Transcription of the episode “Reimagining the school system: Centering children, families, and teachers”

[00:00:15] Jon M: I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. We have a special program today. I’m pleased to have Lev Moscow as co-host and Santiago Taveras as our guest. Lev teaches history and economics at The Beacon School in New York City and hosts the A Correction Podcast. Santiago Taveras, universally known as Santi, is currently the principal of Computer Engineering and Innovation Charter High School in the Bronx. In his long career, he has been, among many other roles, a teacher, a principal, and deputy chancellor of the New York City Department of Education. I should add that Lev and I have known Santi for over 35 years. He was a teacher at Central Park East 1 and Central Park East Secondary School when Lev was a student there. Welcome, Santi! 

[00:01:00] Santi T: Thank you. Appreciate it. Nice to see you.

[00:01:03] Jon M: As someone with deep experience with the Department of Education, both inside and outside the system, what has changed as a system over the years since you began working in what was then the Board of Education. 

[00:01:17] Santi T: One of the biggest changes is the accountability. I don’t remember it being as rigorous as it is now. And there’s nothing wrong with accountability, but you have so many variables at a school that determine outcomes, and not all the outcomes are quantifiable, some of the quality type of of outcomes. So I think that we have not gotten an opportunity to really measure that in a systemic way. And we often look at schools and determine whether they’re good or bad by their graduation rate. And I can tell you tons of success stories of kids that may not have gotten the grades, but made enormous progress, social emotionally, and just being able to get their themselves together. So I think that there’s a disconnect between the two and, and the way that schools are are judged.

[00:02:08] Lev M: Santi, I’m wondering who’s benefited from these changes. 

[00:02:13] Santi T: Good question. I think the schools that can, that focus on the testing, benefit because they’re the ones in the top 100 high schools in the newspaper and all of this stuff. And then they get to hand pick their kids. And one of the things I remember Norman Wexler, the superintendent in the Bronx, when I was principal of Banana Kelly High School, got really upset because we were very close to becoming a SURR School. Our test scores were not good. And I remember him coming over and he said, “You got like 5,000 applicants and you don’t look at their test scores.” I said, “No,, I look at their zip code and I want kids from the neighborhood.” and then he’s like, “You got these perfectly 3 and 4 kids that you are not even accepting.” And I said, “I don’t care what they’re scoring. I need the kids from the neighborhood because this is supposed to be a community school.” And I always remember he and I going back and forth about that. But I did have to adjust the way that we did teaching at Banana Kelly High School because we didn’t want to go SURR. We didn’t want to become a School Under District Review or whatever SURR stood for at that time. 

[00:03:24] Lev M: So in my classroom, my history classroom, when we’re looking at, particularly in 10th grade, when we’re looking at systems, like philosophical systems or political systems, one way to evaluate the system or think about the system is to ask questions of the system or about the system. And one of the questions that we ask is what assumptions does the system make about the people in the system. And you’ve been in the system for a really long time and know, I think, all the angles of the system. So I’m wondering what assumptions does the school system in New York City make about the people in the system? 

[00:04:06] Santi T: It’s not just New York City, right. So I worked for Cambridge Education, which is a worldwide company, for profit. I was vice president of the east coast for two years at Cambridge Education, in charge of school reform and turnaround. And the assumptions that generally is made that if you are a good teacher and you are asked to be assistant principal or principal, they assume that you know how to do that job. If you’re a good principal and they pick you to be a superintendent, they assume you’re going to be really good at doing the superintendent’s job. The skill is different. And I believe that it is important for us to provide a support system for both superintendents and for principals on how to do that new job from their previous job. And I think that’s one of the biggest assumptions. 

 A friend of mine, Dr. Devia Franklyn, just did a study on the kind of support women of color that become superintendents get when they become superintendents. And one of her findings is that they get very little support. So yes, you are a good principal, but now how do you support a group of 20, 30, 40 principals and help them put systems in place to get better? It’s not easy. As a former superintendent, it is absolutely not easy. And I think that that’s one of the biggest assumptions that is made in general in education, not just New York. 

[00:05:31] Jon M: What kind of assumptions does the system make about students and parents? 

[00:05:37] Santi T: One of the biggest assumptions that is made is that they can get to school on a regular time, that they have people that will take care of elderly parent, a kid that’s in need, or whatever it is, because the supports are not there. For me, any student should really have an intake and find out what is life like for that particular student? In my current school, I have kids that have to take their siblings to school before they come to school. And that’s an assumption that we make. And because I’m outside every morning, greeting my children, I see her. And I’m like, Ashley, hurry up and get those kids to school so you’re not late. So the supports that families need in order to function are not necessarily there. 

I don’t know if you know, but while the school system closed, there’s an article in the New Yorker about how some schools stayed open. And I volunteered to be one of those people that ran one of those, they called them the Regional Education Centers. And one of the things that I learned there is so we have the children of essential workers. And I remember one mother of three children, a nurse at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, and she needed to be at work at 7:00 in the morning, but the Center wouldn’t open until 7:30. I’ve always been super early in all my career. And I was there at six and she would always complain about, oh my God, I gotta drop off the kids. And I say, you know what? Just drop them off whenever you need to. I’ll be here. And actually one of my favorite pictures from then is one where, so she would bring the kids between 6:15 and 6:30 so she could get to work at by seven. And the youngest one is three years old and he just lay on my shoulder and slept so that his mom could get to work on time. But that’s something that I did for that family. There were other families that also needed support, but the system doesn’t take into account all of those needs and provide those supports in order for the family to be able to have a less anxiety-filled day from the minute that they wake up in the morning.

[00:07:37] Jon M: What should the purpose of the school system?

[00:07:42] Santi T: Sort of a very broad kind of way. I’ve thought about that many times because when I was at Bank Street, the Principals Institute, one of those assignments that you get to write of your perfect utopian school. And I always said that school should be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so that the family can have access at any time to the materials needed in order to do research and learn. And this is really before the Internet. 

And the other thought about that whole idea that I had that back then, and that was like in 1996, ’97, whatever it was, is that schools should not have walls. It should be somewhere where the kids are learning from different things. That’s the thing I learned about Central Park East. I was talking to Julian Cohen, one of the teachers at CPE, and we were talking about how Debbie really empowered us as teachers to do very creative, programmatic, project- based learning for the kids where it was relevant. 

[00:08:42] Jon M: That’s Debbie Meier you’re talking about. 

[00:08:44] Santi T: Yeah. Debbie Meier. So I think that the schools need to be more like that because in life, yes, you may have to take a test to be a sanitation worker, a teacher, a cop, or this or that. But once that test is done, there are experiences that they’ve got to do and go through. And it’s not in any test at that point. It’s really about life and dealing with whatever issues, that is it’s about thinking critically, it’s thinking deductively, so here’s a problem. What are the different steps that I need to take in order to get to a solution? Because usually complicated problems don’t just go, okay, I got the solution. Boom. No, this has to happen. That has to happen. And this has to happen before I even have a solution. 

So Ashley, for example, in order for Ashley to have to come to school without having to take her children, the school should be able, or the system should be providing, even if it’s close enough, volunteers or whatever it is, people that can walk those two kids to their preschool so that Ashley doesn’t have to do it, so that Ashley doesn’t have to make breakfast for brother and sister, right. So just different things in order for that to happen. But it’s not like Ashley should just get to, to school on time. No, there’s all these different variables that make Ashley late, right. So I think it’s about developing critical thinkers that can think through a problem and figure it out without knowing that you’re not gonna just have it one step solution, that there will be multiple steps. And I think that that’s part of the frustration with a lot of families. When they can’t get satisfaction immediately, they grow frustrated. Because they may not have the skill set to get through all of the different places or the connections or the wherewithal to figure out how to get to an end goal that is satisfactory to them and their employer, or whatever the case may be.

[00:10:27] Lev M: I wonder Santi, how would you describe or what would you describe the purpose of the system as the system is currently constructed?

[00:10:36] Santi T: The purpose of the system right now, I think, is to get kids prepared for college. I think that’s their main goal. I know that a lot of the CTE programs were shut down at some point, including while I was superintendent and not every kid is cut out for college. 

[00:10:52] Lev M: CTE is Career and Technical Ed? 

[00:10:53] Santi T: Career and technical education, right. So whether it’s automotive or whatever. I remember, I was superintendent of Alfred E. Smith, and we had kids in the senior shop classes who had not passed English nine, so they couldn’t graduate. They would become sidewalk mechanics. They could fix your car really quickly, really well, but they couldn’t pass the ELA test. So I think that there is a negative connotation, if you say you’d rather go for a career instead of college, after you finish high school.

My son, who’s now 20, dyslexic, and struggled throughout school. And he always told us, I’m not going to college because if elementary, middle and high school was this tough, college was not in the works for him. But what wound up happening is that from middle school on, he loved sound and he did the sound board at the school play every year in middle school. When he went to high school, he actually got into the theater program, not to act, but to actually do the sound board, to do the sound effects when they needed to come in. He was so good at it by the second year, by sophomore year, that the school started hiring him for when the school rented out the auditorium for events that were happening here in Teaneck. He would set up the sound system and whatever group was coming, church group, whatever, he set up the sound board and all of that. When he graduated, he actually was asked to be an IT person for the high school. And my wife and I laughed because he doesn’t have an associates. That’s like the minimum requirement. They hired him, and he’s there now starting his third year. He’s making a nice chunk of change for a 20 year old. But at the same time, IATSE, which is the union for live entertainment, had an apprenticeship. Guess who took the advantage of the apprenticeship? Ernesto did. 

He now works putting up stages and taking down stages at MetLife Stadium, Prudential, that New Jersey PAC, and is part of the union. This is a kid who didn’t want to go to college, but because of this program, he had to take 12 or 16 credits in college, and he did it because he wants to be a sound engineer. So, think it’s important for us to not label kids that want to go in that track as failures. And I think that that’s one of the things that happened. I think our schools in general are little factories to try to get everybody to be a college-educated person, which is fine for those that want to go that route, but they should have an alternative for those kids like Ernesto, for those kids at Alfred E. Smith. They just wanted to be a mechanic. They didn’t care about anything else, necessarily. Not that those skills are not needed, but there has to be some compromise and for schools not to be penalized because ten of their kids decided to go to Co-op Tech,, where they learn carpentry and the construction industry, they shouldn’t be penalized because some of those guys make more money than a teacher coming straight out of college with $200,000 in debt. But these people can make good money, build you a house, and not have to have step foot on a college campus. And I think in society in general, that’s something that we need to change the narrative on. And that if you graduate high school with a skill set that makes you employable immediately, then they should celebrate that just as much as they would celebrate somebody who got into Yale, City College of New York, NYU, whatever the case may.

[00:14:51] Lev M: So in a way, that’s another assumption that the system makes about the people in the system, that everybody in the system needs to go to college. And you’re saying that that’s not necessarily the case. 

[00:15:00] Santi T: Well, Lev it’s, it’s not just the, the system, any parent of any immigrant. Education is the key. Yes, I believe education is the key, but it could be education in construction. It could be education [inaudible]. It could be education in college. It just needs to be education, not necessarily centered around academia, not centered around getting a bachelor’s degree, which basically is just a high school diploma with a couple of extra classes. Because most places, professionals, now want a master’s right after that. I think in general, especially with the Latinos, education is important. They’ll drill that to their kids. But always thinking education has to be the college route. Education can definitely be the career technical education way. I mean, right now, if you go into the, into the IT world, you can make a lot of money. And how, and how often do we, as teachers, ask a kid for help, where we can’t get on the internet or whatever. They know this stuff. They grew up with this stuff. We’re old and don’t. We kind of get it, but we aren’t always able to do that. And it’s a shame that’s not celebrated even though it should be.

[00:16:07] Jon M: Continuing on the theme of assumptions, what kind of assumptions does the system make about parents? 

[00:16:16] Santi T: Not that they trust the system, that they should trust the system and that parents know what the resources are. We have many parents that are afraid to go to anybody with authority, because they may not be documented. 

We have many parents that or may not be literate. I remember at Banana Kelly you know, we had parent orientation for the incoming class and I give out the blue cards and stuff. And there’s a couple of parents who are like, oh, I’ll fill this out at. home. But I don’t want to let the blue card go because this is going to be the only way that I’m going to be able to get contact information.When I sat down with that parent, I realized they couldn’t read it. We make that assumption as well. 

We send out the survey every year, and now it’s just mainly through email. We make the assumption that parents do email. I send out a newsletter every single Sunday night at eight o’clock to my parents. And I’m making the assumption that they’re gonna get on email, because this is a charter school, and you had to make the conscious choice of going to a charter school instead of just the school that the system puts you in. And I know that Monday I got 40 something out of 420 or 430 emails that bounce back.I go through each one of them, a lot of them were, were kicked back because their mailbox is full. What does it tell you? The parents are not necessarily all reading their emails. I made that assumption. That one’s on me. It’s a lot of that stuff. When we went to the COVID and school shutdown, we made the assumptions that parents knew how to get online for their kids. 

When I was at the REC, I had to get one of my workers to specifically be in charge of getting the password and the different systems the kids were in because the kids were coming from different schools, just to get them on. And the parents, if the kid wasn’t coming to school, I would tell them you make sure that they get online and they’re like,” I don’t know how to do that. I’m not even gonna waste my time because I’ve got to come home, cook, clean, take care of the kids. It’s like, get online. Are you kidding me?” No, that’s another thing that they’re just not doing. We make those assumptions with parents. I think the survey, you’re only getting the parents that are computer savvy.

If you have parents that don’t have a computer and all they have is their phone, and don’t want to go through the thing– through the survey, which is very lengthy, they’re not going to fill it out. You’re only getting a specific set of parents with that are filling out those surveys. We make assumptions about that as well. 

[00:18:47] Lev M: There are about 75,000 teachers in the New York City public school system. Thousands more in the charter school system. And there are really wonderful, committed people like you in the system, and who have been at the top of the system. And yet the system continues to fail lots and lots of students. One of the things that I’ve thought about a lot is how do you have all of these committed adults in the system with the very best intentions, and the system continues to produce outputs or outcomes that are suboptimal. What do you think is going on there?

[00:19:25] Santi T: You were in my house the other day when I had a little gathering, and we talked exactly about that. Again, no simple answer. When I took over Clinton High School, what I found there, yes, a failing high school. I mean, horrible. But what I found there is that there was really no real professional development for professional growth of the teacher. Teachers didn’t necessarily feel supported. And mind you, you had some teachers that had checked out, but that was something that also teachers didn’t have, right. If somebody can support them and do that. At Eastside Community High School, when Jill Herman opened that school back in 1992, I was the assistant principal. And I remember the teachers that I had then, 40, 30 years ago. They still talk about how important it was for us to have a very easy going kind of professional development. 

To briefly describe it, we would have a volunteer. They would get their class videotaped for the entire length for the class. The teacher would then take that videotape home, yes, the big cassette tapes back in the days, watch it and then come back, and only show us 10 minutes of that class. And the teacher got to ask, ” What could have I done better during those 10 minutes?” And then the rest of the group will give feedback using the tuning protocol. So, that, till this day, I still keep in touch with some of those teachers. They say that that was the best PD that they ever had in their life because we get caught up with whatever flavor of the month it is, right? It’s culturally relevant and it’s ethnic whatever, it’s this and that, and it’s the rainbow. It’s all kinds of stuff. But what do I need as a teacher right now in my class with my 30 kids? How do I get better with these kids? And that’s a lot of work, and schools don’t have the resources necessarily, and sometimes just not the creativity to create a bell schedule and a program where the teachers are getting the support during the school day.

Teaching is exhausting. And the last thing you want is a PD at the end of the day, either on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday, cuz you’re exhausted. And plus, as a good teacher, you want to follow up with that kid who may have not done something. You don’t want to spend that time in a PD that you don’t think is going to be helpful to you. You’re going to want to call that parent. You want to try to get that kid help. That’s another issue. First of all, I think all teachers want to be good teachers when you first start. There are a lot of reasons why they don’t do well, but if they don’t have the support, it’s very hard to get better.

At Central Park East, where I started my teaching, I always say I grew up at Central Park East, I had amazing teachers, some of whom I talk to still. Bruce Kanze, I just spoke with about two months ago to help me with my math teacher. He was an expert on manipulatives. I speak to those because they understood that the professional development that you need as an individual teacher is not one that is what you would call a tier one intervention, which is the whole staff is going get this thing. No, it has to be tier three support, where it’s just what Santi needs to get through this class, this particular group that has been giving him a hard time because he doesn’t have the skill set, the strategies, to help that little group. That’s how how granular you need to get. But yet we buy these very expensive programs, these PhDs that sell you, I remember Jay Mctighe and Grant Wiggins. When I was the superintendent, they charged $11,000 a day for the professional development for all those superintendents. 

[00:23:06] Lev M: Wow. 

[00:23:06] Santi T: That didn’t touch a classroom. That didn’t touch a teacher. Instead, I would’ve preferred like, okay, this teacher that doesn’t know how to do their curriculum and plan from one day to the next, let’s sit down with that teacher. Let’s look at the whole thing. Let’s break it down into pieces. Let’s break it down into particular lessons. Let’s break it down into particular parts of a lesson where they can get comfortable. You can’t just say, this is a great lesson. You’ve got to say this is your beginning. Great. Whether you call it a do now, whatever you call it, your objective, whatever you want to call it. But then it’s your little mini lesson or whatever the point is, or your objective of that day. Is that solid? Is that going to get you some critical thinking? Is that asking the kids the right question? All of those are different components that we rarely get to talk to because we have these grandiose ideas of what works. And at the end of the day, nothing really works unless it’s like that small group one on one. What do you think you need? Let’s work on that and then move forward from there. 

[00:24:02] Jon M: Santi, the kind of PD that you’re describing as really meaningful is obviously not new. I mean, people were doing it… 

[00:24:09] Santi T: No. I started out in 1988, Jon. 

[00:24:13] Jon M: Why is it so difficult? And it’s being done now in a number of Consortium schools and so on. Why is it difficult for the system to have this be the norm? And instead, people look at these pockets of schools that are doing it. Is there a systemic reason why this does not become what’s accepted and expected every place?

[00:24:39] Santi T: Yeah, because back whenever the education system was set up, it was set up that these things need to happen during the school day. And this is how you do your budget. It’s many layers, too, because part of it is, is that those Consortium schools, my school right now. I made a very conscious decision that every grade level will have two periods every single day as professional development and common planning time. A lot of people don’t know how to do that. So when I started here, which it was only in March, and now we had to do programming for the next year, they’re like, oh yeah, just put the classes you need and the number of kids in the computer, I said, no, let’s get my index cards. Let’s group the kids, let’s select the kids, let’s select the classes. Let’s select when those classes are going to happen, because it is important for that to happen.

So one day a week, consciously again, I made a decision. Every period is five minutes shorter every single Friday. Now we’re going to have professional development, either for the whole school, by grade, by content area or whatever needs we have, or multiple areas, depending on what we need at the school. Beause we’ve got to constantly evaluate what we need. It’s a budgetary decision. I think some schools are very administrative heavy, which then cuts down on the number of people that you could bring in. I think that the partnerships in schools need to get better in terms of having– all of these groups get federal funding for different things. And I think it’s important for schools and state and federal government and city to commingle some funds in order to make certain things happen.

In order for a common planning time to happen, that means that those core teachers can’t teach during those two periods. You gotta find where else do they go? They got gym, but we’ve only got one gym. They could go to art, they could go to whatever. But you have to have additional support so that the kids can have those electives during the time that those core teachers can actually sit and do that. 

It’s not necessarily just a budget issue. It’s also a programming issue. And a lot of times people just don’t know how to do it. When I came in to be the principal of South Bronx High School and I mentioned that to the programmer, and I have 1500 kids there, “oh no, that can’t be done.” I said, “oh no, let me show you, let me sit down and I’ll show you.” If I didn’t know better, I would’ve believed her because she’d been doing the programming for 20 years plus. But because I learned from Central Park East that you don’t let a machine program your kids and your teachers, you sit down and you actually put names on a list and these are the kids that are better off, that’s better grouping. This is a teacher that would better suit that group of kids. This is the time that we could do this. Education is difficult. It’s such a big problem that if we had a simple solution, every school would be great. But it goes into mindsets, it goes into philosophical beliefs and it goes into beliefs about how kids learn, how teachers learn, what people should know, and all of these assumptions that we make. So it makes it a lot harder than what it needs to be. 

[00:27:39] Lev M: You mentioned this group that came in and did professional development that charged couple thousand dollars. 

[00:27:45] Santi T: Yeah. I always remember. I dropped my jaw when I heard that number.

[00:27:49] Lev M: I have a friend who works in the DOE, and he said he spent most of last summer listening to people come from all over the country, business people come from over the country and give spiels about things that the DOE needed to purchase to make education better. And I’m wondering to what extent you think the system, how pervasive is that? And to what extent has the system been captured by private business interests? 

[00:28:17] Santi T: That’s the elephant in the room. When Common Core came out and you needed a Common Core book, I think it was Prentice-Hall basically ripped the cover off their previous book, slapped the new cover on it. And I’m not even kidding, essentially the same exact thing. And now this is the Common Core. And I think that deals are made, because if you look at any principals’ meeting, any superintendents’ meeting, because there’s no budget for it in the DOE. We look for vendors that would come and buy that nice lunch that everybody deserves in nice venue, and they bring their materials. So if you’re only exposed to whatever that organization is, you’re going to buy that. And that’s what you’re going to go with. And I think that there’s a lot of that in the DOE. 

And I remember, and again, I’m mentioning names. I don’t care what they’re going to do to me. But Teachers College, for example. Lucy Calkins and all of this great thing that they did, right? Sure that’s great. But then when I had my two schools that had Lucy Calkins, I forget what the name of their program was, writing whatever, and they threatened to leave the school. So I mandated a meeting as a superintendent with Lucy Calkins.. And I said, you only work with white kids, because these schools don’t have any white kids. They’re in the South Bronx. And oh, why do you say that? Blah, blah, blah, blah. Well, because your people are not successful so you want to walk out. Long story short, eventually we changed the person that was delivering the actual PD and it turned out to be a lot better. But at the end of the day then, how many years ago was it that it came out, that it was really not as successful as they wanted it to be.

I even go deeper than that. When I was at principal at Clinton High School, I challenged Carmen Fariña about this. What was the name of the community school money? Seven hundred and seventy five million dollars of community money that we had. And you had to, no doubt about it. Every kid needed to have an hour and 15 minutes extra a day with that money. Oh, I’m sorry. With the same lousy teachers really that’s gonna make a difference. When none of my teachers wanted, I needed 63 classrooms, I remember. I needed 63 teachers. I had 3000 kids and only seven teachers actually applied. I said, where am I supposed to call? And they’d tell me their answer from Tweed was, why don’t you put an ad on the paper? I’m not HR. It ain’t my job to do that. And who’s going to come for an hour, 15 minutes, drive, one hour in, one hour out, to make whatever the per session rate was. Made no sense. Not every kid needed the extra help either. Some kids, especially seniors, had jobs, had classes at Lehman College, had all kinds of things. And I try to tell her, we don’t need every single kid here. Nope. It has to be every kid. Needless to say, two or three years ago, and you could look it up in the newspaper, Bill de Blasio acknowledges that $775 million dollars of the community school experiment was a failure. I tried to tell you that before you spent the money. 

One of the craziest things was that we had $30,000 to spend on this community event. I could not change it for anything else. It was at the end of the year, I spent $30,000 on a party. I had bouncy houses, barbecue, balloons, face painting, ice cream from Softee. Because I could not spend it on anything else. I don’t remember the exact number, but twelve or thirteen hundred parents and community people came to the event because we had a DJ in the beautiful field in Clinton and whatever. Great event, but $30,000 worth? Waste of money. DOE waste of money. 

By the way, going back to the TC. I remember looking at TC and I said, why is it that TC has 32 million dollars worth of contracts? Wow. Then you find out that Carmen Fariña and Lucy Calkins are tied at the hip. Hello. And then she goes after me and gets me fired. It’s amazing how the system works. Going back to what you had asked earlier, it is disgusting how many deals are made under the sheets or under the cover or wherever the hell they’re made, but they’re not made with the best intention of the children. One thing I could tell you, in my 33 years, I have never gone to sleep knowing that I didn’t do the right thing by the kids, ever. And I could tell you a bunch of times where the DOE made decisions based on the elected officials or whatever other interest groups were out there as opposed to what was right for the kids. Yeah. I had told myself, I wasn’t gonna say anything controversial, but at the end of the day, you do what you gotta do. 

[00:32:50] Lev M: Santi, I want to play, if it’s okay with you, a game, and the rounds will be pretty quick.

[00:32:55] Santi T: You know Eric Nadelstern, do you know him? 

[00:32:57] Lev M: I do. 

[00:32:59] Santi T: I remember, and this goes back into when I was a superintendent. And I’m sitting next to Eric and Eric says, have you ever played bullshit bingo. And I’m like, what do you mean? He says, just write down all the words, the hot words, that everybody’s using nowadays. And when they get to five of those words, you can say bullshit. Is this the kind of game we’re playing? 

[00:33:22] Lev M: Well, close. The game is gonna be overrated, underrated. I’m going to ask you about something and you’re gonna tell me if that thing, in your mind, overrated or underrated. And you can say two sentences about why, but we’ll go pretty quickly. So does this sound like a game you want to play? 

[00:33:38] Santi T: Sure. Why not? 

[00:33:39] Lev M: Okay, good. Number one, overrated, underrated. Charter schools.

[00:33:46] Santi T: There’s a misconception. Underrated. And there’s a misconception that charter schools are taking money away from public schools. Charter schools are public schools. It just gives you a little bit more flexibility, what you can and cannot do. I’m a charter school principal. My three kids went to charter schools and I worked for the DOE for 30 years. And I’m a product of the New York City public school system.

[00:34:09] Lev M: Overrated, underrated. Technology in the classroom.

[00:34:13] Santi T: Oh, my God, we haven’t even begun to learn how to use the technology in the classroom. So it is underrated because they think a smartboard and a computer in the corner, or a Chromebook is technology. I have very few classes that I could tell you that the technology was like up to date. The use of the technology may look cool, but it’s not being used to the maximum ability. 

[00:34:39] Lev M: In your experience, where did you see technology being used best?

[00:34:45] Santi T: When the kids are able to actually use their phone and learn how to use their phone to look up stuff that is relevant to whatever class is happening. A few of my teachers actually have attempted it, and it was good before I just banned phones in my classrooms because not everybody had that skill set as that teacher. But that has been, and I have seen people do that. And actually for one of our classes, which is the career class– career preparation class, we actually allow the kids to open up Yondr pouches for the kids to take out their phone, and they did a little bit of research when the questions were asked for what career is, whatever, and what do you need in order to become a whatever. And that was that class, I thought that that was a really cool use of technology. And I was like, oh yeah, for that, we could definitely have the phones out. 

[00:35:32] Lev M: Overrated, underrated. Sports and arts programs. 

[00:35:37] Santi T: They are underrated. They should be thought of a lot higher. My thing was always that I’m an artist, I do calligraphy, I do graffiti, I paint and draw and whatever. My sister sings with Mark Anthony. She went to High School of Music and Arts. She went to New England Conservatory. My sister-in-law’s a singer. My daughter is [inaudible] through the theater. Ernesto would not have gotten through through high school, I don’t think, if it wasn’t because of the theater program. I think that those are the things that the kids run home and show their parents. Look at the picture I drew or look at whatever I did in art, or let me recite this poem or whatever. And I think that that has always been something that has been shortchanged. And the first thing that gets cut. If it weren’t for art and sports, I may not have gotten through high school. I love baseball. I love football, love basketball, and I love to draw. Those are the classes that I never cut. You tell me about English and all, I cut that a couple of times when I was in Kennedy High School. So I think that that’s the one that rated the importance that, that plays a part in our kids’ lives. A lot of our kids’ parents are artists. And basically what you’re saying is that they’re not valued at the school because what’s valued at schools, only the reading, writing, and arithmetic. So I think it’s way underrated and I wish that schools would never even think of cutting sports and everything. Even at Central Park East, as small of a school as it was, sports played a really big part. As a team, whether you played or not, you were conscious about whether or not we were playing and whether or not we won or lost. And I think it just helps build community. I mean, when you look at the University of Michigan, where a hundred thousand people go to watch a football game, and the camaraderie and everybody dressed in the same colors and sharing and singing the same song, there’s a lot to be said. At Clinton, I loved our arts program and our music program. Kids only wanted to come for that. I think that that’s something that is underrated by far in our school system. 

[00:37:40] Lev M: And then finally, small schools. 

[00:37:46] Santi T: I think it’s underrated because I don’t think that people understand the value of knowing every single kid, so they think small schools are a waste of money. Actually, is this the right folder? Maybe not. But when I went from Banana Kelly High School to South Bronx High School, I did an analysis on the budget and the budget use because South Bronx High School was being cut into three different schools. And the argument of people who were against small schools was that they spend much more money on administration and this and that, but what people don’t know in the large school, you need a coordinator for testing. That person doesn’t teach as many classes and gets paid extra for any overtime. A person that coordinates student affairs in a big school doesn’t teach all of the classes and so forth and so on. And what I realize is that that money and amounted to, when you combine all of those positions, amounted a lot more than the three principals and two assistant principals that each one of the small schools had.

 In the big school, I also had nine assistant principals. Wow. It’s not like you are saving money by having a big school. What I think is the problem is that when you are a small school, you can’t offer all the different classes. All of the AP courses, all of the advanced placement courses, and things like that. And that’s where as a campus, they should work together. The three schools or however many schools and create opportunities for kids that aspire to do those type of classes. And I think that that’s important to recognize and for people to really understand. 

I know that I have it in a folder around here because at one point I wanted to have not a blog, because at that time we didn’t call it blog, but, but a series of articles that talked about all of these different issues that you guys are actually asking about. When you’ve been in this field for this long you don’t just go to work and come back. You think about what works and what doesn’t work. You do some research, you talk to colleagues, you find out what works in that school and why doesn’t it work in this school and how do you do this and how does this school do that.

And I think that those opportunities are fewer, less frequent, now than back in the days, because back in the days, we, at least in Central Park East, I don’t know if all the other schools did this, but we had inter visitations. We could see each other’s classrooms. And I often remember going to Jeremy’s class for the video class because he had some of the kids who not everybody thought would be focused, and those kids were engaged. And then you go to somebody else’s class and they’re not as engaged. And why is that? What did Jeremy do that that person’s not doing, including myself. I wasn’t successful with every kid, but I did go to Bruce. I went to Alice. I went to all these different teachers who had their expertise in certain areas and tried to learn from them. And actually that’s something that I’m doing on two on Wednesday. When we have our staff back on Wednesday, we’re actually reading “Lessons from the Geese,” and there’s those lessons about geese and why they fly in formation and how any goose can be the lead when the other ones get tired and how the honking is encouraging that person to keep going, that goose to be going.

And what I’ve learned in all of my 30 something years is that if everybody’s not on the same page, it doesn’t matter how much money you pour into that school. It’s just not going to work. People have to learn how to work together, collaborate. When they don’t agree with something, have a conversation and figure out why do you think this while I think that, and you may find out why that person’s thinking that way. When somebody is down and you can tell that they’re not doing well, help them, pick them up. Say I got you today and I’ll do this and that because I also learned that a leader can’t do it by themselves. None of the schools I could say that I’ve been successful because it’s me. It’s been because of the team that I’ve had around me and the willingness to give them the opportunity to lead and do different things.

In this school, I went to the US Open yesterday with my assistant principal, Joshua Laub, who was the principal of Banana Kelly after I left, who was a dear friend, and we had this discussion. And I said, I delegate a lot because my job right now as a retired DOE person is to make my assistant principal the best principal possible when he’s ready, but it’s teaching them how to delegate in that for example, all the scheduling that we did. I didn’t do it with my AP. I told them how to do it. We brought in two teachers and they did it. The testing for the Regents, we didn’t schedule it. We got two teachers and say, how will you run this? Because you have to develop leadership. 

And that’s one thing with Debbie Meier. I admire her like crazy because she taught us all how to lead. And when she started that other school in Massachusetts, she required that every single teacher had an administrative license. Because I remember when I was at Banana Kelly, my first year, I was the only licensed supervisor. And whenever I was going to go to a principals’ meeting out of the building, I had to call the superintendent to send me a supervisor . While if I had somebody already in, that wasn’t necessarily assistant principal, but had the license, I wouldn’t have to do that. It’s an interesting process, and I continue to sing Debbie’s praises till this day. She and I didn’t always see eye to eye and don’t always see eye to eye, but I’ve learned a lot from that lady and from Herb Rosenfeld. I can’t tell you how much Herb impacted my learning as a young, arrogant Latino, know-it-all back then to really checking me on certain pieces and how to become a team player, collaborator, somebody who could actually get people to work with them. My motto’s always been that, yes, I became all of these wonderful titles, but it’s only because of people that work with me, made me look good. That’s the only reason.

[00:43:37] Jon M: Thank you, Santiago Taveras. And thank you, listeners. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with friends and colleagues. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating or review. This helps other people to find the show. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles, and to subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes.. We work with consultants to offer customized SEL programs, with a focus on ethics, for schools and youth programs in the New York City and San Francisco Bay areas. Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Until next week!

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