Captain David Banks: Starting at the Finishing Line
Labour Day 2004. Columbia University’s green laws shimmer in the heady heat. David Banks, 51, looks sharp if a little tired; he has been on the Ivy League campus for four hours already. He steps outside, away from the assorted crowd of celebrities, suited men and parents to speak on the phone with a member of his staff. “Are they en route?” he asks concerned.
Ten minutes later the matriculating class of 2004 have arrived. The sound of “America, The Beautiful” waltzes lazily from under the fingers of the pianist as 100 men file importantly into the hall. Next to each distinguished man is a fourteen year-old black boy from the Bronx. This isn’t any ordinary matriculation and these students not your typical Columbia freshmen.
““We’re starting at the finishing line,”” says Banks, President of The Eagle Academy, the first all-boys public school in New York City for 30 years. “That’s what we were saying subliminally: We want you guys to go to college.”
It’s been almost 10 years since Banks matriculated his first class of “Eagles” at the Columbia campus 50 blocks south of the Bronx School for Law, Government & Justice, which had housed the Eagle Academy on the 4th floor for its first five years. “One day I read this report from the Columbia School of Law that said that seven out of 10 young black men were not going to graduate [from high school],” says Banks. “It found that 72 per cent of New York State’s inmate population came from just seven neighborhoods. You gotta do something when you hear that.”
So in 2004 Banks founded Eagle Academy, a males-only public high school for black and Latino boys in the South Bronx. Almost a decade later the school has added branches in Brooklyn, Queens, Newark N.J. and most recently central Harlem. A sixth school is scheduled to open on Staten Island in September, the seventh in lower Brooklyn in 2015.
Before Thanksgiving break some of 2004’s matriculating class return to visit the school’s new Bronx location and talk to current students. At the end of a large classroom filled with wooden benches, 20 visiting alumni – all college graduates – gather round Banks. “Listen up, brothers,” Banks barks, clapping his hands together before placing them on his knees and bending over like a football coach to brief the group. “The next group of youngsters are juniors. I want you to give them a real pep talk. This is all part of what helps awaken the young man.”
When Banks began the Academy, the reality for the young black man was nightmarish: A black boy born in 2001 – the Academy’s current sixth graders – has a 1-in-3 chance of being in prison during his lifetime, a Latino boy a 1-in-6 chance, according to a report published by the US justice department in 2003 – the year before Eagle Academy opened. ““Minority males struggle,” says returning alum Patrick Alston, 22, a graduate of Wabash College now teaching art. “We didn’t want to be a statistic. At Eagle we used to look up the statistics every day and see how we had beaten them.”
Immaculately dressed in polished black brogues, a pressed dark grey suit, and red tie, Banks is constantly moving; darting through doors and across classrooms, striding down hallways: Later in the day parents, teachers, alumni and current students will unveil a plaque in the school containing the names of the hundred most recent Eagle graduates. Despite the fact that the 2012 New York high school graduation rate for black males was 37%, the lowest in the United States, Eagle Academy has a graduation rate of 87%, even with a quarter of the class considered “special needs.”
While there are no studies that have found the gender of a school population to be the single criterion upon which success such as Eagle Academy’s is built – teacher preparation, engagement, infrastructure and class size being considered far more influential – there are now more than 100 stand-alone boys’ or girls’ schools across the country, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. In 2002 there were just a handful.
But are we seeing a renaissance of all-boys public schools? “No,” says Michael Kimmer, Executive Director at the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at the State University of New York. “Schools like Eagle Academy are not appearing across the board but in specific communities and for specific reasons.” For Eagle Academy and the 100 Black Men of New York, their community partner, the fact that only 18.5 per cent of black men between 25-29 attained a bachelor’s degree in 2012, despite 62 per cent of them beginning the 9th grade with such expectations, is reason enough.
Social justice was another motivating factor for Banks. “Single sex education should be part of a menu of choice. I’m not someone who says it’s better or worse than co-ed,” says Banks. “But if people who have financial need maintain all their choices, people without the financial will should certainly have access to the same choices too.” This notion of parental choice in publicly funded schools was a result of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act and reversed decades-long trend against single-sex schooling.
In 1960s single-sex education for boys was mainly private and for the wealthy. At the university level there were 250 all-male colleges. Following the feminist movement and passing the 1972 Education Amendments, which denounced gender discrimination in federally funded education, that number plummeted with many, unfairly, according to some experts, blaming the women’s movement. “Feminists didn’t create a renaissance in single-sex public schools but as many more co-educational schools emerged all boys schools started to look hidebound and traditional and many became suspicious of them as strongholds of misogyny,” says Peg Tyre, author of “The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do.”
By the 80s few single sex schools were left and those that did exist, like the Young Women’s Leadership Network, which opened in the mid-nineties, were for girls. It would be another ten years almost until boys’ public education was an option and the Eagle Academy would be the first in New York City to offer it.
Banks was himself educated in a co-ed public school in Brooklyn until the 8th grade. He credits a positive public school experience with good teachers as the basis of his self-confidence, something that he tries to pass on to the boys at Eagle. “Part of what a single-sex environment allows us to do is create a spirit of brotherhood that lets us tell them “you matter, we love you and we have high expectations for you.”” With members of the opposite sex around the boys wouldn’t “open up” he argues.
A nationally-recognized expert on education, Banks attended three colleges simultaneously to earn enough credits to become a school administrator in only one semester, and next year his book “WHY YOU SHOULD CARE: A Transformational Plan to Uplift Young Men of Color – and Keep America #1” hits the shelves. Before entering the educational sector he was New York state attorney general’s legal advisor and community liaison bringing lawsuits against companies like Con Edison whom he found to have been overcharging black and Latino churches.
Family also inspired him with a dedication to study. His father was an officer in the NYPD and his mother a secretary. “Take care of your business first,” was always the motto for the young Banks and his brothers. “We couldn’t go out to play until we had finished our homework,” he says. Bank’s father would stop by at school unannounced. “I would look up at the door and would see his face. It scared the living daylights out of me,” he laughs. “He was an old-school disciplinarian. If you are locking up a lot of young people you tell yourself “this isn’t going to happen to my boys.”
This healthy fear kept Banks on the straight and narrow but fear on the whole deters many black boys from going to school at all: Black male high school students are twice as likely as their white peers to report that they did not go to school because they felt unsafe, found the same Children’s Defense Fund report. Derek Frimpong, 22, another Eagle graduate, had originally applied to a high school in the Bronx, but heard days later that someone had been killed in the elevator. His father enrolled him at Eagle instead.
The fact that the Academy is also a small school – one of 150 former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the Gates Academy helped establish between 2002 and 2008 – allows them to focus on the minority male. Posters of black and Latino heroes adorn classrooms. A chart tracking the success of the school’s four ‘houses’ – Roberto Clemente, Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Barack Obama is displayed prominently in the corridors. “It was in 4th grade history class I learned that I stood on the shoulders of my ancestors who spilled blood and died and opened doors so I could study,” Banks says. “The sense of pride made all the difference.”
When it comes to the single-sex element of the school, Banks, who has also been an assistant principal of a mixed school in Brooklyn, admits he doesn’t have “any deep philosophies.” “It’s about feeling special” says Banks, explaining that many black boys only find that feeling in a gang. “The notion of acceptance, a pecking order, of distinctions and identification: cribs wear blue and bluds wear red. It’s about taking that and making it positive.”
From the school’s partnership with the 100 Black Men of New York – “Young black males don’t have enough examples of successful men of colour,” says Banks – to the tie-and-slacks uniform – “Little old ladies wouldn’t mind having to sit next to the boys on the subway,” says Adrian Allen, a single parent from Queen. “These are kids that walk around and think nothing they do is important. Make them feel important and even if you just teach them two plus two they are still going to succeed,” says Kimmer.
Not everyone is as enthusiastic about the school. “Obviously we’re opened to being accused of being both racist and sexist,” says Banks. Around the country 45 new single-sex boys’ schools have opened since Eagle started in 2004. Critics say single-sex education only perpetuates gender stereotypes and the American Civil Liberties Union has already launched or threatened lawsuits against a dozen school districts, claiming that single-gender public schools violate equal-protection laws. Their objections are mainly directed at single-sex classes, not schools, where boys and girls are separated only for subjects like Maths and English, a practice Kimmer says is remedial, along with such “pseudo scientific” notions, the “preposterous” brainchildren of Dr Lennard Sax, that say girls like to work cooperatively in comfortable chairs at a temperature of 72 degrees with a softly-spoken teacher, while boys prefer hard seating, 68 degrees and to be constantly yelled at.
What Banks won’t mention is how central he is to both the school and its students and it is this that drives the school’s success. “Mr Banks set the tone,” says Patrick. “He showed us his vision. We tried to be as great as he was.” With 54 per cent of black children living without a father, Bank’s role in the school cannot be underestimated. “We incarcerated a generation of black men and these are their children. Giving them examples of what it means to be literate and educated and to hold that up as a strong value is immensely important,” says Peg Tyre, author of “The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do.”
Amid high fives and bear hugs Banks hands out his card to the graduates who shuffle into the hallway, reminding them to get in touch if they need anything. It is this care and attention that experts like Tom Hatch, Co-Director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST), say separates Eagle Academy from other schools. “There are lousy schools and good schools regardless of the gender of the students,” Hatch says. “What we need to look at is not the form but the content,” added Kimmer. “It’s the little things,” Jairo Pepan, 18, now a first-year college student at University of Virginia, agrees. “Like learning how to give a good handshake or to recite Invictus,” the school’s unofficial anthem. “I still do that in my head even as a college freshman when I need to bring myself back to my roots.”
Gathered in the clean white hallway the boys jostle with one another but still chat in hushed tones. They do not remove their gaze from Mr Banks who is talking to other important-looking men in front of a veiled wall that contain the names of the previous year’s graduating class of 100 Bronx boys. “It’s a work in progress,” says Banks, moving his gaze from the glass plaque towards the crowd of captivated eyes: his ambitions for his network of boys schools as large as his hopes for the individual students in front of them. “It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”