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Brooklyn panel tackles ties between schools and businesses

If David Banks were mayor, city teachers would be able to spend time during the summer visiting the companies where their students might one day work.

Banks, a former principal who is now the president and CEO of the Eagle Academy Foundation, is not running for mayor. But he hopes to influence the candidates who are.

Banks was one of four people to appear on a panel this morning to discuss ways to bring schools and the business community together to improve student achievement and the city. The panel was moderated by NY1’s Errol Louis and convened by Morty Ballen, the CEO of Explore Schools, a network of four charter schools in Central Brooklyn.

Ballen said he organized the panel, titled “Achieving the Brooklyn Dream,” because he wanted to spur a public conversation about educational inequities in the borough. The borough was recently named “the coolest place on the planet” by GQ Magazine, he said, “yet at the same time our borough’s students aren’t all getting what they need to be part of the American dream that’s taking place right here.”

The borough has higher-than-average unemployment and child poverty rates, and fewer students than average meet the state’s math and literacy proficiency standards. “Poverty does present some real barriers to learning,” Ballen said, contradicting an idea that was once dogma in the charter school world. “It’s not an excuse but it’s something that needs to be acknowledged.”

But he said the K-12 education sector, higher education, and the business community could do far more to support high-need students.

“One of the things we’re doing terribly in the business world is we’re not going into communities where we know there is a great talent,” said Carlo Scissura, a panelist who was on District 20’s Board of Education before Mayor Bloomberg took control of the city’s schools. “Unless you’re in one of these great schools the talent is not coming out.”

As the head of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, Scissura advocates for local businesses. He also pressures them to take on interns to expose students to the challenges and culture of the workplace.

He said he tells business leaders who are worried about the burden of managing interns, “Give the kid work to do, and you will be surprised by the amount of great talent that is sitting across Brooklyn in housing projects.”

An added benefit of working with students, Scissura said, is that then business leaders can say with authority what schools are teaching well and what skills they are not developing in students, instead of simply complaining that schools are not producing graduates who are ready for the workforce.

Banks, too, said stronger ties should be built between schools and business. He proposed helping teachers spend time during the summer at technology companies and other cutting-edge businesses so they could “get a deeper sense of what are the skills that are needed” in the contemporary workplace.

“Very few [teachers] have spent time in tech companies,” he said. “That’s just the reality.”

The proposal raised some eyebrows. “I don’t think we need to be asking our teachers to know what the latest trend is,” said Karen Gould, the president of Brooklyn College, who also sat on the panel. She argued that exposure to other workplaces would be useful for teachers only insofar as it helps them develop students who have the intellectual agility to learn new skills as their field evolves.

Still, when Banks said he would put together a white paper to advise mayoral candidates about issues in education he considers critical, including the relationship between schools and business,Gould quickly volunteered to help him.

So did Ballen. After the panel, he said the white paper would likely be the next step in a discussion that he said he was “baffled” had taken a backseat to other issues, such as controversial space-sharing arrangements, for mayoral candidates.

“Why isn’t this being talked about?” Ballen said. “There’s an absence of leadership right now to point to what our students really need. The fact that that’s not happening we should be more alarmed about.”