The Origin of PASSNYC: Founder’s Thoughts with Ryan J. S. Baxter

We’re sitting down with Founder and Chairman, Ryan J. S. Baxter, to learn more about his inspiration for starting PASSNYC.

What was your school experience like? 

I grew up in New York City and went to Hunter High School and Hunter College, which is a publicly-funded school for gifted students, for nursery through college. For 18 years, I had teachers and staff that were willing to go to bat for me, and protect me from the many poor choices I made growing up. I had incredible friends that put up with me and a very supportive family. 

I was granted the freedom to pursue my interests regardless of what they were at the time. But I didn’t appreciate that freedom until many years later. I realize now that I didn’t make the most of many of the opportunities that were presented to me time and time again. In particular, I performed very poorly because I didn’t realize school is all about learning how make use of the content and facts you learn in class to interact with the world

Why did you start PASSNYC?

I’ve become successful because my parents were highly involved, educated about educational opportunities in New York, and able to support me throughout school. Unfortunately, for many students this is an exception to the norm.

With PASSNYC, I want to give back for having received a stupendous public education and help thousands of students get access to the same opportunities and support I had growing up. In particular, I want to make it easier for communities to be more informed about the SHSAT and more able to access the right resources—just like my parents were. I hope that in time PASSNYC will become the network that connects every student, parent, teacher, administrator, and decisionmaker in NYC education.

Where did the idea for PASSNYC come from?

In March 2015, the NYU Research Alliance for New York City Schools and Institute for Education and Social Policy published a fascinating working paper entitled “Pathways to an Elite Education: Application, Admission, and Matriculation to New York City’s Specialized High Schools.” I found the Pathways report incredibly moving, because it belied many of the common suggestions for improving diversity—like looking at GPAs in addition to test performance. It was also the first quantitative report I had ever seen focused on improving diversity in the specialized schools. A lot of the other coverage out there on improving diversity is anecdotal, at best.

Two things in particular jumped out at me and motivated me to take action. Firstly, a non-trivial amount of 8th graders simply does not even sit for the SHSAT. Secondly, targeted interventions can actually help when it comes to student registration for the exam. This was my eureka moment. Here was the research to substantiate that I could make a real impact by pooling resources available to me to perform grassroots outreach. I was sure that I could do something to at least improve awareness of the exam.

At the time, I was in a fellowship known as the New Leaders Council and looking for a capstone project. I was looking for a cause that could create a community and enable me to work with my closest friends. I felt like we could really make a difference, so I drew up a plan for a non-profit, PASSNYC, with the goal of broadening educational opportunities for New York City's talented underserved students.

What’s your role at PASSNYC today?

As the founder and chairman, I do a little bit of everything. I’m deeply involved with all of our teams, especially the outreach, identification, partnership and research teams.

The outreach team works with schools and communities in underperforming school districts to increase awareness of educational opportunities. Our identification team will work most closely with the students—selecting the students that will be a part of the upcoming PASSNYC Scholars Program.  The partnership team is focused on working with educational service providers, like mentoring and test preparation programs, and community stakeholders to foster collaboration.  

Our research team is making it easier to use existing information while developing innovative methods for measuring and tracking student performance to help identify promising students that often slip through the cracks. I’m so proud that we were able to launch the PASSNYC School Explorer--a search tool that provides crucial info on 1,270 DOE elementary and middle schools.  

Of course, my role has evolved as we’ve brought on team leaders to manage each of our disciplines. I most enjoy connecting people that are passionate about this cause—and tapping into all the raw talent in the city.  Thinking about what improved collaboration will bring is so exciting!  

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to an NYC high school student?

I think the biggest surprise for them is that the real world is not very different than school. I would say, don’t complain or get upset about what you have to do. Do what you can to find what you enjoy, and explore your passions.


Outside of PASSNYC, Ryan is a lobbyist for REBNY, the Real Estate Liaison for MetaProp NYC--the city's first RETech innovation hub, and a NYC Advisory Board Member of a nationally recognized mentoring program known as the Young Eisner Scholars Program.