This week, I began leading the nation’s largest public school system. A school system that serves more than 1 million students—including, many years ago, me!
I am both excited and honored to take on this role. Not only because I am a New Yorker born and bred, but because education is in my blood. Both my mom and auntie were teachers and between them have 40 years of changing young people’s lives. I became a New York City public school educator because of them, and the amazing teachers I had as a student myself—like Ms. Pearlman, my first grade teacher at P.S. 215, and Mrs. Hulak, Mr. Garrison, and Mr. McCarthy, and my great instructors at Queens Vocational and Technical High School where I studied plumbing.
Over the course of 20 incredible years, I worked as an English teacher, an assistant principal, and then principal. More recently, I served our school communities as a superintendent and Bronx executive superintendent.
But I have to admit, never did I imagine that a youth activist from the Highbridge section of the Bronx would rise to become the first Black woman to serve as Schools Chancellor. This is a milestone, not just for me, but for every child who feels “different” but dares to dream big.
I don’t come into this role wearing rose-colored glasses. I know how challenging the last year has been for all of us. I know just how much our students, families, teachers, school staff, and principals, have sacrificed and suffered. But I also see signs of renewal as more vaccines become available and more sectors of our great city reopen.
I have that same sense of optimism about our schools. As I prepare to welcome our high school students back next week, I want to share my top three priorities for this school year and beyond:
First and foremost, I want to give every student the option to go back into school buildings five days a week starting this fall. I want New Yorkers to know that our buildings are safe and that our schools are ready. We’ve put all the recommended safety and health measures in place, and our schools are one of the safest places in the city to be. I hope to see everyone back full-time come September.
Second, I want to make sure that what we teach reflects students’ lived experiences, including any trauma related to this past year. We are coming back from the hardest year of our lives.
We want all our students to see themselves in their curriculum, their classrooms, and their schools. We will have social-emotional supports in place as well, not only for our students but also for our staff. We are aware that many people will be returning to schools where they’ve lost somebody. They may walk past an office that was once occupied by someone else. They may think about a paraprofessional who supported them or a kitchen worker who gave them an extra lunch every day. So, we will have a dual-pronged approach, addressing both academics and social-emotional learning.
Third, I want to take the lessons we learned during the pandemic into the next school year. As an example, the pandemic forced us to harness technology to create a 21st-century learning experience and we’ve delivered nearly half a million devices into students’ hands. At the same time, it showed us that human interaction is critical; nothing replaces the experience between a kid and a teacher in a classroom. So, I want to bring these two worlds together, using technology to address students’ individual needs—both for those learning full-time in classrooms and those who may wish to continue learning remotely.
To our families, I want to assure you that this will be a collaborative effort, with many opportunities for us to meet and talk. I promise to include your voices and expertise as we finish out this school year and plan for the next.
To our students, as your Chancellor I will continue to dream big on your behalf, and I invite you to dream and achieve alongside me. Lean into your education, dream beyond your wildest imagination—and know that there are no limits, only endless possibilities.
Photo credit: NYC Department of Education