NYC’s first Black woman schools chancellor gets into place as pandemic rolls on

Cyril Josh Barker | 3/18/2021, midnight
New NYC Public Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter began her reign the week as the city’s first Black female schools chancellor.
Chancellor Meisha Porter Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office photo

New NYC Public Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter began her reign the week as the city’s first Black female schools chancellor. Porter comes on as former Chancellor Richard Carranza, who had been in the position since 2018, announced his resignation over two weeks ago citing personal reasons and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Porter, who was the executive superintendent of the Bronx school districts, comes on the job as the city’s school system continues to pull over 1 million students through the COVID-19 pandemic. It was recently announced that high schools will resume in-person classes March 22.

Porter faces many challenges as she comes as the city still battles the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation has thrown a curve ball on education nationally with fears of students not only being behind but also suffering with the mental health fallout from the pandemic.

On her first day, Monday, March 15, Porter visited PS 15/The Patrick Day School, in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Students gave her gifts to commemorate her being the first Black woman to hold the title of New York City schools chancellor. The students also read Porter an original poem.

“I pledge to our students, to young people, I’m indebted to you as a leader, as a teacher, as a principal,” Porter said in February. “And I promise we’ll do everything to reopen schools, starting with high schools, we’re ready to go. We’ll expand the learning opportunities and do more to address trauma and academic needs, because we know that that is very real.”

Porter comes to the job as a New York City public school graduate with over 20 years of experience in education. A native of South Jamaica, Queens, she comes from a family of educators including her mother. She taught at the Bronx School for Law, Government, and Justice where she became the principal.

Her role as principal evolved into serving as community superintendent of School District 11 in the Bronx and eventually Executive Superintendent for the Bronx.

“To our families, we’ll improve communication and build up trust. I’ve heard you, I’ve been in town halls and conferences and Zooms and Zooms and Teams,” Porter said. “We will continue to build on investments we’ve made in your children, our children, because every child deserves a rigorous, high-quality education where they see themselves in the curriculum every single day.”

With possibly a short tenure, Porter could only serve as chancellor until the end of 2021 when Mayor Bill de Blasio leaves office. She’ll be in place once the 2021-2022 academic year begins post-COVID-19 pandemic when experts say things could be back to some form of normalcy.

“At this crucial moment, we need continuity and we need strength,” de Blasio said. “We need a leader who understands what’s going on, on the ground and is going to see us through to the next step, opening up our high schools and then bringing back our whole school system strong in September.”

In an interview with the AmNews, former Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who was the city’s last Black chancellor, said Porter has had a solid foundation to bring her knowledge to the schools system. He says her biggest challenges will be dealing with students’ mental health, catching them up academically and navigating the change in leadership in City Hall that are ahead.

“She’s stepping into a tough situation but I feel she can meet the challenges in front of her,” Walcot said. “We should all be rooting 100% for the chancellor. She has a job that’s going to be a tremendous responsibility to make sure we’re educating our children and to do it in an environment that’s unprecedented with COVID-19.”

The AmNews spoke with two people who previously worked very closely with Porter while she was in the Bronx. Farah Despeignes is the president of the Community Education Council (CEC) in District 8 in the Bronx when Porter was executive superintendent of the borough. Despeignes said she always listened to parents and looked for solutions even when they lacked faith in the city education system.

“I don’t have any doubt about Meisha’s ability,” Despeignes said. “She always listened very well to the recommendations of the CEC. I believe that she will do her utmost to communicate well with parents and let parents know what their choices are. She’s a hard worker and she’ll make sure that all of the schools are following the guidelines. Meisha is understanding enough and flexible enough as a person in her thinking that when she needs to adjust and change she will.”

Rasheedah Harris is a parent leader with the Parent Action Committee and lives in the Bronx. Harris said she often connected with other leaders from the department of education but always felt that was concerned. Harris also said Porter has the ability to elevate students.

“When she became executive superintendent it was very hard for me to grasp the fact that she had this title because she was still down to earth,” Harris told the AmNews. “She always saw us and she always was just really patient and listened. She is really on the ground and in the community and those connections with the community is what’s needed. She has the ability and the connections to speak to the folks herself directly. As a New Yorker, she’s able to relate like no other.”

Former Deputy Director of Intergovernmental Affairs for the mayor and current City Council candidate Stacy Lynch told the AmNews Porter is beyond capable to serve as the city’s schools chancellor.

“I heard nothing but wonderful things about her while I was working in the administration,” Lynch said. “The fact that she started as a school teacher, then principal, then superintendent and came up through the system shows she has a vast knowledge. My only concern is the system overall. In order to make things work and transition, people have to set aside their egos and work together and support her.”

Advocacy Director of the Alliance for Quality Education Zakiyah Ansari said Porter’s historic achievement comes at a critical moment for the city’s students. Ansari predicts that as the city’s first Black female chancellor, Porter will face attacks and opposition

In an interview with the AmNews, Ansari said she will need to be protected by the community she’s already established a relationship with.

“I hope that the mayor will give her the time she needs to do substantial work in the next few months,” she said. “It’s always a good time to have a Black woman in leadership. Meisha Porter is from the community and she’s been working side by side with them in the Bronx for a long time. Everybody wants schools to open safely. Parents want to go back to work and for their children to be in a safe space. The reality is whatever happens in school, social and emotional support needs to be a top priority, not [standardized] testing.”