In his first year as New York City schools chancellor, Carranza has tackled historic inequities — but change is slow to reach the classroom

It was evident from the beginning that Richard Carranza would be a different kind of New York City schools chancellor.

At a press conference that introduced him as the new leader of the country’s largest school system, Carranza responded to a question by casually uttering two words that would prove shocking: segregation and integration.

To him, they were merely references to issues confronted in cities where Carranza previously taught and led schools: Las Vegas, San Francisco, and most recently Houston. But they were words that his boss, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and his predecessor, Carmen Fariña, had never spoken publicly. Despite leading one of the nation’s most segregated school systems, both had steadfastly opted for softer references to “diversity.”

Such bold talk has become Carranza’s trademark since he took office a year ago on April 2. His short tenure has been defined by the enormous, persistent questions he is willing to raise about the opportunities available to the city’s 1.1 million school children — almost 70 percent of whom are black and Hispanic.

“New York City is having a discussion of the likes it hasn’t had since 1964. That was really the last time there was a serious effort to integrate schools,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a researcher at the progressive think tank The Century Foundation.

But with his first full school year nearing an end, many observers are still waiting for Carranza to just as clearly lay out his vision for the city’s classrooms, as well as concrete plans for making that vision and, real movement on integration, a reality.

It is an open question whether he has the time left to make an impact on such a gargantuan system, and a problem as intractable and longstanding as segregation. In New York City, the mayor ultimately controls the schools and appoints the chancellor —  and de Blasio has just two years left in his term-limited tenure.

“We’re just waiting now to see action,” said Paula White, the head of the teacher advocacy group Educators For Excellence New York. “If we just stay in the conversational range, that’s just not good enough for our kids and that’s not good enough for our educators either.”

What has made Carranza’s integration talk so unusual is his unwillingness to pull punches, especially when it comes to programs and schools that are coveted by more empowered, middle-class families. In his first year, he said New York City’s method of admitting students to gifted programs, based on a single test, was “not a good idea.” Those programs are starkly segregated by race and class. He called screening, the use of competitive admissions criteria in middle and high schools which some blame for exacerbating segregation, “antithetical” to a public education system. When a parent at a meeting in March criticized a city plan to overhaul admissions at its prestigious specialized high schools, saying the “quality of the student body” would change, Carranza butted in.

“The coded language that gets used, where we’re ‘diluting’ these schools because we’re giving more opportunity to a wider array of students, is highly offensive,” he said, eliciting a chorus of boos.

But some who have applauded such talk have also been wary “to give him too much credit,” said Kristen Berger, a parent leader in Manhattan’s District 3, where a middle school integration plan was recently approved, “because we haven’t seen any actual change yet.”

His most prominent initiative has been a proposal to integrate the city’s most prestigious schools: eight specialized high schools that admit students based on a single test. That effort has largely stalled, met by furious pushback including a lawsuit and little political support.

Black and Hispanic students are vastly underrepresented at the elite schools, making up about 10 percent of students. The city’s plan would expand a program called Discovery, which offers admission to students in low-income schools who score below the entrance exam cut off. At the same time, de Blasio and Carranza have called for the legislature to abolish the single-test admissions criterion, which is currently enshrined in a 1971 state law designed to shut out black and Hispanic students from the schools.

Those who have advocated for integration since long before Carranza arrived see more promising signs in the smaller, less attention-grabbing steps taken in the last year. That includes the creation of new grants to encourage local districts to craft their own diversity plans. Such a process is what ultimately led to the city’s most ambitious integration effort yet: District 15 in Brooklyn decided to remove all middle school screens.

“We never expected to see major changes within a year,” said Matt Gonzales, who advocates for school integration with the nonprofit Appleseed. “But I do think that if we keep supporting him and putting pressure on him, then meaningful change can happen.”

For years, parents of color had pushed the education department for anti-bias training for the city’s teachers, the majority of whom don’t look like their students. Shortly after his arrival, Carranza not only made the training mandatory for the city’s 76,000 educators, he also sped up the timeline in which it will happen.

Matthew Barone, the principal of I.S. 27 Anning S. Prall on Staten Island, said the training has given educators “a focus and a common language to have difficult conversations.”
“The chancellor is right on the money with this,” Barone said.

But in a system where most students are poor and of color, and where segregation will likely take years or even decades to address, Carranza also has to focus on what happens inside schools. Until now, many educators say his emphasis has been on ensuring equal access to opportunities, such as the education department’s push to add sports teams for underserved city schools, a response to a lawsuit claiming black and Hispanic students have far fewer opportunities to participate in athletics.

Carranza has shaken up some of the education department’s leadership structure, slashing the number of cabinet-level positions and reintroducing the position of Chief Academic Officer in part to refocus efforts on how to better serve students who are learning English. New executive superintendents were put in charge of large swaths of each borough. His goal has been to streamline the vast bureaucracy, making it easier for parents to get answers and for schools to get the support they need.

He has attracted some converts. Some parents who once railed against the education department say that officials are listening and acting in ways they seldom did before.

When Shino Tanikawa, a parent leader in Manhattan’s District 2, saw a need for translation services at informational workshops, she ran into a problem. The city’s rules only allow interpreters to attend official meetings. So she got in touch with Hydra Mendoza, a new deputy chancellor appointed by Carranza to work with parents. Together, they worked out a few exceptions, and now are coming up with a long-term fix to the city’s regulations.

“I feel as members of the Community Education Council, they want to hear us. Not just hear us, but they want to work with us,” Tanikawa said.

And students say they feel like they have the chancellor’s ear. “He’s definitely trying to focus more on youth voices,” said Jenny Bueno, a senior at Leon M. Goldstein High School for the Sciences in Brooklyn, who is also a student advisor to the city’s Panel for Educational Policy.

Carranza also points to the recent teacher’s contract, which includes pay boosts and other provisions to attract teachers to schools that struggle with high turnover as part of what’s dubbed the Bronx Plan. United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said the plan is promising because it relies on teachers to identify what schools need to improve.

“The Bronx Plan was a big thing for teachers because it really was symbolic,” Mulgrew said. “He said quite loudly, ‘I’m here to take directions from you.’”

Yet, according to dozens of principals, teachers, parents, advocates, researchers and policy experts whom Chalkbeat interviewed, classrooms don’t feel that different after Carranza’s first year. The impact of executive superintendents seems removed from principals’ day-to-day. Mark Cannizzaro, president of the union that represents school principals, said many are still struggling under a crush of compliance-oriented paperwork, and to maintain order in schools after a spate of discipline reforms.

“Now is when we should start to be looking for some notable changes,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Bronx Plan has yet to kick in fully, and the city has tried similar efforts in the past with little to show for it. And the principals union is now fighting the plan, saying it usurps their right to bargain with the city.

Educators in particular have struggled to see how Carranza’s agenda has translated to a strategy for improving teaching and learning. After the recent announcement of an end to Renewal, the city’s high-profile attempt to turn around struggling schools, Carranza’s vision for improving schools remains murky. It’s also uncertain what standards the city will use to measure whether his new plan succeeds in boosting performance. Carranza has likened the old approach to “a diet” and talked about “lifestyle” changes at such schools in the future.

Advocates who want to see the city improve the way it supports students who are learning English, a vulnerable population more likely to struggle in school and drop out, are similarly waiting to see how the new chancellor’s new leadership structure will translate to the classroom.

“We understand that practically, restructuring takes a long time and that getting new staff up to speed is also a time investment,” said Rita Rodriguez-Engberg, project director for the Immigrant Students’ Rights Project for Advocates for Children of New York. “At this point, I think we’re very anxious to get started.”  

Even Carranza’s focus on anti-bias training has been met with skepticism from an unexpected source. Pedro Noguera, a UCLA professor who has spent his career studying equity issues, took to Twitter to challenge the chancellor on the policy.

“It’s not that bias isn’t real, but if it’s not connected to the work teachers do in the classroom with kids every day, it’s not going to have an impact,” Noguera told Chalkbeat. “If they benefit, does that mean they are going to be a better teacher now? Are they going to be better teaching math? I don’t know if that’s true.”  

There are hints, however, that Carranza is shifting more of his attention to the classroom. A few longtime education observers said the city has recently made a spate of good principal hires, and strong leadership can spur school improvement. Principals also say the city is shifting to providing more professional development on location, in school buildings — a nagging complaint under his predecessor, when teachers and principals said they were forced to leave their schools too often.

Ultimately, integration, done well, could be a powerful way to address teaching and learning. Research shows students in diverse classrooms think more creatively and score higher on standardized tests. Teachers in integrated schools are more likely to be experienced and less likely to leave.

The importance of Carranza’s tough talk on the issue shouldn’t be discounted. Already, his rhetoric could be shifting the culture. Though for years de Blasio was reluctant to name the problem, the mayor has recently used his strongest language yet to describe “massive segregation” in the specialized high schools. And while it was the mayor who ultimately announced the city’s attempt to overhaul admission to the schools, it is hard to imagine him advancing such a plan under the previous chancellor. Fariña, for example, once suggested that pen pal letters would be sufficient to address entrenched segregation.

“I think that the push for specialized high schools did happen after Fariña left for a reason,” said Berger, the parent from District 3. “It was a very different environment and temperature.”

A year is a tiny blip in the long history of segregation in New York City’s schools, noted Kahlenberg of of the Century Foundation think tank, who cautioned against letting the difficulty of change tip opinion into cynicism. The argument that if everything can’t be solved, it’s not worth doing anything at all, has only helped to cement the status quo, he said.

“It’s true you can’t integrate every school overnight. But just because you can’t integrate everywhere, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start,” Kahlenberg said.

There is also a case for Carranza to balance the urgency of unraveling deep-seated segregation with the reality that aggressive action could backfire. Many of the policies the chancellor has questioned also help the city’s schools, unlike many other urban districts, attract more white, middle-class families. Alienating these parents could cause them to flee for the suburbs or private schools.  

Parents of color, too, can be leery of integration efforts, since historically that has often meant sending their children into hostile spaces — to campuses dominated by reluctant white families and deemed better than their own neighborhood schools.

The question now is whether any significant progress on integration can be achieved in the time likely left to Carranza, and whether his boss is as committed to change.

“My gut tells me that, politically, I don’t know how long he’ll be able to stay here,” Mulgrew said. “We need to move faster.”

Alex Zimmerman and Reema Amin contributed reporting to this story.