LISTEN: An exclusive interview with schools Chancellor David Banks

An adult man in a blue suit sits in the middle of student high school students at a wooden desk while two other high school students stand in the back all posing for a portrait.
New York City schools Chancellor David Banks poses for a portrait with The Bell journalists. (Jose Nunez Guzman / NYC Department of Education)

In this special episode of P.S. Weekly, student reporters Shoaa Khan and Jose Santana spoke to Chancellor David Banks about a range of issues facing the city’s schools — from efforts to expand how Black history is taught in the classroom, to the harms of social media, and the continued use of academic screening in the high school admissions process.

Banks, who oversees New York City’s sprawling school system, emphasized the importance of the “Hidden Voices: Stories of the Global African Diaspora” curriculum that the city unveiled in February.

It’s one of several curriculums to come out of the city’s Hidden Voices initiative — Banks signaled more loom on the horizon.

“We’ve got others coming up for the Latino community,” he said. “We’re working on several others as well, particularly in light of what’s going on right now in the Middle East and what’s happening in Israel and Gaza.”

And as New York City’s schools have remained among the most segregated in the nation, Banks touched on the difficulties of implementing integration efforts, particularly as families remain fiercely divided over practices like academic screening.

“It’s a complicated issue,” he said. “For me, I have not spent a lot of time on it because I recognize that as chancellor, you can’t do everything. … The major issue for me has been around how do I ensure that no matter where you are, that you have a good school experience, you learn to read well, you learn to think critically, and you can have a great life for yourself.”

Listen to the full episode to hear his thoughts on academic screening, student mental health, cell phone usage in schools, and even his upcoming podcast.

P.S. Weekly is available on major podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Be sure to drop a review in your app or shoot an email to PSWeekly@chalkbeat.org. Tell us what you learned today or what you’re still wondering. We just might read your comment on a future episode.

P.S. Weekly is a collaboration between Chalkbeat and The Bell. Listen for new episodes Wednesdays this spring.


Read the full episode transcript below

Shoaa Khan: Can I hold it?

Sanaa Stokes: Yeah.

Shoaa Khan: Hey, everyone. So we’re going up the stairs to Tweed Courthouse, and, I’m here with Sanaa, and Santana, and Jose, and I’m super nervous. Super quiet, super pretty. Looks like a castle, and I’m nervous.

Santana Roach: We’re currently walking down some really beautiful architectural stairs. It’s quite...

Sanaa Stokes: In this special episode of P.S. Weekly, a few of us went down to the Tweed Courthouse in lower Manhattan, where New York City’s Department of Education is headquartered, to talk to the person who makes decisions on the issues we talk about on this podcast every week.

Chancellor David Banks: All right, you ready? All right. My name is David Banks. I’m a proud product of the New York City public school system, and I currently serve as chancellor of the New York City public schools.

Santana Roach: For those of you who don’t know Chancellor Banks, he was appointed by Mayor Eric Adams in January 2022. In simple terms, he’s the head of the Department of Education for the City of New York. He oversees policies for the largest school system in the nation.

Sanaa Stokes: When we first started this podcast, we knew we wanted to speak to Chancellor Banks, considering his powerful position at the DOE. We were very excited that he agreed to meet with us. As New York City high school students, we asked him questions about things that matter to us, like the new Hidden Voices curriculum, which elevates diverse stories, often left out of the history books.

Santana Roach: Academic screening for selective high school admissions.

Sanaa Stokes: And interestingly enough, his future podcast.

Santana Roach: We talked about all sorts of topics with Chancellor Banks, including some breaking news.

Chancellor David Banks: I’ve never said this to anybody. I love pajamas. Like when I’m done at the end of the night, I have to go to all kinds of events. I’m a pajama guy. I love to put on nice, warm, comfortable pajamas.

Sanaa Stokes: You’re listening to Pierce weekly. The sound of the New York City school system. I’m Sanaa Stokes, a junior at the Professional Performing Arts High School.

Santana Roach: And I’m Santana Roach, a senior at Frederick Douglass Academy.

Sanaa Stokes: So here’s an edited version of the interview led by our fellow student reporters Shoaa Khan and Jose Santana.

Shoaa Khan: Good morning. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. Let’s get started. So we would like to know more about your Hidden Voices curriculum. This is something that you’re really passionate about. Your announcement comes at a time where schools are trying to restrict what we learn about race. So what is your message to New York City students and teachers and others around the country about why this curriculum matters?

Chancellor David Banks: My message to teachers, administrators, students all around the nation is that to have a real education, you must be exposed to the contributions of many different cultures. And I’m thrilled. We just recently announced, as part of our Hidden Voices initiative, the Global African Diaspora curriculum. That really is all about the contributions of Black folks inAmerica and to the world, and that the history of Black people did not start at slavery in the United States, but that we have a history that goes back thousands of years. And the hidden voice is really our profiles on a wide range of different individuals in history where we were able to teach you about history, sometimes through the lens of some of these people, most of whom you’ve never heard of. And so that’s why I’m excited about Hidden Voices. We —we’ve already launched Hidden Voices for the Asian American Pacific Islander community.

Chancellor David Banks: We’ve launched Hidden Voices, for the LGBTQ community because it’s really important that everybody have an idea and understanding around these communities. We’ve just launched one now for the global African diaspora. We’ve got others coming up for the Latino community, and we’re working on several others as well, particularly in light of what’s going on right now in the Middle East and what’s happening in Israel and Gaza and that war. It’s really important for more of our kids to have a deeper understanding about Jewish history and the Holocaust, because I think when you understand that and you appreciate what the Jewish community has gone through, you have a different level of respect and understanding. Similarly, those of, Muslim background and the Palestinian cause, it’s important to understand what their history is and what their contributions have been to the world and to this nation. And so, yes, we have a message to send to the nation that exposure to history is critically important to the building of the consciousness and of the mind.

Shoaa Khan: So, is there some kind of system or how are you going to, like, measure how much impact this has had in schools?

Chancellor David Banks: You know, we’ve got certain measures that we have in place now, just with respect to some of the assessments that we give to our kids. And any of these curriculum that we roll out have their own kind of built in assessments that are tied to that. But I think much more broadly than just exams that are given in school, I think about a societal impact. I think about how do we reduce a level of hate and ignorance in our nation and in our world? When I go and I visit schools and I see kids who lock arms, who have-- who come from very different cultures, very different backgrounds, and have an appreciation for one another, that’s how I see an overarching assessment. It’s greater than a test that you would take in class. But ultimately the greatest assessment is how we change society and how we get young people to be more accepting of one another. That’s what I’m pushing for.

Shoaa Khan: So how should us as students advocate for change and what we want to see in the curriculum?

Chancellor David Banks: I, you know, listen, some of these things that we’ve put into the curriculum, into hidden voices and a passport for social studies. Which, lifting up a lot of these issues, are coming directly from our students and our teachers. I mean, they are the ones that have been raising it to us to tell us this is what we think we need for our experience. I’m a big believer in student voice. You know, a lot of kids who are experiencing serious challenges with their own mental health. And so one of the things that we did, working with the New York City Department of Health, they recently announced the formation of something called Teen Space, which is a mental health initiative where high school kids who are going through some things, maybe suffering from some form of depression or mental challenge, can call and get real support in real time. This is a new initiative, and that’s coming from kids who kept saying that to us. I visited so many schools and kids would tell me mental health is such a huge issue.

Chancellor David Banks: So keep lifting your voices. I remember when I was in high school, I led a walk-out at high school, and I marched everybody out of the back door to a building. I remember when I got outside, I said, “Okay, now what am I supposed to do?” And hundreds of kids followed me outside. And I remember the assistant principal came over to me and said, “if you would have just asked for a meeting, we would have met with you and discussed all of this.” See, so sometimes, just do that. Show up at public forums. We have something called the Panel for Educational Policy. We have those meetings every month, and we talk about real issues of the day. There are not a lot of kids who show up for that. But if students started showing up for that, you’d be amazed how much your voice would really be heard. We look to hear the voices of young people. So a lot of ways to do that.

Shoaa Khan: Yeah. So this is kind of on a different branch. But according to the UCLA Civil Rights Project, New York has the nation’s most segregated school system today. So how do you feel about that?

Chancellor David Banks: I think there’s a lot of research that says that the more integrated school experiences that you can create for kids, the better it is for them. They get exposed to different cultures, much like what I talked about a little bit earlier, exposure, learning about other people, making new friends with people who have different cultures is really a good thing. The challenge in a place like New York is creating those systems, because many of our kids and families live in very segregated places. So while the city is diverse, we’re diverse in that we have so many people who live here from different places, but many of them live in isolation from each other, and then they go to school in isolation. Thus, integration is a good thing. It’s a serious challenge to implement, and we have some districts in the city which have done this district 15. Brooklyn has done a great job with some of their integration efforts. There’s been a wide range of resistance to that as well. So yeah, it’s a complicated issue. And for me, I’ve not spent a lot of time on it because I recognize that as chancellor, you can’t do everything. Generally when people were asking about integration efforts, historically, that question was about how do you get more black kids into predominantly white schools? That’s historically what I meant, because that was what my experience was.

Chancellor David Banks: I grew up in southeast Queens, in pretty much all Black neighborhoods, and everybody was trying to go to better school districts and the better school districts, quote unquote, really meant going to the more whiter, more affluent neighborhoods because those schools seemed like they had everything. I’m trying to make sure that wherever you happen to be your district, your neighborhood has all the great stuff that anybody else has. In New York City, I asked people, I said, “What’s the percentage of students who are Black students who go to New York City public schools?” Most people tell me, “I don’t know, 50%, 40, 50, 60%.” It’s only 24%, and it’s dropping every day. It’s very different than it was years ago. White students in New York City public schools is only 15% and dropping every day. So the two Black and white, historically who made up the school system, are the ones who are in decline. And the groups that are on the upswing are Asian and Latino. Asian is 17% and growing, and Latino is 41%, and climbing significantly every day.

Chancellor David Banks: So we’ve got to be clear also about when we say diversity and integration. Who are we talking about? But the major issue for me has been around how do I ensure that no matter where you are, that you have a good school experience, you learn to read well, you learn to think critically and you can have a great life for yourself? I think an integrated school helps in that, but it’s a human’s task to kind of get to that place. And while we’re doing that, that I can help to deliver so that they can-- they can have a great, great school experience.

Santana Roach: We’re going to take a quick break, but stick around for the rest of this interview with Chancellor David Banks.

Shoaa Khan: We hope you’re enjoying listening to P.S. Weekly as much as we enjoy making it. We spend a lot of time after school planning each episode, setting up and conducting interviews, cutting the tape, writing scripts. It’s a long process and totally worth it. But here’s the thing. We don’t have a bunch of money or millions of followers, so we’re counting on you, loyal listener, to help us get the word out. So take a few seconds and send this link wherever you’re listening to three friends so they too can enjoy P.S. Weekly. Thanks for your support!

Sanaa Stokes: Welcome back! Our weekly reporters have been speaking with Chancellor David Banks. Let’s get back into it.

Shoaa Khan: So you mentioned integration a lot. And, you know, I think as high schoolers, we can all kind of speak on this, that a lot of segregation happens because of, like, the high school admissions process. Like, for example, the academic screening; students are separated based on their GPAs or their seventh-grade GPAs. So we are curious, like, why do you support this kind of process?

Chancellor David Banks: Well, to the contrary. One of the things that we have been working to do here is, to reduce the amount of separation that happens as a result of these kinds of screens. When you look at the specialized high schools as an example, there’s not a lot that I could do about that. You know, schools like Bronx Science, Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech. Their admissions policies are really determined by the state, not by me. And even in the administration prior to my coming here, as they sought to try to change that, tremendous resistance from families who said, “We want to maintain those academic screens”. And you’ve got to understand and appreciate that everybody does not have the same opinion. You know, and sometimes I talk to people and there’s almost a righteous indignation because they have their opinion. It’s strong and they don’t understand why you would see it any way differently than they would. Well, the reality is that this– this is New York City and people have lots of different opinions. I try to honor as many of their voices as I can possibly do. I see that as my role, not to impress upon them what I think, that somehow my opinion is greater than theirs. No, I try to facilitate honest dialogue and honor the voices of everybody.

Shoaa Khan: So I think I’m going to pass it to Jose now.

Jose Santana: We’re going to go to some additional topics we have. One of them is school start times. Last year I reported a story about school start times, and I found that lack of sleep is a major, not just physical, but mental health issue for teens across the nation. And the sleep experts I spoke to all agree that high schools in particular should start later. So would you consider a policy to push start times back as other cities and states have done?

Chancellor David Banks: I absolutely will consider it. I’m making a note of it right now. The research is very solid, particularly for older students like yourself, the high school students. Getting in a little later start, even an extra hour where you get that extra hour of sleep, is important. Now here’s the challenge for it, because there are lots of conditions that are in place. If we start school later for the students, that means we’re starting school later for the teachers as well. Many of them would say, “We think it’s a good idea,” and many of them would say, “That doesn’t work for us.” Because school is not just about the kids. You can’t have a school without students, but you also can’t have a school without teachers. So there are lots of these kinds of things that have, because this has come up before as something for us to look at. The science is very clear. Giving high school kids more sleep time is better for their brains. Thus, the reason I wrote it down again. I want to take another look at this and try to push on this a little bit more. I think every high school student across the city would be thrilled if we said, high schools are going to start like an hour, an hour and a half later than what we typically start now.

Jose Santana: Appreciate that. Yeah, and I’ve also looked at research that shows that the teachers themselves would benefit in terms of sleep from a later start time.

Chancellor David Banks: Send me some of your research, too. I’d like to see what you’ve come up with already. I think what I can do certainly is to share the science with all the schools, encourage folks to try to get started later, start to have conversations with our union partners, our labor partners, and, say, “Let’s see if we can have a framework that pushes back a later start times for high schools.” And let’s see. But we would even then, we would still need to have community hearings. We’d have to hear from other parents as well. A lot of people that that would affect. So there are a lot of issues here, but it’s certainly an issue worth taking a look at for sure, Jose.

Jose Santana: All right. So the mayor has spoken repeatedly about the harms of social media and phones on teenagers. And the health department is recommending that students not have a phone until the age of 14. Are you considering a city-wide policy to restrict phone usage in schools?

Chancellor David Banks: We’re taking a look at all of it right now? I would really love to know what you guys think about that. And so we’re gonna have to create some real forums, with young people to hear directly from them about this, because that’s a huge issue. There’s a lot of research that’s coming in now. It’s still coming in about social media, the access to social media, that the brain almost needs a break from it. Some kids are fully addicted to their phones. The question is, now what can we do about it? I would imagine there would be a tremendous amount of pushback from kids if we were to try to take their phones during the day, but you say, is it a fight worth having if we ultimately look at the science and say, the science says it’s going to be better for you. But I don’t know yet, so I’ve not made any decision on it. I’m just starting to look at it, and maybe you all can help me and think about how we can do a forum with young people and kind of hear their opinions.

Jose Santana: Absolutely. Yeah, I know in my school, from what I’ve seen, students want their phones all the time. And my school actually used to have yonder pouches, but they don’t have it anymore because of the difficulties that were in place in my school. But if you were a principal today, what would be your direct take?

Chancellor David Banks: So I would talk to students, I would talk to parents, and then I would talk to teachers. And collectively seeing what the feedback would be from that, and then trying to make the best decision going forward. I couldn’t tell you right now what that decision would be.

Jose Santana: Yeah. Appreciate that.

Shoaa Khan: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you. Those are all the questions that we have. We hear that you’ve been planning, reporting a podcast, or working on a podcast. So when is that coming out?

Chancellor David Banks: We haven’t really started yet, so they keep telling me it’s coming soon. But we have the studio, we got all the equipment. It’s ready to roll. But this is the best podcast that I’ve done. But I’m hoping that we can get going because I think a lot of people would probably listen and want to know what the Chancellor’s thinking. And it’s not just for me.

More than that, it’d probably be me interviewing and speaking to a wide range of other people. Some students, some teachers, some parents, but some cultural icons who are out here, people in the music industry and hip hop industry. And you know, who’s your favorite teacher and how did school shape you? Business leaders, lots of people. So we have lots of ideas and we have a lot of stuff laid out. We just haven’t started yet.

All right. We’re good.

Santana Roach: Thank you so much.

Chancellor David Banks: Thank you. You’re fantastic. Wow.

Shoaa Khan: Thank you.

Sanaa Stokes: Well, there you have it, our conversation with Chancellor David Banks. Is there anything that stood out to you about the conversation, Santana?

Santana Roach: Yeah. I think when he was emphasizing the importance of student voice and advocacy, it was really powerful and really interesting to hear that, especially coming from Chancellor Banks himself.

Sanaa Stokes: I thought it was really awesome to see how much he supported us and the work that we’re doing through P.S. Weekly. I also thought it was really interesting when he said that he’d look into further research about pushing back school start times.

Santana Roach: I think a lot of students would appreciate later school start times.

Sanaa Stokes: I know I would.

Santana Roach: Before we go, here’s the Chalkbeat bulletin with news you may have missed over spring break.

Alex Zimmerman: I’m Alex Zimmerman, a reporter from Chalkbeat. Here’s a recap of the week’s biggest education stories.

Mayor Eric Adams released a budget proposal that will save several education programs that were on the chopping block. The mayor will maintain funding for hundreds of social workers, an expansion of preschool for three-year-olds, internship and career preparation programs, and other initiatives that were paid for with about 500,000,001 federal dollars. The Education Department’s budget would still be about 2.4% smaller next year because the city is not replacing all of the federal money that is expiring. A final budget must be negotiated with the City Council by July 1st.

Adams will also continue mayoral control of the city schools for the next two years, a deal that was struck between the governor and lawmakers in the state budget.

Finally, a new report by the city comptroller found that 560 public schools took on water during Tropical Storm Ophelia last September, far more than previously known.

To stay up to date on local education news throughout the week, go to chalkbeat.org/newsletters and sign up for the New York Daily Roundup.

Santana Roach: That’s our show for today. We’re back next week with a special episode in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week.

Sanaa Stokes: Until then, class dismissed.

CREDITS

Sanaa Stokes: P.S. Weekly is a collaboration between The Bell and Chalkbeat, made possible by generous support from the Pinkerton Foundation, the Summerfield Foundation, FJC, and Hindenburg Systems. This special episode was hosted by me, Sanaa Stokes.

Santana Roach: And me, Santana Roach. We were also producers for this episode, along with.

Shoaa Khan: Shoaa Khan.

Santana Roach: And...

Jose Santana: Jose Santana

Santana Roach: With reporting help from Chalkbeat reporter [Julian Shen Barrow] and [Alex Zimmerman].

Sanaa Stokes: Our executive producer for the show is [JoAnn DeLuna].

Santana Roach: Executive editors are [Amy Zimmer] And [Taylor McGraw]. Additional production and reporting support was provided by [Sabrina DuQuesnay], [Mira Gordon], and our friends at Chalkbeat.

Sanaa Stokes: Special thanks to our interns [Miriam Galicia] and [Makenna Turner]. Music from Bluedot sessions.

Santana Roach: Thanks for tuning in.

Sanaa Stokes: See you next time.

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