Meisha Porter had 3 goals as NYC Schools Chief: ‘Open. Open. Open.’

Meisha Porter had 3 goals as NYC Schools Chief: ‘Open.  Open.  Open.’

Meisha R. Porter became New York City’s school chancellor in March, charged with reopening the nation’s largest school district, serving nearly one million students, amid the pandemic.

Before becoming chancellor, she was an executive superintendent for the Bronx, a school superintendent, principal, assistant principal, and teacher. She was also a public school student herself, graduating from Queens Technical High School as one of the first female plumbers. Her daughter is a public high school student at Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem.

Ms. Porter, 48, who was the city’s first black female school principal, led the push to get high school students back in the classroom, launch summer programs and ensure all students could safely return to school by September.

She becomes the president and chief executive officer of the Bronx Community Foundation, which is committed to improving equity in the district after Mayor Bill de Blasio leaves office.

Her resignation as chancellor comes as coronavirus cases mount in New York City, fueled largely by the highly contagious Omicron strain. According to the tracker of The New York Times, the number of cases has increased by 618 percent in the past two weeks. The number of hospital admissions rose by 73 percent in the same period.

Mr. de Blasio and elected mayor Eric Adams are determined to prevent a return to distance learning after the holidays. They announced a new policy this week that aims to keep schools open by increasing testing for students and staff.

David C. Banks, a longtime New York City teacher who created a network of boys’ public schools, becomes the school’s chancellor in the Adams administration.

Ms. Porter reflected on her tenure in two interviews with The New York Times. The conversations have been condensed and edited.

Can you walk me through from March to now – What was on your to-do list and what was your strategy for reopening schools?

When I first came into this role, I told the team that we had three priorities. It was open, open, open. To open our high schools, open a summer program like no other and reopen our classrooms in September. As I watched students across the city struggle through the pandemic, I knew one of the most important things we could do was make sure we could reopen safely.

What made you so sure reopening was the right thing to do?

My daughter was in her freshman year of high school when the pandemic hit. If that had been when I was in high school, I wouldn’t have had the device. I wouldn’t have had the space to learn privately. I grew up with a house full. It would have been very difficult for me to struggle with algebra remotely as a ninth grader. And I knew that was true for a lot of students and families. There are so many Wi-Fi deserts in the Bronx and in New York City in our most needy communities.

And then I saw my daughter, who was a super performer, get the work done, but really struggle with the social-emotional disconnect from school. I had conversations with so many parents and students who told me how difficult they were having with distance learning. I knew it was our responsibility to figure out the safest way to get our students back into buildings.

How have you responded to some of the pushback?

We got engaged, we went on a tour of five boroughs. We had conversations with school leaders, we had conversations with students, we had conversations with teachers. In a city the size of New York City, if you’re serving over a million students, you’ll never get everyone to agree with you.

What were some of your biggest concerns about the reopening?

When we first started, we didn’t have a vaccine for 5-to-11-year-olds, so we kept a close eye on that. We knew this would be important for our primary school parents.

The priority was to make sure our buildings were safe. We have never lost sight of our focus on health and safety, and I think it has paid off immensely.

How did you deal with parents’ concerns and fears?

For that I have to give credit to the clients all over New York City. As soon as we announced that we would be 100 percent reopening all of our schools in the spring, principals opened their doors and held open days for parents and students to come and review health and safety protocols and see the PPE. , see the HEPA filters in classrooms.

The first open house I went to was at a school in Queens. There was a first-grader who had never been to our building, and she was meeting her friends for the first time. It was very important that we build trust, and building trust started with opening our doors.

So much of the pandemic has been politicized. How did you navigate that?

I had the luxury of prioritizing and centering what was best for the kids. Period of time. That’s how I guided how I handled every conversation. I was lucky enough to have the mayor really lean on my experience, not only as a student in a New York City public school, but also as a parent, as a teacher.

It’s definitely political in nature, right? This is this job, and you work directly for the mayor, but in the end I’m primarily an educator.

What advice do you have for the next chancellor, especially since we have this new variant that is spreading fast?

We must keep our schools open. And I know that’s as important to them as it is to all of us. Our babies have to be in the classroom, they have to learn personally with their teachers.

Stay connected with the health experts. But keep up the work we’ve done. New York City leads the nation with our staff vaccination mandate, our air purifiers in every classroom, our surveillance system, the work we’ve done on testing and tracing, school vaccination clinics, making vaccines accessible and available.

What would you have done if you weren’t so focused on the virus?

My career as an educator has been about focusing on the needs of our most vulnerable populations. I knew this job would be my priority, and that priority was based on being in the middle of a pandemic.

What I am proud of is that I have continued to do that work, from the launch of the Mosaic curriculum to ensure that all our students see and experience themselves in their curriculum, to the mental health and socio-emotional support we have got. put in place.

Tell me about your next role.

I am excited to be the inaugural CEO and Chairman of the Bronx Community Foundation. It is the first and only community foundation for the Bronx, a community that deserves it. It’s about investing in Bronx neighborhoods, investing in community power to eradicate inequality and build a sustainable future for all Bronxites, with Bronxites.

It’s no secret, I’m a Bronx girl. I’ve spent most of my career in the Bronx. So for me, this moment is about coming full circle and bringing my experience that has guided the system and my experience that has led the Bronx to really invest in a community that I love and believe in.

Is there anything I didn’t ask you about reopening and your experience as chancellor that you’d like to mention?

It was the greatest honor and privilege to serve New York City at this time. Most people are like, “You must be crazy to get to this moment.” But one of the things I could do was involve every part of me—Meisha the student, Meisha the teacher, Meisha the parent, Meisha the principal—in these decisions. I think people appreciate that about me, and I really appreciate that I can do that.

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Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

Trending topics news writer who enjoys cooking, walking her dog and travel.

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