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A Conversation with: Monica Brady and Damen Davis

In this conversation, we hear from two leaders at CIS 303: The Leadership and Community Service Academy. Located in the South Bronx of New York City, 303 is a vibrant public middle school and a current NTC partner. We spoke with Principal Monica Brady and Assistant Principal Damen Davis, both of whom have collectively decades of experience and tenure at this school.

Can you talk a little bit about how the foundation of providing a safe and loving environment at CIS 303 influences your approaches to teaching and learning, the relationships you have with families, and how you approach professional learning?

Monica Brady: Part of the grand thing about having been in the same location for almost three decades is that I’ve gotten to see a lot of different permutations of the neighborhood, but also of schooling and theories and the many ways that education and thought around it have changed. And so for me, I began when it was really verboten for people to say out loud that you love your kids or hug them. We used to have professional development sessions about how to make sure you were never alone in a room with the kid, which to a degree is also still applicable and makes sense, but it was coming from a much less loving place than we might state it now. And so early on, I got to see what it was like when school itself just wasn’t set up as a safe space.

When I began [teaching], the school was: sit in rows, learn your ABCs, do this arithmetic, and keep it moving. And that never sat well with me. My assistant principal, who became our principal at the time, was a much more loving person than what school really allowed. And [as a teacher], I was even more loving than that. So, I think she really allowed a space for me to do that, and [after some time], it expanded and grew like wildfire. Once you get that physical safety down, which was the very first order of business, then you recognize that just being physically safe isn’t enough. You notice that emotional safety has to happen for kids to want to engage.

And then once you do that, you get to see that there’s an even bigger layer, which is academic safety: this willingness to try new things, a willingness to be vulnerable academically, which until you go through all of those phases, it’s hard to notice. A kid not reading out loud in your room can just seem like them being recalcitrant or it can seem like, oh, they can’t read. But once they’re physically safe and emotionally safe, you get to recognize that maybe they’re just not academically safe. And so I think all of those things really set a foundation for us to recognize that teaching and learning the content is really important. Who’s giving that content is really important. How they deliver is really important, but also the stage you’re setting for the kids in terms of their environment is an equal partner in all of that.

Damen Davis: When it comes to how it leads to our teaching practices, our relationship with families, and just our professional learning in general, we start every year before school starts with the same framing of love, support, and safety. Not just because we have new teachers that are coming into the building, but because we know it’s important to provide our staff with the why, get them pumped, and get them amped to start the school year. But Ms. Brady’s also done a really good job for me to help me understand that it’s not just a teacher in the room, not just Mr. Davis in the room, but I’m Damen and I’m bringing in all of the experiences that I had in the world, my experience with my family, my experience with other people, how I interact with other people. And so just because they’re staff in buildings with kids doesn’t mean that their idea of safety is all the same.

So we have to norm what that looks like. And we do a lot of norming. We start the year with our sessions about families, instruction, norming, what it means to be safe, physically and emotionally. From there, we put it into practice with kids. Our first two weeks of school are just focused on the social and emotional. We set the groundwork for making sure that our students and teachers feel connected and bonded in the school,so the teachers see the students in front of them as more than just a number. We also make sure that our family’s first interactions with school is a positive one. Our first phone call home is to share something positive about the child. We do an introduction. We have orientations and community barbecues to set the scene that we want families in here. We want families to be a part of the school. Ms. Brady makes it known from 5th grade orientation that we have an open-door policy. There’s never a time when you have to make a schedule or an appointment to come in to go into your student’s classroom, your child’s classroom. It’s that idea that we are in service, we are stewards to the community, that is derived from the idea of love and providing a safe environment.

How has that affected your outlook on education personally and professionally? And thinking about this idea of maintaining this environment of safety and love, how does it hold you and the other adults who work in the school building accountable?

Damen Davis: So I think because Ms. Brady holds such a premium on love and safety, and because we make sure that we’re always checking in every six weeks at our professional development or our retreats, teachers know it’s not a one-and-done. Oftentimes when they are in a situation of students not quite meeting the academic expectation or even the behavioral expectation, we’ve gotten to a point where teachers are reflecting on either their own biases or their practices to say, well, what am I doing first? And then they go to their team for support. Our team and structure is one where we reflect on ourselves, especially for our veteran teachers.

Our newer teachers probably jump to the team first. How do I rely on the other people who see these students day to day and who see my students in the same class that I teach? And as a team, we each hold each other accountable either through our student conversations, which is a day dedicated to talking about students and making sure that we’re all on the same page, whether that’s in curriculum time where we just looked at all of our grades and we desegregate the data and we say, how are your students doing by gender? How are your students doing by race and ethnicity? What are we doing to support our most marginalized groups of students? That’s built into the system. And it’s not like Ms. Brady’s coming in and saying, do this, do this, do this. It is in the system so that teachers know we’re coming back to it, but then the teachers take ownership of it because it’s them in a room with each other. I’m never there saying, “Ooh, your black boys are performing 2% lower than you’re a terrible person.” It’s the group getting together and saying, “What can we do differently? How can we change our practices to support all of our students?”

Monica Brady: That was beautifully said. I would only add that for me personally, one of the things that I recognize is that when you create this environment, you create for teachers a space they want to be in and stay in. So we have a lot of longevity. We hire a lot from Teach for America, which traditionally is a two-year program, and very rarely do our Teach for America people only stay two years. They might not stay for 30 like I did (I’m also Teach for America), but our assistant principal is Teach for America and she’s 17 years. My math lead is Teach for America, she’s been here for 15 years. One of my greatest ELA teachers has been here for 13 years. So people stay for a long time because the environment is one where they can grow and feel loved and supported and nurtured in the way that Mr. Davis is talking about.

I think it also means we really attract great talent and we build great talent. So on a professional level, Mr. Davis wouldn’t have stayed in this space if it wasn’t functional. And we have a lot of Mr. Davises. He’s one-of-a-kind, but we’ve got a lot of really great teachers who could’ve taken their services elsewhere. But because of that structure based on love, it professionally becomes really rewarding to be in this place. And teaching is so hard, the profession is so hard, you need something else. I would say on a personal level, it’s shifted my thinking. 303 makes really great people. Our kids come from elementary schools where they are so far behind. It’s not always possible for me to catch them up if they are six years behind. They literally come in pre-reading sometimes, which should not be the job you do in middle school. And so we can’t sort of delude ourselves and say we’re always going to get them perfectly caught up academically. But what we can do is get them perfectly caught up as humans, get them perfectly caught up to be productive citizens, to be advocates for themselves. You feel inculcated by that love your family gives you so you can go out and fight the world. We do that on an academic level for our kids. So they then go to high school and they may not be the best reader and they may not be great at math yet, but they know who to go find because, in their minds, school is a space where academically [they are] safe.

When you’re thinking about the conditions for your educators and in your context and you’re looking at hiring somebody or thinking about how to sustain them, what are the critical conditions for the people, for them to be able to thrive in this environment?

Monica Brady: Early on, I would do group interviews and say, “Raise your hand if you think part of the job is saving the children.” And the people who thought that saving the children was part of their job were not for us, because, you’re 22, you can barely save yourself. So for me, it was really important to have people who understood that our neighborhood and the color of our children does not somehow necessitate you swooping in to be the Christ that they’ve always needed. That seems silly to me. It seems very racist to me. So those people were not for me. And then as long as you didn’t have that mindset and you believed that you could grow and the kids could grow, for me, that really was enough.

Another thing we did was to have candidates go and do a demo lesson. I would ask the kids for their opinions on the lesson. We do a lot of work to make sure that our students are very articulate in how they’re working through issues and expressing themselves. So kids would say things like, “I think that the kids aren’t going to respect them,” or “ I think they’re going to be too soft,” or “They didn’t seem like a lot of fun,” or “I was really bored.” That’s really good information. And though you can have those things and get better, if at first blush the kids said no, I said also no. So that was the filtering. And then we got a hiring committee.

Damen Davis: In the hiring committee, one thing we really make sure to do is always to have a first or second-year teacher on the committee. Mainly because of this idea of ownership; this is your school, too. This person will be a part of our community. And so it’s the double layer. So not only are we hiring, but we’re also reinforcing the practices that we are putting out there as the things we do. As a teacher, I was on that committee with a couple of first years and some veterans, and one of the things that we made sure to do was to be clear that at this school, we work hard. Ms. Brady always says what we do is not magic; it’s hard work, it’s intentional, reflective, and it’s sometimes going to be a little painful when it comes to looking at what you’re doing and growing from that.

What is CIS 303 doing to create and sustain this foundation of love and safety in the face of increasing complexity and challenges within the 303 community in the Bronx, in New York City, and beyond?

Monica Brady: Right now, in our school, we’re seeing about 28% of our students are in special education. About 26% are second-language learner students. I have a similar number of students in temporary housing. And so all the things that would be a crisis in a regular school have been our daily existence for as long as I can remember. Some years it is up and down a little on one of ’em, but that’s pretty much where we sit. And so the challenges for us have never not existed.

Just today, we got a student who came through the door and speaks no English. We are not a bilingual school. Most of my teachers don’t speak Spanish, which is the home language for this student. We explained to the parent that no one here speaks Spanish. It’s going to be really challenging. And the parents said, yep, I want her here. And I suspect that the folks that sent the student here advised: no matter what they say, you put her there because we have a really good reputation in our neighborhood of being able to face these challenges. And it will be fine. She will be safe, she will be loved. And so she might not speak English very well by the end of this year because it takes more time. But she will be all these other things that will, again, surround her with that covering that’ll help her get to the next level. So how do we do it? I think all the things we’ve already described are how you do it so that whatever the challenge is, your community doesn’t necessarily get rocked. And I will just say we all as a nation face the biggest challenge we’ve ever had. If you could get through Covid and still be whole, then there’s nothing you can’t face. And that just requires community commitment, a vision, and a lot of communication.

NTC’s partnership with District 9 and CIS 303 was supported by funding from the Booth Ferris Foundation.