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

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.”