principal power

New York City principals want to know: How much power will they have under Chancellor Carranza?

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

Some principals already bristling at the tighter controls they’ve faced under Mayor Bill de Blasio might feel uneasy when they read that incoming chancellor Richard Carranza’s centralized some power in the last school system he ran.

But perhaps they shouldn’t panic yet. Carranza also says he trusts principal decision-making — after all, he was a principal himself.

“I’ve been a principal in two different schools in two different states, so I tremendously have faith that principals can make great decisions at the local level,” Carranza said during his first press conference in New York City on Monday.

But, he added, “there are some things you cannot just decentralize. So you need to have some central direction.”

That sentiment echoes outgoing Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who reorganized the school system to allow superintendents more authority to shape instruction and ensure principals follow the rules. Without tighter oversight, Fariña has argued, schools could have uneven instruction and practices leading to greater inequality across the school system. That was a major shift from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his chancellors, who favored wresting decision-making out of the hands of central office staff and giving principals more power.

And indeed, in interviews with more than a dozen principals this summer, school leaders complained to Chalkbeat about intense scrutiny of their daily tasks bordering on micromanagement. Many said the more centralized management style came with endless emails, compliance items, and paperwork, that robbed them of precious time they could be in classrooms or working on more innovative education practices.

Some principals are hoping for relief from the new chancellor.

“The job under the current chancellor has definitely become stifling in certain ways,” said a principal from the Bronx who asked to remain anonymous to avoid criticizing his boss. “It’s just like big-ticket [education department] branded initiative after initiative that feels very disjointed and doesn’t feel connected to the work that’s happening here at schools.”

Other principals don’t see a disconnect between centralization and their goals. “As long as it’s in line with collaboration between schools with central supports, I think that’s a great way to grow our system,” said Anthony Cosentino, principal at PS 21 in Staten Island.

New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres said that how Carranza handles the school system’s management will be a defining part of his tenure.

“If he could reverse the centralizing legacy of Carmen Fariña I’d be a happier man,” Torres said. “The question mark for me is how he’s going to grapple with the centralizing legacy of his predecessor.”

Carranza’s past record on principal authority is mixed. Most recently, in Houston, he supported taking some budgeting power back from principals and said during Monday’s press conference that decentralization in Houston had “run amok.”

Instead of giving principals a pot of money and providing them with the full authority to spend, Carranza supported attaching restrictions to the funding in order to ensure each school had an adequate number of administrators, teachers, and other school staff, such as nurses. But this budgeting arrangement may have been specific to Houston — in an interview with a Houston television station, Carranza said he supported this change only because Houston was facing a dire budget situation.

“We’re not going to take innovation away from principals,” Carranza said in the interview. “But what we’re going to say to principals, instead of you getting a pot of money and then having to kind of knit together what your staffing is, it’s going to be really transparent.”

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke to principals, superintendents, and network officials last month.

Josephine Rice, the executive director of the Houston Association of School Administrators, said principals were vocal about their concerns when Carranza first proposed the budget changes. But he listened to their worries, and towards the end, principals felt they would receive more flexibility and that the plan was generally headed in the right direction, she said.

The model still has not been finalized and that leaves a lot of uncertainty among Houston principals at the moment, Rice said.

“While principals feel better about the staffing model,” she said, “they’re still not feeling good because there are so many questions that are out there.”

Houston Board trustee Sergio Lira said he would not expect Carranza to implement the same policy in New York unless it was necessary  and that Carranza’s style is to listen to educator concerns before acting. “Tell the principals [in New York] they’re lucky,” Lira said. “They’ve got a good guy.”

In San Francisco, where Carranza served as superintendent for four years, he attracted money from the Salesforce Foundation to start a Principal’s Innovation Fund, which awarded grants to principals and allowed them to allocate money as they saw fit. Marc Benioff, the chief executive of Salesforce, praised Carranza’s decision to delegate authority to the principals in a recent New York Times story.

Carranza also stood by principals by respecting their choice to hire teachers from Teach for America, despite the school board’s opposition.

The new chancellor should resist the urge to stick to a centralized system, said David Baiz, a former East Harlem Middle School principal who left the position last year to to get his doctorate in education leadership at Harvard. Baiz believes that the current administration forced principals to follow central directives instead of doing what was best for their schools — and it’s something he hopes the new chancellor changes.

“I would suggest for him to find a way to bring innovation back to New York City,” Baiz said.

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.


‘Genius grant’ writer to Memphis: ‘We’re losing the only gains we’ve made’ against segregation

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Nikole Hannah-Jones, an award-winning New York Times Magazine writer, speaks on school segregation during her first public appearance in Memphis.

Memphis is a “perfectly sad place” to talk about school segregation, a nationally renowned journalist said while visiting the city this week.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, who writes about race and school segregation for the New York Times Magazine, was in Memphis as part of a speaker series sponsored by Center for Southern Literary Arts, Chalkbeat Tennessee and MLK50: Justice in Journalism.

She was among the 24 recent winners of a no-strings-attached prize known as the MacArthur “Genius Award.” (Read more about her work here.)

Her award-winning piece, the “The Resegregation of Jefferson County” was a deeply reported  article on how racially motivated school district secessions are contributing to school segregation in Alabama.

In her talk, Hannah-Jones compared what happened in her article with what happened in Memphis in 2014, when six mostly white municipal districts broke away from the large, predominantly black Shelby County Schools.

Listen to part of Hannah-Jones’s story:

“The resegregation in Jefferson County is exactly what’s happened here,” Hannah-Jones said.

“It’s white communities breaking off from school districts,” she said. “They can wipe their hands of it and say it’s not about race, we just want districts to represent my community. It is about race.”

Hannah-Jones said resegregation is a trend recently documented by national researchers — both in the relatively new trend of district sessessions and in white Americans moving into communities of color but refusing to send their children to neighborhood schools.

Schools were segregated in Tennessee during the first part of the 20th Century. After the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1954 that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, school districts in Tennessee slowly began to integrate and then stalled. Now, researchers and journalists say segregation is getting worse.

“As the south resegregates, we’re losing the only gains we’ve made,” Hannah-Jones said. “We want to pretend that our decisions aren’t impacting other kids, but they are.… You cannot say you believe in equality and seek to advantage your child every step of the way. ”

Hannah-Jones wrote in 2016 about choosing a school in New York City for her own daughter. She eventually settled on a neighborhood school — one that is majority black and poor. She challenged Memphians, in particular white, middle-class Memphians, to think more equitably about where they send their own children to school.

“White children aren’t hurt at all by going to these schools — their test scores don’t go down,” she said, a statement backed by research. “But look in Detroit, inner-city Memphis, Chicago. No one is coming.”

“The piece I did about my daughter, the reason it had such an impact is that I was honest. It wasn’t an easy choice when I had my own child. Morals and values in abstract are great, but reality is more difficult.”

She began the Tuesday night event with a story about a student she grew close to — and whose story embodies some of the issues of segregation —  before participating in a panel with MLK50 founder Wendi Thomas and Tami Sawyer, a Teach for America director and local activist.

Hannah-Jones said she’s now working on a book about Detroit — specifically looking at how poverty makes educating children “impossible.” (To learn more about schools in Detroit, go here).

In talks

Hopson asks state to let struggling Memphis school remain with local district

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is in talks with state officials about the future of American Way Middle, a struggling Memphis school that the state has identified for conversion to a charter school under Shelby County Schools or takeover by Tennessee's Achievement School District.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is asking Tennessee’s education chief to let Shelby County Schools keep control of American Way Middle School and place the struggling school in its own turnaround program, the Innovation Zone.

And Commissioner Candice McQueen is hinting that she’s willing to talk.

Hopson’s official request came this week despite McQueen’s plan for the Memphis district to convert American Way Middle to a charter school or risk having it placed in the state’s Achievement School District.

“Our Board voted to place American Way in the iZone next year,” Hopson wrote McQueen on Tuesday. “The Board was uncomfortable waiting for an additional year before taking action.”

McQueen wants the school to become a charter school in the fall of 2019 under the state’s new accountability plan. The board voted to place it in the iZone a year earlier than that.

But Hopson said the district’s concerns extend beyond timing.

“During its robust discussion regarding a district-led charter conversion, the Board was particularly concerned because we are unaware of any middle school charter operators who have strong track records of success in the turnaround space,” Hopson wrote. “For these reasons, the Board indicated that it will not approve a district-led charter conversation.

He added: “Given the I-Zone’s progress, we respectfully request that the State allow American Way to remain in the I-Zone for at least 3 years. Notably, one of American Way’s feeder schools is also in the I-Zone.”

McQueen said Friday that her office needs more information about the district’s proposal for American Way Middle before she makes a decision.

“We had a conversation with the district this week to make it clear that simply saying the school will be in the iZone next year does not tell us what the plan for that school is, and we still need more details on what it would look like for the school to be served by the iZone,” McQueen told Chalkbeat through a spokeswoman. “It is also not clear what charter options the district explored.”