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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 on Monday 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.

Election Guide

Meet the Newark power players looking to steer this year’s school-board election

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Ras Baraka is one of three powerful forces backing a slate of candidates considered the leading contenders in this year's school-board race.

One evening last week, excitement surged through the Willing Heart Community Care Center, a charity housed inside a Baptist church near downtown Newark.

Dozens of residents had crowded into the pews for a chance to listen to some of the 13 candidates vying for three open seats on the city’s school board. They understood the high stakes of next month’s election: Newly empowered after two decades under state control, the nine-member board will be responsible for managing the district’s nearly $1 billion budget and choosing a new superintendent.

This group of board members “will be the first set under the newly constituted Board of Education,” said Deborah Smith-Gregory, president of Newark’s NAACP, which hosted the event, as the crowd rumbled with applause. A few moments later, she underscored her point: “This becomes a very, very important election.”

But for all of the election’s significance, it’s hardly expected to be a model of democracy.

Held in April apart from other elections, voter turnout — like school board races across the country — has historically been low. Last year, about 7,500 people cast ballots, or just over 5 percent of registered voters.

And three of the candidates are running on a slate backed by a powerful alliance of Mayor Ras Baraka, North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr., and the city’s growing charter-school sector. Candidates on that slate — previously dubbed “Newark Unity,” and now called “Moving Newark Schools Forward”  have dominated each election since the alliance formed in 2016.

Charles Love, a former parent organizer who ran in the previous two board elections, said the 10 candidates not on that slate face an uphill climb. Last year, Love had committed volunteers and the backing of a city councilwoman. But he said it was not enough to compete with the political machine behind the Unity slate, which helps its candidates fundraise, knock on doors, produce campaign materials, and prep for debates.

“In a sense, the Unity slate negates the independent candidate — it creates almost zero possibility of you winning,” Love said. “If you try to throw arrows at a tank, you’re going to lose.”

Below is a guide to the power centers behind the slate whose candidates are considered the leading contenders in this year’s election, which takes place April 17. (The deadline to register to vote is March 27.)

A muscular charter sector seeking to mobilize parents

As Newark’s charter-school sector has rapidly expanded to serve about a third of city students, its political ambitions have grown with it. That was made clear by its recent search for the ideal school-board candidate.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Asia Norton (left) is a kindergarten teacher chosen to represent the charter-school sector in the race.

A coalition of charter-school advocates convened by the Newark Charter School Fund first identified nearly 20 potential candidates last summer. The contenders then participated in individual and group interviews, met current board members, and underwent trainings on how to run for public office. One session was conducted by Democrats for Education Reform, a national pro-charter advocacy group led by Shavar Jeffries, a former Newark school-board member and mayoral candidate.

Finally, the coalition settled on Asia Norton, a Newark parent and kindergarten teacher at KIPP Life Academy charter school.

“We think she is smart, talented, and has the right experience, temperament, and leadership to represent all of the 55,000 kids in Newark,” said Michele Mason, the Newark Charter School Fund’s executive director.

The charter sector began to ramp up its political involvement after Baraka’s election in 2014. During the campaign, he had crusaded against former Superintendent Cami Anderson — whose policies included opening more charter schools — and attacked Jeffries, who enjoyed strong backing by pro-charter forces.

The following year, supporters of the city’s largest charter-school operators, KIPP and North Star Academy, funded a new advocacy group called the Parent Coalition for Excellent Education, or PC2E. The idea was to organize the thousands of Newark parents with children in charters into a potent voting bloc that could push back against critics who wanted to halt the sector’s expansion.

In 2016, PC2E joined the “Newark Unity” slate with Ramos and Baraka – a surprise given that Baraka had sharply criticized Newark’s charters for sapping resources from the district’s traditional public schools. PC2E’s political arm spent heavily on the board races — nearly $208,000 in 2016 and over $174,000 in 2017, according to campaign filings — and its candidates easily won each year. (PC2E has been less active since its executive director resigned in November.)

Now, charter advocates are focused on getting Norton elected. For her part, Norton is emphasizing her local roots — she grew up in the South Ward, and her mother is a Newark public-school teacher — over her charter credentials. At Thursday’s candidate forum, she touted her experience teaching for six years in Newark schools but did not mention that they were charters.

“I don’t view myself as a charter teacher,” Norton told Chalkbeat in an interview before the forum. “I’m a Newark teacher.” She said parents should be able to choose the best schools for their children – whether public, private, or charter.

“That’s what I think makes Newark so rich,” she said, “all the different educational programs that are provided for our children.”

A ‘pragmatic’ mayor running for re-election

Baraka has long been a force in the city’s school-board elections.

The “Children First” slate that he backed as a city councilman and then as mayor won seats in five consecutive elections, according to the election-tracking site Ballotpedia. In many of those races, his candidates battled those on the “For Our Kids” slate, aligned with the powerful North Ward.

So when he joined the Unity slate in 2016, many saw it as a shrewd political move. The alliance allowed him to choose a candidate who stood a strong chance of winning without having to take on the North Ward machine or the well-financed charter sector, whose schools serve a growing number of city residents.

“Mayor Baraka is very astute, he’s very pragmatic,” said Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, the mayor’s chief education officer. When it came to the board elections, she explained, his options were to “be inclusive or wage a war of finances, organizing, and mobilization.”

This year, his chosen candidate is Dawn Hayes, a City Hall staffer and public-school parent.

According to her campaign biography, she is a former member of the U.S. Air Force and “the first Muslim woman working as a technician for Direct TV.” She is also a member of the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition and president of the Harriet Tubman school’s parent-teacher organization.

Even as Baraka pushes for his slate to win in April, he is looking ahead to May 8, when he is up for reelection. While he is heavily favored in that race, a school-board victory ahead of time would help lend an air of inevitability to the outcome.

“Is it a barometer for the mayoral election?” said Baskerville-Richardson. “I guess so.”

A ward known for its political prowess

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Yambeli Gomez is a city councilman’s aide and former labor organizer chosen for the slate by the North Ward.

When it comes to racking up votes, the North Ward is a well-oiled machine.

It was long under the sway of Steve Adubato Sr., a political powerbroker who founded the North Ward Center in 1970 and one of New Jersey’s first charter schools, Robert Treat Academy, in 1997. Now Councilman Ramos, who ran for mayor in 2014 before dropping out and endorsing Jeffries, is one of the main forces behind the ward’s political operation.

In last year’s school-board election, slate candidates received far more votes in the North Ward than they did anywhere else — including Baraka’s base in the South Ward.

This year, Ramos’ chief of staff, Samuel Gonzalez, is chairing the Moving Newark Schools Forward slate. Ramos himself is bringing its members along as he canvases at churches and community events ahead of his own re-election bid in May.

“We really take the election seriously,” Ramos said about the board race. “We take it as an informal test of our operation.”

The ward’s candidate is Yambeli Gomez, an aide to Councilman At-Large Eddie Osborne.

The daughter of immigrants, Gomez previously was an organizer for campaigns to raise the wages of fast-food workers and expand pre-kindergarten in New York City. Her mother is an organizer for the powerful 32BJ SEIU union.

Introducing herself at last week’s forum, Gomez switched between English and Spanish — a nod to the city’s growing Hispanic population. Consistent with her slate, she sounded a theme of unity.

“I’m running for school board because I was one of those kids who didn’t feel included,” she said. “I want to be able to help and be inclusive.”

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 50 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 56 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.