In Yonkers, Teachers Leaders Are “The Unit Of Change”: A Report From the Field.

“What if kids who look like me didn’t have to work so hard to navigate an inequitable school system? What if adults were invested in making that navigation possible?”

That’s Tracy Fray-Oliver, Associate Vice President of Bank Street Education Center (part of the Bank Street College of Education in New York City) speaking to a large crowd yesterday at the Networks for School Improvement: One Year Review in College Park, Maryland. This event — a day of panel discussions and TED-like talks on lessons learned during the first year of Gates’ grants of $93 million to 21 organizations in thirteen states — was soul-searching, honest, and passionate. The superintendents, administrators, teachers, and students asked hard questions and didn’t shy from confronting obstacles that get in the way of creating effective learning environments for traditionally-marginalized students.

I attended the conference and spoke with Fray-Oliver. Her reflections on Bank Street’s first year as it attempts to turn around the long-troubled district of Yonkers speaks to the challenges districts confront throughout New York State as well as the rest of the country. 

To Fray-Oliver this work is personal. As a woman of color, the child of immigrants, and a former math teacher, she  believes that turning around schools — particularly middle and high schools — is “doable and essential.” As a child she was placed “mostly in white and gifted spaces with people who didn’t look like me and going back to places they didn’t go back to.” She sees these challenges in the many districts she’s worked with and finds that improving student outcomes aligns with the mission of social justice. “Yes, we do data processes and run tests,” she says. “But we also must look through the lens of child development, especially as it intersects with race and culture.”

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Like other Gates grantees, Bank Street aims to incorporate continuous learning in order to improve outcomes for minority and low-income students. In Yonkers, among the 25,350 students, 84% are Black or Latino and 80% are economically-disadvantaged. While the district has seen slow improvement — Yonkers is the first of New York State’s Big 5 city school districts to hit the 80% graduation rate  — Bank Street is targeting its efforts on 8th grade math levels because, Fray-Oliver told me, achieving proficiency at that level is a benchmark for success in high school and beyond. In 2018 69% of Black 8th graders were rated Level 1 in math, the lowest on a scale of 1-4, and 55% of Latino students were at Level 1.

Where does one start? With the teachers, says Fray-Oliver. The key to improving student outcomes on scale, not only within Yonkers but throughout the country, is all about instruction.

Bank Street is not a newcomer to this work. With an earlier grant from Gates, the Center led an instruction improvement initiative with schools in Syracuse, Rochester, Utica, and Yonkers. Now Bank Street is honing in on 10 middle schools in Yonkers and leveraging its previous work to really nail down growth. ”What makes us different,” Fray-Oliver said, “is that we believe that teacher leaders are the unit of change but the larger ecosystem can get in the way.” To alleviate obstruction “everyone must work together, improve together. You start asking folks to do things differently at every layer.”

I asked her for an example. “Let’s take content knowledge,” she said. “If teachers need different content knowledge then administrators must be on board. Principals have to be involved and provide the professional development. We get into the weeds.” Why is this necessary? “Because we understand that continuous improvement is not only about equity but commitment. We have to dismantle those old structures and focus on students who are historically marginalized. We have to do a lot of racial work around student and teacher mindsets…and examine how these beliefs show up in classrooms every day.” ” She continued, “you also have to be aware that each district has its own culture. Yonkers has a housing segregation crisis that affects the whole city and, thus, the whole school system. We do identity work, think about expectations teachers have for kids, help them unpack their own implicit biases.” (These efforts are aided by input from Bank Street’s Center on Culture, Race, and Equity.)

Another sign of hope is that Bank Street has established a committed partnership with Yonkers Superintendent Dr. Edwin M. Quezada, an immigrant himself who arrived from the Dominican Republic to the Bronx at age 15. Quezada has given Bank Street thorough access and “embedded us in his work,” said Fray-Oliver. He “values our thought partnership,” which creates “a culture of willingness.”

Fray-Oliver expects that the district will start seeing increased growth in 8th-graders’ math skills in Year 3.  When she worked for the New York City Department of Education on implementing Common Core (now renamed “Next Generation Learning Standards”), it took about three years to see meaningful impact on student learning. Bank Street’s work in Yonkers will “organically work its way in,” she says. When teachers are provided meaningful learning experiences, she says, this will result in improved outcomes for kids.

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