HISD Has a New Superintendent, Now What's He Going to Do?

Richard Carranza, not a big fan of hammers.
Richard Carranza, not a big fan of hammers.
Margaret Downing

The man comes into the room friendly and beaming, dapper as all get-out, nice firm handshake, gets down to business and speaks in clear, often measured terms without too much educational jargon. It’s his final one-on-one with a member of the media for the day, after a morning meeting with the school board. A visit to Chavez High School is on tap for the evening.

“In school districts we don’t deal in widgets, we deal in souls,” says Richard Carranza and even as you think well maybe that’s a little rehearsed, all things considered, it’s not a bad philosophy – not for a savior at any rate.

Whether Carranza is, in fact, the savior the Houston Independent School District has been searching for, is anyone’s guess, hope or prayer. The nine-member school board sure wants to think so – after all, it was able to stop its tiresome public and private in-fighting long enough to settle on and hire him.

He’s walked into a district short of cash, with markedly different opinions of who should get what and when, beset by the special ills in any urban district: poverty, homelessness, students not getting enough food, and parents who may or may not be present, who may or may not be educated themselves. He sounds the drum for reaching out for help across the area.

“We have to partner strategically with municipalities, with community-based organizations, with philanthropy to bring the resources to bear to help ameliorate some of those challenges.”

And argues: “Until we view public education as an investment rather than as an expense we’re going to continue to have these challenges with underfunding schools.”

He knows the board members don’t get along, but insists in his talks with them he knows they all put the children first and says he hopes to “focus that passion” to get things done. He wants them, working with the community, to develop a well-articulated vision (“not a vision statement”) for HISD students that in essence says this is what an HISD graduate is when he or she is awarded a diploma at any school in the district.

“That becomes the North Star. How do we get there rather than ‘You got this so now I get that.’”

When asked if he met with the Greater Houston Partnership before he was hired, he says no – a sparkling departure from how things have been managed behind the scenes in the past. “The strings that are being pulled are very clearly by the nine elected board members,” he says, laughing.

He is careful to separate himself from his predecessor, Terry Grier, saying that he wants to be judged on his own actions. Immediate plans are to listen to what the community wants — he’s been out and about all over the district already – and then formulate plans from there.

From the start he has sounded a call for an end to “inequality” – that some schools are so much better than others. At the same time, he talks of the limits that school districts operate under. Under Grier’s administration some of the best schools saw their funding decreased, taken away to balance the books with other programs. Carranza says he is only beginning to evaluate this.

He says he believes in HISD’s choice system but adds that kids who have no way of getting transportation across town don’t have the options of a student with parents who can take care of all those details. “How do we create a system where a student who doesn’t have all those support systems really has a choice?”

He already studying HISD’s magnet schools – the volatile issue that has tripped up more than one HISD superintendent from Abe Saavedra through Grier. “I’ve seen magnets that are very, very successful. I’ve also seen magnet programs that were not thought out well, they can decimate other schools, they can take enrollment from other schools. I am way too early in my tenure here to actually make any definitive presumption to understand what it looks like in Houston. But that’s one of the things I’m actually engaging with the board, engaging with our staff to understand: How have the enrollment patterns been affected by magnet schools and other choice schools?”

Asked about charters, he responds, “I’ve seen great charters and I’ve seen horrible charters. When I’m asked about whether I’m pro-charter or anti-charter, I’m pro-good schools and fervently anti-bad schools.”

He talks about being transparent but pledges to keep personnel matters confidential. “There are some things we aren’t going to be able to talk about.” Asked about the recent tactics of plugging a district lawyer into any controversial issue so that HISD can argue attorney-client privilege (as it has done successfully to the state Attorney General’s office in the case of former chief auditor Richard Patton), Carranza says he doesn’t plan to routinely employ that strategy.

It’s no secret (thanks to footage of his first board meeting) that Carranza both sings and plays mariachi music and that he’s a big supporter of the arts. At the same time, he points to financial limits put on the public schools.

“School districts are put in a position where the funding isn’t sufficient to be able to provide a well-rounded experience for every single student in every single school. That being said, I think it’s critically important to have arts. It’s not supplemental. It’s part of the core experience a student should have. A student should have the opportunity to dance or to paint or to express themselves through the written word.”

It was well known that Grier was not popular among a large number of HISD teachers with his administration’s emphasis on student testing as key to teacher accountability standards which set the tone for continued employment, bonuses and school assignments.

Carranza appears ready to strike out on a path of his own in this regard. Teachers must have the supports they need to do their jobs well and to improve, he says.

“I think there’s a lot of demonizing that happens to teachers. I think we often lead with the accountability hammer first. ‘You will perform at this level.’ But very rarely do we lead with the capacity-building conversation first.

“So if we’re clear about what we want students to be able to know and do and we’re clear about how we’re going to support teachers about developing their capacity to deliver the instruction, to get students to that level, my experience has shown me that accountability will come.

“But if you lead with the hammer I very rarely see accountability improve. What you do is you demoralize, and you drive out some really, really good teachers.”

Welcome news for HISD teachers. Maybe more will stick around for the transformation. Everyone will be watching. 

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