Meisha Porter had 3 goals as Head of Schools in New York: “Open. Open. Open.’

Meisha R. Porter became New York’s Schools Chancellor in March, tasked with reopening the nation’s largest school district, serving nearly one million students, during the pandemic.

Prior to becoming chancellor, she was executive superintendent for the Bronx, principal, principal, vice-principal and teacher. She was also a public school student herself, a graduate of Queens Technical High School, one of her first plumbing students. 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 schoolmaster, led the effort to get high school kids back to classrooms, launch summer programs and make sure all students can return to school safely in September.

She is now on the cusp of becoming President and CEO of the Bronx Community Foundation, which is dedicated to improving equity in the borough.

Her departure as chancellor comes as coronavirus cases increase in New York City, fueled largely by the highly contagious Omicron variant. Cases have increased 618% in the past two weeks, according to the New York Times tracker. Hospitalizations increased 73 percent over the same period.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and his successor Eric Adams are determined to avoid a return to distance learning after the holidays. They announced a new policy this week that aims to keep schools open by increasing testing of students and staff.

David C. Banks, a longtime New York City educator who created a network of boys-only public schools, will become chancellor in the Adams administration.

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

Could you explain to me from March until now – What was your to-do list and what was your strategy to reopen the schools?

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

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

My daughter was in the first year of high school when the pandemic hit. If it had been when I was in high school, I wouldn’t have had the device. I wouldn’t have had the space to learn in private. I grew up with a full house. It would have been very difficult for me to struggle with distance algebra in ninth grade. And I knew that was true for many, many students and families. There are so many Wi-Fi deserts in the Bronx and across New York City in our poorest communities.

And then I watched my daughter, who was very successful doing the job, but really struggling with the socio-emotional disconnection from school. I have had conversations with so many parents and students who explained how difficult it was to learn from a distance. I knew it was our responsibility to find the safest way possible to get our students back to the buildings.

How did you react to some of the pushbacks?

We got engaged, we toured the five arrondissements. We have had conversations with principals, we have had conversations with students, we have had conversations with teachers. In a city as big as New York, when you serve over a million students, you will never be able to get everyone to agree with you.

What were your biggest concerns when reopening?

When we started, we didn’t have the vaccine for the 5 to 11 year olds, so we are monitoring that very closely. We knew this was going to be important for our parents in elementary school.

The priority was to make sure our buildings were safe. We have never taken our eyes off health and safety, and I think it has paid off tremendously.

How did you deal with the worries and fears of parents?

I have to thank the directors in New York for this. As soon as we announced in the spring that we were going to reopen all of our schools to 100%, the principals opened their doors and held open houses for parents and students to come and see the health and safety protocols and see. PPE in place, see 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 met her friends for the first time. It was really important to build trust, and building trust started with opening our doors.

Much of the pandemic has been politicized. How did you navigate this?

I had the luxury of prioritizing and focusing what was best for the kids. Period. This is how I led, how I approached every conversation. I was fortunate that the mayor really looked into my experience, not only as a student at a New York public school, but as a parent, teacher.

It’s absolutely political in nature, isn’t it? It’s that job, and you work directly for the mayor, but at the end of the day I’m an educator first and foremost.

What advice would you give the next Chancellor, especially since we have this new variant that’s spreading quickly?

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

Stay in touch with health experts. But keep doing the work that we have been doing. New York City leads the country with our mandate of staff vaccination, our air purifiers in every classroom, our surveillance system, the work we have done around testing and tracing, vaccination clinics in schools, making vaccines accessible and available.

What would you have liked to have addressed if you hadn’t been so focused on the virus?

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

What I’m proud of is to have continued to do this work, from the launch of the Mosaic program to ensure that all of our students see and experience themselves in their program, to the mental health and socio-emotional supports that we have set up.

Tell me a bit about your next role.

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

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

Is there anything I didn’t ask you about the reopening and your experience as Chancellor that you wanted to mention?

It has been the greatest honor and privilege to serve New York City at this time. Most people are like, “You must be crazy to come right now. But one of the things I was able to do was bring every part of me – Meisha the pupil, Meisha the teacher, Meisha the parent, Meisha the principal – to these decisions. I think it’s something people appreciate about me, and I really enjoyed being able to do it.

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