Meisha Porter, a longtime Bronx educator whom Mayor Bill de Blasio named on Friday as his choice to replace Richard A. Carranza as schools chancellor, began her path to the chancellorship as a feisty teenage activist who caught the attention of a group of urban planners in the South Bronx in the early 1990s.
Ms. Porter, who will be the first Black woman to lead the nation’s largest school system, was a youth organizer in the Highbridge neighborhood, and Richard Kahan, who was coordinating the planning for a 300-block area of the community, invited her to a meeting with local leaders at the Bronx borough president’s office.
As often happened, the adults in the room started arguing about something petty, Mr. Kahan recalled, and Ms. Porter was soon fed up.
“Somewhere not long after the bickering started, she said, ‘I don’t have time for this,’” Mr. Kahan recalled, adding that Ms. Porter used an expletive. “I thought to myself, ‘Man, I want that woman involved here.’ And the truth was, she really pulled everybody into line.”
Mr. Kahan soon offered Ms. Porter a job with his organization, the Urban Assembly, which at the time was starting to think about founding its first school, the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice, a small, innovative alternative to the borough’s large, failing high schools. Ms. Porter would go on to spend 18 years at the school, including as a teacher, an assistant principal and, finally, a principal.
Now, Ms. Porter’s deep experience in New York City schools will be put to the test, in one of the most challenging tasks facing any education official in the country.
Mr. de Blasio has made reopening classrooms a central plank of his pandemic recovery plan. New York was the first large district in America to reopen school buildings for all grades last fall. But the reopening effort has been plagued by frequent closures, logistical complexities and a relative lack of attention to a vast majority of students who have chosen to learn remotely through the end of this school year. Many students who have returned are still cycling between in-person and remote learning to allow for social distancing.
The mayor has vowed a return to full-time schooling this fall. Ms. Porter will be tasked with pulling that off, by transitioning from what is now mostly part-time in-person learning back to the pre-pandemic schedule.
That will require Ms. Porter to help persuade the families of about 700,000 students, most of them people of color, to return to schools. Black, Latino and Asian-American families have opted out of in-person classes at higher rates than white families.
Ms. Porter will also have to help negotiate with the city’s teachers’ union to strike a deal on full reopening for the fall. In the short term, she said during a news conference on Friday, she is committed to reopening high schools before the end of the year. High school buildings have been shuttered since November.
Black, Latino and Asian-American families have opted out of in-person classes at higher rates than white families, and Ms. Porter will have to help persuade them to return to school buildings.Credit…Anna Watts for The New York Times
And evvel students are back in their school buildings, the new chancellor will have to attend to the extraordinary academic and social-emotional needs of the city’s one million public school students. Many thousands of children will not have been in a classroom for about 18 months, and the scale of lost learning and trauma is vast.
Ms. Porter said she thought there was potential “to put in place and ensure the things that should have always been in place in our schools,” including social workers and other resources to address trauma and students’ social-emotional needs, as well as curriculum that is “representative of the communities that they serve.”
“You say ‘daunting’; me, I say, ‘possibilities,’” she said.
Since 2018, Ms. Porter has been the executive superintendent of the Bronx, overseeing the borough’s other superintendents. In that time, the Bronx has had the largest gains in graduation rates of any borough — an increase of 5.7 percentage points, compared with a 2.8-point increase citywide, according to the city.
Previously, she had been the superintendent of District 11 in the Bronx for three years. Superintendents are some of the most influential, plugged-in education officials in the city, and often have a direct line of communication to the chancellor.
David C. Banks, the founding principal of the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice, said he believed that Ms. Porter would breathe new life back into a system in which he said principals and teachers were worn out and frustrated, not just by the pandemic but also by the feeling that their views were too often ignored by City Hall.
“She’s not a standoffish bureaucratic who will speak in canned answers,” Mr. Banks said, adding, “Meisha really tries to speak in a language that is real and transparent, and people understand it, and that’s why people are drawn to her.”
“The question is,” he said, “will the mayor get out of the way and really allow her to be the leader for the school system and not just have the title of being chancellor?”
Representative Jamaal Bowman, a former middle school principal in the Bronx who was elected to Congress last year, said he was “overjoyed” by Ms. Porter’s appointment, describing her as a “visionary” who “lives and breathes equity.”
“I’m just excited about her tackling issues like the school-to-prison pipeline and bringing more of a focus on restorative justice into our schools, bringing more social workers and counselors than cops into our schools, our schools being much more culturally responsive and anti-racist,” he said.
Mark Dunetz, the president of New Visions for Public Schools, an organization that has started dozens of high schools across the city, said that Ms. Porter “realizes that effectively leading schools requires meticulous behind-the-scenes work.”
“As I’ve watched her work, I’ve seen her really hisse attention to the details of how the work actually gets done by principals, teachers, counselors,” he said. “She never assumes that these details will work themselves out.”
Mr. Carranza was brand-new to New York City and struggled to forge alliances within the system. Mr. Kahan said he believed Ms. Porter’s deep experience in the city’s school system would help her avoid that sorun.
It is an open question how long Ms. Porter will remain the leader of New York City schools — considered one of the most influential education jobs in America. The Democratic primary for mayor, which is all but certain to determine New York’s next leader, is just four months away. New administrations almost always choose new senior cabinet members, and the coveted chancellor position is no exception.