As prepared for delivery – Thursday, March 3, 2016
I also want to thank the NABE board and all of you here today. Whether you’re a teacher, an administrator, a policymaker, a parent, a researcher, or an advocate, you’re here because you believe all students deserve the opportunity to succeed.
I particularly want to thank the organizers for inviting me to speak from my perspective as a former English Language Learner – because I strongly believe that it’s our personal history that creates the passion and the path that we ultimately follow.
All leaders, to some degree, lead from a personal history and make connections based on that history. We all do what we do professionally because of the life we have lived. Whether you’re in your twenties, your forties, or your seventies, like me, when you think about your career path, I bet you can connect the dots from where you sit today to your own formative years.
So, today, I want to connect my dots and share the experiences that took me from English Language Learner to Schools Chancellor and, finally, to the initiatives that are driving education reform across New York City.
My journey from dream to reality begins with my parents, who emigrated from Spain during the Spanish Civil War. More than anything, my parents wanted their children to be able to fulfill their destinies. They themselves had no more than a third-grade education.
I grew up entranced by my father’s stories about his life in Spain and the politics and history of his home country. He believed, as I do, that remembering the past is critical to paving a brighter and more just future for all of us.
My father taught my brother, sister, and me history from an early age (maybe a little one-sided), and read to us every night from books he had ordered from Spain. I vividly remember him reading me cuentos de hadas, fairy tales with archetypal princes and princesses, elves, giants, witches, and animals with magical powers.
My father himself regularly read La Voz de Galicia, delivered by ship every month, to keep up with the news from the region where he lived in Spain. He also bought La Prensa and the Spanish edition of Reader’s Digest to stay informed about his adopted country. And he bought books, like Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, when there was little money for other things.
I was lucky to have had a supportive home life, but as a first-generation American I faced my share of obstacles. When my family moved to Brooklyn in 1943, pre-K wasn’t an option, so I didn’t begin my formal education until kindergarten.
For most children, the first year of school is a joyful time of learning, discovery, and connection. But because I didn’t speak English, I couldn’t communicate with my classmates or teacher. I couldn’t participate in lessons or raise my hand to answer questions. I had no idea what my teacher was saying, and she didn’t try to help me understand.
In fact, my teacher marked me absent every day because I didn’t raise my hand during roll call. I wasn’t being disobedient, although my teacher thought I was. I just never heard my name being called; my teacher had been mispronouncing it for weeks.
Now, I know everyone here can relate to this, and I think NABE’s “My Name, My Identity” campaign hits the mark exactly. Our names do speak to our culture, history, and identity. Mispronouncing a student’s name essentially renders that student invisible. And I wholeheartedly believe, as you do, that in an increasingly inter-connected world, we’re all lifted up when we hear each other’s stories and respect each other’s unique names – and pronounce them properly.
I have to give my father a lot of credit for seizing upon my situation as a teachable moment. This usually soft-spoken man accompanied me to school and insisted that my teacher repeat the correct pronunciation of my last name until she’d mastered it. It was not Quillen with an Irish accent as she spoke it, but Guillen with a Gallego accent.
By showing up and advocating for me, my father made my teacher honor my identity and acknowledge my presence in her classroom. Can you imagine the pride I felt? Unfortunately, my teacher never quite forgave me.
In the same elementary school, I had teachers who believed that rote memorization and spouting back facts made you an excellent student. That wasn’t good enough for my father and he worked with me at home. He encouraged me to question my teachers, and found newspapers and books to support our family’s history and cultural perspective.
Although I felt marginalized in school, my father wasn’t about to let me feel sorry for myself. He was adamant that a great education was much more than just an option: it was a necessity. He supported me and pushed me, and made it clear that I could achieve whatever I set my mind to.
It was a challenge to maintain literacy in both my native and my adopted language, but my father understood the importance of being multilingual and bicultural. He also intuited what research later proved: that early literacy lays the groundwork for future academic success.
Because there were no bilingual programs when I was a child, my father and several of his compatriots formed an after-school program, La Escuela Juventudes Escolares, where the neighborhood kids could learn how to read and write in Spanish. They interviewed teachers from the neighborhood and asked them what qualities they would impart upon us, their students. Little did I know that this was the beginning of what would later be called parent engagement.
It was in this after-school program that we also learned about our culture and traditional dances. I got bored rereading Platero y yo, a popular story about a little donkey – but I never tired of dancing the pasodoble because the movements mimic Spanish bullfights. And I’m eternally grateful because Juventudes Escolares is where I met my future husband!
My father believed that bilingualism and pride in culture made for a strong, supportive community. Thanks to his influence, I became an avid reader and loved learning and expressing myself during class discussions, but my teachers weren’t always interested in original thinking.
During high school, I was suspended for questioning the teacher's opinion of the Spanish Civil War. When my father came to school to pick me up, he took me directly to the library and helped me find a book that supported my point of view. The Yoke and the Arrows is still a book I treasure! My dad suggested that my “letter of apology” discuss what I learned from my research as well as my family's experiences during Spain’s fascist regime. These were far more accurate than the teacher's textbook-based interpretation.
Through experiences such as these, I became fascinated by the process of learning and teaching, and during my sophomore year in high school, I decided to become a teacher. You can imagine my surprise when I learned I was on a non-academic track. Instead of taking advanced math and other credit-bearing courses like my classmates, I was taking typing and stenography, in preparation for a much different life than the one I imagined for myself. My advisor had apparently decided that the daughter of Spanish immigrants lacked the aptitude and wherewithal to attend college.
Again, assumptions were made because I came from a different culture, had a different history, and grew up speaking a different language.
All of us here today know that too many English Language Learners never get off this treadmill, never have a chance to pursue their dreams.
So how did I end up where I am? An outstanding teacher deserves a lot of the credit. Her name was Sister Leonard, and she saw that even back then, I wasn’t willing to settle for the status quo. I knew that I was capable of more – and so did Sister Leonard.
With her help, I caught up on the math classes I’d missed and took the Spanish Regents exam. But I had no idea how to apply to college and no knowledge about scholarships. Sister Leonard helped me with that too – and I became the first person in my family to graduate from college.
I became a teacher because I couldn’t think of anything more fulfilling than helping children reach their true potential. And even back then, I hoped that I could somehow play a role in fixing the underlying problems that had stifled the ambitions of so many of my peers.
In 1965, I began my career as a teacher at P.S. 29 in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. This school served predominantly Hispanic students but was slowly gentrifying. In a school of 500 mostly Spanish-speaking students, I was the only staff member who spoke Spanish. I was constantly being asked to translate, which made me privy to what parents were truly thinking and feeling. Many parents complained about indifferent teachers and a system that always put ELL students last.
My work at P.S. 29 was guided by my convictions that every family and child deserve respect. That all students should be on an academic path. And every educator has the responsibility to do whatever it takes to help that child turn her dreams into reality.
As a teacher, I gave it my all. My classes were always full of boisterous discussion and consistently scored above average. I was recognized as citywide Teacher of the Year in 1981.
Later, as a social studies teacher, I infused the story and lessons of many cultures into my classes, and my students and I enjoyed rich debates. Informed by my early experiences, I tried to create classrooms that encouraged student talk and student ownership. I also involved parents as teaching partners.
After more than two decades in the classroom, in 1991 I accepted an offer to become the Principal of P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side.
My M.O. was simple: My staff and I were going to turn a good school into a great school. And we were going to do that by getting to know our students and families – and making every effort to meet their needs.
One of my first acts as principal was to introduce Spanish as a foreign language. I invited my father to attend the PTA meeting to discuss my proposal. Even then, my dad gave me confidence and I wanted him to be proud of me. My proposal met resistance early on, but I ultimately succeeded.
Over the course of my career, whether supervising students, teachers, principals, or an entire school system, I have worked to forge a personal connection, identify individuals’ strengths and weaknesses, and connect them to the support they needed.
I share these stories to give you a sense of who I am as a person – and as an educator. And, I hope, to show today’s English Language Learners that it’s possible to turn dreams into reality.
The education reforms we have enacted in New York City all spring from lessons I learned as a student and as an educator. Throughout my 50-year career in education, equity and excellence have always been of paramount importance. We all need to use our passion and experience to motivate and push our students to succeed.
I share Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vision of a school system built on the twin engines of equity and excellence.
We started on this path with a mission to make free, full-day, high-quality pre-kindergarten available to every family who wanted it. Some called our commitment to universal pre-K a pipe dream, but we made it a reality. This year, more than 68,000 four-year-olds are learning new vocabulary words, exploring the natural world through interactive science experiments, and picking up critical interpersonal skills.
We’re ensuring that our students, regardless of their native language, have access to rich literary experiences. Our pre-Ks are committed to helping children whose home language isn’t English gain critical language, cognitive, and social-emotional skills. Some of our pre-Ks offer Dual Language programs that provide instruction in two languages: half in English, half in the student’s home language. Many offer enhanced English language support for kids who don’t speak English at home.
Our pre-Ks also host family workshops to enhance home-school connections. Something my parents would have enjoyed.
If pre-K had been available when my family moved to Brooklyn those many decades ago, I’m convinced that my life would have been set on a very different trajectory. I would have started kindergarten speaking English and with a strong foundation for a lifetime of learning.
We continue our journey to equity and excellence with Universal Second Grade Literacy.
I know from my own experiences that literacy can change a child’s life by opening so many doors. Research shows that students who are reading above grade level by third grade are more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college.
Unfortunately, only 30 percent of New York City’s public school students are proficient in English Language Arts by the end of third grade. This puts them at a tremendous disadvantage: students with low literacy skills are four times more likely to drop out of high school.
This is not a problem that’s unique to New York, but we won’t accept this status quo. We believe we can tackle the problem by focusing on literacy earlier – starting in second grade.
We have set a goal to provide all elementary schools with support from a reading coach who will focus on improving the quality of early literacy instruction. Coaches will support early-grade teachers in developing research-proven strategies that help struggling students learn to read. Our coaches will have the skills and training to strengthen literacy instruction for English Language Learners and students with disabilities.
To complement this effort, we’ve launched NYC Reads 365, an initiative to challenge New Yorkers to read every single day. We are encouraging children and families to read for pleasure, to read to learn, to argue, to persuade, to laugh, to cry, and to understand. Our program offers reading lists, with books in multiple languages. We hope parents who don’t speak English will read to their children in their native language.
Our goal is to have at least two-thirds of students reading fluently by the end of second grade within six years, with a target of 100 percent literacy by 2026.
This will be a game-changer for our students and our school system.
It’s so important to meet the literacy needs of our diverse student population. Expanding literacy through bilingual programs is commonsense for New York City: we serve 150,000 English Language Learners, who speak 160 languages!
We are committed to providing them with a menu of resources and educational programs. One of our goals is to develop full multilingual proficiencies in our students. Anyone who speaks a second language understands the richness it brings to a person’s life and the enriched job opportunities it offers.
As a country, we have been severely behind in encouraging students to learn a second language, and I am totally committed to bringing us in line with the rest of the world.
This is why we have created a stand-alone, cabinet-level Division of English Language Learners under the leadership of Milady Baez, whom many of you know. This school year, Milady and her team created 50 bilingual programs. Our new Dual Language programs feature high-quality professional development, Dual Language consultants, parent workshops, and the resources this initiative needs to succeed.
Because schools improve most when they share best practices, this year we named 15 schools Model Dual Language Programs to provide support and guidance to schools interested in opening their own programs. Fostering collaboration will elevate the quality of bilingual programs across the City.
We were also thrilled to launch our first Polish Dual Language program at a school in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where 60 percent of students come from Polish immigrant families. And we’re looking to add more Dual Language programs in other languages.
We are also looking at innovative ways to support our ELL students. Often, when school districts introduce new initiatives, English Language Learners are the last to receive them. But we’ve shifted the paradigm by developing STEM programs specifically for our ELLs. Middle schools with the largest number of English Language Learners now have access to exciting science, technology, engineering, and math classes and students are learning these subjects alongside their monolingual peers.
This is just the kind of focused approach that will help students who have extra needs.
All of this work reflects my dream of expanding horizons for English Language Learners and English-proficient students, and celebrating other cultures. Our aim is to give our students new pathways to college and meaningful careers.
As educators, we want all of our students to get to college; that’s the ultimate goal. But we often begin that conversation far too late. I know that too many middle-school students have already decided that college is not for them. They may be first-generation Americans whose parents never attended college. Or perhaps their teachers or advisors feel they don’t have the talent to succeed in college or a career.
The reality is, to enable children to envision themselves as college students with successful futures, we’ve got to begin the discussion earlier – during middle school. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.
Through our Middle School College Access for All initiative, we will make college feel real and accessible to over 80,000 students each year. Middle schools will get a special college readiness curriculum and we’ll make sure each student has an opportunity to visit a college campus at least once during the middle school years. We’ll encourage parents to participate in these tours.
We want our families to start having a conversation about the possibility of college, and to truly believe that their child will go to college – that no barrier of economics, language, or immigration status is too great.
But we know we have to go farther and create a college-ready culture in every high school as well. We’ve got to communicate that college is no longer optional; it’s necessary. The jobs of today and tomorrow require training and education beyond high school. The more lucrative and rewarding fields require a college degree.
We’ve got our work cut out for us. While college enrollment has risen over the last decade, large gaps remain, particularly among low-income and minority students. Fewer than half of New York City’s public high school students graduate ready for college; the postsecondary enrollment rate is only 53 percent, and many schools are far below that.
As I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, our life history gives us the road map to go forward. Drawing on my past as an ELL student and my experiences as an educator, I know how important it is to help kids with the nuts and bolts of applying and paying for college. So we’re addressing that as well.
Through High School College Access for All, every public high school in New York City will have the resources to create a “college-ready” culture. By 2018, every student will graduate from high school with an individual college and career plan and have access to resources that will support them in pursuing that plan.
To embed the college conversation at every grade level, in January we held a College Awareness Day across our school system. We want students and families to know that their dream of college is attainable.
We’re also leveling the playing field when it comes to critical college access tests. Because students and families told us they were confused about when and where to take the SATS, we said we would offer the exam free of charge to students during the school day. Yesterday, as part of a pilot program, 15,000 high school juniors took the test, and next year all juniors will be able to take the SAT at no cost during regular school hours.
This is part of our effort to provide all of our students with the support and resources they need to pursue college.
I was fortunate to have Sister Leonard to steer me through the confusion. Now, through our Single Shepherd initiative, students in two districts with very low high school graduation and college attainment rates will have their own dedicated guidance counselor or social worker.
This shepherd will support them through graduation and college enrollment and help them develop the social-emotional and academic skills necessary to thrive in their education.
As important as these goals are, they can’t be achieved without our parents. They are involved, concerned, and passionate advocates for their children – as my father was for me. Involving families in their child’s educational journey is not an add-on, it is central to my vision of success in our schools. So we have redoubled our efforts to engage parents, especially hard-to-reach families, in every level of their child’s education.
For the first time, schools have direct access to over-the-phone interpreters 24/7. We are proud to work jointly with advocates, parents, parent leaders, and educators to improve the way we provide language services to our parents with limited English proficiency. This is critical to building strong relationships between schools and communities.
We also hold regular Town Hall meetings, and send out a monthly publication for parents called Public School Press that offers information on new programs and ways parents can support their child’s learning at home. Since September, our schools have held 8,000 parent workshops – a 60 percent increase over the previous year. Parents are learning about financial literacy, resume writing, and getting a better understanding of their child’s curriculum.
As part of our teachers’ contract, schools now set aside an extra 40 minutes a week for parent engagement. Schools are holding potluck dinners with presentations, hosting parent-faculty basketball games, and scheduling family fun nights with arts or science activities parents and children can do together.
Families are seeing first-hand what their children are learning, and learning how to help their children study and succeed.
We are also investing in training staff who advocate for parents, providing professional development trainings for school-based parent coordinators and staff in superintendents’ offices who serve as dedicated contacts for families in the district.
We truly are blessed with smart, dedicated parents and we’re thrilled that they feel good about their children’s schools. In our annual School Survey, nearly half a million public school parents, the vast majority, said they like their schools and believe teachers are doing their best to help their children learn.
But despite our best intentions, we still don’t have enough highly-qualified, certified teachers to serve our Dual Language, Transitional Bilingual Education, and English as a New Language classes. We need to hold our university partners more accountable to ensure we graduate the best of the best to teach our students. We’re currently working with local colleges of education to increase the bilingual teacher pool.
We also have to better train our own teachers. In New York City, we won 80 minutes in our last teachers’ contract to conduct Monday professional development. Now, teachers can work together to enhance their skills.
We believe New York City is on the forefront of this work, but we also know we have more to do, and we will never stop showing our students that we believe they can achieve their dreams. We believe they can excel in school, graduate on time, and attend college. We believe that if they can imagine it, it can become reality.
Equity and Excellence is our bold vision – not for some, but for all of our students. And it’s a vision largely informed by my journey from English Language Learner to Schools Chancellor.
I did not come out of retirement and give up my winters in Miami and summers in Spain to fail at improving the New York City school system. None of you are here today because you think our children can’t succeed.
As a first-generation American, I believe it’s crucial to pay it forward. I want all of our English Language Learners to know that I’ve walked in their shoes and now I’ve got their backs. I promise them equity and excellence, and an education that will enable them to become future school chancellors, CEOs, computer scientists, engineers, writers, and I hope, teachers.
Only through an excellent education can we change the trajectory of this country and ensure that every student, from every neighborhood and cultural background, has an opportunity to turn their dreams into reality.