Rasheedah Harris knows how easy it can be for students and their families to be overlooked in New York City schools. As a student, she says she learned early on that only the loudest voices are heard.
Years later, she says she felt the same way when her own daughter was a student in New York. Then she met Meisha Ross Porter, a Bronx executive superintendent who also grew up in the public school system.
Porter listened, Harris said. Really listened.
“[Porter] continuously shows up. … She’ll respond to your emails. It’s a big difference, and it definitely grabbed my attention immediately,” said Harris, who has worked with Porter as a parent advocate.
She wasn’t the only one to notice.
On Friday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) tapped Porter to replace Richard Carranza as schools chancellor, making Porter the first Black woman to lead the largest public school system in the country. Carranza is stepping down after nearly three years, citing the personal toll the pandemic has taken on his family.
“I’m ready to hit the ground running and lead New York City schools to a full recovery. It won’t be easy, but clearly, I’ve never done anything easy,” Porter said during a news conference. “I am so honored, so honored to serve in this role, and I understand greatly what it means for it to be me.”
Porter will be tasked with leading one of the most important initiatives in the department’s history: safely reopening NYC public schools back up to more than 1 million students, 3 out of 4 of whom are considered economically disadvantaged, according to the city’s numbers.
She will also be stepping into the middle of a long, contentious fight that predates the pandemic: efforts to further integrate the city’s deeply segregated school system. Over the last several years, families and educators across New York have butted heads over screening requirements for the city’s gifted and talented programs and elite public high schools.
Porter may not have much time to put out these fires. She will take over Carranza’s seat in mid-March, but with the clock running out on de Blasio’s final term, many expect that once a new mayor is elected in November, a new chancellor will be selected.
Richard Kahan, founder and chief executive of the education nonprofit Urban Assembly, met Porter in the early ’90s, when she was a teen organizer in the South Bronx. He says he was taken by her no-nonsense attitude and passion for advocacy, and went on to offer her a position helping to conceive the organization’s first school, the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice.
Porter began overseeing the school’s partnerships with the community and then joined as a teacher. She eventually became the school’s principal, serving as an educator and administrator for 18 years.
Porter has always stood out for her “driving determination to get things done,” said Kahan.
In 2018, Porter was appointed executive superintendent of the Bronx, a role that gave her oversight of all the borough’s schools. By 2019, postsecondary enrollment had shot up more than 50 percent compared with the year before, according to the city’s data. The Bronx also saw the largest jump in graduation rates out of any other borough. Parents, educators and administrators who have worked with Porter said she deserves much of the credit for those gains.
Her deep roots in the city’s public school system make her “the woman for the job,” said Ronnette Summers, a parent advocate who has worked with Porter on equity issues in Bronx schools.
But while Summers says she is excited that a Black woman is finally heading city schools, she knows Porter will encounter resistance as she seeks more opportunities and resources for Black and Latino students.
“Looking at the pushback that Carranza had in terms of talking about race and equity from more affluent areas, I think her being a woman of color, [she’s] probably going to get even more pushback,” said Summers.
But the issue wasn’t limited to high schools. According to a 2015 WNYC report, White and Asian students filled nearly three-quarters of seats for K-8 gifted and talented programs, despite making up a third of the city’s total student population. The de Blasio administration has argued that the only way to increase representation among Black and Latino students is to scrap screening tests altogether.
Conservatives also lambasted Carranza and the department of education for focusing on anti-bias training for teachers.
Cheri Fancsali, the deputy director for the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, says Porter is better equipped than most to handle these challenges, in large part because of her deep knowledge of the system and her willingness to engage all parts of the community.
“She’s in the best position that anyone probably could be, taking over the district with short notice and under extenuating circumstances,” said Fancsali.
She will also need to convince students and their families that it’s safe to return to in-person learning.
Maryam Diallo, a 17-year-old student at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Brooklyn, said Porter’s voice as a Black woman and former public school student is valuable, but she remains skeptical of the city’s school reopening plan, which she considers rushed.
Diallo, who is part of the equity advocacy group Teens Take Charge, says she wishes the department had done a better job making sure all city students were properly equipped to learn remotely. She is not convinced that simply reopening schools will help Black and Latino students who were already struggling to get the same opportunities and resources as their peers.
“It was never equitable in the first place,” said Diallo, who likened a rushed reopening to “putting a Band-Aid over a gunshot wound.”
Black and Latino families have been hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic in New York City, as they have in other parts of the country. Recent data from the district suggests that the city’s students of color are remote-learning at higher rates, and it’s still unclear how many students have stopped attending school altogether during the pandemic.
Porter has been vocal about the need to address the root causes of poor academic performance.
“You can’t solve a literacy problem if a kid is hungry,” Porter said on a local education podcast last year. “If you don’t unpack who a student is as a learner, you can’t solve their learning problems.”
If schools aren’t prepared to support students and address inequality once schools reopen, it could set the city’s most vulnerable students back an additional seven to nine months, Fancsali warned.
“The next six, eight months before a new mayoral administration comes into place are probably going to be the most critical in New York City and around the country,” she said, adding that it will be important to not “go back to our normal way of doing things” once the pandemic ends.
“I’m hopeful that Meisha Porter can lead that way for us.”