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In Carranza, de Blasio finds a new schools chief cut from the same cloth as the one he’s replacing

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Richard Carranza, Houston Independent School District superintendent, hugs Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio launched his search for a new schools chief, he outlined a primary goal: find someone like outgoing Chancellor Carmen Fariña.  

On Monday, de Blasio appeared to fulfill that mission. The mayor announced the next chancellor will be Richard Carranza a man with a background, resume, and educational philosophy that look a lot like that of the city’s retiring schools chief.

They are both non-native English speakers, lifelong educators, and believers in the importance of visiting schools in order to understand whether students are learning. Carranza also appears to channel Fariña’s policy agenda, expressing support for bilingual education and infusing struggling schools with resources.

Even Fariña seemed overwhelmed by their similarities when Carranza was introduced publicly Monday.

“When you work really hard at something, you want to make sure you’re bequeathing what you you’ve done to someone who’s like-minded,” Fariña said. “And as I’ve had conversations with Richard over the last two days, we started to talk about our personal lives. I said, ‘Check. We’re similar.’”

Only a few days ago, it looked like New York City was headed in a different direction. The city’s first pick, Miami superintendent Alberto Carvalho — who dramatically rejected the mayor’s job offer on live television after privately accepting it — did not fit so neatly into Fariña’s mold. While he shared some of the mayor’s policy goals, he also attracted praise from some of City Hall’s education adversaries.

Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, for instance, expressed support for Carvalho, calling him a “top-tier educator” and an “excellent hire.” Her statement on Carranza, however, was much more muted.

“Congratulations to Chancellor Carranza,” Moskowitz said in a statement. “We look forward to showing you the 46 Success Academies that make up the highest-performing school district in the state.”

On the other end of the ideological spectrum, union officials were much more effusive about Carranza than Carvalho. Last week, United Federation of Teachers chief Michael Mulgrew said in a statement that he hoped Carvalho would build on the city’s progress under Fariña. Today, he offered specific praise for Carranza’s track record.

And Randi Weingarten, who heads the American Federation of Teachers, told Chalkbeat about Carranza, “He has a big, big heart and is a great educator.”

She also noted that he and Fariña are cut from the same cloth. “I’m not surprised that he would have a similar pedagogical focus as Carmen did,” Weingarten said. “Because these are the strategies of how you sustain and scale successful outcomes for children.”

De Blasio, a second-term mayor, made it clear from the start that he wanted a chancellor who would carry out his existing education agenda. His priorities include expanding pre-K to 3-year-olds; filling schools with medical and afterschool programs; and providing extra resources, such as Advanced Placement and computer science classes. Though the vision was solidified under Fariña, the next chancellor’s charge is to see these tasks through to fruition — and Carranza said on Monday he is up to the job.

“The equity agenda championed by our mayor is my equity agenda,” Carranza said. “There is no daylight between Mayor de Blasio and myself in terms of what we believe in, what our aspirations are for the children of New York City.”

Carranza’s history also suggests that he is largely in sync with de Blasio. In Houston, he worked to reduce suspensions, for instance, and launched a program that infused 32 struggling schools with additional wraparound services, akin to de Blasio’s own turnaround program.

And Carranza appears to share Fariña’s zeal for boosting teacher morale. After taking over from a more divisive leader in 2016, Carranza spent months holding community meetings to solicit input. According to multiple Houston school board members, the listening process made teachers feel more valued and fostered a cooperative relationship with the city’s teachers union.

“At the time, the morale was pretty low with teachers,” said Sergio Lira, one of the district’s elected board trustees. “He was very engaging, inclusive, positive.”

And like Fariña, critics have accused Carranza of moving so deliberately that students are shortchanged.

While some say Carranza has been willing to take on new policies including big changes to the city’s magnet programs and overhauling school funding schemes, many of those efforts have not yet gotten off the ground. And the ones that have, like his school turnaround program, are less than a year old.

He’s also leaving a district that is staring down a $115 million budget shortfall, could face state intervention due to the some of its schools’ poor academic performance, and is still reeling from Hurricane Harvey — which has left the union and some school board members unnerved by his departure’s timing.

“There was this big pit in my stomach because we have such massively important decisions happening right now,” Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Teachers Federation, told the Houston Chronicle. “Of all times to be without a leader I was thinking wow, this is not it.”

Carranza even shares Fariña’s preference for more centralized control of schools. Whereas her predecessors sought to give principals more freedom in exchange for strict accountability, Fariña shifted control back to district superintendents who are now tasked with overseeing schools.

In Houston, Carranza has also called for more central oversight. At Monday’s press conference, he gave a hypothetical example: It should be up to the school district, he said, to set overarching policies such as emphasizing social and emotional learning in schools. Then, he said, individual schools should have the freedom to choose their own partners, such as a particular nonprofit, to do that work.

“I tremendously have faith that principals can make great decisions at the local level,” he said. But he added, “There are some things you cannot decentralize. You need to have some central direction.”

And Fariña and Carranza can also find common ground in their skepticism about charter schools, the privately managed but publicly funded schools that operate outside of the local school system. The de Blasio administration has clashed with some high-profile charter school networks such as Success Academy, but it has has also expanded partnerships between district and charter schools across the city.

So, too, has Carranza pushed back against charter schools in some cases while opening the door to them in others. Last year, in an open letter to President Donald Trump, he argued that school choice had come at the expense of neighborhood schools, “even though,” he said, “these schools are the heart of our educational system and serve our most disadvantaged students.” But he also helped the KIPP charter network get its first high school in San Francisco off the ground, according to Steve Mancini, a network official.

“He found a facility that we’re very happy with and now [the school] is really thriving,” Mancini said. He called Carranza a “really good listener and very open to working with us.”

Given the obvious symmetry between Fariña and Carranza, among the questions de Blasio faced on Monday was why he hadn’t picked Carranza in the first place. The mayor deflected.  

“The bottom line is it was a very, very close call. I feel great about how things came together in the end,” he said. “We’re looking to the future.”

Fariña, who preaches the benefits of chancellors spending time in schools, beamed as Carranza described what he looks for when walking into a school: whether it’s clean, the quality of student work on the walls, how adults interact with each other. “A classroom just feels comfortable,” he said. “It feels like where I should be.” She piped in, “I just have to put a disclaimer: I did not rehearse him for that answer.”

“Carmen,” de Blasio said, “that is in the vein of great minds think alike.”

here's the plan

After long wait, de Blasio backs plan to overhaul admissions at New York City’s elite high schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Eric Contreras is stepping down as principal of Stuyvesant High School.

After sustained pressure from advocates, Mayor Bill de Blasio is backing a two-step plan to reform admissions at eight of the city’s elite high schools and endorsing a specific replacement for the single-test admissions system.

The city’s specialized high schools — considered some of the crown jewels of New York City’s education system — accept students based on a single test score. Over the last decade, they have come under fire for offering admissions to few students of color: While two-thirds of city students are black or Hispanic, only about 10 percent of admissions offers to those schools go to black or Hispanic students.

De Blasio’s solution, laid out in an op-ed in Chalkbeat, would set aside 20 percent of the seats at the eight schools for students from low-income families starting next school year. Students who just missed the test score cut-off would be able to earn one of those set-aside seats through the longstanding “Discovery” program. Just 4 percent of seats were offered through that program in 2017.

The mayor also said he plans to push state lawmakers to change a law that requires admission at three of the schools to be decided by a single test score. That’s something de Blasio campaigned for during his run for mayor in 2014 but hasn’t made a priority since.

Most significantly, de Blasio says for the first time that he backs a system of replacing the admissions test with a system that picks students based on their middle school class rank and state test scores. The middle-school rank component is especially notable, as an NYU Steinhardt report found that the only way to really change the makeup of the elite high schools would be to guarantee admission to the top 10 percent of students at every middle school.

If all of these changes were implemented, de Blasio says that 45 percent of the student bodies at the eight high schools would be black or Latino.

Together, the proposals reflect the most specific plan yet to change a system that, year after year, becomes a symbol of New York City’s racially divided schools. But the changes de Blasio is proposing won’t come easily — and might not come at all.

The part of the plan that the city is promising to do on its own, expand the Discovery program, will only modestly improve diversity by the city’s own admission. And the plan’s more ambitious elements would require buy-in from state lawmakers who have repeatedly resisted de Blasio’s agenda and attempts to change admissions rules.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s plan does not include a move that many legal experts consider to be low-hanging fruit: changing the admissions rules at five of the eight schools without state approval.

While the city’s official position has long been that admissions at all eight schools are set by law, only three schools — Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School — are specifically mentioned, leaving room for the city to reclassify the others. (De Blasio recently said he would ask lawyers about that change, but has not signaled he plans to act.)

The Discovery program has also proved problematic for de Blasio, in part because it is open to all low-income students — something that is not equivalent to black or Hispanic in New York City. The de Blasio administration has already tripled the program’s size since taking office, but its share of black and Latino students has also shrunk.

A lot of questions about the plan remain unanswered. It’s not clear whether the 20 percent of set-aside seats will be spread across the eight schools evenly, for one, or whether some schools like Stuyvesant will have fewer seats earmarked for Discovery. De Blasio doesn’t explain exactly how an admissions system reliant on middle-school grades and standardized test scores would work.

It’s also unclear how the mayor plans to push against opposition from alumni groups and parents who may worry that changing the admissions rules will lower academic standards, though his rhetoric was sharp in the op-ed.

“Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative,” de Blasio wrote. “It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it.”

So far, de Blasio’s incremental steps to boost diversity at specialized high schools have made little change to the overall student body — and therefore garnered little pushback.

It’s unclear whether the lackluster results caused him to switch strategies. More recently, de Blasio has also been under pressure to address school segregation in the city as a whole.

He may also have been pushed by his new schools chancellor, who has been outspoken on the subject since taking the helm of the school system about two months ago. Chancellor Richard Carranza has been talking about the issue since his very first media interview, and has repeatedly hinted that he is interested in changing their admissions process.

“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,” Carranza said in April. “So I’m looking at that, absolutely.”

sorting the students

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Our specialized schools have a diversity problem. Let’s fix it.

PHOTO: Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio hosts a town hall in Brooklyn in October.

I visit schools across this city and it never fails to energize me. The talent out there is outstanding. The students overflow with promise. But many of the smart kids I meet aren’t getting in to our city’s most prestigious high schools. In fact, they’re being locked out.

The problem is clear. Eight of our most renowned high schools – including Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School – rely on a single, high-stakes exam. The Specialized High School Admissions Test isn’t just flawed – it’s a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence.

If we want this to be the fairest big city in America, we need to scrap the SHSAT and start over.

Let’s select students for our top public high schools in a manner that best reflects the talent these students have, and the reality of who lives in New York City. Let’s have top-flight public high schools that are fair and represent the highest academic standards.

Right now, we are living with monumental injustice. The prestigious high schools make 5,000 admissions offers to incoming ninth-graders. Yet, this year just 172 black students and 298 Latino students received offers. This happened in a city where two out of every three eighth-graders in our public schools are Latino or black.

There’s also a geographic problem. There are almost 600 middle schools citywide. Yet, half the students admitted to the specialized high schools last year came from just 21 of those schools. For a perfect illustration of disparity: Just 14 percent of students at Bronx Science come from the Bronx.

Can anyone defend this? Can anyone look the parent of a Latino or black child in the eye and tell them their precious daughter or son has an equal chance to get into one of their city’s best high schools? Can anyone say this is the America we signed up for?

Our best colleges don’t select students this way. Our top-level graduate schools don’t. There are important reasons why. Some people are good at taking tests, but earn poor grades. Other people struggle with testing, but achieve top grades. The best educational minds get it. You can’t write a single test that captures the full reality of a person.

A single, high-stakes exam is also unfair to students whose families cannot afford, or may not even know about, the availability of test preparation tutors and courses. Now, I’d like to stop and say, I admire the many families who scrape and save to pay for test prep. They are trying in every way to support their children.

But let’s ask ourselves: Why should families who can ill afford test prep have to spend their money on it? Why should families who can easily afford test prep have an advantage over those that cannot?

My administration has been working to give a wider range of excellent students a fair shot at the specialized high schools. Now we are going to go further. Starting in September 2019, we’ll expand the Discovery Program to offer 20 percent of specialized high school seats to economically disadvantaged students who just missed the test cut-off.

This will immediately bring a wider variety of high-performing students, from a wider number of middle schools, to the specialized high schools. For example, the percentage of black and Latino students receiving offers will almost double, to around 16 percent from around 9 percent. The number of middle schools represented will go from around 310 to around 400.

This will also address a fundamental illogic baked into the high-stakes test. A great score and you might be in, but beware a point too low and you might be out. Now, a disadvantaged student who is just a point or two shy of the cut-off won’t be blocked from a great educational opportunity.

For a deeper solution, we will fight alongside our partners in the Assembly and Senate to replace the SHSAT with a new admissions process, selecting students based on a combination of the student’s rank in their middle school and their results in the statewide tests that all middle school children take.

With these reforms, we expect our premier public high schools to start looking like New York City. Approximately 45 percent of students would be Latino or black. As an example of growing geographical fairness, we will quadruple the number of Bronx students admitted.

I’ve talked a lot about bringing equity and excellence to our schools. This new admissions process will give every student in every middle school a fair shot. That’s equity. The new process will ask students to demonstrate hard work over time, and show brilliance in a variety of subjects. That’s excellence.

Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative. It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it. This perpetuates a dangerous and disgusting myth.

So let me be clear. The new system we’re fighting for will raise the bar at the specialized high schools in every way. The pool of talent is going to expand widely and rapidly. That’s going to up the level of competition. The students who emerge from the new process will make these schools even stronger.

They will also make our society stronger. Our most prestigious public high schools aren’t just routes to opportunity for deserving students and their families. They are incubators for the leaders and innovators of tomorrow. The kind of high schools we have today, will determine the kind of New York City we will have tomorrow.

Bill de Blasio is the mayor of New York City.