Desegregating N.Y. Schools Was His Top Priority. What Happened? – The New York Times

Soon after he took the helm of the nation’s largest school district last year, Richard A. Carranza made his top priority clear: desegregation.

He sought to set himself apart from previous New York City schools chancellors and even his own boss, Mayor Bill de Blasio, by promising both frank talk about racial inequality and sweeping action.

At an event for student activists this spring, he slapped the side of a podium and shouted: “No, we will not wait to integrate our schools, we will not wait to dismantle the segregated systems we have!” He repeated the message in speeches, television appearances and national magazine profiles.

But now, as he enters his second year, he seems to be trying to reset expectations. In an interview, Mr. Carranza described himself as a “realist.”

“If I integrated the system, the next thing I’m going to do is I’m going to walk on water,” he said.

The past year has given Mr. Carranza an education in the complexities and challenges presented by the nation’s largest school system, an often unwieldy collection of 1,800 schools that sprawls across five boroughs and enrolls 1.1 million students.

New York is home to one of the most segregated school systems in the country. Black and Hispanic students make up 70 percent of the system, and white and Asian students represent about 15 percent each. About three-quarters of students are low income, and roughly half the city’s schools are more than 90 percent black or Hispanic.

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CreditMark Abramson for The New York Times

Rather than take on integration directly, city officials for years have tried to offer parents more choices. The buffet of options offered to families includes charter schools, small schools, magnet schools and ones that have academic requirements for admission or gifted and talented programs.

Even some of the most avid proponents of integration have acknowledged that the system’s demographics make school-by-school diversity daunting, and have focused on ways to desegregate schools in mixed-income, racially diverse neighborhoods.

Still, activists and academics have offered proposals that they say could begin to chip away at segregation: The city could change selective admissions policies that tend to exclude black and Hispanic students from the highest-performing schools; adopt a cross-borough school transportation plan; or require that specific neighborhoods create desegregation plans for their schools.

Brad Lander, a Democratic councilman from Park Slope, Brooklyn, which will implement its own integration effort in September, said that even incremental change on desegregation is meaningful. “No one is going to march with a sign that says, ‘Schools are 10 percent less segregated.’ But on the other hand, 10 percent less segregated is 100,000 kids in integrated schools,” he said, praising Mr. Carranza.

The schools chancellor and the mayor have taken modest steps to integrate slices of the city.

They set aside $2 million for more of the city’s 32 local districts to create desegregation plans, but it is not yet clear which other neighborhoods will do so voluntarily. And while the chancellor has supported several desegregation plans in diverse neighborhoods with segregated schools, including the Upper West Side and Park Slope, those proposals were created by parents and local politicians before Mr. Carranza arrived in New York from Houston.

The mayor and chancellor approved recommendations made by an integration task force, including a goal that schools should be evaluated according to diversity and not just academic achievement. But they have not yet announced details about how those changes will be implemented.

The duo’s most high-profile attempt to diversify schools, however, ended in stinging defeat.

The State Legislature killed a plan to desegregate the city’s eight fabled and highly sought after specialized high schools by scrapping the schools’ admissions exam and instead offering spots to top students from each city middle school.

Stuyvesant High School, the most selective of the elite schools, with the highest cutoff score for admission, was only 4 percent black and Hispanic last year, while nearly 75 percent of the student body was Asian-American.

But when Mr. Carranza said last year that he did not “buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admission to these schools,” he alienated some of the low-income Asian families whose children represent a majority in the prized schools. Critics accused him of fumbling an early attempt to navigate New York’s delicate ethnic politics.

The backlash from parents was quickly seized upon by national conservatives.

Earlier this summer on his prime-time Fox television show, Tucker Carlson delivered an ominous warning about Mr. Carranza, saying the chancellor was “leading the charge” to sow “racial division in America’s largest city.” And Nikki Haley, President Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, said Mr. Carranza was discriminating against Asians.

Conservatives have also protested Mr. Carranza’s focus on anti-bias training for teachers — at a cost of $23 million for 125,000 staff members over four years — and additions to the curriculum that emphasize literature and history from nonwhite cultures.

Earlier this year, The New York Post reported that one session of implicit bias training included a slide about “white supremacy culture” and its effect on schools.

Heather Mac Donald, an author and a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, said the focus on bias in schools demonstrated that Mr. Carranza “has an almost fanatical commitment to a divisive, identity politics, grievance-based vision of society.”

Michael Mulgrew, president of the city’s teachers union, dismissed such criticism, saying that most of the teachers who took the training reported few issues with it.

Mr. Carranza, for his part, has called the criticism “a badge of honor.”

But even some integration activists say Mr. Carranza made a strategic error last year. “I think it was a mistake for City Hall to start with and focus on the specialized high schools,” said Mr. Lander, the councilman.

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CreditChristopher Lee for The New York Times

As Mr. Carranza faces the start of the school year, he still lacks any significant integration policies of his own.

With his next move unclear, his declarations about the need for change have emboldened a coalition of integration activists who are demanding more from the chancellor.

In June, students and parents staged several protests against segregated schools, including one on the steps of the Department of Education, where hundreds of students and parents separated themselves by race under a banner that read “de Blasio’s school system.”

A few weeks later, during a sit-in at City Hall, Marcus Alston, a high school student and a member of the group Teens Take Charge, said he expected action from Mr. Carranza.

“Your telling me that you want to integrate the schools won’t do anything unless I see policies that will actually integrate the schools,” he said.

But some educators say that Mr. Carranza also urgently needs to address the uneven performance of schools across the system.

Mr. de Blasio canceled a $773 million school improvement program, known as Renewal, after it was unable to turn around many long-struggling schools, and Mr. Carranza has not created an alternative initiative for the dozens of lowest-performing schools.

David Bloomfield, a professor of education at Brooklyn College, said Mr. Carranza’s “impact on the classroom at this point seems insignificant.”

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CreditGabriella Angotti-Jones for The New York Times

Looking back on his first year, the chancellor said in an interview that he had made significant strides in improving education for students learning English, and in reorganizing the Department of Education’s vast bureaucracy. He said he had put in a new discipline code that was intended to limit in-school arrests for students of color, who he said were disproportionate targets of policing in schools.

This week, the city announced that student test scores rose modestly during the chancellor’s first year on the job.

“There’s a lot of work that’s happening that I’m very proud of,” Mr. Carranza said.

But he cautioned that any integration measures he implements will not stick if the city does not address a more basic set of problems.

The city’s school bus system, for example, suffered a major crisis last year when drivers could not complete new routes, leaving thousands of students stranded. This week, Mr. Carranza announced GPS tracking on city buses. And the city’s strained special education system appears to be reaching a breaking point; tens of thousands of students with disabilities are not receiving the services they need.

Mr. Carranza likened desegregation to “a beautiful paint job on a car,” but warned that without action on those issues, “that car’s not going anywhere.”

Still, he argued that he had successfully sparked a conversation about inequality that has shifted the city’s perception of its public schools.

“New Yorkers like it straight, and I’ve tried to be as unvarnished, as clear as I can, about the issues that are confronting us,” Mr. Carranza said.