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School safety, funding, segregation, and more: Here are 7 issues Carranza will face in New York City

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Mayor Bill de Blasio in March named a new chancellor of New York City Schools: Richard Carranza, Houston Independent School District Superintendent.

As the superintendent of Houston’s Independent School District, Richard Carranza was responsible for one of the nation’s largest school systems. But when he takes the reins from retiring schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña in the coming weeks, he will oversee a system that is five times larger and arguably the country’s most complex.

Carranza, who shares much of Fariña’s educational philosophy, is taking over a system that has posted some improvements during de Blasio’s first term: Graduation rates and test scores have incrementally increased (despite persistent achievement gaps). And de Blasio has earned plaudits for orchestrating a smooth rollout of universal pre-K — a program that is now being expanded to 3-year-olds.

But numerous political and policy challenges remain. Here are seven issues Carranza will be forced to contend with in the coming months:

1. How will he address the heightened debate about school safety and discipline?

In the aftermath of a fatal stabbing at a Bronx high school earlier this school year, and one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history, there has been increased attention to student discipline and how to keep schools safe.

De Blasio has staked out a relatively progressive vision on both topics, tweaking policies to favor “restorative” approaches to misconduct instead of suspensions and creating a policy that theoretically (though rarely in practice) allows principals to request that metal detectors be removed from their schools.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Outgoing Chancellor Carmen Fariña and former NYPD Commissioner William Bratton listened to students talk about restorative justice in 2016 at Manhattan’s Leadership and Public Service High School.

Carranza is philosophically aligned with that vision: “Excluding students from school is not the best way to deal with behavior issues,” he said in 2014 as superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District.

But Carranza will have to balance pressure from all sides of the ideological spectrum. He will be forced to address critics who say lax discipline has created chaos in some schools and that metal detectors are more important than ever. And he will face advocates who say the city has not gone far enough in reducing racial disparities in suspensions and has not adequately trained teachers to manage behavioral problems without harsher discipline.

Carranza’s record suggests he supports the shift away from suspensions, but helping educators adapt to the city’s new discipline philosophy could earn him points with rank-and-file teachers and union officials who have complained that the transition hasn’t been smooth.

2. Will he be able to balance his wishlist with funding challenges?

Many of the items on de Blasio’s education wishlist are expensive. Expanding universal pre-K to include 3-year-olds is expected to require $700 million from state and federal sources by 2021 during a time when the state faces a $4.4 billion funding gap and a federal tax overhaul could create tighter school budgets.

The mayor’s broader efforts to outfit all schools with computer science classes, hire literacy coaches, and infuse high-need schools with social services all add up to hundreds of millions of dollars that could be harder to come by. On top of that, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed shifting more of the cost of charter schools into the city’s budget (including paying for private space).

Carranza has experience with budget challenges: The Houston district is wrestling with a $115 million budget shortfall, falling enrollment, and continued costs associated with Hurricane Harvey. Though the incoming chancellor has experience managing budgets, he is essentially leaving Houston just as the district was expecting to make big cuts.

3. What will be the future of the city’s beleaguered school turnaround program?

The new chancellor is taking on the role at a precarious moment for de Blasio’s controversial and expensive “Renewal” school turnaround program. De Blasio initially described the initiative as a three-year effort to induce “fast and intense” improvements at the city’s 94 lowest-performing schools. But with a mixed record including 23 mergers and closures (and 21 schools being phased out for showing improvements), the Renewal program is now headed into a fourth year with just 50 remaining schools.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Mayor de Blasio sits in on a class at August Martin High School, a Renewal school.

In New York, City Hall will help determine the Renewal program’s fate — and Carranza may be willing to help reset the program given the parallels to his own approach in Houston. But with dozens of schools remaining in the program, he will have to manage contentious decisions about their fate, and also hire someone to manage it.

4. How will he handle pressure to better serve the system’s highest-need students?

New York City has struggled to serve its growing population of homeless students, English learners, and students with disabilities — groups that all perform far below their peers. More than a quarter of the city’s 200,000 students with disabilities last school year did not receive all of their legally mandated services (the tracking system for those services is also notoriously glitchy). And after New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the last mayoral administration to open new bilingual programs, the current administration has vowed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by next school year.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

A former bilingual social studies teacher, Carranza has a track record of boosting instruction for English learners. As superintendent of San Francisco’s school system, for instance, he worked with local universities to create a pipeline of bilingual teachers. But Carranza also acknowledged Monday that the district wrestled with a special education crisis after the Houston Chronicle’s “great reporting” revealed that the state had artificially capped the percentage of students who could receive services. And while Carranza inherited that crisis, Houston has achieved only mixed success making services available to more students under his watch.

5. How will he tackle school segregation?

The new chancellor will also have to answer a growing chorus of advocates who have called for the city to better integrate its schools, which are among the most segregated in the country. It is an issue that Fariña stumbled over, once suggesting the problem could be addressed through pen pals for students.

For his part, Carranza has signaled a willingness to reckon with structural inequities: In Houston, he proposed an overhaul of the district’s magnet programs and school budget allocations. And in his opening press conference, he used the words “segregation” and “integration” — words that don’t appear in the city’s “diversity” plan. An advisory group of advocates from across the city is currently analyzing the plan and will come up with its own suggestions for the city’s next steps — steps that will fall on the new chancellor to take.

Carranza gets fired up about equity issues and “was not afraid to go up against the machine,” Jolanda Jones, an elected school board trustee in Houston, told Chalkbeat. Still, Carranza has reiterated de Blasio’s argument that some inequities are beyond the school system’s purview, and he will have to walk a tightrope between advocates who have demanded bolder action, and a mayor who has been reluctant to take on systemic changes.

6. Will he work smoothly with de Blasio?

Unlike his previous jobs running San Francisco and Houston’s school systems, Carranza won’t have to navigate school board politics or win their approval for major policy shifts or budget allocations.

Instead, he must adapt to a system where the mayor calls the shots. Under de Blasio, Carranza will be managed by a second-term mayor who has said his education agenda is set, has a reputation for being a micromanager, and has set his sights on the national stage — potentially leaving Carranza less room to shepherd big new policy changes of his own. (And Carranza will be hauled up to Albany next year to defend mayoral control from Republican lawmakers who have threatened to revoke it to exact concessions from de Blasio.)

7. How will he navigate charter school politics?

In Houston, Carranza was able to largely sidestep debates about charter schools, given their unpopularity with the district’s school board. But the incoming chancellor will have to wade into perennial debates about finding space and negotiating co-location arrangements for the privately managed but publicly funded schools. The de Blasio administration has had a hot-and-cold relationship with the sector, clashing with some high-profile charter school networks such as Success Academy, but also expanding partnerships between district and charter schools across the city.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz held a press conference at City Hall to call for more school space.

Carranza’s record suggests he will take a similar approach: He has 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. And on Monday he said “I’m pro really good schools” when asked about the sector.

Christina Veiga contributed.

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
Stuyvesant High School will begin participating in the Discovery program this year.

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.