in your own words

Dear Chancellor: Your messages to Richard Carranza, as he becomes New York City’s schools chief

PHOTO: Sam Park

Unsafe schools. Segregation. The achievement gap. Overcrowding. Resources for students with special needs and English language learners.

These were among the many issues that Chalkbeat readers want incoming Chancellor Richard Carranza to make his top priorities as he takes the helm of New York City schools on April 2.

More than 120 parents, teachers, students, school administrators, and others filled out our survey asking what Carranza needs to know as he replaces Carmen Fariña as leader of the nation’s largest school system. Here’s some of what you had to say.

Too often, schools are segregated — and have unequal resources.

“Carranza’s No. 1 priority should be student achievement and diversifying the DOE-NYC’s public schools. Segregation is all too real in NYC, and the schools should replicate the rich culture and diversity of the city.”
— Rashid Johnson, an education non-profit employee

Segregation in the schools is a grave injustice and is damaging to many students and their families.”
— Michael Mahrer, a teacher at Bronx Design and Construction Academy and a parent on the Upper West Side

“We are so diverse and yet are so segregated. This is a major problem. There are schools whose PTA’s pay for an assistant in each classroom and some schools can’t even get parents to come to the school for a meeting. This is a problem that affects kids in big ways.”
— Hannah Haas, third-grade teacher at P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth

“I am one of the few high school students lucky enough to attend a public high school with an abundance of resources available, and with dedicated and engaged teachers and staff. My school’s students are disproportionately white and wealthy. That people of socioeconomic and racial privilege have an upper hand in the public school system and are often the beneficiary of better educations is unjust.”
— Coco Rhum, Beacon High School junior and member of Teens Take Charge, an education advocacy organization dedicated to elevating student voices

“The teachers in schools where students of color attend are not very strong. They can’t relate to the students and don’t have the pedagogical skills to move their students. This is not true for all teachers but there is a disproportionate amount of unqualified teachers in these schools.”
— Daryl Rock, a former New York City principal and chair of the board at CAMPA Charter School

Parents and teachers of students with special needs have questions.

“How will you fix the system for special education students of normal intelligence who have dyslexia, ADHD, and other learning issues for whom there is no appropriate public school option? Will you open public schools that are equivalent to the private schools? Or will you simplify the reimbursement process for parents whose children must be placed in private schools?”
— Dolores Swirin-Yao, parent at the Aaron School

“What will you do to strengthen our special education approach to teaching students. Our co-teaching model is not working. Special education teachers across the city are feeling burned out from being treated unfairly. General education teachers need more training in the ICT model. Additionally, what are his views for the ELL population, especially the newly arrived high students and the SIFE students.”
— Marilyn Ramirez, special education teacher, High School for Media and Communications

School and community leaders want to feel heard.

Many languages and cultures exist in NYC and the new chancellor needs to know how to engage these families so the children can succeed.”
— Teresa Arboleda, president of the Citywide Council on English Language Learners.

“The city is diverse — not just the 150+ languages spoken at home, but in cultural differences that drive how parents perceive their role in educating their children. He needs to reach out all of the different cultural groups to be successful.”
— Michelle Noris, parent at the 30th Avenue School, P.S./I.S. 300, and Bard High School Early College Queens

The system is vast and hard to get your arms around. It’s critical therefore that school principals be instructional leaders with the same vision as the chancellor.”
— Deena Hellman, director of the Star Learning Center at Goddard Riverside Community Center

Individual schools and communities have individual needs.

“Schools in my neighborhood are overcrowded and as a result teachers are not able to provide individualized attention to students, and programs have been cut. New dual language programs were opened in the neighborhood and that has been welcomed by many parents and should be extended.”
— Victoria Quiroz Becerra, Sunset Park parent

Principals are incentivized to overcrowd schools and make class sizes large. This should change.”
— Jonathan Greenberg, parent at P.S. 212 in Queens

“We need more instructions and clearer guidance on how to use restorative justice practices. Also, gang intervention.”
— Dinah Gieske, a parent and assistant principal at Rockaway Park High School

“I think we need more recognition for the girls who want to come to our school. We want to have the opportunity to go on more trips. I think you should prioritize emotional well-being because a lot of these girls are going through something and it would help if they see how much you care.”
— Tyanna Patten, eighth-grader at the Young Women’s Leadership School of Brooklyn and Teens Take Charge member

“He needs to actually visit the schools and not only go there for the pomp and circumstance of a chancellor’s visit day, but go to see what an actual day looks like — talk to everyone from principal to support staff.”
— Natasha Alexandris, Department of Education Field Support Center employee

Q and A

Here’s what Richard Carranza had to say in his first TV interview as New York City chancellor

Chancellor Richard Carranza was pressed on segregation, testing and metal detectors in schools.

New York City schools chief Richard Carranza has been cramming, if his first media interview since taking over the city’s schools on Monday is any indication.

Carranza spoke with NY1’s Lindsey Christ for about 30 minutes Wednesday, with an empty classroom as a backdrop. She pressed him on some of the most pressing issues facing the city, including school segregation, whether metal detectors belong in schools, and the city’s expensive Renewal program for struggling schools — where Carranza signaled that changes could be coming. He also addressed a gender discrimination lawsuit from his time as the head of San Francisco schools and called boycotts of standardized tests an “extreme reaction.” 

A few times, Carranza acknowledged he is still learning the ropes: Until he arrived in New York City, he had never worked in the country’s largest school system. He comes from Houston, where he was superintendent for less than two years.

Here’s what he had to say in Wednesday’s interview, which you can watch in its entirety here.

On segregation

Carranza is proving to be more frank than his boss — and his predecessor, retired Chancellor Carmen Fariña — on the issues of segregation and integration. Mayor Bill de Blasio has avoided those terms, preferring to speak more broadly about “diversity.” Carranza didn’t mind saying that “segregation and integration” have been issues in every district where he has worked. In Wednesday’s interview, Carranza was asked about his choice of words.

Back to Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court used the word segregation. So it is what it is. I think we get caught up sometimes in the terminology and miss the broader picture. The broader picture is that, if we have a public education system that truly belongs to the public, then every member of that public body — every single student, regardless of race, class, socioeconomic status, religious creed — should have access to all — all — opportunities in that system. And if [there is] segregation, then we need to work to end it.

On specialized high schools

New York City’s specialized high schools are some of the most prestigious in the system, but they are also starkly and persistently segregated. Only 10.4 percent of admissions offers for next year’s ninth-grade class went to black and Hispanic students, even though they make up about 70 percent of students citywide. Under de Blasio, the city has tried a number of initiatives to address the problem, but the admissions picture has not budged. Carranza suggested he wanted to see changes — but signaled that he had accepted his boss’s position that state law could be a barrier.

I’m starting to learn about what these issues are… State law notwithstanding, other protocol notwithstanding, how is that OK? From my perspective it’s not OK to have a public school in a city as diverse… and that you have only 10 African American students in a high school. So I’m looking at that, absolutely.

On a gender discrimination settlement from San Francisco

Shortly after Carranza was named chancellor, the New York Daily News uncovered a 2015 gender discrimination lawsuit involving Carranza when he was superintendent of San Francisco schools. The suit, which was settled for $75,000, was filed by a district employee who said she was denied a leadership role during Carranza’s tenure because of her gender and charged he retaliated against her for confronting him about flirting with a woman during a work conference. City Hall told Chalkbeat that officials were aware of the lawsuit but believed the allegations to be false — which Carranza echoed.

It just didn’t happen. It never happened. I’ve been an educator almost 30 years. I’ve worked with thousands of colleagues and there are many people who would talk about my character and who I am … I will stand on my record and I’ll stand on the relationships that I built. But it never happened.

On the city’s long-running investigation into yeshivas

In 2015, the education department said it would investigate whether private yeshivas offer adequate instruction in secular subjects such as math and science. The results of that politically charged investigation have yet to be revealed, and the city hasn’t offered a timeline for when it would be completed. Meanwhile, a new state law seems to hand state education leaders the power to evaluate the schools — rather than the local district. Carranza wouldn’t commit to a timeline to wrap up the city’s investigation, or even promise to finish it.

I haven’t been fully briefed on the investigation, or what this history of the investigation has been, but I believe that every student — regardless of where they go to school — needs to have a quality education. … My commitment is to be very transparent in terms of where the investigation is and what the next steps in the investigation are.

On metal detectors

Metal detectors are a polarizing issue in the debate over how to keep schools safe. Some advocates say the city would be better off investing in services like mental health supports, but others argue that metal detectors keep students and staff safe. Once metal detectors are installed in schools, they are almost never removed. But Carranza signaled he is open to having conversations about taking scanners out of schools.

The most effective, in my experience, security system is an environment where students feel a responsibility for their safety and feel comfortable in reporting when they hear or they see something… I think in some places there may be a very good reason why we have metal detectors. Again, I’m just getting here but that’s one of the topics I really want to explore. If we have metal detectors, what’s the reason for it, what’s the justification for it and if there’s no need for it, then how do we get rid of those?

On testing

New York has one of the largest opt-out movements in the country, with parents instructing their children to refuse to take standardized tests. Carranza said English and math tests should not crowd out other subjects such as art, but he also was clear that he does not encourage opting out.

I think it’s an extreme reaction to where I think we could have a much more nuanced approach. All right, let’s look at how much testing is happening in our schools, and then let’s decide what has to be there so that we know where our students are, and then let’s eliminate whatever we don’t need to have… There are a number of tests that serve a purpose. I think that’s a more nuanced conversation. What’s the purpose and why is that important?

On the Renewal program for struggling schools

De Blasio has spent more than $500 million to support struggling schools through Renewal, which floods dozens of struggling schools with extra support, social services such as health care, and a longer school day. Though the mayor promised “fast and intense” improvements, Renewal has produced mixed results. Carranza called the program “incredibly proactive,” but also suggested there might be changes coming.  

Where have the results been mixed and then how do we change strategies or how do we update our strategy? How do we become strategic in certain areas? That’s part of improving.

Compare and Contrast

Five first days of school: How Richard Carranza’s start as chancellor compares to his predecessors’

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Richard Carranza climbed the steps of Tweed Courthouse, the education department headquarters, on his first day as chancellor. Carranza previously led schools in San Francisco and Houston.

Richard Carranza’s first day as New York City schools chief started with a photo opportunity: a snowy walk-and-wave into Tweed Courthouse, the education department’s Lower Manhattan headquarters, shortly before 9 a.m.

Later today, he plans to have lunch at an iconic New York City restaurant, Katz’s Delicatessen, with Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray. (It must be said: The third day of Passover makes an unusual choice for a visit to a Jewish deli.)

What Carranza won’t be doing: visiting any schools. This week is spring break, giving Carranza at least five work days before he’s likely to face any on-the-ground challenges. That should give him time to get to know his colleagues at Tweed and start getting up to speed on the major issues he’ll have to tackle.

The schedule makes Carranza’s first day very different from those of the most recent chancellors he succeeds. Here’s a look at what each of them did on day one.

Carmen Fariña eased into the limelight.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

On her first day in 2014, Fariña made a public appearance at one school, M.S. 223 in the Bronx, where she answered questions about where she planned to take the city’s schools. As a longtime veteran of the city’s schools appointed by a mayor who had vowed to shift the education department’s direction, would she seek to roll back Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education agenda? She said she would work, at least at first, within “the framework that existed” — though four years later it’s clear that she changed the education department substantially.

Fariña also said her first day had been busy, with lots of coffee, lunch skipped, and meeting with current staffers to talk about ways to “duplicate” their policy successes — a mission at the heart of some of the programs she created. And she also foreshadowed her hesitance to be a public figure, saying “the word chancellor kind of gives me the shivers.” De Blasio is reportedly hoping Carranza will take a different approach.

Dennis Walcott made waffles.

PHOTO: Anna Phillips

He was still a few days shy of officially taking over the city’s school system when Dennis Walcott, then still a deputy mayor for Bloomberg, stopped by P.S. 10 in Brooklyn to make his trademark waffles in an appearance that many education insiders remember as his inaugural public appearance. The visit — not even his first since being appointed — fulfilled a promise made to a third-grader to prove that Walcott’s waffle recipe (sugar-free, in keeping with his fastidious health regimen) was the best in the world. A student’s question also presaged the chancellor’s first marathon several months later. The visit kicked off a gruelingand, he said, rewarding — pace of school visits that characterized Walcott’s tenure, which lasted until Bloomberg left office at the end of 2013.

Cathie Black made what might have been her longest public appearance.

PHOTO: Maura Walz
Cathie Black visited P.S. 262 in Brooklyn on her first official day as chancellor in 2011.

Cathie Black’s appointment came as a shock, but her first day on the job in January 2011 was thoroughly choreographed as she visited schools in each of the five boroughs. The city had time to prepare: It took several weeks between when Bloomberg picked her for state policy makers to give her the waiver she needed to run the city’s schools despite a total lack of education experience, and she didn’t take office for six weeks after that. At the time, Black told us she had visited roughly 20 schools before her official first day, when she stopped by a music-themed high school, a charter school that teaches Korean, and a school for students with severe disabilities. But her school-visit schedule quickly slowed as her public appearances became landmines for the city, and she resigned just three months after her official first day.

Oh, and Joel Klein was uncharacteristically quiet.

Joel Klein. (GothamSchools file photo)

Schools were also closed when Klein took office in August 2002, but he didn’t stick around the education department’s headquarters, then still located in Downtown Brooklyn. “I wanted to send a clear message that I’m going to be out and in the schools,” Klein said about why he met with a deputy in Bedford-Stuyvesant on his first day. “If schools were open today, I’d be in school. Because that’s going to be a key part of my mission.”

That meeting was closed to the press, as part of a first day that the New York Times reported “represented a striking departure from tradition, and suggested that he might, at least for now, keep a lower profile than his predecessors.” (Several of them visited schools and held press conferences, according to the Times story, and one served French toast to students — likely with syrup.) Ultimately, that proved to be far from the case: Klein was a relentless leader and divisive public figure, frequently rolling out game-changing new policies during splashy press conferences without first building support from people who worked in schools.

A takeaway from Klein’s first day more than 15 years ago: A quiet first day hardly means a low-key administration — something to watch for now as Carranza digs in.