Welcome Back to School!

In other years and other under different circumstances, I can imagine my Back-to-School letter beginning with sentiments along the lines of “As I prepare to transition from the serenity of summer to the hustle and bustle of the new school year” or “Greetings from the relatively tranquil environs of 610 West 112th Street,” but alas these sentiments and this summer are not a fit. For one, after 25 years of living in New England and 14 years as a leader at my previous school, I am for the first time calling myself a New Yorker. I officially began at Bank Street on July 1. My husband Todd and our two sons migrated south a month later. As a sign of our NYC greenness, and the fact that we have only ever lived in single-family homes, the boys keep referring to our apartment as the “hotel.”

Furthermore, Bank Street College has been anything but quiet this summer, with Phase One of the building renovations in full force (don’t worry; we are opening on time!), the entirety of the Children’s Program leadership team squirreled away in intimate quarters on the 7th floor, and the beginning of my ascent along a steep learning curve. What’s more, I am deeply troubled by the unprecedented tenor of vitriol, name-calling, and divisiveness that seems to have gripped our nation. And yet, in spite of all of these sources of disorientation, I have never before been more energized or motivated, as the work we are doing—in the context of Bank Street’s longstanding commitment to progressive education—is just what our children, and the world, need for us to do.

As I indicated in the spring, as a new leader in a proud and reflective community, I see Order of Business #1 as listening deeply to the voices, stories, and perspectives of those who have occupied this space for a lot longer than I. In this spirit, I have spent much of the summer on a “Listening Tour”—capturing feedback from many Bank Street stakeholders, past and present, in the form of four open-ended questions: “What are we doing that works,” “What are we doing that could be working better,” “What aren’t we doing that we should be doing,” and lastly, “What are we doing that we don’t know why we’re doing?” After gathering additional input over the next several months, in the late fall/early winter, I plan to play back my findings—both the emerging patterns and themes as well as points of divergence—with the community. From these conversations, I am hopeful that we will emerge with some clear and shared strategic priorities that will help guide our decision-making and resource allocation in the years to come. Without these, we run the risk of trying to be all things to all people all the time, never a good recipe for a community that is committed to the value of depth over breadth.

One priority that has already emerged from my conversations with faculty and leaders is the desire to improve the practice of supervision and feedback. To this end, the School for Children leadership team has embarked upon a yearlong inquiry into how we can best support our colleagues, and each other, via ongoing dialogue and feedback that is credible, audible, and actionable. Through a series of four workshops and guided practice based on their recently-published book, Tell Me So I Can Hear You: A Developmental Approach to Feedback for Educators, Dr. Eleanor Drago-Severson of Columbia’s Teachers College and Dr. Jessica-Blum DeStefano, an instructor in our own Graduate School, will be facilitating our learning. The enthusiasm and conviction with which school leaders are embarking upon this endeavor is testament to one of Bank Street’s greatest assets; we are, in the truest sense, a community of learners, exhibiting the “lively intellectual curiosities that turn the world into an exciting laboratory” that Lucy Sprague Mitchell, Bank Street’s founder, envisioned in her Credo.

Speaking of learning, the events of this summer have afforded me an opportunity to delve deeply into Bank Street’s beliefs about and approaches to teaching about diversity, social justice, and equity. Indeed one of the hallmarks of progressive schooling is that educating children to understand and embrace their own and others’ identities and to live their lives in service of the greater good is just as important as supporting children to develop traditional academic knowledge and skills. Taking this work on in earnest and with integrity is no small task (and not always popular), which is why only a handful of schools choose to do so. It is also one of the many reasons that I am so attracted to and excited about being at Bank Street—as both a parent and an educator. In this community, children are taught to see and confront injustice, to be upstanders (people who recognize when something is wrong and act to make it right) rather than bystanders, and to engage difference through curiosity, decency, and respect.

One of my many takeaways from this summer’s New York Post articles about Bank Street’s Racial Justice and Advocacy (RJA) curriculum is that we, as adults, have real work to do to live into the values that we are teaching our children. While I generally appreciate when issues and problems rise to the surface rather than fester underground, in no way do I believe that secretly recording meetings or going to the press to expose concerns about our curriculum is a helpful or healthy course of action. One of the foundations of community is trust, and as we embark upon this school year, I appeal to all of us to summon our best selves, to apply Lucy’s call for “gentleness combined with justice when passing judgments on other human beings,” and when we disagree (which as we strive to live democratically, we can and must do), to do so in a manner that does not fracture our community.

I was recently speaking with a friend and fellow school head, and he reminded me that one of the great virtues of working in private schools, in contrast to the compliance-driven, bureaucracy-laden culture of public schools, is that children are free to learn because teachers are free to teach. This is another major reason I, and I imagine most of you, am so attracted to Bank Street. In recent days, I have received several queries about where we stand with regards to issues of safety and security at Bank Street, and I want to assure you that we are taking these issues very seriously.

With regards to safety, I believe that the best we can do as a community is to embrace the very freedoms that have positioned the School for Children as a standard bearer for progressive education for a century. Remember, in schools like ours, children are free to learn, because teachers are free to teach. To preserve these autonomies, we must continue to entrust and empower our educators to use their best judgment in service of our children. And, given the diversity of experiences and perspectives in our community, we must remember not to conflate Bank Street’s unwavering commitment to progressive education with a doctrinaire approach to progressive politics. To do this, I call upon all of us to seek out and listen carefully to divergent opinions, strive for definitional and conceptual clarity, balance advocacy and inquiry, and pay careful attention to when intent and impact go awry.

As the August calendar pages turn to September, I assure you that there will be ample opportunities for parent engagement around our curriculum, our approaches to teaching and learning, and other matters of interest. I am also thrilled to share that Laura Guarino, an extraordinary educator, longstanding and cherished Bank Street teacher and leader, and Associate Dean of Children’s Programs, will be chairing the curriculum committee and that this year, the two focus areas will be Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice and Human Growth and Development. [Why not go for it, eh?] In addition, our community is fortunate that Coy Dailey, our new Director of Diversity and Equity, enters at a time where his leadership, wisdom, and perspective will no doubt be put to good use. I invite you to join me in embracing Coy at his Welcome Reception on Thursday, September 22 from 9-10 AM and/or 5-6 PM.

In closing, Bank Street is a special place. I have visited hundreds of schools in my more than two decades as a professional educator, and I can honestly say that the quality of teaching, the depth of reflection, the clarity of purpose, and the knowledge base about children at our school are unparalleled. It is a true privilege to be a part of this community, and I look forward to working with and learning alongside you for years to come. And maybe, just maybe, next summer, this letter will begin with “Greetings from the relatively tranquil environs…”

–Jed Lippard, Dean of Children’s Programs