Who Is In Charge

Carranza names new leader — and new department name — for English language learners

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Students at Williamsburg High School of Arts and Technology teach Chancellor Richard Carranza how to code, ahead of an announcement Thursday on an expansion of CTE programs.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has named a veteran New York City educator as the new head of its department that oversees students learning English as a new language.

Mirza G. Sánchez-Medina, the founding principal of Manhattan Bridges High School, will be the new deputy chief academic officer of what will now be the Division of Multilingual Learners, the city education department announced in a news release. It was previously called the Division of English Language Learners and Student Support.

“As the founding principal of Manhattan Bridges High School, Mirza has empowered multilingual learners to learn a new language and achieve to their greatest potential without sacrificing their home languages and cultures,” Carranza said in a prepared statement. “The work of lifting up our multilingual learners is deeply personal to me, and I have no doubt Mirza will serve as a key resource for our families across the City and an ally in our efforts towards Equity and Excellence for All.”

Sánchez-Medina replaces Milady Baez, who left the department this summer. When Carranza announced sweeping changes to the department’s leadership structure in June, officials told Chalkbeat only that Baez had “transitioned out of her role.”

Sánchez-Medina started her career 30 years ago as a chemistry, biology, math, physics and environmental science teacher in Luquillo and Rio Grande, Puerto Rico.

In 1998, she arrived in New York City schools and became the assistant principal of organization and administration at Martin Luther King Jr. High School. In 2003, she became the founding principal of Manhattan Bridges High School, where she worked with students who primarily spoke Spanish.

Almost half of Manhattan Bridges’ student body is English language learners, according to department data.

According to the city, Manhattan Bridges’ English language learners transition out of that status at faster rates than students citywide. The school’s most comprehensive quality report — from the 2014-2015 school year — characterizes its curriculum for English language learners as rigorous and well-developed.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Sánchez-Medina said helping families navigate the school system is among her first-year goals.

“How do we ensure students are ready for college? How do we develop plans for families to be able to continue success throughout, regardless of what grade the child is in,” she added.

English language learners continued to lag behind others in state test scores this year: almost 10 percent of students learning English as a new language passed reading exam and 10 percent passed math exams.

State and city officials have disagreed about how severe the academic gulf is between these students their peers.

Sánchez-Medina did not say what she would change about the division she will now oversee, instead saying that it has provided her school with support when she needed it. But part of the work she will do, she said, will be “validating the students’ culture” and honoring their home language.

Officials decided to rename the department as a way to “ensure all students master English while honoring and supporting their multilingualism, home language, and culture,” the news release said.  

At an unrelated event on Thursday, when asked a question about English language learners, Carranza said, “I stopped referring to folks as English Language Learners. I call them future bilingual learners or future bilingual students or multilingual learners.”

Carranza has expressed interest in improving outcomes for students learning English as a new language and has noted several times that he, too, was an English language learner. One of his first policy announcements in May was the addition of almost 50 bilingual education programs.

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.