Ahead of first anniversary in office, Carranza talks SHSAT, a pre-K strike and his turnaround strategy

A week after new enrollment data laid bare the stark segregation that continues at the city’s specialized high schools, Chancellor Richard Carranza said he now sees “a lot of movement” on the city’s proposal to overhaul their admissions policies — an issue others thought was “dead in the water.”

In an interview with Chalkbeat marking his first year in office, Carranza said he isn’t disheartened by the lack of support for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal among politicians who ultimately control the plan’s fate and that he will continue to make the “moral argument” for integrating city schools.

“I understand elected officials have their constituencies, and they have to weigh the political politics of changing. I get that,” he said. “I have a constituency, too: 1.1 million kids who I want to make sure do not have obstacles in the opportunities that they’re going to pursue.”

In a 25-minute conversation, Carranza addressed a range of issues beyond the specialized high schools: A looming strike among some pre-K teachers, whether he will offer any public criteria for measuring his new school improvement model, and programs for English Language Learners.  

Here’s a transcript of the interview at the education department’s headquarters, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Christina Veiga: You’ve made integration a key talking point of your chancellorship. But what we’re hearing is that it’s now been a year, and it’s more talk than action. What is happening in schools right now that you can point to as a rebuttal?

It’s been [more than 60 years] since Brown vs. Board of Education. I don’t think anybody can point to a lot of action. So c’mon. Give me a break.

Equity, from the very beginning that I got here, has been something that I’ve not only championed but talked about. I’ve been able to sign off on two community education district plans, District 3, which sets aside a certain percentage of seats for underrepresented students, and then most recently, District 15, where they are taking on screens (selective admissions criteria used by some schools) in a very different way. So there’s action.

I would also say that, when’s the last time that they remember a chancellor actually taking this on, right from the beginning? The very fact that I’m using the word ‘segregation,’ using the word ‘integration,’ is action.

I would also point to the fact that the mayor and I have put forth a very specific proposal on specialized schools. Talk about the marquee portfolio of schools, that we call them specialized schools, but those are kind of screened schools.

Now, in a perfect world that would have already been approved in Albany, and we would have already been on our way to implementing the plan. But obviously there’s conversation that comes from that. Now you have something to talk about. People have very strong opinions both ways. At the start of this legislative session, people said, ‘It’s dead in the water. No one’s going to talk about it in Albany.’ Well, now we have a senator, Sen. [John] Liu, who I give a lot of credit to, who has said, ‘Yep. We’re going to hold [community meetings] on this.’ You have the speaker of the Assembly who has said, ‘We’re going to hold hearings on this.’ So I think that there’s a lot of movement in that particular area.

I would also say that there are, aside from Districts 1, 3, and 15 that have integration plans, there are also a number, six or more, community education councils and districts that want to start an engagement process as well. We’ve provided funding for them to be able to do that process.

So I think that objectively when you look at it, there is movement, but I think people just want an ‘OK, you have authority, so just change something and then we can move on.’ That’s not the way change actually happens.

CV: With integration, you have started with schools the city needs legislative approval to change. Why, especially when that represents such a small sliver of the system?

Actually, we didn’t start there. I approved District 3’s plan before we ever put forward a proposal for specialized schools.

CV: Parent leaders were working on that plan well before you got here.

Absolutely, but I could have said, no. The mayor could have said no to that plan. There were things that we engaged with that group on, some things that I asked to take a different look at. When you’re dealing with these really big kinds of issues, there ultimately has to be a bottom-up and a top-down approach.

Probably the elephant in the room are the specialized schools. Had we been talking about and moving towards removing some of the barriers in the system, and not ever mentioning specialized schools, the criticism would have been, ‘Well, why don’t you talk about specialized schools? Are they too politically toxic? Are you afraid of taking that on?’

Now, that being said, you mention in your question, why are you taking on specialized schools when it’s something the city doesn’t control? I think that’s an issue. I can’t think of one other state, one other system where the legislature has come through multiple layers down to local governance and said, ‘For this set of schools, you will have, by state law, a certain process for admitting students.’ I think that’s an issue.

CV: Some people disagree, at least for five of the schools, that it is solely up to the state legislature.

Legally, it’s not a settled question. That aside, I think just operationally, how can you have eight schools that have a single admissions policy, and then say for some of them you’re going to have a different policy, and for others you’re going to have another kind of policy? What you’re going to do is you’re going to create another tier of schools. I don’t want to create more tiers.

CV: Like it or not, there is a law currently in place. You haven’t been able to convince the speaker of city council, chairman of its education committee, leaders of either legislative chamber in Albany, the teachers union president, many of the borough presidents to be big allies in this fight — why do you think there’s so little political support for this plan?

It’s a tough issue. And you have very distinguished alumni from that portfolio of schools. But I was a history teacher and I want to remind us of the history. In 1971, Hecht-Calandra [the bill requiring a single test determine admissions for specialized high schools was passed in Albany.] Chancellor Scribner and the board of education were concerned about the lack of black, and at that time, the lack of Puerto Rican students in the specialized schools, and were engaging in and embarking upon a way to diversify those specialized schools. So what did we get? We get Hecht-Calandra: A state law that memorializes into law a specific process for admitting students to those schools, which in essence, stymied desegregation efforts.

My question to anyone who’s opposed to taking a look at this issue is, ‘Why are you supporting that law?’ I say the status quo is unacceptable.

I’ve been through two admissions cycles now and the results are getting worse. And we’ve increased what we’ve done with the Discovery program (which offers admission to students who scored below the exam cutoff and attend a summer program). We’ve increased our outreach (to boost the number of students taking the test). We’ve increased and we’re continuing to really shore up a lot of the educational opportunities for kids, and the results are getting worse.

CV: Politically, the support is not growing even as the results get worse.

Well, I would disagree. The chattering class would tell you that there’s no support for that. But I’ve got to tell you — I’m in the community a lot. And the people who don’t get interviewed — the English Language Learner parent who only speaks Spanish, the cab drivers, people on the subways on the weekends, the people who would recognize me in the corner bodega say, ‘Keep fighting. We support you.’

CV: Those people don’t vote in Albany. I agree there’s a lot of support in the community that goes unreported. But ultimately, this is a political issue.

You’re right. And I think, my role as chancellor is to continue to raise the moral argument and to remind us of our ethical ‘where do we stand?’ We say we stand for certain things yet here you have a clear example that I don’t think aligns to what we say we believe in. That’s why I keep reminding people, ‘What was the intent of this law?’ And if you support the law — that’s not for me to decide, that’s up to whoever has a vote to decide — are you going to continue to support the intent of the law?

I understand elected officials have their constituencies, and they have to weigh the political politics of changing. I get that. I have a constituency, too: 1.1 million kids who I want to make sure do not have obstacles in the opportunities that they’re going to pursue.

Alex Zimmerman: You’ve talked a lot about how your new approach to school improvement is not an explicit program with a defined number of schools and a defined menu of supports. I’m wondering how you’re going to measure this new approach’s success, whether you’ll make the standards you’re using to decide whether it’s working public?

I don’t want to be flippant ‘cause it’s going to sound a little flippant. What’s the purpose of school improvement? Is the purpose of school improvement to have a scorecard where then you can measure results and then make a determination as to what are good schools and what are bad schools? Is that a purpose? Or is the purpose of school improvement to continuously improve what the school is doing to serve the kids it has? I think the latter.

So if you have a program, you can design it with the metrics you’re going to use. And then you can measure the investment versus what your outcomes are and then you make decisions as to — or the body politic makes decisions as to — whether that’s successful or not. That’s not how schools actually operate, though. Even schools that by most outward facing metrics would say ‘this is a good school’ then you get into the school, and you realize that, well, students with disabilities are not doing well in that school.

Or you get into that school and you realize that ‘oooh, multilingual learners are not being served very well in that school … or a number of things. Then is that school really a good school if it’s not serving all of its students? So again, I use the analogy in my testimony before the City Council, that Renewal was important, you had to do something for the portfolio of schools that everybody recognizes are not performing well.

But Renewal was a diet. It was a moment in time there were specific things you wanted to change, and you changed what you ate. Right, so you changed the inputs, you changed the leadership, you changed the instructional focus, and you give it a certain period of time.

What we’re transitioning to is taking the lessons that we learned and transitioning to a lifestyle and comprehensive school supports. How do you continuously look at a number of indicators and continuously drive to improve those indicators in a broader range of schools?

So to your question, is that going to be public? Of course it’s going to be public. Because schools should have a really transparent way of describing how we’re doing with their communities that doesn’t in any way marginalize that school community as saying, ‘you’re a good school or you’re a bad school.’

AZ: So what are the specific measures that you think the public can use to decide whether this “lifestyle” change, as you put it, is working?

First and foremost, I think people need to stop making decisions on schools based on test scores. I mean, that in and of itself, and I know this is motherhood and apple pie, right. Like ‘yeah right, Carranza.’ But look, it’s really damaging to our schools where people will open up the newspapers in August, look at the test scores, and then make a decision based on test scores — this is a good school, this is a bad school.

We know that schools are much more dynamic than that. Do you have a learning environment that is supported? Who are the students that are going to that school? So we have some schools that have incredible percentages of students that are in temporary housing, yet do remarkable things with those students every single day.

But then I think we as a system have to look at lots of different indicators. Academics is important, I don’t want to downplay that. But you also should look at what kind of school climate is there. We should also look at what kind of programming is in the school, what opportunities do kids have for accelerated learning, how are all of the subgroups of students doing, students in temporary housing, foster care children. So you have to look at a wide variety of indicators and then measure are those indicators going up or in the right direction, and if they’re not, then what are we doing as a system to help them get better?

AZ: You have suggested that a big reason we have high-performing and low-performing schools has a lot to do with how we assign students to schools. So most struggling students are clustered together, and then the school is labeled as failing. Do you think that admissions changes — the way that students are distributed across the system is part of your idea about what school improvement looks like?

Well it’s an ecosystem. It’s an integrated system. So yes it’s about the academic program, yes it’s about the climate and culture, yes it’s about the wraparound services, yes it’s about the physical environment, yes it’s about the food they eat, yes it’s about the transportation. But it’s also about who gets to go to which schools, and how do they get to go to which schools.

And then it’s also about how do we talk about traditional public schools writ large in our city. And by that I mean the coffee shop conversations, right. And the coffee shop conversation is the one that says if you want to go to an elementary school, you don’t even consider going to the public schools unless you go to X, Y, Z elementary school, right? Those are the kind of coffee shop conversations that I think are detrimental to public education without having ever stepped into one of those schools. So it also is about the enrollment processes.

Part of the reason why I talk so much about the screens and how we screen students and the set asides that we have for certain groups of kids is because that creates less of a portfolio of opportunity for all the kids in the city. I’ve been quoted, or misquoted in some places, by saying I’m against all screens. I think you have to be very thoughtful about how you implement screens.

So for example if you have a performing arts high school, LaGuardia for example, or Frank Sinatra, and it’s a performing arts high school so you audition for your particular major, I think that’s totally okay as long as it’s a fair process and it’s a juried process. That’s fine because that’s the purpose of that school. But by and large, where kids get to go to school should not be a matter of whether you pass a screen or not. It should be a matter of what is the opportunity based on your interest to go to that particular school.

Reema Amin: I talked to advocates who work on policies for English Language Learners. They were really encouraged by your early rhetoric but now they’re anxious to see change, especially where older ELLs are concerned. What concrete changes do you think you’re going to be rolling out in the coming months regarding older ELLs?

Remember this is less than a year, a year. So I’ve reorganized the system. And the way we were set up was siloing the work we were doing around multilingual learners. We weren’t set up to do the right work. In some cases, we had some really, really hardworking people that didn’t have the kind of expertise that we need to make these kinds of policy shifts and structural shifts. That’s different now. We have a new deputy chief academic officer who has a track record working with older ELLs in having them earn Regents diplomas, right? So part of that is structure, part of that is leadership.

The other thing that’s important is multilingual learners department is no longer a siloed department. Multilingual works with special education, works with teaching and learning. So they’re working across divisions now so that everyone owns all of our students. So what you’re going to see is more rigorous programming for our multilingual learners. What you’re going to see is more opportunities, especially for older multilingual learners, to have access to the rich curriculum — advanced placement courses, dual credit courses, multiple language courses.

CV: We are potentially looking at a strike among preschool teachers who work in publicly funded, community run centers. One of their main concerns is pay. Many of these teachers are women of color, and they’re paid significantly less than pre-K teachers who work for the education department. Some people say that this creates a two-tiered system in the city’s universal pre-K program. Can New York City afford Pre-K for All and pay parity?

Yeah, so, and you realize those teachers don’t work for us.

CV: I realize that, but most of the funding comes from the city.

But you realize they don’t work for us? They have a union, and the union is negotiating with those operators. I want to be really clear about this.

CV: The city holds the funds basically — the purse strings.

The mayor and I very much want to make sure that anyone working with children has the pay to make it reasonable and probable that they will continue to work with those children. They are in the process of negotiating, so I have to be careful of what I say because I can’t negotiate in public. But I can tell you that to the greatest extent that we can, we are weighing in with our values. Our values are that anyone working with children should be paid commensurate to the responsibilities that they have. And that means that I think people should be paid a good, decent living wage.