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Testimony of Sherley Bretous, Executive Director, Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School to the Joint Committee on Education

Date Published: November 22, 2022


Good afternoon Co-Chair Piesch, Co-Chair Lewis, and members of the Joint Committee on Education for the Commonwealth. It is an honor to be here before you today. My name is Sherley Bretous, and I’m the Executive Director of the Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School in Cambridge, which generally serves 350 students from pre-K to grade 6. We’re currently in our 27th year of operation and have long been a high-performing school where we consistently demonstrate that Black and brown students and students from low-income backgrounds can achieve at the highest levels. 

The pandemic had a tremendous academic and social-emotional impact on students nationwide, particularly among vulnerable populations. For example, 97% of Banneker’s students identify as BIPOC, over 80% identify as Black, and 72% come from low-income homes. Banneker’s students and families are part of the communities most significantly impacted by the pandemic, and our students were not immune. 

However, our school’s strategic, intentional, and multifaceted approach minimized the pandemic’s varied impacts and supported rapid growth. 

Let me be clear: Banneker’s ultimate goal is to grow lifelong learners. We are deeply committed to creating an environment in which learning is fun and joyful – an environment in which children come to see themselves as readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists, artists, and thinkers. They do what real writers do; they do what real scientists do. 

High achievement on the MCAS is not our ultimate goal, but the outcomes of the test are one way we hold ourselves accountable and assess our progress. 

On the spring of 2022 MCAS, Banneker’s students performed among the best in the state – comparable with some of the wealthiest communities in the Commonwealth. In mathematics, students demonstrated tremendous growth, increasing 31 percentage points over 2021 scores and exceeding 2019 pre-pandemic performance. In ELA, students showed substantial achievement, despite the prevalent declines in reading and writing scores statewide in the early grades. In fact, Banneker’s students are achieving at rates twice the statewide average for all students and three times the statewide average for Black students. 

Our community’s success is built on relationships. We strive to ensure that every Banneker student feels known and seen; that every student can name at least one adult outside their classroom teacher who they deeply trust. Without the foundation of these strong relationships, nothing else is possible.  

Our parents know we are invested in their children. When mothers and fathers walk through our building, they see welcoming faces who look like them. Not just in the cafeteria but in the classrooms and among the school’s small leadership team. 

These close relationships, rooted in a shared commitment to educating children to achieve excellence, have allowed our school to close the achievement gap and perform at levels of excellence that too many silently believe are unattainable for students of color. 

As the doors closed in March 2020, we knew we had to find ways to keep our connections open. As the fear grew, we knew we had to make sure that the students could interact daily with their teachers and peers to stabilize their lives. We knew that as our teachers struggled to care for their own families, we had to find ways to make sure that the bonds of our community were stronger than ever before. Finally, we knew that if we kept focused on our mission to serve our students, we would thrive.

For Banneker, like everyone else, March 2020 was a surprise. However, because we had the technology infrastructure, teacher support systems, student relationships, and familial trust, we could quickly mobilize these resources to provide our students with a high-quality academic experience even during this unprecedented interruption to their learning. As a one-to-one school, we could reallocate resources so that every student could access a device, the internet, and the google classroom platform. We adjusted the curriculum to focus on skills essential for success in the next grade. Finally, we addressed our students’ social-emotional needs by ensuring they had regular non-academic specials like art, PE, and music weekly. Banneker students had virtual read-aloud, assemblies, and field trips.   

Additionally, providing teachers with the support they need enables them to provide the support that the students need. We’re constantly focused on our classroom teachers’ professional development to ensure they have the skills and resources to reach each and every one of the diverse learners in their classrooms. Banneker’s professional development occurs in multiple forms. 

We have “whole school” professional development where our teachers study a specific element for three years. 

Additionally, all teachers receive coaching from instructional experts. We have mathematics,  science, and literacy coaches on staff full-time; they are our in-the-moment problem solvers. 

Every classroom at Banneker has two teachers – a lead teacher and an associate teacher – who are in the classroom full-time. Associate teachers are provided with deep support to grow into lead teachers. They participate in the same professional development as the lead teachers and benefit from intensive coaching and mentoring from their partner lead teachers. This creates a sustainable model for our staff, who approach instruction as a true team effort. In addition, our development program for aspiring teachers helps us find diverse candidates and groom and train them over time, ensuring we have a pipeline of talent available who already knows the school, the community, the mission, and the dedication required to succeed at Banneker.

When you invest in teachers’ needs, you create an environment where they want to stay. At Banneker, we experience minimal teacher turnover, and that even remained true during the pandemic when, across the nation, teachers were leaving the profession in droves. 

There is no question: We have seen the profound impacts of the pandemic on our children – academically, emotionally, socially, and even physically, with our youngest children struggling more with simple tasks like putting their coats on and running in the playground. 

But what we know is that deep relationships, high-quality instruction, and a commitment to supporting one another will enable us to ensure every child achieves excellence. 

Right now, we are focused on rebuilding resilience. We have to rebuild attention span and social engagement norms and skills. As we continue this work, we’re incrementally increasing the expectations in the classroom while ensuring children are engaged and finding JOY in learning. 

As an educator and school leader, this was the most challenging time of my career. And I speak of it today as if it has passed like some New England snowstorm in February. But it hasn’t. 

The disruption and trauma from that period will be with us – with students, educators, and society at large – for years to come.  

What we ask from you and our leaders across the state is simple. 

First and foremost, we ask our leaders to lead and not just manage. We ask you to lead with conviction. Lead with belief in our students, our families, and our teachers. And, most importantly, lead with the belief that a high-quality education is a civil right that every student in the Commonwealth deserves.

As schools seek to rebuild, we need clear communications and consistent transparency from the Department of Education, lawmakers, and other decision-makers. Money is not the only answer to address the academic impact of the pandemic. We welcome the annual MCAS as a critical indicator of our progress and a metric that allows us to gauge whether our students will be prepared to face the rigors of higher education. 

Mutual trust and respect are critical. Legislative leaders must recognize that we are professionals in our classrooms and that educators with lived multicultural experiences have much to offer in discussing what works best for students of color.

 Too often, we are talked to or reviewed by those who do not fully understand the culture of our communities or how to create a culture of achievement while also bringing enough joy to create lifelong learners. 

Listening to the needs of those of us on the ground and being responsive to us in an intentional way truly makes a world of difference, which is why I am so grateful that you have created this opportunity for me to share the Banneker experience with you today. 

Thank you.