crisis management

Here’s how Richard Carranza handled Houston’s special education crisis and what it could mean for New York City

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
With schools closed for spring break, Richard Carranza joined Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray for lunch at Katz's Deli on his first day as chancellor.

Two days before Richard Carranza took over as superintendent of the Houston Independent School District in 2016, a crisis that had been more than a decade in the making broke into public view.

The Houston Chronicle had just revealed that school districts across Texas systematically denied services to students with disabilities under pressure from the state — and Houston was no exception.

In the coming months, the paper showed that Houston officials had “enthusiastically embraced” the state’s arbitrary limit on the proportion of students who could could receive special education services. As a result, thousands of students went without access to therapies and counseling that they needed — and might legally have been entitled to.

As the full scope of the crisis came into focus after Carranza arrived in September 2016, the new superintendent vowed to enlist outside experts to conduct a thorough review of the district’s practices. “We will have a tough conversation about the importance of serving all children, regardless of any disability,” he said at the time.

So when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Carranza as his pick to replace Chancellor Carmen Fariña, local advocates privately wondered what his record on special education in Houston might mean for New York.

“It was something we scrambled and looked at,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children.

Moroff and many of the city’s special education advocates soon learned that the new chancellor shares some of their priorities. Carranza has said he supports including special education students in mainstream classes whenever possible, for instance, and said he has worked to reduce the overidentification of African-American students for special education services.

But they also learned more about what unfolded in Houston — where it wasn’t long before some advocates became frustrated that the special education scandal seemed to be subsumed by other issues including a budget crisis and threats of a state takeover, leaving some feeling like Carranza had not prioritized reforming a system that routinely left students without crucial services.

“A whole generation of educators were told to deny evaluation and be skeptical of referrals for evaluation,” said Dustin Rynders, who supervises a team of lawyers at Disability Rights Texas, a Houston-based advocacy group. “I didn’t feel change was happening fast enough.”

Rynders acknowledged that Carranza was dealt a difficult hand: Denying special education services had been encouraged by the state, ingrained in the district’s culture, and began well before Carranza arrived.

But multiple observers also said that while Carranza said many of the right things, it’s less clear to what extent his efforts changed the reality in schools. A recent audit shows that the district still kept students from being evaluated for special education services after Carranza initiated reforms.

Carranza took “good first steps,” Rynders added. “Do I think special education has largely changed during his first year and a half in the district? No.”

At the heart of Houston’s special education crisis was an arbitrary cap state officials first set in 2004: Despite federal laws that require districts to evaluate any student suspected of having a disability, the state secretly decreed that just 8.5 percent of students should qualify for special education services.

Defending themselves to the Chronicle, officials said they wanted to cut down on costs. They also cited concerns that too many students were being identified as having special needs — an issue that advocates see as particularly possible for students of color who might need different help to be successful in school. But no research suggests that only 8.5 percent of students have disabilities. Nationally, about 13 percent of students are classified as requiring special education services, a rate Texas fell below even before the cap was imposed.

Houston ISD — the seventh largest school district in the country — set an even stricter cutoff in the years before Carranza arrived, resulting in just 7.26 percent of students being identified for special education services, nearly the lowest of any urban school system in the country. (In New York City, by contrast, roughly 19 percent of students receive such services.)

To cut down on the number of students assigned special education services, “HISD officials slashed hundreds of positions from the special education department, dissuaded evaluators from diagnosing disabilities until second grade and created a list of ‘exclusionary factors’ that disqualify students from getting services,” according to the Chronicle investigation.

At the same time, district officials defended the extraordinarily low numbers, arguing that they showed early interventions were working and even that special education was not a useful service. “Special education does not deliver better outcomes for kids,” said Sowmya Kumar, the district’s special education director from 2010 to 2017.

That statement outraged advocates. Bob Sanborn, who runs Children at Risk, a statewide advocacy organization, quickly became one of the loudest voices suggesting that Kumar should be fired. He worried that Carranza was being told that the crisis was not as bad as it seemed.

Sanborn was impressed that Kumar resigned, a move he partly credits to Carranza.

“I knew there were forces inside the Houston school district saying, ‘Don’t pay attention to the Chronicle,’” Sanborn told Chalkbeat. “He was able to rise above that and see it objectively and basically pledged to try and fix the system.”

Under Carranza’s leadership, the district ultimately launched a series of parent forums, reorganized the special education department, updated its special education procedures, and added training for educators and staff. Officials also banned schools from using teaching methods designed for struggling students instead of evaluating them for special education services.

But some parents and advocates complained that Carranza did not make special education a top priority, and that his 18-month tenure meant that he left before any lasting changes could take hold.

“I just didn’t see Carranza very involved in the special education issues, despite the huge crisis that was going on,” said Cynthia Singleton, a Houston parent and advocate who has navigated the district’s special education system. She appreciated the district’s listening sessions, but said it wasn’t clear whether they had an impact.

Rynders, of Disability Rights Texas, pointed out that Carranza faced a litany of challenges — a natural disaster in Hurricane Harvey, a massive budget shortfall, and the threat of a state takeover — but echoed that special education never seemed to rise to the top.

“I heard him make some generic comments expressing that we must serve special kids and must make improvements, but I didn’t hear any detailed plan of action,” Rynders said, adding that he still receives calls from parents who are struggling to get their children evaluated for services.

In fact, there have not yet been significant increases in the number of Houston students who are identified for special education services.

Carranza has defended his handling of the special education crisis, pointing to meetings with parents and special education teachers and his call for an outside review of the district’s special education practices. (An education department spokeswoman in New York did not make Carranza available for comment.)

“Once that was brought to my attention we immediately acted,” Carranza said at his first press conference in New York City, referring to Texas’s cap on special education services. “In your new chancellor, as I know with the current chancellor, you have a champion for all students, including students with disabilities.”

Here, Carranza will take over a system that includes 221,000 students with disabilities — a population that is larger than Houston’s entire student population and which comes with its own set of longstanding problems.

Students with disabilities continue to post far lower test scores and graduation rates than their peers. Roughly 27 percent of students who were assigned special education services, or 48,000 students, only received some of the services they were entitled to, or none at all. And the city can’t be sure how accurate those numbers are because its system for tracking student services is notoriously glitchy.

Moroff said she is optimistic that Carranza will take those problems seriously — and that local advocates will make sure those students remain on his agenda.

“He’s obviously got some experience looking at special education, and looking at it systematically,” Moroff said. “We hope it stays on his radar here.”

NEW MOMENT

Tennessee’s struggling state-run district just hired the ‘LeBron James’ of school turnaround work

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Sharon Griffin was the first chief of schools for Shelby County Schools. Starting in May, she will be the next leader of Tennessee's state-run district.

In hiring a Memphis native to save its most vulnerable schools, Tennessee is hedging its bets that she can finally get the job done.

Sharon Griffin’s new job is to fix the state’s struggling Achievement School District and use her experience to strengthen the relationships with local districts across the state.

But can she right the ship and make everyone happy?

“I know through my experience and the relationships I’ve built that we cannot only focus and prioritize our work, but strengthen the relationship [between local districts and the state] so all of our schools can be great places of learning,” Griffin said during a conference call this week.

Tennessee’s achievement district started out as the cornerstone of the state’s strategy to improve low performing schools in 2012. It promised to vault the state’s 5 percent of lowest-achieving schools to the top 25 percent within five years. But the district hasn’t produced large academic gains. It’s struggling to attract students and retain high-quality teachers. And local districts don’t like it because the state moved in and took over schools without input.

But as Tennessee works to make its state the national model of school achievement, naming a revered, longtime home-grown leader as point person for school turnaround is seen by many as a jolt of badly needed energy, and a savvy move in a state education system divided into many factions.

“I think it is a game-changer,” said Rep. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, who has championed legislation to refine the achievement district. “The ASD badly needs a strong leader…. She definitely could be the bridge to bring us over troubled water in Tennessee.”


Read more about what Griffin’s hire means for the school district she is leaving behind. 


Education Commissioner Candice McQueen stressed during the call that Griffin’s appointment does not mean state-run schools will return to local control, even as she acknowledged that the district is at a turning point. It’s now the state’s tool of last resort.

“Whether that is transitioning a school back into the district when it is ready or whether it’s to intervene and move a school into the Achievement School District,” McQueen said. “This particular moment is about a person who can lead all of the state interventions as well as the specificity of the ASD.”

For Bobby White, the founder and CEO of a Memphis charter organization in the achievement district, the appointment signals a new chapter ahead. Griffin will directly oversee the district’s 30 charter schools in her new role.

He has been around for the highs and lows of Tennessee’s six-year experiment in state-run turnaround work.

“It feels like we got LeBron James, you know?” said White, who runs Frayser Community Schools. “It feels like she will have a vision and take us where we have been needing to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Frayser Community Schools CEO Bobby White has seen the highs and lows of the turnaround district.

Part of that vision will be finding new ways for charter schools and local districts to work together. In her roles as assistant commissioner of School Turnaround and chief of the Achievement School District, Griffin will oversee more than just the state-run district. She will have a hand in turnaround efforts across the state, such as a new partnership zone in Chattanooga. In the partnership zone, state and local leaders will work together to create mini-districts that are freed from many local rules.

Griffin stressed earlier this week that building relationships and fostering collaboration are among her top strengths — efforts that the state has failed in as local districts have sparred with state-runs schools over enrollment, facilities, and sharing student contact information.

“We have a level playing field now,” Griffin said. “I want to be clear, it’s not us against them. It’s a chance to learn not only from what ASD has been able to do alongside charter schools, but a chance to learn from each other as we move forward.”

Marcus Robinson, a former Indianapolis charter leader, said Griffin’s dynamic personality will be enough to get the job done.

“Dr. Griffin is magnetic,” said Robinson, who has helped raise money for Memphis schools through the Memphis Education Fund.

“She is the type of person who disarms people because she’s so authentic and genuine,” he said. “But she’s also experienced and wise and she knows school turnaround work.”

Griffin leaves behind a 25-year award-winning career with Shelby County Schools, the local district in Memphis. She has been a teacher and principal. She spearheaded the district’s turnaround work, and now serves as chief of schools. She will start her new role in May and will stay based in Memphis — something community members have long asked for.

Student at Frayser Achievement Academy.
PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, a state-run school.

Steve Lockwood has watched the state’s reform play out in his Memphis neighborhood of Frayser, whose schools were home to some of the first state takeovers.

When the state first started running schools in Frayser, it was with the promise that the academics and culture would improve, said Lockwood, who runs the Frayser Community Development Corporation.

“The ASD has struggled to deliver on their mission,” Lockwood said. “But the last few months have been modestly encouraging. The ASD has seemed willing to admit mistakes and shortcomings.”

Lockwood said he sees Griffin’s appointment as a commitment by the state to bettering relationships in Memphis — and added that he was surprised she signed up.

“It’s a tribute to the ASD that they have enough juice left to attract someone like Dr. Griffin,” Lockwood said.

unforced error

Mayor de Blasio says education department has culture of frivolous harassment complaints

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

A “hyper-complaint dynamic” within the city’s education department explains why so few of the harassment claims made against the agency are substantiated, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday.

“It’s pretty well known inside the education world of some people bringing complaints of one type or another for reasons that may not have to do with the specific issue — and this is not just about sexual harassment,” de Blasio said at a press conference.

“We have to investigate everything but it is a known fact that unfortunately there has been a bit of a hyper-complaint dynamic sometimes for the wrong reasons.”

The mayor’s comments come less than a week after the city released statistics that show nearly 500 education department employees filed sexual harassment complaints over the past four years — but just seven of the complaints were substantiated, according to the New York Times. That means only 2 percent of complaints were found to have merit — compared with nearly 17 percent at other agencies citywide.

During a question and answer session with reporters, de Blasio repeatedly said the education department has a cultural problem when it comes to reporting misconduct.

“I can’t parse out for you who was sincere and who was insincere and what type of offense,” de Blasio said. “I can’t get there. I can tell you the fact it’s unfortunately a part of the culture of an agency that is changing that we need to address.”

De Blasio quickly tried to walk back some of his comments on Twitter.

The mayor’s comments come as activists worldwide have raised awareness about sexual harassment, sparking the #MeToo movement. One element of that conversation has been the  importance of taking harassment claims seriously instead of dismissing them. More than three-quarters of the city’s teachers are women, according to the Independent Budget Office.

De Blasio’s responses drew sharp criticism from Michael Mulgrew, president of the city’s teachers union. “Our teachers have a tough enough job that they don’t have time to make frivolous claims,” he said in a statement.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who was accused of gender discrimination when he was a top school district official in San Francisco, said the education department has increased the number of investigators who look into such complaints.