On the road

Five boroughs in five days: Follow along with Chancellor Carranza on his inaugural school tours

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Carranza shook hands with students at Brighter Choice Community School in Brooklyn on the second day of a week of school tours.

Chancellor Richard Carranza is spending his second week in New York City visiting city schools — a lot of them.

On Monday, he headed to the Bronx to visit three schools. Tuesday, he’s stopping by three more, this time in Brooklyn. And he’s expected to keep the tour up the rest of the week.

The visits are just one part of  the Department of Education’s public introduction of Carranza to the city. On Monday, the DOE also released the first part of  a video interview series, in which Carranza emotionally talks about walking his parents around his college campus.

Chalkbeat reporters Alex Zimmerman, Christina Veiga and Monica Disare will be along for the ride in the education department’s bumpy press van and will share dispatches here. Stay tuned for updates.

Monday, April 9

7:36 a.m. Many chancellors have done five-borough tours on their first days of school. Carranza plans to stretch his tour out all week, Alex reports from Tweed, where he’s about to get on the press van to Concourse Village.

That’s no small feat: It’s a challenging week for school visits, because elementary and middle schools will be administering state testing starting on Wednesday.

8:45 a.m. Carranza is at Concourse Village Elementary School now. Located in District 7 in the Bronx, one of the most struggling districts in the city, the school it has won accolades for making both academic gains and addressing students’ social and emotional needs, a de Blasio administration priority. According to Insideschools, graduates are increasingly sought by area middle schools — including M.S. 223, the school that Carranza’s predecessor, Carmen Fariña, visited on her first day as chancellor.

8:55 a.m.

9:02 a.m.

9:30 a.m. At Concourse Village Academy, Carranza visited kindergarten, pre-K, and 3-K classrooms.

Carranza was mostly quiet during the initial classroom visits — he did not pepper the principal, students or teachers with questions, something that had become a hallmark of his predecessor. “I’m in fact-finding mode,” he later told reporters. “I’m looking with a very non-prejudiced eye and just taking it in.”

Carranza sang and danced along with pre-K students who were learning about different parts of plants through a song called “I’m a Little Daisy.”

Carranza touted the city’s investments in early childhood education — the expansion of pre-K has been a signature accomplishment of Mayor de Blasio.

“It’s one of those game-changer initiatives,” he said, noting “you have to wait a little bit to see the results.”

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Chancellor Richard Carranza is greeting families outside Concourse Village Elementary School in the Bronx on his first official school visit.

Carranza said Concourse Village was chosen for his first visit partly because of its geography: It is a high-performing school, but it is nestled in one of the city’s poorest regions and many other schools in the district struggle.

“It’s no mistake that I’m here this morning,” he said.

Asked about the city’s homelessness crisis — roughly one in 10 students live in temporary housing – Carranza said he is interested in talking about the problem with advocates from around the city.

“I will absolutely be sitting down and working with whomever is at the table,” he said. (Still, the mayor has taken criticism from advocates who were upset that he did not include funding for additional social workers in his original budget proposal.)

Answering questions from reporters, Carranza said he is interested in addressing the city’s achievement gap, and mentioned school segregation by name — something both the mayor and former-Chancellor Fariña had avoided.

He said he spent much of his first week being briefed on policy issues and meeting his new co-workers at Tweed.

“Last week I spent all of my time really diving into the policy issues and bringing myself up to speed,” he said.

10 a.m.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Chancellor Carranza meets with students attending a college tour in the Bronx.

Carranza’s next stop is a tour of Bronx Community College with a group of 7th graders from PS/MS 279, as part of College Access for All. The initiative, founded under Mayor de Blasio, helps school build a culture around college and careers.

Three hundred fifty-five middle schools are participating in the program this year across 21 districts, according to Raana Kashi, a college access for all program manager. It will be in all middle schools across the city next year

The middle schools in the program get extra funding to help students start thinking about college, including these college visits.

“This should be how you feel comfortable” Carranza said of the college campus.

“If I can do it, you can absolutely do it,” he told the students during the tour Monday.

11:30 a.m.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza mingled with 3K students at PS 25 in the Bronx.

De Blasio and Carranza channeled their inner children at PS 25 The Bilingual School. They squeezed into tiny tables and played with Play-Doh and food from a toy kitchen as they chit-chatted with the youngsters.

P.S. 25 was among the first schools in the city to take advantage of the mayor’s push for pre-K for all three-year-olds. In brief remarks to reporters, de Blasio said pre-K is becoming a “universal right.”

“This is the foundation of creating a whole generation of lifelong learners,” the mayor said. “This is a brand new reality.”

Still, the city faces an uphill climb before all three-year-olds are eligible for free pre-K. The city anticipates that it won’t happen until 2021, a much slower rollout than the rollout for all city 4-year-olds. And 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.

Last week, the mayor suggested that Carranza would “supercharge” his universal literacy initiative designed to get students reading on grade level by the third grade.

For his part, Carranza said the benefits of universal pre-K might not accrue immediately, but that he expects long-term benefits from the program — including in reading.

“When these students get to the third grade I can assure you they will be reading on grade level,” Carranza said.

Tuesday, April 10

8:45 a.m. Chancellor Richard Carranza started his second day of school tours at Brooklyn Studio Secondary school in the Bath Beach neighborhood. He kicked off the visit by helping Principal Andrea Ciliotta with morning announcements. “Let’s have some joy in school! Are you with me?” he asked over the public address system, drawing some cheers from students.

9:13 a.m.

9:23 a.m.
Carranza has made college access and preparedness a talking point over the last two days. On Monday, he went on a tour of a college with students. And Tuesday, he attended a college advisory class. “Remember, it’s got to feel like home. And remember you can do it,” he told students.

9:32 a.m.
It’s no secret that music has played an important part in Carranza’s life — he’s an accomplished mariachi musician and has played music with students.   So of course he attended a band class Tuesday morning. Unfortunately, much to the dismay of reporters, Carranza didn’t pick up an instrument. He did meet a student with the same last name who plays the same instrument that he did in high school — the baritone sax. “Are we cousins?” he joked.

10 a.m.
Carranza said he plans to make a habit of his school visits, squeezing in at least one a week — or more.

“I just think it’s really critically important to have the DNA of school. The only way to do that is to just walk into a building,” he said. “When I moved into a central office role, I’ve always wanted to stay connected to what really happens in schools.”

He also said he’s been known to follow around a student for a day. (Though, after throwing an opening pitch at a high school baseball game Monday afternoon, Carranza joked he’ll probably avoid joining students for baseball practice until he can improve his arm.)

“We as adults make lots of decisions for students, but it is so informative when we hear from students what it actually is that they want and what they need.”

He called College Access for All a “game-changer.” Earlier, he met with students in a college advisory class while they used iPads to take surveys about their interests. Once they settled on a theme — agriculture, education, or finance, for example — the program helped them track corresponding majors and which colleges offer them.

“I know not everyone is going to want to go to college. I’m not saying everyone needs to go to college. What I am saying is students should be armed with information so that when they walk across the stage and receive a diploma, they can make an informed decision with their families,” Carranza said. “But they’re prepared to go if they want to.”

Asked for his big takeaway from his visit to Brooklyn Studio — where he visited a band room, posed for a selfie with a 10th grade student, and a learned some words in a sign language class — Carranza echoed his predecessor in saying passion is key to helping students learn.

“You see the passion in the adults. We often talk about academic achievement and we talk about goals and we talk about issues. The one thing I don’t think we talk enough about is joyful learning… what I’ve taken away from Brooklyn Studio today is the students, the staff — they’re joyful. They’re happy to be here.”

Reflecting on his seven days on the job, Carranza said he has been struck by the “level of dedication” New Yorkers have to their schools.

“We have a can-do spirit in New York City that is palpable,” he said.

While he said the city faces many of the same issues as other urban centers, New Yorkers are motivated to take those issues on.

“But what we do have in New York City is the will, the passion and dedication to take them on in a very New York kind of way. So I’ve been very impressed,” he said.

When he was done taking questions from the press, Carranza called up the Student Council president and asked what he’d like to see in his school. The president, John Chauca said he was happy in his small school but asked for air conditioners in the classrooms. (The city has already pledged to install ACs in all schools.)

Victor Chamorro, a 7th grade student council representative, had hoped to ask the chancellor about his plans to keep students safe in their schools and neighborhoods in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, tragedy.

“We’re all hoping the community will be safer,” he said.

10:45 a.m.
Carranza visited several classes at Bedford Stuyvesant New Beginnings Charter School, the first charter school visit of his tour.

11:45 a.m.
Carranza hits his final stop of the day — Brighter Choice Community School. While there, Carranza visited dual language classes and stopped to shake the hands of students and staff and thanked them for what they do.

11:58 a.m.

Wednesday, April 11

9:30 a.m

Carranza is in Manhattan for day three of his week-long tour. His first stop: Orchard Collegiate Academy, one of the city’s “Rise” schools. The 21 schools in the program have shown enough progress, according to the city, to begin to phaseout from the “Renewal” turnaround initiative. Rise schools get to keep the social services that were introduced as part of the city’s community schools effort — just one prong of the Renewal program to boost performance — but other supports will get pulled back over time.

At Orchard Collegiate, Carranza said the community schools model is “fundamental” to driving academic progress. Before posing for a selfie with students, some told the new chancellor that they need more funding for better science labs and upgrades to their building.

11 a.m.
The chancellor attended a Computer Science Opportunity Fair at the armory next. Expanding computer science education has been a priority of the de Blasio administration. “New York City is where it’s happening,” he told a room full of computer science students. But, he said, there aren’t enough women or people of color in this field.

At the event, Carranza played a video game created by students at Tottenville High School — and he won!

12:30 p.m.

Carranza capped off his tour of Manhattan at Food and Finance High School, a culinary school with a kitchen, fish tanks, and a rooftop garden. Ironically, the school had a big problem just last year: The kitchens were not working.

But on Wednesday it was all smiles as Carranza toured the school and sampled some student-made tostones with sauteed peppers. The new chancellor paused on the school’s roof to speak about the importance of career and technical education.

“These are gateways to jobs across the world,” Carranza said. He also said that he wants to increase the city’s investment in CTE schools.  

 

1:30 p.m.

While at Food and Finance High School, Carranza also began to walk back his statement that opting out of tests is an “extreme reaction.” He made the comment in an interview with NY1 and since then, several parents who object to the tests have criticized his response.

Opting out of standardized tests is a hot topic in New York state, where last year nearly one in five families chose to do so. However, that number is much smaller in New York City, where only about 3 percent of families sat out of the exams.

“I’ve been quoted as saying the opt-out is an extreme. It’s not an extreme,” Carranza said on Wednesday. “What I’ve said is that there are extremes on the continuum, one being we should have a testing culture and test all the time. And some would say just don’t take any test. I think we have space in a very enlightened community like New York City to have a much more nuanced conversation.”

Thursday, April 12

8 a.m.

On the fourth day of Carranza’s five borough tour, he hopped on the iconic Staten Island Ferry, where the captain engaged him in a little lighthearted chatter about charter schools and standardized testing. After taking selfies with the Statue of Liberty, he headed to New Dorp High School.

The school’s Future Teachers Academy, a program that gives high school students teaching experience, was a favorite spot for former Chancellor Carmen Fariña. With interest in teacher preparation programs plummeting, Fariña thought encouraging middle and high school students to explore teaching would help fix the problem.

Carranza seemed to share in her excitement about the academy. “My heart is really full,” he said. “We’re generating the next generation of teachers right here in this school.”  

After visiting the school’s physics lab, and forensics science class, Carranza addressed a report that homeless students are more likely to be suspended than their peers. He called the homeless student suspension rate “unacceptable.”

 

10:45 a.m.

The next stop on the agenda was the Richmond Pre-K Center, a pre-K site run by the education department that has 86 students and opened in 2015. During the visit, a pre-K student outperformed Carranza in a hockey game (the chancellor took it very well) and then Carranza read a story to a group of students. Afterwards, the new chancellor sat on a classroom rug as some of the Staten Island’s youngest learners searched for vocabulary terms to describe the characters in the book.

 

11:45 a.m. Who doesn’t love to end a visit with a slice of pizza? Capping off Carranza’s Staten Island adventure, the chancellor stopped at Denino’s Pizzeria to meet with parent leaders.

 

Michael Reilly, the president of District 31’s Community Education Council, asked Carranza to keep My Brother’s Keeper in Staten Island. Carranza promised he would. The program, inspired by President Obama’s initiative, is intended to help boys and young men of color reach their full educational potential.

Other parents engaged Carranza on the difficult subjects of school discipline and safety. One parent expressed concerns about a lack of punishment for misbehavior. Carranza suggested the student must understand why their behavior was wrong. That’s consistent with Carranza’s view that educators should take a less punitive approach to discipline.

The new chancellor also said that whether or not schools should have armed guards depends on the context and that he has worked in schools with and without armed police officers.

Friday, April 13

Carranza’s last day of school tours took him to Queens. His first stop: Aviation Career & Technical Education High School in Long Island City, where students earn certifications and licenses that can qualify them for well-paying jobs once they graduate.

In an aircraft structural repair class, students used loud drills and heavy tools while learning how to fix the skin of an airplane. Carranza recognized one piece of machinery right away: one used to press sheet metal. His father was a sheet metal worker and Carranza demonstrated his knowledge of how to use the equipment.

The next stop was an advanced propellers class where students were using protractors to measure the angles of massive metal propellers after learning about vectors in math class.

“I’m so happy we have women in this program,” Carranza observed.

Administrators used the opportunity to make a pitch for more funding. While overlooking an expansive repair bay full of different aircraft, Assistant Principal Mario Cotumaccio said it is expensive to run the program and asked the chancellor to “remember us” at budget time.

Carranza noted that the program at Aviation High School not only prepares students for jobs, but also focuses on rigorous academics. He said the school’s graduation rate is among the highest in career and technical education programs.

“These students know math in a very deep and profound way,” he said. “We see some incredible things where students aren’t just sitting in classrooms in rows. They’re using their hands.”

Carranza wrapped up his five-borough tour at Young Women’s Leadership School in Astoria, which is part of a network of girls-only schools. The sound of a piano stopped him in his tracks, and the chancellor poked his head into a room where a student gave an impromptu singing performance.

“Hey, remember us little people when you’re up on stage,” he joked.

Carranza made his way to a coding class where a seventh-grader game him a lesson in Scratch, a programming language.

The very last stop was a chemistry class as students prepared for an experiment in measuring the concentrations of Kool-Aid in a solution. He gave a thumbs-up when he noticed one student’s shirt that read: “Girls Rule!”

Earlier in the day, Carranza said he is eager to continue his school visits as a regular part of his job — without a “large entourage.”

“I want to see the full panoply of the portfolio in New York City,” he said. “I’m going to be very intentional about paying a visit and taking a look — boots on the ground.”

End of an era

After leading the Memphis district through a turbulent time, Hopson thinks student achievement will ‘accelerate’

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Dorsey Hopson is leaving Shelby County Schools after nearly six years at the helm.

Attorney Dorsey Hopson took over Tennessee’s largest school district when it was in turmoil — what he described as “a mess.”

Not many would argue with his perspective. Shelby County Schools was in the midst of the nation’s largest merger of city and suburban school districts when Hopson started full-time work as superintendent in 2013. Students were leaving the district. The divide between affluent families and poor ones was growing.

But by the end of his tenure, the state department of education held up Memphis as a model of school turnaround efforts, particularly the district’s Innovation Zone. Test scores in every subject are up, even though Hopson knows they still have a long way to go.

“But now, and I think with the right attention, and the right special attention, you can see student achievement accelerate at a much more rapid pace,” he told Chalkbeat.


Related: City leaders say Hopson was the ‘right leader for a fragile time’


Now, almost six years later, Hopson is headed to a new challenge at health care giant Cigna. We sat down with him during his final days in the district’s top job to discuss his work and hope for the future.

(This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)

You often talk about the poverty experienced by students and families in Shelby County. Do you think the rest of the state gets this?

No, because I think it’s one thing to hear about poverty. It’s another thing to see it. I think about when I got back to Memphis, we had a case and we had to go up to North Memphis. Kimberly (executive assistant) had given me, back then, a MapQuest to a house and I pull up. And I pull up and I’m thinking, like the house is boarded up and the stairs are falling down, maybe it’s the wrong house. I’m getting ready to call Kim and they say come on in. So, I go inside and it was literally like seven or eight mattresses on the floor, a bunch of fans going. You could see roaches walking around and all over the place. This is where our kids live! This is just me the lawyer who had been back four or five months. So, that just hit me like a ton of bricks.

As you go forward, when I took this role and was looking at some of the data that 40,000 kids live in households with less than $10,000, it dawned on me that’s what that looks like. I think when people think about poverty — there’s poverty, and then there’s Memphis poverty. We are one of the poorest districts and communities in the country. That is suffocating poverty.

If you’re a legislator in East Tennessee and you see a stat around poverty, it’s easy to start talking about bootstraps and all these different kind of things when your vision or thinking around poverty is not seven mattresses on the floor and a bunch of fans. I don’t think it resonates. The reality of it doesn’t smack people in the face like it should or like it does if you’re here. It presents very big challenges for everybody if you have that many kids. It’s not insurmountable, but it’s tough.

How did you take a district operating in the red to investing millions in the classroom?

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson in 2015 discusses the district’s school funding lawsuit against the state of Tennessee as former board members Chris Caldwell and Teresa Jones offer their support.

A lot of stuff. An example is obviously school closures. I think also most importantly is really pushing people around their budgets. People say I’ve got all these different heads and they say here’s my budget and here’s what I can cut. When Lin [Johnson, chief of finance] got here, we would sit down for hours, upon hours, upon hours with people going through all their budgets. It’s a lot when [a district chief] has a $200 million budget. We said we’re going to spend the next three days in my conference room — me and Lin and this person — and you got to explain to me why this is. A lot of the chiefs didn’t really understand what was in their budget. So, when you really go line by line and challenge and push, and prod, and then encourage people, and suggest to people alternative ways to do things, that makes a difference.

I think about our transportation for example. We had these routes that we had been running forever. We cut $9 million out of transportation and it wasn’t a lot of pushback and there wasn’t a lot of issues with it either.

My leadership style was such that you got to inspect what you expect. I think the legal training helped me to be very inquisitive in areas even if I didn’t really know and some people may just take for granted. And not to say people were giving you fluff or not being honest. I just think people have to be pushed to think different.

I think about when we were first starting this, we were just cutting because of the merger. If we had time to be more thoughtful like we learned to do over time, we probably could have caused a whole lot less pain.

We’ve got to talk about grade tampering. When that emerged in 2016, in the end only two people were fired and the investigation was closed because of lack of documentation. Are you satisfied with its outcome, and why should stakeholders have confidence in the integrity of the district’s grading practices now?

I can talk about what we’ve done afterward. I think that it depends on what you mean with ‘satisfied with the outcome.’ I’m still disappointed and mad that any educators would engage in stuff like that because ultimately, it cheats kids. For many of our parents and our families, the school district is that institution that represents hope. And so when you have anybody who undermines that, particularly for selfish and stupid reasons, illegal reasons and unethical reasons, I’m still deeply offended and upset that happened.

"For many of our parents and our families, the school district is that institution that represents hope. And so when you have anybody who undermines that ... I’m still deeply offended and upset that happened."Dorsey Hopson

But also having said that, when you find out something happens, all you can really do is try to figure out what happened and then, most importantly, I think in these situations put processes in place to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. Or if it does happen, you can quickly detect it. And then finally, when you find out there were wrongdoers, I think you have to take appropriate action.

The people from the auditing firm said we can keep digging and we can take your money, but it’s not likely that we’re going to find anything. So, our recommendation is to lay out these recommendations that we’ve given you to make sure this stuff doesn’t happen anymore. And we followed all those recommendations.

So, why did you not want Shelby County Schools staff to continue digging deeper on that if you didn’t want to pay the outside firm to do it?

It’s the same processes. The issue was: changing a grade isn’t, on its face, anything wrong with that. It’s just that is it a legitimate reason for a grade change? And the best way to determine whether there was a legitimate reason was the documentation. So, if you go back five years for these schools and you can’t validate the documentation, then you’re not going to ever know.

If they couldn’t do it and they’re the experts, I wouldn’t expect our people to know how to do it.

Plus, one of the things that I was comfortable with was the objectivity that happened with the whole grading thing. We didn’t do it. We had outside people do it. We had a former U.S. attorney do it. We had a forensic accounting firm do it. So, I think that if we start taking those files and taking it to our people, I don’t think that we’d be objective if we did that.

Your facilities plan presented last month was a pretty big mic drop moment. Why now?

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson with students at A.B. Hill Elementary School in Memphis celebrating academic progress.

I wanted to make sure that it was something that I could at least produce before I left because I had been working on it with the team for so long. I didn’t think it was fair to ask (interim superintendent) Dr. Ray or anybody else to lead that.

At the end of the day, whatever the combination of schools are, whatever the right places to build are, you got to do something. You cannot continue to carry on these underutilized facilities that are in bad shape. Not if you expect to be able to continue the momentum.

But that’s going to require resources. You can do that when you have a plan that would help you have more money for your operating budget, reduce your deferred maintenance and then put kids in new schools. So, that seemed to me, it will go a long way, probably at least for the next 15 or 20 years in terms of stability or sustainability.

Over your time as superintendent, you closed nearly 20 schools. Do you think it’s led to better academic outcomes for kids?

I think in some instances. You get better over time, right? I think that certainly we think about Westhaven. That was the model that we’re trying to go for now. At first, keep in mind, there was the transition planning commission [during the historic merger of city and county school systems] that says you need to close 50 schools. And they made the case to close the schools to save money to close the budget gap. So, I think that initially Dorsey Hopson, a lawyer-turned-superintendent had been doing this for three or four months and has this plan that says let’s go close schools. And then you get so much backlash because it’s so much more than about the money — it’s the community hub many schools are, it’s the blight that happens if you don’t properly dispose of the building. So, you get to realize it’s not even worth it if it’s just about money.

But on the flip side, if it’s going to be about student achievement, then it does become worth it.


Related: What happens to student achievement when Memphis schools close? District report offers some answers.


So, I think about when we closed schools like Northside and Carver that literally had right around 200 kids. So, you just could not offer academic coursework, Advanced Placement classes and stuff like that at a high level when you have so few kids. And plus, you have so much extra dollars just to supplement so they can have a whole slate of teachers. So, I think the focus there was we are closing schools and take these kids to a school that is bigger with more kids where we can do more offerings.

"(Closing schools is) so much more than about the money — it’s the community hub many schools are, it’s the blight that happens if you don’t properly dispose of the building"Dorsey Hopson

But I don’t think that was the right approach either because there’s so much under the hood before you get to improving achievement.

And then the next round, we said let’s truly if we’re going to do these combinations, let’s truly invest in the school. And I think the best example is Westhaven. We’re going to invest in human capital there, we’re going to invest in additional operational dollars and give the leader more flexibility. I think that’s been great. (The state has recognized the school as having some of the highest academic growth both years it has been open.)

Let’s talk about Destination 2025, the district’s ambitious plan to improve education by 2025. Out of 39 academic goals, nine were met in the most recent annual report. What happened?

I think the new state standards were a wake-up call. Our graduation rate has increased since I took the job, but the college readiness has not. So, when you are testing college-ready standards starting in ninth grade that’s hard when kindergarten through eighth grade you weren’t being prepared for those standards and all of a sudden you show up. And not to mention, even under the old standards, people were falling behind.

Even though we did our K-8 standards-based curriculum, we still don’t have a standards-based curriculum for high school. I suspect we’ll make a recommendation around that this year.

That’s just going to be some hard work of years, rolling up the sleeves and getting better and better and better.

How would you describe your legacy?

I think that’s for other people to describe. I would hope to be remembered as a servant leader. And I think that the characteristics of a servant leader is first you got to be humble. I think this was a very humbling experience for me and I approached it from a humble standpoint because I’m a lawyer. I knew I couldn’t come in here and say I knew everything.

I think too probably more specifically around legacy, I think we’ll be remembered for fixing a lot of the operational challenges that came with the [merged] district. People forget: when we merged, it was a mess. Literally a mess.

I think that started with being able to fix the finances. We started in the red every time. There’s no wiggle room. So, I think just being able to put together consistent plans to address that stuff — part of which required buy-in from the community and getting more dollars from the county commission — but then also doing the work to get the money in order. I would hope that’s part my legacy.

Any political aspirations in your future?

No. I have people all the time saying I was running for Congress, I was running for mayor, I was going to be the next education commissioner.

When I think about all the different public roles here in Memphis, I don’t think there’s any more high-impact public position that you could have than superintendent. What you’re doing, it affects so many folks. I just know the fishbowl and the constant public grind and the board meetings and the politics and all that. I can safely sit here and say I have no desire to ever be involved in a public role.

It will be so good to be able to send an email and not have somebody ask for it. It will be good not to eat, breathe and sleep something that becomes a part of who you are. You don’t get to be off as superintendent. I can’t be in the grocery store and say sorry I’m off. You’re superintendent regardless. So, just to have some sense of normalcy will be awesome.

New leader

Lee picks Texas academic chief Penny Schwinn as Tennessee’s next education commissioner

Penny Schwinn will be Tennessee's education commissioner under Bill Lee's administration. Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, two days before his inauguration as governor. (Photo courtesy of Bill Lee Transition Team)

Fast facts about Schwinn

  • Age: 36
  • Hometown: Sacramento, California
  • Bachelor of Arts, University of California-Berkeley, 2004
  • Master of Arts in Teaching, Johns Hopkins University, 2006
  • Ph.D. in Education Policy, Claremont Graduate University, 2016

An educator who began her career with Teach For America and has been the academic chief for Texas will be Tennessee’s next education commissioner.

Penny Schwinn was tapped Thursday by Gov.-elect Bill Lee to join his administration in one of his most important and closely watched cabinet picks.

She will leave her job as chief deputy commissioner of academics for the Texas Education Agency, where she has been responsible since 2016 for school programs, standards, special education, and research and analysis, among other things.

Lee praised Schwinn’s experience as both a teacher and administrator, and his announcement touted her work in Texas to repair the state’s testing program and expand ways to get students ready for college and career.

“Penny leads with students at the forefront,” Lee said, “and I believe her experience is exactly what we need to continue improving on the gains we have made in the past few years.”

Schwinn is one of Lee’s last cabinet hires before he’s sworn in on Saturday, and she will be one of his highest-profile commissioners. The governor-elect pledged to improve public education in a state that has seen gains on national tests in recent years, even as it has struggled to transition to online exams with its own testing program.

Schwinn is viewed as a student-focused reformer but also has been criticized for the changes that she shepherded in multiple states.

“Whenever you’re talking about school improvement, that is a very difficult conversation because we’re talking about our kids and we’re often talking about change,” she told Chalkbeat. “At the end of the day, our work is about the students and what we do for them.”

Before taking her job in Texas, she was an assistant education secretary in Delaware, and previously served as an assistant superintendent in Sacramento, California, where she grew up and was an elected school board member.

She started her education career in 2004 with Teach For America, one of the nation’s largest alternative teacher training programs, and taught high school history and economics for Baltimore public schools. Returning to her hometown, she founded Capitol Collegiate Academy, a K-8 charter school serving low-income students similar to those that her mother taught for four decades.

Last year, she was the youngest of three finalists to be considered for Massachusetts’ education commissioner, a job that went to Jeffrey Riley, a native of the state.

In Tennessee, Schwinn will execute Lee’s vision on policies affecting about a million public school students, a third of whom come from low-income families.

She said that she and Lee are committed to providing all Tennessee children with access to a high-quality education and share values of transparency and honesty in reporting how students are progressing — all priorities of the previous Republican administration under Gov. Bill Haslam.

“Tennessee is a bellwether state in our country right now. The growth and improvement that we’ve seen here is impressive, and it needs to be built on,” Schwinn said.

With his choice, Lee has gone outside of Tennessee and traditional classroom training, so she will have to work steadily to build trust with the state’s numerous stakeholders in public education. Groups that represent superintendents and teachers had urged the Republican businessman to choose homegrown talent with a deep knowledge of education policy in Tennessee.

Schwinn spent much of Thursday in Nashville meeting with educators and school advocates and was welcomed with optimism.

“Schwinn shares Governor-elect Bill Lee’s commitment to support teachers, reduce our testing burden, and improve the working invironment, including more compensation,” said JC Bowman, executive director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, an organization representing teachers.

Several leaders noted that her work to troubleshoot test administration problems in Texas should be an asset as Tennessee works to resolve its own online challenges with TNReady, now in its fourth year.

“Assessment delivery must become first in class, and Dr. Schwinn has experience administering assessment programs in two states,” said David Mansouri, president and CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.

In her first Tennessee interview, Schwinn said that TNReady will be her first priority as spring testing approaches on April 15. “Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

PHOTO: TN.gov
As outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam looks on, Gov.-elect Bill Lee speaks at the state Capitol the day after being elected the 50th governor of Tennessee.

Schwinn follows two education commissioners under Haslam — Lipscomb University Dean Candice McQueen and Teach For America executive Kevin Huffman — who were also reform-minded leaders hired following national searches. In particular, Huffman was a frequently divisive leader who left after three years of clashing with teacher groups, superintendents, and state lawmakers over policies ranging from teacher licensing and evaluations to charter schools and academic standards.

Setting and overseeing public education policy is among the biggest responsibilities of state government, which spends $5 billion of its $37.5 billion budget on schools and is required under federal law to administer annual tests to assess student progress.

During his campaign, Lee said that education would be one of his top priorities, promising a renewed focus on career, technical and agricultural education; more competitive pay for educators; a closer look at the state’s testing program; and more education options for parents to choose from.

Schwinn’s job will be to help Lee implement that vision, according to McQueen, who calls the state’s top education job “a unique opportunity.”

“You’re also making sure that public education is being supported well around resources and human capital and that you have high expectations for all students, not just certain groups. You have to elevate equity in every single thing you do,” McQueen told Chalkbeat last month before stepping down to become CEO of a national group focused on teacher quality.

Among Schwinn’s first tasks will be overseeing the transition to one or more companies that will take over TNReady beginning next school year. McQueen ordered a new request for testing proposals after a third straight year of problems administering and scoring the state’s assessment under current vendor Questar and previous vendor Measurement Inc. Questar officials say they plan to pursue the state’s contract again.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee provide another layer of oversight.

Schwinn also will work with the governor’s office to allocate resources for education in accordance with the first state budget pounded out by Lee and the legislature. For instance, the governor-elect said frequently he wants a greater emphasis in career and technical education in schools — an idea that is popular with legislators. But legislators also want money to hire more law enforcement officers to police schools. And despite increased allocations for teacher pay, salaries for the state’s educators continue to trail the national average.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information.