Q and A

Here’s what Richard Carranza had to say in his first TV interview as New York City chancellor

Chancellor Richard Carranza was pressed on segregation, testing and metal detectors in schools.

New York City schools chief Richard Carranza has been cramming, if his first media interview since taking over the city’s schools on Monday is any indication.

Carranza spoke with NY1’s Lindsey Christ for about 30 minutes Wednesday, with an empty classroom as a backdrop. She pressed him on some of the most pressing issues facing the city, including school segregation, whether metal detectors belong in schools, and the city’s expensive Renewal program for struggling schools — where Carranza signaled that changes could be coming. He also addressed a gender discrimination lawsuit from his time as the head of San Francisco schools and called boycotts of standardized tests an “extreme reaction.” 

A few times, Carranza acknowledged he is still learning the ropes: Until he arrived in New York City, he had never worked in the country’s largest school system. He comes from Houston, where he was superintendent for less than two years.

Here’s what he had to say in Wednesday’s interview, which you can watch in its entirety here.

On segregation

Carranza is proving to be more frank than his boss — and his predecessor, retired Chancellor Carmen Fariña — on the issues of segregation and integration. Mayor Bill de Blasio has avoided those terms, preferring to speak more broadly about “diversity.” Carranza didn’t mind saying that “segregation and integration” have been issues in every district where he has worked. In Wednesday’s interview, Carranza was asked about his choice of words.

Back to Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court used the word segregation. So it is what it is. I think we get caught up sometimes in the terminology and miss the broader picture. The broader picture is that, if we have a public education system that truly belongs to the public, then every member of that public body — every single student, regardless of race, class, socioeconomic status, religious creed — should have access to all — all — opportunities in that system. And if [there is] segregation, then we need to work to end it.

On specialized high schools

New York City’s specialized high schools are some of the most prestigious in the system, but they are also starkly and persistently segregated. Only 10.4 percent of admissions offers for next year’s ninth-grade class went to black and Hispanic students, even though they make up about 70 percent of students citywide. Under de Blasio, the city has tried a number of initiatives to address the problem, but the admissions picture has not budged. Carranza suggested he wanted to see changes — but signaled that he had accepted his boss’s position that state law could be a barrier.

I’m starting to learn about what these issues are… State law notwithstanding, other protocol notwithstanding, how is that OK? 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. So I’m looking at that, absolutely.

On a gender discrimination settlement from San Francisco

Shortly after Carranza was named chancellor, the New York Daily News uncovered a 2015 gender discrimination lawsuit involving Carranza when he was superintendent of San Francisco schools. The suit, which was settled for $75,000, was filed by a district employee who said she was denied a leadership role during Carranza’s tenure because of her gender and charged he retaliated against her for confronting him about flirting with a woman during a work conference. City Hall told Chalkbeat that officials were aware of the lawsuit but believed the allegations to be false — which Carranza echoed.

It just didn’t happen. It never happened. I’ve been an educator almost 30 years. I’ve worked with thousands of colleagues and there are many people who would talk about my character and who I am … I will stand on my record and I’ll stand on the relationships that I built. But it never happened.

On the city’s long-running investigation into yeshivas

In 2015, the education department said it would investigate whether private yeshivas offer adequate instruction in secular subjects such as math and science. The results of that politically charged investigation have yet to be revealed, and the city hasn’t offered a timeline for when it would be completed. Meanwhile, a new state law seems to hand state education leaders the power to evaluate the schools — rather than the local district. Carranza wouldn’t commit to a timeline to wrap up the city’s investigation, or even promise to finish it.

I haven’t been fully briefed on the investigation, or what this history of the investigation has been, but I believe that every student — regardless of where they go to school — needs to have a quality education. … My commitment is to be very transparent in terms of where the investigation is and what the next steps in the investigation are.

On metal detectors

Metal detectors are a polarizing issue in the debate over how to keep schools safe. Some advocates say the city would be better off investing in services like mental health supports, but others argue that metal detectors keep students and staff safe. Once metal detectors are installed in schools, they are almost never removed. But Carranza signaled he is open to having conversations about taking scanners out of schools.

The most effective, in my experience, security system is an environment where students feel a responsibility for their safety and feel comfortable in reporting when they hear or they see something… I think in some places there may be a very good reason why we have metal detectors. Again, I’m just getting here but that’s one of the topics I really want to explore. If we have metal detectors, what’s the reason for it, what’s the justification for it and if there’s no need for it, then how do we get rid of those?

On testing

New York has one of the largest opt-out movements in the country, with parents instructing their children to refuse to take standardized tests. Carranza said English and math tests should not crowd out other subjects such as art, but he also was clear that he does not encourage opting out.

I think it’s an extreme reaction to where I think we could have a much more nuanced approach. All right, let’s look at how much testing is happening in our schools, and then let’s decide what has to be there so that we know where our students are, and then let’s eliminate whatever we don’t need to have… There are a number of tests that serve a purpose. I think that’s a more nuanced conversation. What’s the purpose and why is that important?

On the Renewal program for struggling schools

De Blasio has spent more than $500 million to support struggling schools through Renewal, which floods dozens of struggling schools with extra support, social services such as health care, and a longer school day. Though the mayor promised “fast and intense” improvements, Renewal has produced mixed results. Carranza called the program “incredibly proactive,” but also suggested there might be changes coming.  

Where have the results been mixed and then how do we change strategies or how do we update our strategy? How do we become strategic in certain areas? That’s part of improving.

Compare and Contrast

Five first days of school: How Richard Carranza’s start as chancellor compares to his predecessors’

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Richard Carranza climbed the steps of Tweed Courthouse, the education department headquarters, on his first day as chancellor. Carranza previously led schools in San Francisco and Houston.

Richard Carranza’s first day as New York City schools chief started with a photo opportunity: a snowy walk-and-wave into Tweed Courthouse, the education department’s Lower Manhattan headquarters, shortly before 9 a.m.

Later today, he plans to have lunch at an iconic New York City restaurant, Katz’s Delicatessen, with Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray. (It must be said: The third day of Passover makes an unusual choice for a visit to a Jewish deli.)

What Carranza won’t be doing: visiting any schools. This week is spring break, giving Carranza at least five work days before he’s likely to face any on-the-ground challenges. That should give him time to get to know his colleagues at Tweed and start getting up to speed on the major issues he’ll have to tackle.

The schedule makes Carranza’s first day very different from those of the most recent chancellors he succeeds. Here’s a look at what each of them did on day one.

Carmen Fariña eased into the limelight.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

On her first day in 2014, Fariña made a public appearance at one school, M.S. 223 in the Bronx, where she answered questions about where she planned to take the city’s schools. As a longtime veteran of the city’s schools appointed by a mayor who had vowed to shift the education department’s direction, would she seek to roll back Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education agenda? She said she would work, at least at first, within “the framework that existed” — though four years later it’s clear that she changed the education department substantially.

Fariña also said her first day had been busy, with lots of coffee, lunch skipped, and meeting with current staffers to talk about ways to “duplicate” their policy successes — a mission at the heart of some of the programs she created. And she also foreshadowed her hesitance to be a public figure, saying “the word chancellor kind of gives me the shivers.” De Blasio is reportedly hoping Carranza will take a different approach.

Dennis Walcott made waffles.

PHOTO: Anna Phillips

He was still a few days shy of officially taking over the city’s school system when Dennis Walcott, then still a deputy mayor for Bloomberg, stopped by P.S. 10 in Brooklyn to make his trademark waffles in an appearance that many education insiders remember as his inaugural public appearance. The visit — not even his first since being appointed — fulfilled a promise made to a third-grader to prove that Walcott’s waffle recipe (sugar-free, in keeping with his fastidious health regimen) was the best in the world. A student’s question also presaged the chancellor’s first marathon several months later. The visit kicked off a gruelingand, he said, rewarding — pace of school visits that characterized Walcott’s tenure, which lasted until Bloomberg left office at the end of 2013.

Cathie Black made what might have been her longest public appearance.

PHOTO: Maura Walz
Cathie Black visited P.S. 262 in Brooklyn on her first official day as chancellor in 2011.

Cathie Black’s appointment came as a shock, but her first day on the job in January 2011 was thoroughly choreographed as she visited schools in each of the five boroughs. The city had time to prepare: It took several weeks between when Bloomberg picked her for state policy makers to give her the waiver she needed to run the city’s schools despite a total lack of education experience, and she didn’t take office for six weeks after that. At the time, Black told us she had visited roughly 20 schools before her official first day, when she stopped by a music-themed high school, a charter school that teaches Korean, and a school for students with severe disabilities. But her school-visit schedule quickly slowed as her public appearances became landmines for the city, and she resigned just three months after her official first day.

Oh, and Joel Klein was uncharacteristically quiet.

Joel Klein. (GothamSchools file photo)

Schools were also closed when Klein took office in August 2002, but he didn’t stick around the education department’s headquarters, then still located in Downtown Brooklyn. “I wanted to send a clear message that I’m going to be out and in the schools,” Klein said about why he met with a deputy in Bedford-Stuyvesant on his first day. “If schools were open today, I’d be in school. Because that’s going to be a key part of my mission.”

That meeting was closed to the press, as part of a first day that the New York Times reported “represented a striking departure from tradition, and suggested that he might, at least for now, keep a lower profile than his predecessors.” (Several of them visited schools and held press conferences, according to the Times story, and one served French toast to students — likely with syrup.) Ultimately, that proved to be far from the case: Klein was a relentless leader and divisive public figure, frequently rolling out game-changing new policies during splashy press conferences without first building support from people who worked in schools.

A takeaway from Klein’s first day more than 15 years ago: A quiet first day hardly means a low-key administration — something to watch for now as Carranza digs in.

behind the music

‘Connecting kids with who they are’: Why school diversity advocates are optimistic about Chancellor Richard Carranza

PHOTO: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office
Advocates for culturally relevant education practices hope Richard Carranza will support their efforts.

By the time Tony Ozuna was a sophomore in Tuscon, Arizona, he had little passion for school — but he loved the mariachi music his mother blasted in his home and his father played professionally.

So after a social studies teacher at his high school started a mariachi group that toured the city in sharp suits, Ozuna eagerly auditioned to play the vihuela, a small guitar.

It proved to be a turning point in Ozuna’s life. While some of his friends got caught up in the wrong crowds, Ozuna was too busy with practice, sometimes dragging on until 9 p.m., to find trouble for himself. To be part of the group, his mariachi teacher insisted that he keep up his grades, show up to class, and behave both in school and out.

“He basically got me straightened out,” said Ozuna, who now leads his own mariachi group at a Chicago school. “I don’t know where I would be today without mariachi.”

That teacher was Richard Carranza, who will become chancellor of New York City schools on April 2. Launching the mariachi as a novice teacher at Pueblo Magnet High School turned into a life-changing moment for Carranza, too. He was inspired to become a school leader because of snide comments from district leaders while he developed class materials and wrote music compositions for his band.

“There was a palpable, racist antithesis to the establishment of mariachi curriculum,” he told a documentary filmmaker. “How can you be against connecting kids with who they are?”

Carranza took that lesson with him to San Francisco, where he oversaw an expansion of ethnic studies as superintendent, and to his next position as head of schools in Houston, where he proposed an LGBTQ curriculum that would give students “a bigger picture of who we are as America.”

In New York City, advocates who have pushed for more diverse and inclusive schools are hopeful Carranza’s record will carry over. While a grassroots movement has forced Mayor Bill de Blasio to reckon with deep-seeded segregation in the country’s largest school system, many say that work needs to go beyond enrollment changes that move students around. For them, culturally relevant education practices — those that focus on classroom materials, the makeup of teachers and administrators, and how students are disciplined — are key to achieving integration.

“His orientation towards this type of work, towards segregation and integration, seems a lot more open,” said Matt Gonzales, who advocates for school diversity with the nonprofit New York Appleseed. “I think it’s a real huge opportunity to take advantage of the moment we’re in right now.”

What culturally relevant schools do differently

A fight broke out recently in the hallway of Andrea Colon’s high school, Rockaway Park High School for Environmental Sustainability in Queens. She watched as administrators there tried in vain to break it up, and then resorted to calling police. They came with guns at their sides and cuffed the students, she said.

“It’s traumatizing,” said Colon, an organizer with the nonprofit Rockaway Youth Taskforce. “School is supposed to be an environment where you learn.”

Different approaches to school safety and student discipline are a major piece of the reforms that advocates say are needed as the city tries to integrate. In New York City and across the country, students of color are punished more often — and more harshly — than their white peers. Though 27 percent of city students are black, they accounted for about 47 percent of all suspensions last school year.

On the heels of a fatal school stabbing in the Bronx earlier this year, and the Parkland, Florida school shooting, the debate around discipline and safety has been front and center. But culturally relevant schools pay attention to more than suspension rates and arrests.

They also make sure students of all identities are reflected in what is taught and how it’s taught — and who teaches it. Advocates say that means focusing on the materials used in class, as well as hiring teachers and school leaders who share similar backgrounds as their students. There is evidence that having a teacher who resembles them can boost students’ test scores, and lead to higher expectations of what they can accomplish.

Derrick Owens has two daughters in elementary school in Harlem. He has pored over their textbooks and scouted the school walls for pictures of inspirational leaders who are black, just like his children, only to be left disappointed.

“This is something that’s important,” he said. “There’s nothing about them.”

A recent spate of incidents in city schools highlights how urgently those changes are needed, advocates say: This winter alone, an elementary school teacher flagged a test-prep passage that seemed to portray the confederate leader Robert E. Lee in a sympathetic light. A PTA president in Brooklyn sent out a fundraising flyer featuring performers in blackface. And a principal was accused of barring lessons about the Harlem Renaissance in a school where practically all students are black or Hispanic.

“It’s time now,” Owens said. “This is something that is for the kids. It’s for the teachers, and it’s for parents.”

What Carranza has done elsewhere

Carranza saw a need to serve Latino students better early in his career, one of the reasons he started the mariachi band.

“I realized there was an absence of arts in the school — culturally relevant arts,” he said at a press conference announcing his appointment as chancellor in New York City.

When he made the jump to San Francisco, he commissioned a study of a pilot program in cultural studies at city high schools. The results stunned Stanford researchers and school board members: Students who completed the class were significantly less likely to miss school, had a higher grade point average and improved their test scores.

The program launched before Carranza became superintendent in 2012, but former school board member Sandra Lee Fewer said he took it full scale, offering the course in every high school, making it count towards graduation, and later helping start a similar program in LGBTQ studies.

“It’s something he really believes in,” Fewer said. “It was personal.”

In 2016, Carranza was tapped to lead Houston schools, where some parents have been frustrated by his “lack of leadership” around making ethnic studies a priority, said Deyadira Arellano, an advocate for Mexican-American studies in schools.

When she was considering high schools for her son, Arellano zeroed-in on one that promised a Mexican-American studies course in partnership with a local college. Once he enrolled, though, Arellano said she was disappointed to find the class had been cut.

During his short tenure in Texas, Carranza faced an onslaught of challenges, from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey to potential state takeover of Houston schools and a $115 million budget gap. Still, Arellano said there are simple things he could have done. In some schools, only high-performing students are able to take Mexican-American Studies, she said, but Carranza could have told principals to change that.

“If you think it’s important, why doesn’t everyone have access to take this class?” she asked.

Will de Blasio let him?

It won’t be solely up to Carranza whether New York City goes further to meet advocates’ demands around integration and diversity. That is also up to his boss: Mayor de Blasio, who has control over the school system. In his search for a new chancellor, de Blasio made it clear he was looking for someone to stay the course laid out by the retiring chief of schools, Carmen Fariña.

De Blasio, who calls his education agenda “Equity and Access for All,” has championed some of the same policies advocates have clamored for. During his tenure, the education department has tried to dramatically reduce suspensions, added guidance counselors in needy districts, and released a plan to encourage more school diversity.

But he — and Fariña — have often stumbled. Faced with pressure from advocates to do more to integrate schools, de Blasio has said he can’t “wipe away 400 years of American history.” Fariña once suggested pen pals between rich and poor schools could be part of the city’s solution. And after declaring it unacceptable that few students of color are admitted to the city’s most elite high schools, the de Blasio administration has only doubled-down on diversity initiatives that have failed to move the needle.

Parents with the advocacy group Coalition for Educational Justice have called for anti-bias training for all city teachers. So far, less than half a percent of more than 76,000 teachers have gone through the course that the coalition recommends — though city officials note that individual schools and districts often offer their own training.

“I think his track record shows that he’s been able to do some really innovative work in San Francisco, and Tucson, and other places he’s worked,” said Gonzales, the advocate with New York Appleseed. “The only thing is whether Mayor de Blasio will let him take the schools and lets him run with them.”