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.”

Powerful Parents

‘Sharing their hearts’: Why these parents became advocates for Memphis students

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy organization, is training its ninth cohort of public advocate fellows.

While their children are out of school for the summer, a local parent group is using this time to hit the books.

Memphis Lift, a non-profit organization in North Memphis, aims to amplify the voices of those who, some say, have historically been excluded from conversations surrounding their schools. Many of those conversations, said organizer Dianechia Fields, have made out parents like her to be “scapegoats” for students’ struggles in the classroom.

“It’s easy to blame someone who’s not there in the room,” she said. “Instead of blaming parents as the problem, we’re inviting parents to the table to be part of the solution.”

Fields is the director of the program’s Public Advocate Fellowship, which was created three years ago by Natasha Kamrani and John Little, who came to Memphis from Nashville to train local parents to become advocates for school equity. Funded in part by the Memphis Education Fund, the program pays fellows $500 when they graduate the course. (Chalkbeat also receives support from local philanthropies connected to Memphis Education Fund. You can learn more about our funding here.)

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
The Public Advocate Fellowship was created three years ago. This year, the program will have trained 300 fellows.

On Tuesday, Lift held the first of ten sessions for its ninth cohort of fellows. This month, 19 parents and grandparents will learn about topics such as the history of education in Memphis and school funding. At each session, they’ll receive coaching from special guests and alumni fellows, and they’ll also make connections with local education leaders.

In order to better communicate with decision-makers, the group will complete public speaking exercises with the help of coach Darius Wallace. His focus this week: getting fellows to “share their hearts.”

In Wednesday’s class, Wallace asked the cohort to think hard about who they’re advocating for, what pain that person may feel, and what their dream is moving forward. Here’s what a few of them had to say:

Jerrineka Hampton, a Shelby County Schools teacher, is advocating for her students at Treadwell Elementary, who often lack access to the materials they need, like pens or paper. Her dream is to “close the economic and academic gap” in schools like hers, and to help train others to do the same.

Shanita Knox, a mother of two, is advocating for her 10- year- old son, who struggles with his speech and is often bullied because of it. Her dream for him is to “do whatever he wants in life without having to work a dead-end job.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
The parents are asked to share with each other their hopes for their children.

Patricia Robinson is advocating for her granddaughter, whose father is incarcerated. Robinson’s dream is for her to take the pain and loneliness she feels and “learn how to talk about it.”

Violet Odom, a mother of two, is advocating for her daughter, a soon-to-be middle schooler who is dealing with mental health challenges. Odom’s dream is for her daughter to “be able to live a normal life and use her voice to explain how she feels.”

Aimee Justice, a mother of three, is advocating for her son, who comes from a multiracial family. Her dream is for Memphis schools to become places where students of all nationalities can learn from each other.

Trenika Bufford is advocating for other kids in the system who, like her college-aged son, have been belittled by school officials. Through tears, she said she wished she listened to her son when he was younger. Her dream is to have a relationship with him again.

As the women shared their stories, Wallace and the group gave feedback on their delivery. As they practiced more, the fellows began to make more eye contact, speak louder and more directly, and use body language.

“People make decisions when they’re emotional,” Wallace reminded them. “Facts tell. Stories sell.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Ahada Elton smiles at her son. A mother of four, Elton said she wants to advocate for parents unaware of the opportunities schools offer, especially for children with special needs.

Effective communication will become even more important as the cohort prepares for their last session. That’s when they’ll work together to create a plan of action to tackle an issue in their community. This year, the group is already discussing taking steps toward unified enrollment, a centralized system that allows parents to easily compare schools in the same district.

And while that’s no small feat, it wouldn’t be the first time the group has tackled a project this large. Two years ago, graduating fellows knocked on about 1,200 doors throughout the city to inform other parents about local priority schools assigned to the state-run achievement school district.

That’s when alumna Kiara Jackson heard about the fellowship. Jackson, 24, was pregnant at the time with her third child, and she was living with her father in the North Memphis neighborhood when director Sarah Carpenter knocked on her window and told her about the program.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Kiara Jackson, an alumna fellow, shares her testimony with the new cohort.

“I was a concerned parent,” she said, “but I didn’t even know the types of questions to get answers to.”

Shortly after, Jackson started going to Lift’s weekly classes, where she learned about quality schools in the area. Since joining the fellowship’s fourth cohort last year, Jackson had the opportunity to travel to Cincinnati and advocate for charter schools such as the one she’s working to get her daughter into.

“I enjoy the power that I have as a parent,” she said. “… With us being from low-income communities, they try to deny us our rights as parents. But our kids can get better educations”

When the class graduates next month, the fellowship will have trained 300 members, mostly women, since it launched in 2015. This past year, the group offered training for Spanish-speaking parents led by alumna Carmelita Hernandez. Now, the program is working on creating its first all-male cohort for fathers and grandfathers.

Departure

Tennessee loses a behind-the-scenes education operative

PHOTO: Jennifer Pignolet/The Commercial Appeal
Kathleen Airhart, then the interim superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District, speaks in February to a community meeting sponsored by the Frayser Exchange in Memphis.

Kathleen Airhart, who recently served as interim leader of Tennessee’s Achievement School District during a major transition, has stepped down as the state’s deputy education commissioner and chief operating officer.

Kathleen Airhart

The career educator ended almost seven years with the Education Department last week in Nashville. She will start her new job with the Council of Chief State School Officers as the national nonprofit organization’s program director on special education.

Since 2012, Airhart has been a go-to lieutenant for two education commissioners as Tennessee rolled out major policy initiatives under its First to the Top overhaul of K-12 schools.

She oversaw the transition to the state’s academic intervention program for struggling students, the expansion of career and technical education opportunities, the development of a library of state and local education resources, and operational changes to make the Achievement School District financially sustainable after the end of a federal award supporting Tennessee’s turnaround program for low-performing schools.

Airhart worked mostly behind the scenes until Commissioner Candice McQueen tasked her last fall with leading the Achievement School District, also known as the ASD, as Tennessee looked for a replacement for departing Superintendent Malika Anderson. During that time, Airhart met frequently with school communities in Memphis, the hub of the ASD’s work, and oversaw the closure of two more under-enrolled schools before McQueen tapped turnaround leader Sharon Griffin to take the helm beginning in June.

Airhart previously was superintendent of Putnam County Schools, where she was named Tennessee’s Superintendent of the Year in 2011. She started her career as a high school special education teacher and also served as a special ed supervisor.

In her new job, she’ll return to her roots and advise other states on special education programs and services.

“Dr. Airhart has been an excellent manager and leader at the department, and no matter what challenges she was presented, she always stayed calm and kept students at the center of every decision,” McQueen wrote in an internal letter about the departure.

The Council of Chief State School Officers is comprised of education leaders from across the country.