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De Blasio critics rally, asking Carranza to hit the ‘reset button’ on education policy

PHOTO: Monica Disare

As Chancellor Richard Carranza meets publicly with friendly crowds during his first days in office, critics of the mayor descended on City Hall to demand the new chancellor reject his boss’s education agenda.

Hundreds of parents stood in the rain on Tuesday to lob criticisms at de Blasio’s handling of city schools, from his rocky relationship with the charter sector to his efforts to improve struggling schools. Those at the rally — which was organized by frequent de Blasio antagonist StudentsFirstNY — said they are counting on Carranza to take the school system in a different direction.

“We are here today to tell Chancellor Carranza parents are not satisfied with de Blasio’s school system and we expect more from you,” said DeWayne Murreld, a StudentsFirstNY senior organizer and a public school parent. “It’s time to hit the reset button on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s failed education policies.”

One-by-one participants detailed a litany of concerns about the mayor’s education agenda. A mother bemoaned a controversial policy that would place teachers without permanent positions into classrooms. A charter school student called on Carranza to “end the war on charter schools,” a reference to his strained relationship with the sector.

A grandparent from Queens recalled fighting to keep his children, and then his grandchildren, out of the same struggling school. (StudentsFirstNY and its allies have been critical of the mayor’s plan to improve struggling schools by providing them with additional resources.)

Education department officials countered by saying that New York City schools are headed in the right direction.

“Attacking public education is far less effective than the hard work that dedicated educators undertake every day to support students and families,” said education department spokeswoman Toya Holness. “New York City schools are the strongest they’ve ever been with record-high graduation rates and a high-quality pre-k seat for every four year old in NYC, and Chancellor Carranza is building on that progress.”

It remains unclear whether Carranza will distance himself from his boss on any policy issues. During his first City Hall appearance, Carranza told reporters that there was “no daylight” between de Blasio and his own education agenda.

And although many parents at the StudentsFirstNY rally talked about a broken school system that did not serve their children, Carranza took a more optimistic stance in brief remarks at Stuyvesant High School on Monday.

“I don’t want you to read anything that says American education is failing,” Carranza said. “We’re not failing.”

However, those at the StudentsFirstNY rally expressed hope Carranza will help the school system turn a corner. For instance, they pointed out that he said last month he is “pro really good schools,” when asked about the charter sector.

“Spring is the season of hope,” said Derrell Bradford, executive director of NYCAN. “We are here because we are indeed hopeful.”

Another advocacy group that hopes Carranza will champion their cause sent a letter to the new chancellor this morning, imploring him to support participation in grades 3-8 math and English tests. The letter is signed by 32 parents and was publicly released by High Achievement New York, a group that supports testing and standards.

A separate group of parents has been focused on informing parents about the option to refuse to take the test. The so-called opt-out movement spurred about one in five New York families to boycott the tests last year.

“As you are new to New York, it is important that you understand that the state’s plan is critical for our shared accountability,” reads a part of the letter. “For too long, children were allowed to slip through the cracks of our school system and parents had limited means to measure and prevent that inequity.”

This story has been updated to include a statement from New York City education department officials.

Top teacher

Former Tennessee teacher of the year wins prestigious national award

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Franklin, receives the 2019 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of NEA)

Former Tennessee teacher of the year Cicely Woodard has received the nation’s highest teaching honor through its largest teacher organization.

The eighth-grade math educator in Franklin accepted the Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation. The honor, which includes a $25,000 prize, was presented Friday at a gala in Washington, D.C.

“Teaching can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming,” said Woodard. “But the impact that we make on the lives of students — and that they make on us — is powerful, life-changing, and enduring.”

A graduate of Central High School in Memphis, Woodard has been a teacher since 2003. She taught in Nashville public schools when she was named Tennessee’s top teacher in 2018 and has since moved to Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, south of Nashville, where she teaches at Freedom Middle School.

Woodard was among 46 educators nominated for the NEA Foundation award by their state education associations and was one of five finalists who received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, which carries an additional $10,000 prize. The Member Benefits Award winner was announced at the finale of the gala attended by 900 people.

“Cicely has been selected for this award by her peers not only because of her mastery as an educator, but also because of the empathy and compassion she shows for her students,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

Known for her inquiry-based approach to mathematics, Woodard holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in secondary math education from Vanderbilt University.

She has had numerous state-level roles, including serving on the education department’s teachers cabinet and on the testing task force created by former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. She also is on the steering committee for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based education research and advocacy organization.

You can watch Woodard in her classroom in the video below.

Penny Schwinn

What we heard from Tennessee’s education commissioner during her first week

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) speaks with students during a visit to LEAD Neely's Bend, a state-run charter school in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of LEAD Public Schools)

From students in the classroom to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Penny Schwinn introduced herself as Tennessee’s education commissioner this week by praising the state’s academic gains over the last decade and promising to keep up that momentum by supporting school communities.

Schwinn toured seven schools in Middle and East Tennessee during her first three days on the job to get a firsthand look at what’s behind the academic growth that she’s watched from afar as chief accountability officer for Delaware’s education department and more recently as deputy commissioner over academics in Texas. She plans to visit schools in West Tennessee next week.

The goal, she said, is to “listen and learn,” and she told a statewide gathering of superintendents at midweek that Tennessee’s successes can be traced to the classroom.

“It has to do with the hard work of our educators … every single day getting up, walking in front of our children, and saying ‘You deserve an excellent education, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,’” she said.

On policy, she affirmed Tennessee’s decade-long blueprint of setting rigorous academic standards, having a strong assessment to track performance, and holding school communities accountable for results.

“If we can keep that bar high … then I think that Tennessee will continue to improve at the rate that it has been,” she told legislators during an appearance before the House Education Committee.

Schwinn was the final cabinet member to start her job after being hired by Republican Gov. Bill Lee just days before his inauguration on Jan. 19. Her whirlwind first week began with school visits on Monday and concluded on Friday by attending a policy-heavy session of the State Board of Education.

But perhaps the biggest introduction came on Wednesday before district leaders attending a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, also known as TOSS. These are the local administrators she’ll work with most closely to try to improve student performance.

The superintendents group had stayed neutral about who should succeed Candice McQueen in the state’s top policy job but hoped for a leader with extensive experience both in the classroom and as a Tennessee school superintendent. Schwinn is neither, having started her career in a Baltimore classroom through Teach For America and later founding a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she also was a principal and then became an assistant district superintendent.

She appeared to wow them.

“Our job at the state Department of Education is to figure out what you all need to help your teachers be the best that they can be for our students. My job is to lead this department to ensure that this happens,” she told the superintendents.

Schwinn shared a personal story about adopting her oldest daughter, now age 6, and the “powerful moment” at the hospital when the birth mom said she loved her baby but couldn’t provide her with the future she deserves. “I think you can,” she told Schwinn, “and so I’m giving you my baby.”

Penny Schwinn speaks to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. (Photo courtesy of TOSS)

“When I think about my responsibility as a teacher or a principal or as commissioner of the state of Tennessee, I think about all of our parents … who pack up lunches, pack up backpacks, drop them off at the door and they give us their babies,” she said.

“That is the most powerful and important responsibility that we have as educators,” she said, “and I take that very, very seriously.”

Several superintendents stood up to thank her.

“I am encouraged. I feel like you have the heart that we all have,” said Linda Cash, who leads Bradley County Schools in southeast Tennessee.

“What she did most is she listened,” said TOSS Executive Director Dale Lynch of his earlier meeting with Schwinn. “As superintendents and directors, that’s very important to us.”

Here are other things we heard Schwinn say this week:

On whether Tennessee will continue its 3-year-old literacy program known as Read to be Ready:

“It is incredibly important that we have initiatives that stick and that have staying power. I think we’ve all had the experience of having … one-and-done initiatives that come and go. … From [my early school] visits, it was underscored time and time again the importance of initiatives like that.”

On the role of early childhood education:

“I think that early education — and that’s both academic and social development — is incredibly important to ensure that we get kindergartners who are ready to learn and ready to be successful.”

On the state-run turnaround district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools:

“High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly. There are good conversations to be had and some questions to be asked. But I will say that I am committed to ensuring that our lowest-performing schools achieve and grow at a much faster rate than they have been.”

On Texas’ academic growth in the 1990s that later flattened:

“They got very comfortable. It was, ‘We’re just doing just fine, we’re doing a great job,’ and then slowly some of the big reforms that they put into place in the ’90s started peeling back little by little. … It’s hard to get things done, but it’s really hard to hold the line.”

Here are six other things to know about Penny Schwinn.