great leadership and instruction. It needs enriching after-school and summer experiences for the children who attend there. And it needs a series of supports for children’s families. The best school can’t teach kids who are too sick to get to school, or whose families are so disruptive that they can’t get to school reliably, or who are too hungry to pay attention once they’re there, or who need glasses and can’t see the blackboard. We think we can create a really unique school, one that is equipped to serve truly all children, including the most vulnerable. We’re actually building our lottery to give preference to young people who’ve been involved in the foster-care system, or who are coming from single-parent households. We really believe that by wedding quality academics to quality enrichment services to intensive social supports for families, we can create a school that gives children all the things they need to be productive citizens and ultimately to be college graduates and productive citizens.
CH: Why a charter school?
RB: We’ve created, in some ways, an unrealistic wall between charter schools and traditional schools. These are all public schools. They are all designed to serve the children of New York City. The question at the end of the day is: Can we build a great school or not? I think we can build great traditional schools, but we can also build great schools through the charter law. And we think that all these options should be available to kids.
CH: Are you opening your own facility, or are you taking space in an existing facility?
RB: We don’t know if we’ll be in our own building. That’s certainly a possibility. The school will be opened in the Morrisania neighborhood in the South Bronx, and we will be leveraging a lot of resources that we already provide in that community. Our job is to make sure that we’re able to provide access to all these supports, whether it’s in the building itself or whether it’s a block or two blocks away.
CH: Do you see this school as the first of many?
RB: We certainly know that in all the neighborhoods we work in, children need quality educational options. If we’re successful in doing this in Morrisania, we absolutely would see ourselves building these kinds of resources in other communities where we work, as well.
CH: Do you see yourself as breaking away from the Department of Education by creating your own school?
RB: No, absolutely not. At the end of the day most children in New York City are going to attend traditional public schools. I feel strongly about working with traditional public schools, but I also see charter public schools as a part of our portfolio services that we offer neighborhoods.
CH: Do you have teaching experience?
RB: I did spend a year earlier in my life teaching at an orphanage school in Zimbabwe. But I’m a lawyer by training, and I’ve spent most of my career building and running nonprofit organizations. I do come from teacher stock. My mom is a 33-year veteran of the DOE. Education has always been in my blood. It’s always been a passion of mine.
CH: At what point did you realize that working with kids was going to be your career?
RB: I knew in college. That’s where I really fell in love with the idea of being a social entrepreneur, of creating a situation that could make the story that I had, growing up in a place like East New York, less an exception and more the norm for people in communities like that. Really, it’s my chance to make my contribution to the American dream. When faced with injustice, when faced with inequality, you can sit there and complain about it and read about it and think about it, but you can also do something about it.
CH: You’ve come under fire a bit for proposing to close some Children’s Aid programs in wealthier areas like Greenwich Village, saying the agency needs to focus on poorer areas. Can you talk about that a little bit?
RB: Our mission is to serve the most vulnerable kids in New York City. And to do that, we have to be focused. We have to focus every dollar, every bit of our energy, every bit of our mental energy, on children who need us the most. It’s a difficult call, but it’s an obvious one.
CH: You’ve proposed reinstating a personal income-tax surcharge to fund programs like yours. What do you envision?
RB: When David Dinkins was mayor he enacted a personal income-tax surcharge to finance the hiring of 4,000 new police officers—the “Safe Streets, Safe City” program. We need that same kind of investment today, for the children of New York City.
CH: What kind of effect do you think that would have on Children’s Aid services?
RB: This country has never really stood up to a promise, the idea that wherever you come from, wherever you started, doesn’t have to define where you end up. Today our children are far more likely than they were 30 years ago to remain in the socioeconomic class into which they were born. This isn’t American. And it’s bad public policy. We understand that we have to cut back and we have to be efficient and I’m all for those things, but we also know you can’t get something for nothing.
CH: What can city government do?
RB: I do commend the mayor and the speaker and the Council for working so hard to restore some of the cuts they’ve restored, but as much as they’ve done, they just haven’t done enough. Citizens should have to understand what it means when you don’t raise taxes on the wealthy and only cut. We constantly tell a story that makes people think things are okay when they’re not really okay. I think if people understand what’s really happening, they’ll make good choices. But we have to start by telling the truth.
CH: How would you propose increasing transparency in local government?
RB: At the end of the day, when the city puts out a budget, it’s not just numbers on a spreadsheet. It’s a statement of values about what is important, what’s critical and what’s expendable. We need to have an actual debate in the city about what matters to us, what we’re willing to give up and what’s important to invest in.
CH: What are your interests when you’re not working?
RB: My interests when I’m not working are named Deborah, Ellis and Ethan, and those are my wife and my two sons, who are 7 and 5. And if you think social media is hard, try to figure out how to be a good dad. It’s a whole lot harder.
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