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Richard Buery

Richard Buery

Patrick Wall

Do schools need to tackle poverty or boost teaching? In that debate, Buery calls for truce

Deputy Mayor Richard Buery is still looking for middle ground.

As the leader of the city’s community schools initiative, a key piece of Mayor de Blasio’s education agenda designed to convert 130 schools into social service hubs, Buery told a crowd on Wednesday that he knows that the challenges of poverty can have a real effect on a student’s ability to learn.

“I think for a long time in our society we have used those set of challenges as an excuse not to do anything,” he said, after receiving an award from the education nonprofit Teaching Matters. “I think often we overcompensate now by [now saying] none of those things matter, that teaching is teaching.”

Those comments reflect the centrist role Buery has carved out within the de Blasio administration, which has criticized charter schools and formed a close alliance with the city teachers union. Buery, who founded two charter schools earlier in his career, often invokes his friendships with Dacia Toll and Dave Levin, charter school operators who participate in rallies staged to criticize de Blasio.

It’s a rare combination of alliances. Many charter schools were founded to prove the point that concentrated poverty should not be an excuse for mediocre academic performance. While few charter leaders would say that poverty doesn’t affect what students need, many have resisted the idea that the key to improving city schools is emphasizing social services provided in school buildings.

But if Buery sees a role for varying strategies for improving education, he lamented Wednesday that most education policy discussions remain polarized and focused on personalities, not facts.

Criticism of de Blasio’s education agenda has hit another high in recent weeks, with charter school advocates staging two rallies this month. De Blasio’s chief critic, Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz, is locked in a dispute with the city over clauses of a contract to provide pre-K. The advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools is running a series of ads suggesting de Blasio has perpetuated inequalities in the school system, one of which features a teacher crying.

Buery, who also oversaw the rollout of the city’s universal pre-kindergarten program, did not mention the recent confrontations specifically, saying in an interview that blame comes from “all directions.”

“One of the things that’s been the most frustrating is that the political environment around education is extraordinarily toxic,” Buery said. “It’s hard to have basic, adult, civilized conversations around these issues.”

“For me, a truly great school is a school that has a strategy not only for excellent teaching and leadership,” he added, “but that the school has an excellent strategy for dealing with children who are coming to school hungry or feeling depressed or anxious because of a personal crisis.”