On May 5th, Bank Street hosted a conversation with renowned educator Deborah Meier as part of its annual Niemeyer Symposium, dedicated to Bank Street’s goal of serving as a national voice for children, beyond practice and into policy.
Deborah, who has spent more than four decades in public education and has played a significant role in founding innovative schools that primarily serve students of color, joined a panel of Bank Street prepared principals to explore the use of progressive practices in public school settings.
To offer attendees greater context for how public schools adopt progressive practices, Bank Street organized a visit to several schools in New York and New Jersey. Lynne Einbender, Bank Street faculty member and co-founder of Newark Educators’ Community Charter School (NECCS), welcomed a group of educators to explore the school. A Bank Street partner school, NECCS is headed by several other alumni including Dina Velez ’05, Principal of NECCS, and Davia Franklyn ’97, Director of Teaching and Learning, who led the visit in a series of small tours throughout the school.
Dina and Davia brought their expertise to NECCS in 2013 with a goal of integrating Bank Street values into a charter school model that teaches the whole child. When Dina entered each classroom during the tour, several students ran up and hugged her. To Dina, it’s equally as important to build trust with parents, and she and Davia both say it is important for them to be present and involved in the daily activities in the classrooms.
“My mornings are dedicated to every family that walks through the door,” Dina said. “I have open conversations with parents on the status of their children.”
Dina and Davia’s education at Bank Street influenced their school’s focus on experiential learning. One classroom had just finished a unit on transportation when the tour group arrived. As part of the study, the class had visited transportation hubs like Newark Penn Station and Newark Airport. At the airport, the kids were thrilled by a spur-of-the-moment opportunity to visit the fire department and try on equipment.
“They also interviewed a New Jersey Transit bus driver,” Dina said. “They asked him questions and their teachers helped them understand his role as a community helper.”
Classrooms at NECCS center on the voice of the child. Kids in one preschool class wanted to create their own car wash as part of a study on vehicles, so their teacher facilitated. Giving children a voice also helps NECCS teachers to manage challenging situations. One class had just finished a stressful lunch period, and certain kids were continuing to act out. The teachers sat them down in a circle, pulled up an easel and asked them what the problem was during lunchtime. They began to settle down and a few raised their hands, ready to participate.
Unfortunately, the Newark public school district traditionally struggles with low high school graduation rates. Children often come from difficult home environments, which can present obstacles for both the children and the educators trying to help them reach their full potential.
“We hold weekly meetings where everyone comes to the table and discusses what’s happening in the classroom,” Davia said. “We talk about all issues in the building. When we go to make decisions, we take feedback from those meetings.”
In the Niemeyer panel discussion that evening, Deborah Meier emphasized the idea of democracy, in both education and on a larger scale. Davia, who participated in the panel, expressed that by giving her students a voice, they have more democratic interactions.
Like the teachers at NECCS, Deborah stressed the importance of building relationships and trust with families during her talk at Bank Street. “Kindergarteners will decide collectively what they want to name their fish,” Davia said. “We let them go through that process and they vote and create names. The experience gives them an opportunity to have a voice, they’re heard, and as a collective, a decision is going to be made.”
“If every day you only met with two families, you wouldn’t ever get around to seeing them all,” Deborah said. “But if you figure out ways in which we can see each other over and over, that will eventually hopefully build some trust.”