Exactly one year after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced New York City schools would close to in-person learning indefinitely as coronavirus spread rampantly across the U.S., the nation's largest public school system has a new boss.
Former Bronx Superintendent Meisha Porter officially takes the helm of New York City public schools Monday, the first Black woman to hold the role. De Blasio announced she would succeed Richard Carranza. Carranza said abruptly last month he would step down as of March 15, citing the toll of the virus on his own life and the need to take some personal time to grieve his losses.
Though Porter only officially assumes the role of chancellor Monday, she has appeared by de Blasio's side at more than a few of the mayor's coronavirus briefings since Carranza's announcement.
As Porter begins her new position, the city looks to move forward from a pandemic that ravaged so many lives and left tens of thousands of families struggling with hard decisions about remote vs in-person learning. High school students return in person to their classrooms in a week for the first time since mid-November; middle schoolers returned last month, while elementary and special education students had been back in-person since early December.
Nearly 300,000 students in grades 9-12 opted to continue to learn remotely.
Porter signs on at a particularly challenging time in the Department of Education's history. The mayor and the city are currently facing a lawsuit that alleged that the school system's policies have contributed to segregation and racism.
De Blasio has denied comment on the lawsuit but said that changes are coming. Porter has established equity and access as cornerstones of her approach.
So who is Porter? Here's a bit of background from her, as she described herself, and her life and career in New York to date.
A Born and Bred New Yorker, Proud Family Woman
Porter describes herself in her Twitter bio as "Executive Superintendent for the Bronx!! Mother, wife, sister, daughter...Disruptor, Leader and Teacher!! Proud Product of NYC Public Schools." In her introductory press conference Friday, she declared herself the product of a family of educators and a champion of equity.
Born in 1973 in Far Rockaway and raised in South Jamaica, Queens, Porter comes from a family of educators. She was raised by a single mom who returned to school to finish her own degree and was Porter's "favorite" teacher. Her Aunt "Brenda" was her pre-school teacher, cementing her early beginnings in education.
"What I learned most from my favorite teacher, my Mommy, is the importance that one teacher makes in the life of every young person," Porter said.
The mother of four named a handful of other impactful educators in her life, specifically calling out her 10th grade English teacher "who saw me when I was having my own personal struggles. To all of the little girls out there, I'm saving a seat for you."
"Because of all that, I know with certainty it is my duty and responsibility that I've carried with me my whole life to lead forward and lean in and see every student and create opportunities for them in every way that I possibly can," Porter said.
A product of the New York City public school system, Porter graduated from Queens Vocational and Technical High School and went on to receive her Bachelor of Arts in English concentrating in Cross Cultural Literature and Black and Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. She later received her Master's Degree in Administration and Supervision from Mercy College and completed her School District Leader certification through the NYC Advanced Leadership Institute, according to her biography on the Deeper Learning Equity Fellowship.
'I'm Indebted to You:' Priorities as Chancellor of NYC Public Schools Focus on Equity, Opportunity
Most immediately, Porter said she wants to focus on developing a plan to bring high school students back to school in person for the first time since mid-November and ensuring all NYC public school kids get back in-person this fall.
Primarily and most crucially overall, Porter said her job as chancellor will be to "remove the barriers, direct resources where they are needed most and communicate clearly around our shared goals and commitments at every school, in every neighborhood, in every single borough. I'm ready to hit the ground running, and lead New York City schools to a full recovery. It won't be easy."
Porter doesn't describe herself as a person who shies away from life's challenges. She pledged to students, "I'm indebted to you as a leader, as a teacher, as a principal," and vowed to provide the emotional and communicative support, as well as the educational support, they'll need in the pandemic transition and later.
"Every child deserves a rigorous, high-quality education where they see themselves in the curriculum every single day," Porter said. "To every single person who works in the New York City Department of Education, we'll listen closely -- so that we can do the work we need to do. We're going to build up communities together and we're going to bring people together to serve students."
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"At the end of the day, it's about the tireless dedication we have to every student, every step of the way," Porter said. "It's about early mornings and late nights, doing all the work no one will ever see you do so that we can show up, so that we can create opportunities at school for students to learn each and every day."
Porter said she would also prioritizing the restoration of trust among school leaders concerned about returning to classrooms and community engagement. Outgoing Chancellor Carranza said being more engaged with communities would have been the one thing he would have done differently, when asked the question.
An Ascendant, Lifetime Career in Education
Porter called her imminent role as city schools chancellor the "honor of my lifetime. This moment isn't about me, it's about the story of us, and what we're going to do together to move this system forward."
She most recently served (and will continue to serve until March 15) as Bronx Executive Superintendent, leading community school districts 7-12 and New Visions Affinity schools, covering the entire borough’s 361 schools and 235,448 students. She started her career as a youth organizer in Highbridge and joined the Department of Education as a teacher at the Bronx School for Law, Government, and Justice, a school she helped conceive and found.
After 18 years at the school, where she became principal, she spent three years as Superintendent of District 11, which served the Pelham Parkway, Eastchester, and Woodlawn neighborhoods of the Bronx.
She has been Executive Superintendent since 2018 and has overseen the largest gains in graduation rates of any borough in that time, from 67.4 in 2018 to 73.0 – a 5.7 percentage point increase, as compared to a 2.8 point increase citywide, according to the mayor's office. Postsecondary enrollment in the Bronx has increased under her tenure, with 54.9 percent of the ninth grade cohort for the Class of 2019 enrolling in college, up 1.2 percent from the prior class.
Despite moving up the ranks in recent years, Porter promised on Friday to never forget what it is like being in a classroom with students and planning lessons.
In addition to previous roles with the DOE, Porter has taught at CUNY as an adjunct professor and been a Teachers College, Columbia University Cahn fellow, an Aspen Institute fellow, and a member of the Harvard University National Institute for Urban School Leaders and the Fordham University – Carnegie Foundation iLead team.
She has also received the National Association of Negro Women Sojourner Truth Award, Mercy College honorary degree and multiple state and local recognitions.