Bank Street Supporters Gather for Centennial Trustees’ Dinner

On May 9th, Bank Street supporters gathered at the American Museum of Natural History for the College’s Centennial Trustees’ Dinner, a celebratory evening dedicated to helping raise awareness and support of Bank Street’s many initiatives influencing positive change in the world of education. The event honored Vincent Mai, CEO and Chairman of the Cranemere Group and philanthropist whose efforts focus on advancing early childhood education and development.

After mingling over a cocktail hour, guests enjoyed a meal and the evening’s program, which included remarks by dinner co-chair and master of ceremonies Richard Parsons, several speakers from the Bank Street community, and honoree Mai. The evening also featured a video presentation highlighting 100 years of Bank Street’s impact in helping children and teachers meaningfully connect learning and teaching to the outside world.

During the program, Shael Polakow-Suransky spoke about Bank Street’s progressive approach to education:

Vincent Mai with his three grandchildren Theo, Jessie, and Lucy Mitnick, who attend the Bank Street School for Children.
Vincent Mai with his three grandchildren Theo, Jessie, and Lucy Mitnick, who attend the Bank Street School for Children.

I’m proud to be with you tonight and I want to thank a number of people who have made this special evening possible: our Board Chair Yolanda Ferrell-Brown, for her leadership and our entire Board for their vision and steadfast support; my team and our faculty—with a special thanks to Sonja and her staff for putting this evening together; Jenny and Joan for sharing their stories; the Museum of Natural History, for hosting us this evening; our honoree, Vincent Mai; my wife Cynthia for her love and support; and I want to thank each of you for being here tonight.

As an interesting year in education comes to a close—a year focused on discipline policies and school segregation, a year where tens of thousands opted out of testing, and a year of more questions than answers on education policy—I want to talk with you tonight about what makes Bank Street – Bank Street.

Amidst the various fads and trends in education, we’ve been taking a progressive approach – that aims to serve the whole child and the whole adult, and we’ve been doing it now for 100 years

What we’ve been doing – is as simple as it is rare, especially in this day and age, and especially during this election season.

We’ve been listening.

We’ve been teaching educators to really listen to children, to observe them and understand what they’re telling us, and what they might need as a next step developmentally

We’re not imposing some framework on children and trying to manage children from the top down. You likely know from your own experience at home how challenging that kind of effort can become…

Instead, what we’re doing is listening and observing, to understand children’s strengths, and using those strengths to build from and help our students get to their next step.

Vincent Mai, Lucy Mitnick, Shael Polakow-Suransky, Yolanda Ferrell-Brown, and Richard Parsons
Vincent Mai, Lucy Mitnick, Shael Polakow-Suransky, Yolanda Ferrell-Brown, and Richard Parsons

To understand a child’s strengths, an adult needs to understand her own strengths and be able to use her whole self, to call on her emotional intelligence and her pedagogical background, to help children grow.

What does this actually look like on a daily basis?

I received an email a few months ago from a parent here tonight – he wanted to share an experience his daughter was having at our School for Children.

It was the same the week the New York Times posted a video of a seven year old child at Success Academy who was humiliated by her teacher for failing to correctly explain a math problem.

His daughter’s teacher, Lila Mortimer, who is a Bank Street alum, had emailed him about his daughter’s progress in math. Lila wrote:

Thank you so much for reaching out about this. I have also noticed Jenny feeling some upset and frustration during math, especially toward the end of last week and the beginning of this week as we have begun investigating two digit comparison and unknown change problems. She has had very little confidence in her ability to solve these problems, even though she is more than capable of this thinking. Her emotions were getting in the way of her thought process. I have spent a good amount of time near Jenny the past few days. Just my proximity, and my pointing out the connections and understandings she had made, seem to be lessening these negative feelings. I have also asked her to move away from using a 100s chart, which isn’t the best tool for this kind of problem solving, and move towards other tools such as open number lines (a number line that you decide what numbers to put on it based on the calculations you’re doing). 

I am happy to say that yesterday and today seem to have been the start of a turning point for her! As Jenny has had more exposure to these big ideas, and grappled with the meaning of these problems, she has started to solidify her understanding of what she’s doing and has realized how powerful using an open number line is in solving these equations. She even expressed that she’s figured out a way that makes sense and feels easy to her- adding up to solve a subtraction problem. She had a few “ah-ha” moments during work times yesterday and today, and chose to work on math even when she had other appealing options this afternoon. I have been happy to see that she’s sharing her work with me and peers with more confidence, and want to keep supporting this.

This exchange powerfully captures the Bank Street approach. There’s a focus on a child’s individual development, an exploration of the connection between emotional needs and cognitive needs, and there’s a clear effort on behalf of the teacher to address both. By using her pedagogical experience, by calling on her physical presence and emotional cues, she’s reaching that child in the best way possible and she found the time to document this and share it with Jenny’s parents.

This is what academic quality and rigor looks like in a Bank Street classroom.

Mollie Welsh Kruger, Jennie Taco, Joan Odusanya, and Susie Rollander
Mollie Welsh Kruger, Jennie Taco, Joan Odusanya, and Susie Rollander

So that’s the good news. There’s a great deal to be proud of in terms of how we are serving our community. And as we expand our elementary school-age students next year, adding another section of kindergarteners, we will be able to serve a larger community, and that’s fantastic.

But here’s the rub. There are about 180,000 five- and six-year-olds in New York City. About 30 percent of them—or 48,000 kindergarteners—are growing up in poverty.

Young people growing up in poverty are more likely to have traumatic childhood experiences. Brain research is telling us that if a child has more than four adverse experiences—whether that is a type of abuse, neglect, hunger, or witnessing an act of violence—a child’s chance of developmental delay is 50 percent. If a child has six adverse experiences, the chance is 90 percent. By 18 months of age, children living in poverty are already an average of six months behind in language skill development.

So to me, as we look toward our next 100 years, the question is what becomes of the tens of thousands of children starting school each year who are living with the toxic impacts of poverty? How can we expand access to the high-quality holistic education that we provide? What is our role?

More to the point, what is our responsibility?

At the heart of all our work is a deep value that we must know children well. But we also need schools and school systems that trust, nurture, and empower educators. We need to make space for teachers to listen to children and study the work they produce in order to develop learning experiences that are lively, engaging, and tuned to each child’s needs.

In our 100th year, we have begun to take ambitious steps towards this goal. We have launched new work across the country, partnering with states and school districts, from Louisiana to Cleveland, New Haven to Minneapolis, Syracuse to Newark. In each instance we bring our values, deep expertise, and a strategy to build capacity that empowers educators and transforms learning for thousands of children. In New York City alone, we are currently reaching 6,000 pre-k classrooms and over 125,000 children.

Tonight you heard from of two of our graduate students who are part of a new program in the Bronx to make our master’s degree accessible to educators working with the City’s most vulnerable children.

BronxWorks, our partner in this effort, is a human service organization located on the Grand Concourse about five miles from here.

In this part of the Bronx, 55 percent of children live below the poverty line. Compare that to the 3 percent here on the Upper West Side.

When I visited Jenny and Joan’s class at BronxWorks a couple of weeks ago, I was moved by the stories that students shared of how their work was rippling out and impacting their families, their colleagues, and most importantly their children. They told me they were beginning to see their students differently and in turn finding ways to engage some of their most challenging kids. These students are now beginning to fall in love with learning.

The result of this partnership is that the quality of early childhood education in some of our city’s most underserved communities is changing, and changing for the better.

As we look ahead, these are the types of projects that we are looking to expand.

Last year at this dinner, I described how we were taking a very serious look at launching an Early Childhood Research Center with a particular focus on infants and toddlers. This year, I am humbled by the generosity of Lynn Straus to make this important research center a reality, and I am proud to announce that we have hired Dr. Sharon Ryan, who is with us tonight, as the inaugural director. Dr. Ryan is an accomplished professor and researcher at Rutgers University, who will help us build an evidence base that will inform our early childhood practice and mobilize resources across the country to scale models that truly support young children and their families. 

Moving forward, we aim to take the Straus Center’s research findings and partner with more early childhood education providers in communities across the city. For example, we are in the early stages of a new effort that we believe can impact the life trajectory of infants and toddlers—by offering free coaching and classes to caregivers working in daycare centers in the city’s highest poverty neighborhoods.

Make no mistake—the stakes are high, and our aims are ambitious.  Bank Street can stay true to the extraordinary work it has led for the last 100 years while also engaging more of the city, more of the state, and more of the country in our rigorous, playful and reflective practice.

And, if successful, we will develop a cadre of educational programs first around the city, and then around the country, that will help close the achievement gap before it starts.