Thank you, Mayor Adams, for your kind introduction and, most importantly, your steadfast support of our students, educators, and families. And thank you for your leadership during these tough economic times.
What an honor to address you all here today, as our school system, the largest in the nation, enters a new school year. Earlier this week we held a phenomenal celebration in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, and now we get to gather again as a community to celebrate the 2023-2024 school year.
The start of the school year brings so much possibility; across every borough and every classroom, our children are full of brilliance and potential. It is our job, as adults, to maximize that potential. So I want us to begin with a question: What is the purpose of school?
I’ve been in education for almost four decades, as a teacher, a school safety agent, a founding principal, the leader of the Eagle Academy Foundation, and for the past 20 months, as your Chancellor. And still, this is a question I ask often. What is the purpose of school? Our kids spend their entire childhoods in school. Our city spends billions of dollars on our schools. What should all kids know and be able to do? How do we help our kids realize their brilliance? If we don’t have a clear answer to this question, then we have no goal, and no growth. We are simply going through the motions.
So that’s why we’re here today, to ground ourselves in our mission, the reason we do this work: to ensure each student graduates on a pathway to a rewarding career and long-term economic security, equipped to be a positive force for change. We realize this mission through what I call Bright Starts and Bold Futures: we give our kids the foundational skills—literacy, safety, emotional wellness—for Bright Starts, and we prepare and empower them to build Bold Futures, futures that give them meaning, sustain them financially, and propel them to be leaders in our communities.
You may remember I delivered a speech in early 2022, when I first started in this role, to outline the goals the Mayor and I have for our system. A lot has happened since then! It’s time for an update on our progress, to take stock of where we are, what we’ve accomplished, and the work still left to do.
But first, a few acknowledgements. Thank you, first and foremost, to our families, for choosing NYC Public Schools. Thank you to our parent volunteers, elected parent leaders, and the Panel for Educational Policy. Thank you to our superintendents, principals, assistant principals, teachers, counselors, secretaries, cafeteria workers, paraprofessionals, school aides, parent coordinators, school safety agents, custodial engineers, and so many more. To the folks in these critical roles, many of them often overlooked—please know, as someone who ran a school for 11 years, this Chancellor sees you, appreciates you, and salutes you. And I want to give a particular note of thanks to the legendary Boys and Girls High School campus in the heart of central Brooklyn. Do or Die Bed Stuy! Thank you so much to the principals supporting our students in this very building, along with the facilities team that made today possible. And thank you to our fabulous student musicians from across the city performing here today.
And now I’m excited to share what Bright Starts, Bold Futures means for you, whether you work in one of our schools, attend one of our schools, or send your child to one of our schools.
At the core of any school, anywhere in the world, there are a few essential functions. If a school does nothing else, it should teach kids to read and write and think critically so they are equipped to solve the issues of our time.
And yet in 2022, 51% of our students – including nearly two-thirds of our Black and Latino students – were not reading at grade level. These results would not be acceptable in any business, in any industry – and they should not be acceptable here.
For too long, we have not taught our kids the proper way to read. We used a failed approach called Balanced Literacy. We told our kids to use pictures, for example, to guess the words on the page, instead of actually sounding them out. Take a look at this lesson, where a child is reading by guessing. That is a completely misguided way of teaching kids to read, and we are fixing that playbook, starting right now.
We certainly want our children to love to read. But first we must teach them how to read. Balanced Literacy was like building a house starting on the second floor and completely skipping the foundation. We are shifting to the science of reading—a research-backed approach that prioritizes the foundational skills of strong readers. We will teach our kids phonics. We will teach them to decode complex letter combinations, to sound out words. We will support their fluency and comprehension.
And this work has already begun in our classrooms, starting with our youngest learners. This past spring and summer, we trained thousands of educators in the science of reading. Over 90% of our early childhood programs are rolling out unified instructional materials that support reading and writing at the earliest ages. Elementary schools in about half of our districts are adopting one of three curricula grounded in the science of reading. And all remaining Early Childhood Education programs and elementary schools will implement NYC Reads beginning next school year. We are bringing the science of reading to all our students as quickly as possible – but also strategically. We have to get this right, and we will!
NYC Reads is not only about curriculum. That is not enough! We are putting literacy experts in our classrooms, side-by-side with our teachers and leaders, to provide real-time feedback and coaching at a scale that our school system has never seen before. We are universally screening our students in grades K-9 so we can identify, far more comprehensively, students at risk for dyslexia. And we are laser-focused on the proven, intensive interventions – and the training our staff need to deliver them – to support students who are struggling.
We know our educators have always been hardworking, caring, and committed to their students. But for too long, we have been giving them that flawed playbook, so students enter their middle and high school classrooms two or three grade levels behind. When we get this right, it will empower both our students as well as our educators. It sets everyone up for success, across the board. As Frederick Douglass said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”
We are proud to be moving in this direction, and already we are seeing the impact of our leadership. For years, many of our teachers were trained through Teachers College at Columbia University, and at long last Teachers College finally disbanded its Balanced Literacy program.
I want to thank our labor partners in this work: Michael Mulgrew from the UFT, who was the first to stand with us on this issue, because, as he said, “It just makes sense.” Thank you, Michael, for your support. And thank you to Henry Rubio, who leads the CSA, for working with us, because we cannot do this well without the greatest administrators in the country. Now is the time for them to lead like they have never had to lead before.
I also want to thank our elected officials who issued the clarion call around this as soon as I entered this office: Assemblymembers Jo Anne Simon and Robert Carroll. Thank you to City Council Education Chair Rita Joseph, who has been our partner on this and every other initiative we’ve launched. Chair Joseph, and the many other elected officials here today, please stand so we can acknowledge your leadership.
Now I’ve spoken a lot, today and over the past 20 months, about reading. And nearly every time I do, a parent or educator says to me, “Chancellor, you keep talking about how our kids aren’t reading on grade level, but our math results are even worse!” And they're right: In 2022, 62% of all our students – including nearly 80% of Black and Latino students – were below grade level in math.
We know that as our kids become stronger readers, their math proficiency will improve as well. You can’t solve a word problem if you don’t know how to read it. We also know there is work to be done to improve our “math playbook,” and we’re already zooming in on Algebra 1, a foundational course for higher-level math, by launching a single, high-quality curriculum in over 250 high schools, along with intensive professional learning.
But this is just the start. We have a long way to go to ensure that every student, in every subject and grade level, has access to challenging, relevant content each day, and that our educators are fully supported to do their best teaching. So over the coming years, we will announce new approaches to instruction across all our core subjects, in all grade levels, just as we have for early literacy through NYC Reads.
And we’re going to do it in a way that is responsive to our students’ cultures. We’re going to do it in a way that engages and empowers them civically. We’re going to do it in a way that upholds our vision that every family in New York City has an opportunity to give their child a Bright Start.
This means that in our 8,000+ early childhood classrooms, we are ensuring quality learning environments for all children. This also means we have added more than 1,000 seats to our incredibly effective specialized programs for students with disabilities, so families can access a high-quality education close to where they live, rather than across the city. In the same vein, we’ve opened 77 new bilingual programs and 36 Gifted and Talented programs since last fall. We are responding to family demand in every neighborhood.
I also want to note, and the Mayor says this all the time: our kids cannot learn if they are not safe, healthy, and engaged. To ensure this, we are installing high-tech door locking systems across our schools. We’ve expanded one of my signature initiatives, Project Pivot, to 250 schools, to mobilize the full community on the issue of safety. There’s an old saying: it takes a village to raise a child. The folks involved in Project Pivot are that village, and we will do this work together. Those of you leading the work for Project Pivot, along with the Project Pivot organizations from our communities, please stand.
And there’s more. We are enhancing our cafeterias and serving our students nutritious food. We’re increasing our mental health supports, with daily mindful breathing, additional school-based health clinics, and a new telehealth program with the City’s Health Department, coming in December. We’ve also expanded access to civics education and to the arts, and we’ve offered full-day summer learning and fun, two years in a row, to 110,000 K-8 students in our Summer Rising program.
And – importantly – we are welcoming every student who crosses our doorstep, including over 26,000 students in temporary housing, many of them migrant students, who have arrived in our city over the past year and a half. In partnership with our Mayor, who has led and advocated in all of these areas, we are going to care for each and every one of our kids and give them that Bright Start.
Now, our equation for student success has two parts, and Bright Starts is only half. The other half is Bold Futures. Everything we’ve discussed so far is in service of Bold Futures.
Historically, a twelfth grader leaves our system with a diploma—and not much else. They might have a dream of college or a career, and maybe even an acceptance or offer letter, but they probably won’t know much about the world of work they’re entering, the possibilities they can strive for, and the skills they’ll need to thrive in those fields. Over the course of high school, there’s a good chance many of them wondered: why am I even sitting in this class?
This pattern has repeated across our school system year after year. Let me show you how this plays out: In 2011, we had about 74,000 students enter ninth grade in New York City. Four years later, only 52,000 of these students graduated high school. By 2021, six years after graduation, how many of them do you think earned a four-year degree? 20,000. Just 27% of the original ninth grade cohort. And, what’s worse, of those 20,000 students, less than half were Black or Latino, despite being nearly 70% of the original cohort. We like to say that we are preparing our kids for college and beyond...No, we have not!
But our Pathways work is rewriting this script. By 2030, every single one of our students will leave us with a concrete plan for a rewarding life path. That plan will be more than an idea; it will be bolstered by access to paid work experience, early college credit, career credentials, financial and digital literacy, and significant mentorship and guidance. We are infusing our high schools with career-connected learning. And to be clear: this is not your grandparents’ vocational education. These programs, including our FutureReady and Modern Youth Apprenticeship initiatives, lead our students to high-tech, high-demand jobs: cybersecurity, software development, diagnostic medicine, and business management, to name a few.
In its second year, FutureReady already serves 100 schools, with plans to grow at least 50% next year! These schools, including our CTE schools, are reimagining high school entirely, partnering with some big names – like Northwell Health, Google, and Goldman Sachs – and braiding college and career readiness into the very design of the student experience. Students gain sustained career exposure over four years, giving them a competitive edge when they enter the workforce and a stronger grasp of how their learning connects to the real world.
Our Modern Youth Apprenticeship, the gold standard of career-connected learning, offers paid, multiyear placements in the private and public sectors. Ninth and tenth graders at these schools take courses in career readiness, and then upperclassmen can apply to spend half a day, four days per week at apprenticeships. We had nearly 60 schools join our apprenticeship program last year, and in combination with FutureReady, we enrolled nearly 8,000 students in career readiness coursework this past spring.
One of these students is Ambilica. Ambilica was a senior last year at my alma mater, Hillcrest High School, one of our FutureReady schools. She interned at Northwell Health. In her first week, she learned CPR. By the end of the semester, she observed a delivery in the maternity ward and even assisted with an ultrasound. She is now a student at Stonybrook University, studying biology.
Or consider King, a graduate of the Lab School of Finance and Technology. He started his sophomore year with low attendance and a low chance of graduating on time. But he apprenticed at JP Morgan Chase, and the experience unlocked his passion and purpose. Today he is enrolled at Boston University, studying business administration.
We are also breaking new ground with our public universities to streamline admissions and enrollment for our students. This fall, for the first time, CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez and I will be sending a letter to all NYC Public Schools seniors, confirming there’s a place for them at the City University of New York. We’ll have news on our admissions work with SUNY in the coming months; in the meantime, SUNY is joining our FutureReady program to provide early college credits. On top of all this, we just opened Bard Early College High School in the Bronx, and we’ll be adding three P-TECH schools and a Bronx STEAM Center to our menu of pathways programming.
As you can see, these college and career pathways are not some light-touch experiences to slap on a resume. These are meaningful, trajectory-changing opportunities for our kids. I want to thank our leaders in the business community: Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan and Michael Dowling at Northwell. And thank you to CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez and SUNY Chancellor John King for their partnership in caring for our kids after they leave NYC Public Schools.
We are also building Bold Futures by addressing one of the most pressing crises of our time: climate change. It’s Climate Week in NYC, and as an agency, we are doing our part: NYC Public Schools are the largest contributor to the city’s solar energy goals, with 81 solar installations across our schools to-date. We are growing both our climate education efforts and our focus on green career paths, and we are launching Climate Action Days across our schools.
Bold Futures extend into the virtual world, too. We already have two remote options for our high schoolers: a fully virtual school and a hybrid option. And through a separate program, over 2,500 of our middle and high school students are enrolled in specialized courses, offered virtually, that aren’t available on their own campuses, from AP classes to world languages to electives. We are working toward a world where every high schooler, and many middle schoolers, can opt in to high-quality online coursework, coursework that is more flexible and provides more opportunities than a standard brick-and-mortar classroom. Who says it should take four years to graduate high school? Any student who is prepared to put in the hard work should be able to enroll in class on Saturdays, or in the evenings, to accelerate their progress toward graduation.
And finally, Bold Futures is not only about our students. As an agency, we have the ability – and responsibility – to invest in a Bold Future for our entire community. That’s why spending on minority- and women-owned businesses is particularly important to both me and the Mayor. In the 2021 fiscal year, before I entered this office, our agency spent about $224 million on MWBEs, less than 3% of our overall vendor spend. We promised to do better. In the first full fiscal year of this administration, we grew our MWBE spending by nearly 140%, to over $535 million. We are setting increasingly ambitious targets—including our 30% MWBE subcontracting goal—and changing our procurement policy and procedures so our spending reflects the communities we serve. Folks from Black and brown communities with services that can help our kids deserve the chance to do business with us. We are, at long last, giving them that opportunity.
I also want to share some other exciting news: just last week, we received our 2023 state test scores. While preliminary – and we’ll have more definitive analysis from the State in the coming weeks – these results are extremely encouraging. We’re seeing more of our students on grade level and meeting the State’s learning standards, with significant gains in math and increases in ELA as well. We also saw proficiency growth among the students we have historically let down: students of color, multilingual learners, and students with disabilities. These results tell us: we’re on the right track. We are making strides in our recovery from the pandemic. And we are going to build on this success this year and beyond.
These results are the work of our entire city: students, schools, families, and much more. And as we continue this journey, each one of us has a role to play:
Families: Build a reading routine with your children. Make reading a daily habit – 30 minutes each night before bed. When you’re sitting in the park or standing in line at the store, don’t just pull out your phone. Pull out a book. And throughout the school year, engage with your child’s school: connect with the principal and parent coordinator, get involved in the PTA, and meet families and parent leaders in your school and district. We need your engagement and partnership.
Educators: You are the backbone of this school system. My dad used to say to me, there are three kinds of people in this world: people who make stuff happen, people who watch stuff happen, and people who wake up every day and say, “Hey, what happened?” When you care for our kids, when you teach them to read and do math, when you empower them to solve real-world problems – like our High School of Art and Design in their recent campaign against subway surfing – you teach our kids how to “make stuff happen,” and they will lift our entire city.
Community-Based Organizations: Help us keep the learning going throughout the year! Whether in our after-school programs or our wildly popular Summer Rising program, you bring a critical layer of social-emotional support and enrichment to our communities, and we need you.
Philanthropy and Business Leaders: Help us build and scale our work around Bright Starts and Bold Futures. This is not just a moral imperative – it's an economic one too. Right now, in this global economy, too many of our kids are sitting on the sidelines. In 2021, women accounted for just 35% of our country’s STEM workforce—despite being half our population. And that STEM workforce was only 15% Latino and 9% Black. We need to get our kids in the game – for the sake of our children, and for the economic future of this city.
Our Students: Each of you holds infinite potential. Remember that. This school year, you may be a Kindergartener learning to read. You may be a twelfth grader learning to code. Your job is simply to give it your all – because that’s what will lead to growth. There will inevitably be ups and downs, but you have an entire village standing behind you, and we are ready to be your champions.
And finally: Myself. My Team. Leading this system is a group effort, and I am endlessly grateful to my senior leadership team, whose faces you see on the screen. They support the efforts of our superintendents, principals, and all the educators and staff who are in our schools each day. We work in service of you, and here are our commitments – commitments that address our initial question: What is the purpose of school?
First, our children will become confident readers by third grade.
Second, our children will be engaged and challenged in new and exciting ways.
Third, our children will graduate high school with the knowledge, skills and experiences to be financially literate and prepared to go to college or enter the workforce.
On some of these promises, we have a long way to go. But I know the best is yet to come.
I want to close with a story from an event we held at Harlem’s P.S. 125, led by Principal Yael Leopold, on the second day of school this year. The event itself was terrific: I got a chance to read with some of our brand-new Kindergarteners. State Senator Cordelle Cleare was with us at the event, and when it ended, we said goodbye and left.
But ten minutes later, Senator Cleare returned. Our Deputy Chancellor, Carolyne Quintana, was still at the school, and she was a bit confused. Did the senator forget something?
Turns out, she had forgotten something: a story. On her way to the school earlier that morning, Senator Cleare and her Uber driver struck up a conversation. As he was dropping her off, Mr. Galbani, the driver, asked, “Do you work at P.S. 125? Do you know Ms. Henry?”
Senator Cleare did not. “What about Ms. Henry?” she asked.
Mr. Galbani explained that he moved here with his family from Burkina Faso in West Africa. His daughter didn’t speak English...until she enrolled at P.S. 125, and Ms. Henry became her English as a New Language teacher. He felt like he had hit the jackpot. Ms. Henry, he said, changed the trajectory of his entire family.
Senator Cleare was so moved by the conversation that when she realized she had forgotten, in the rush of the event, to speak with Ms. Henry herself, she returned to P.S. 125. She found Ms. Henry. She told her this story. And what did Ms. Henry say? “I was just doing my job.”
Ms. Henry is here in the audience today; let's all give her a round of applause. Ms. Henry, thank you for all you’ve done for the community at P.S. 125.
This story is the story of New York City Public Schools. This story shows us the purpose of school in the first place. Our schools, and our teachers like Ms. Henry, recognize and uplift the brilliance of our children, guiding them to Bright Starts and Bold Futures.
I am honored to have all of you—educators, families, elected officials, and community members, and more—as partners in this work. Thank you for all you do, and let’s soar on behalf of our children.