Interviews & Profiles

‘Of course’ NYC schools Chancellor David Banks is concerned about the challenge of educating asylum-seeking children

The chancellor also brushed aside censorship concerns about recent guidance sent to teachers in advance of a walkout in support of Gaza, saying “we’re not trying to silence anybody.”

New York City schools Chancellor David Banks

New York City schools Chancellor David Banks Holly Pretsky

New York City Mayor Eric Adams skipped the annual Somos political conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico, but many of the top officials in his administration were there. That includes his Senior Adviser Ingrid Lewis-Martin, Adviser Diane Savino, Police Commissioner Eddie Caban, Deputy Mayor Sheena Wright and her partner and schools Chancellor David Banks. We caught Banks on Friday afternoon in San Juan, the day after hundreds of New York City public school students walked out of their classrooms to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. The commissioner had previously issued guidance to teachers and staff reminding them about the school system’s policy against sharing personal political views in the classroom. We spoke with Banks just before news broke that the FBI had confiscated Adams’ phones as part of an investigation into his 2021 mayoral campaign.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I’m still catching up, but it seems like a lot of students walked out in support of Gaza.

Yeah, we put out some guidelines for our schools so that they understand how to make this a teachable moment. We don't want our school leaders and our teachers to treat this in a way that expresses their own personal political views, but use this to talk about the issues and both sides and make it a teachable moment. We had about 770 kids across the city who fully participated from our public schools. You know, there were many more people that were there. But in terms of our students who were there, that's the numbers that we have.

And then teachers too?

It was basically after school, we didn't have teachers who were leaving, leaving their duties to do that. So the event really took place after school. Listen, it's an issue that people feel emotional about, on both sides, and one of the things I have encouraged schools, and kids, is that we should be paying attention to the issues that are happening all around us. You don't shy away from it. But you shouldn't bring your own personal views into it. We have to create a safe environment for kids to be able to express themselves. I visited Millennium High School in Brooklyn just the other day. And I visited a Jewish student organization and a Muslim student organization. And they have put out a statement, both of them kind of working together on the issue, which I just thought was wonderful just to see the spirit of collaboration, which says, even if we don't necessarily agree, we don't have to be disagreeable. And I think that's the spirit that we want to see happening across our schools. Let's learn about what's happening there, right? This is such a charged issue. We’re certainly not trying to silence anybody. I saw some folks saying when I put out guidelines, I was like, I was trying to silence people. I’m not trying to silence anybody. We should be engaged in responsible conversation. And that's what a good education experience is all about.

I know there's a lot of huge challenges with the students who are staying in shelters, or just arrived, the asylum-seeking students, and ratcheting back how long they can be in a shelter and a lot of moving around. Logistically, I'm curious just about how you keep those kids in a stable school environment. I'm also curious if you're worried about any more tensions with the school bus drivers, given the logistical complications of busing? 

Yeah I’m worried! Are you kidding me? Of course. You know, if the kids are in a shelter in Queens, and then they wind up with another site in the Bronx, if they have a good school experience where they were, we’re going to do what we can to keep them where they are. But sometimes that's a major challenge. Talking about having kids who are very young, and having them bus all across the city. The most ideal thing is to find a school closer to where they live, there are great schools all over the city. And that's what we're going to do. It's a challenging situation, this migrant issue is a challenge.

I saw a report that there’s a higher percentage of homeless students in New York City than ever before, is that right?

Yeah listen we’re bringing on all these families who, you know, the city has to meet the challenge of trying to find a place for all these folks to live. It's not easy. But if you want to see New York City schools at their best, visit the schools that are taking in these kids. Our schools lead with their heart, their parents, the kids themselves … We call it Project Open Arms. And that's what has been, but it is a challenge. 

Is there a plan to hire more bilingual or English language learning staff?

Well, we made an announcement several months ago about how the state gave us the go-ahead to allow teachers to actually have a English as a new language as a secondary license – so let's say if you're a teacher, you’re social studies, but you have an ENL license, in the past, there were no incentives for you to shift your license, because you were starting all over again. Now, the state has essentially said, you can shift your license, not lose your tenure or anything like that. So we're watching that and seeing how many people are shifting. But it's a challenge. And there’s a few other things that we're still working on. So it's happening in real time. Am I concerned? Sure I’m concerned. It's a real challenge, but I think our schools and our folks are doing a really good job. But the challenge is that the numbers keep coming, folks are continuing to come. And it is going to be a challenge, particularly given the fiscal constraints that we're working with now, it's not going to be easy. 

What do you tell the parents of students who have been going to New York City schools and who are concerned about people coming into their school and that maybe their child’s education would be derailed. 

Oh, yeah, we've not seen that at all right? They should not be concerned, sometimes those are boogeyman tactics that I hear people trying to espouse. These are kids, they’re kids just like everybody else's kids, and these kids – they're like a sponge. They want to learn. They're not presenting problems or challenges. Not in that respect. It's just a fiscal challenge. You know, the resources that are needed. But the kids themselves, the kids are great. They’re wonderful kids.

And the mayor said he's not coming to Somos because there's a lot of crises facing the city. But a lot of you guys (in the administration) came. Do you feel the same way? Are you concerned about the optics of like, being in Puerto Rico when such serious things are going on?

The mayor gave you his response. I generally come to Somos. 

So does he!

Yeah, well, you have to speak to him about why he's not here. I'm going to say that for me that I'm here, not laid out on the beach or anything. I'm here, and I'm doing business. I'm working on making connections. I'm talking to people. A lot of my work is my engagement with elected officials and community leaders. And they're all here. So I get a lot of work done. I'm only here for a couple of days. In fact, I'm heading back tomorrow morning. So I've been taking advantage of moving around and just seeing as many folks as I can. You build relationships while you're here. And it’s certainly very helpful to me, I think ultimately when it's helpful to me, it's helpful to the school system, and that's why I'm here.