When Meisha Porter accepted the job of schools chancellor last February - working for a mayor nearing the end of his term, leading the nation’s largest school system through an unpredictable pandemic - she was frequently asked a one-word question: Why?
“When I had the opportunity to step in this role, you know, I really thought about that like, do you want to be the person questioning the decision maker or making the decisions?” she recalled.
Making big decisions has marked her short tenure, from the full reopening of schools to plans for a centralized curriculum and an overhaul of the gifted and talented program. And through it all, she’s had a relationship with her boss, the mayor, that appears less tense than her predecessor’s.
“He always asked me, ‘Meisha, what do you think? Like, I really want to know your thinking.’ He really leans into my experience - as a student, as a teacher, as a principal,” Porter said.
Porter brought 20 years of DOE experience - and relationships - to the post. It began when, as a youth organizer, she helped found The Bronx School for Law, Government, and Justice.
“I was probably 17 years old, 18 years old when I became a youth organizer. And this is one of the first big things I got a part of building,” she said, as she walked through the school’s hallways with NY1 this week.
Porter was involved in building the school, conceptually and physically. She even remembers picking out the furniture. Seven years after it opened, she got to lead it, as principal.
Asked what was more nerve-wracking - becoming principal or becoming chancellor - her answer comes quickly.
“Oh, definitely the first day being principal here,” she said. “You know, I was so excited about being principal, but I was so afraid, you know, like, I think any principal in New York City will tell you as much as you prepare for the role, nothing prepares you for the role.”
In a twist of fate, she succeeded the school’s founding principal, David C. Banks - who is widely believed to be Mayor-elect Eric Adams’ choice to succeed her as chancellor.
“If you go to one school to get two chancellors, it says something about that place, I'm just gonna say that. You know, David and I have a long history. We go way back,” she said.
They worked together closely before Banks moved on to create The Eagle Academy network of all-boys schools, and Porter worked her way up the DOE ranks. She said she hasn't campaigned to keep her job.
“The next mayor gets to do what the next mayor gets to do, and I'm going to support this system no matter what because my heart is in ensuring that our families and communities are served well,” she said.
There’s plenty left on her agenda, including finalizing a plan to end gifted and talented classes, which supporters of the classes hope Adams will abandon.
“I think what's important is for us to put in front of the folks coming in a plan that is representative of the families and communities of New York City. And I don't think there's anyone who won't start, use that as a starting point for what we need to do,” she said.
Porter said it's lessons from her time here, in the Bronx, that help guide her in developing plans like this one.
“This borough is special to me because I live here, my family's here. It raised me, all of my opportunities came from - I wouldn't be the chancellor if I didn't have the chance to open this school and lead in the Bronx,” she said.
Adams is expected to make an announcement about his pick to lead the DOE next week. As for her plans for the future, Porter said she’ll have more to share soon.
Here is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of Porter’s sit-down interview with NY1 education reporter Jillian Jorgensen.
NY1: You've been an educator in the city school system for a long time, and you know it very well, but I'm curious what, if anything, surprised you about being chancellor?
Porter: I think that I don't know that I was really surprised. I think I was more just really excited about the way our families, our teachers, our schools, our leaders have shown up in this moment. One of the reasons why I took on this job - and so many people have been like, "Why would you take the job at this moment?"- is because a year ago, I was sitting as the executive superintendent of the Bronx, and I was questioning and challenging decisions that were being made. And my friends who were principals and teachers were as well. And so when I had the opportunity to step in this role, you know, I really thought about that, like, do you want to be the person questioning the decision-maker or making the decisions? And I really decided to be that, and I think what has shown up for me in this role - and it hasn't been surprising, it’s been exciting - is the way that one, so many folks have leaned into my leadership, but two, really pushed me, encouraged me, but also were ready to stand up for young people, like I knew they would, but as I get to see it across the city, it's been really exciting.
NY1: It's by far the largest school district in the country, making it nearly impossible to really directly compare to anywhere else. Do you think that local experience is necessary to being an effective chancellor?
Porter: I think it makes a big difference. I think it makes a difference in understanding that New York City, this school system is like no other - first of all, the size of the school system is is beyond any other school system in the country. But I also think having relationships with teachers, with leaders, with principals, with elected officials, particularly in this moment, in the pandemic, when we needed to partner with community-based organizations, I think stepping into this role having those relationships, knowing our system, knowing our city, is critically important.
NY1: There were sometimes reports of tensions between your predecessor as chancellor and the mayor. For any chancellor, one of the tricky parts of the job is to navigate the fact that while you're in charge of the Education Department, it's a mayoral control system and at the end of the day, the buck stops with whoever is in City Hall, whoever is the mayor at the time, and they have essentially final say. How did you approach that relationship with Mayor Bill de Blasio in a way that clearly has allowed at least for more external harmony, while also allowing you to sort of have your voice heard?
Porter: I think one of the reasons why the mayor picked me was because of my experience in this city. And I'll tell you, we've had a wonderful relationship throughout my tenure. He always asked me, "Meisha, what do you think?" Like, "I really want to know your thinking." He really leans into my experience as a student, as a teacher, as a principal, and I bring those perspectives to the table. And so I think that one of the things that has allowed that relationship to be so successful is his ability to see my various perspectives of the system.
NY1: A related subject: gifted and talented. The mayor, for a long time, has said, "I don't think a single test is a good way to admit kids to high schools," but it took him a longer time to get there on the gifted and talented classes, despite the fact that it's a single test given to kids much younger. When he's been pressed about that, he's cited you as the person who got him there. What were those conversations like?
Porter: I think he really heard that that single test, that he's always talked about, is applying to kindergarteners - like before they’re even ready to fully tie their shoes completely, we’re deciding their track. And we're also not acknowledging all of the unique gifts and talents that students across the city have. And so I think he heard that. I think he wanted to really have an approach that made sense in gifted and talented. I think he's grappled with it, before I was even in this role, and I think we just were able to really push through and say, one, we have to expand access to high-quality, rigorous instruction to students across the city, and two, we have to engage with our families and communities around what that means and what that should look like.
NY1: The plan obviously won't be popular with everyone. There’s a pretty vocal cohort of parents who don't want this to go through and are aiming at lobbying the next mayor, Eric Adams. How do you - or can you, really - ensure that something like that even gets through with someone new coming in?
Porter: I think what's important is for us to put in front of the folks coming in a plan that is representative of the families and communities of New York City. And I don't think there's anyone who won't use that as a starting point for what we need to do. We want to build an outline, a skeleton plan, that incorporates the voices of our families and communities. And I can't imagine that that wouldn't be the starting point for rethinking a system that really creates divides in our schools and in our classrooms. When you walk around a building, when you see a classroom that's completely separate, that looks different - I'll tell you, Jill, that was my first surprise, because that's not what I experienced as a leader. And so when you see that, it's striking, and it's important that we don't create those divisions and divides in our schools - that we create inclusive communities where all children have an opportunity to access high-level curriculum. And I think starting with the voices of the communities, starting with the voices of the people we serve, I can't imagine that that doesn't become your starting point.
NY1: On the subject of curriculum, the city is aiming now to roll out an entirely new unified curriculum. Talk to me a little bit about what you’re looking for this to be.
Porter: I hope for this to be a curriculum where, just like in this beautiful place that I've had the privilege of working, young people have a chance to see themselves and experience their backgrounds, their cultures, their histories, their rich diversity, and their learning experiences every day. You know you matter when you read about yourself, when you read about your family, when your community is a part of your story. That's how you know that you really matter. And when school systems have an opportunity to create that, we have to do it collaboratively. We have to do it with families. We have to do it with teachers. And I'm excited about building that, and I'm excited about the team that's in place that's engaging, again, across New York City with families to say, what do you want this to look like? We call it the mosaic curriculum because former Mayor Dinkins called New York City the gorgeous mosaic. And so what better place to use to base our curriculum one, then the gorgeous mosaic of New York City.
NY1: Another big-picture issue facing this system going forward is middle school and high school admissions. Do you think that we’ll see some some concrete direction on that in the next month, or will be something that the next administration ends up grappling with?
Porter: We are working collaboratively with the next administration. You know, transition is important, but it's important that transition is strong and stable. And so in a couple of weeks, there will be more information, but it's definitely something we want to work collaborative around because we want to make sure, again, the most important information needs to get to families. I know - I've been through the high school process as a student, I've been through the middle school process as a student, and I've been through it as a parent. It is very difficult, and it causes a lot of anxiety. And so we need to get information out to families.
NY1: Speaking of the transition and the next mayor, have you spoken with Mayor-elect Adams since he won the election?
Porter: Yes, I congratulated him, and he's supportive of me and my work and has been very complimentary about my work, and I'm excited for what's to come next.
NY1: Many people expect him to choose his own chancellor, which is a relatively common thing for an incoming mayor to do. But did you ask him to consider you for the job?
Porter: I never looked for this job. And so I haven't campaigned one day for this job. I've spent every single day in this seat, doing the job and that's what I intend to do.
NY1: As you are undoubtedly aware, a lot of the buzz is around a longtime friend, David C. Banks, who was also the principal here before you became principal - you worked together in founding the school. It’s a big system, but a small world - tell me about your relationship.
Porter: Well, Jill, if you go to one school to get two chancellors, it says something about that place! I'm just gonna say that. You know, David and I have a long history. We go way back. I was a part of the founding team for this school. He was the founding principal. I was on the committee that selected him. He's done great work with the Eagle Foundation. I've done great work leading our schools and our school systems. And so, you know, the next mayor gets to do what the next mayor gets to do, and I'm going to support the system no matter what because my heart is in ensuring that our families and communities are served well.
NY1: You're the first Black woman to be the chancellor. As you mentioned, you went to New York City public schools. Now you have a child currently in New York City public schools. What has it meant for you, personally, to have this job?
Porter: You know, I think it's meant so much to me. When I walk into schools, and women and girls whispered to me, you know, about how proud they are? Or that they're praying for me! It’s meant a lot to me to have every role in the system and to land in this one, and lead our system to opening in this most difficult time. I couldn't have asked for a greater thing to do.
NY1: What was the hardest day on the job?
Porter: I think the hardest day was probably vaccine mandate day. I think it was super important that we did it. I'm so proud of all of the educators. People didn't believe it would happen. They didn't believe our folks would show up and they did. And yeah, it was a little nerve-wracking getting there. But educators care about kids first and foremost, and they showed up. And that was the hardest day, but it was also one of the most rewarding days.
NY1: In my time covering education, one thing that has always been sort of a constant issue is issues for students with special needs - special education students not getting their services, not getting their impartial hearings in a timely manner, SETTS providers not getting reimbursed in a timely manner. And the mayor has spoken a lot, and you have, too, about wanting to fix these issues, making efforts, making reforms. But it seems so stubborn. Why do you think this issue in particular seems to be so difficult for anybody to get their arms around?
Porter: My career has been in the Bronx. And our responsibility as a system has to be to prioritize our most vulnerable populations, period. We are in a resource-rich moment, where we have the opportunity to do that, to go above and beyond. And so I think that is what we have to do. It is our responsibility. We haven't been resourced in the past and the way that we are in this moment. And so I think it's our opportunity to step up in a real way and provide the supports that our students with disabilities need, our English language learners need, all of our most vulnerable communities like the Bronx, like Far Rockaway, we have an opportunity and that is going to be the responsibility for it: How are we prioritizing in this system, the most vulnerable students, and serving them at the highest levels?
NY1: I asked you about your hardest day on the job. What was the best day?
Porter: Oh, gosh, there's so many great days, Jill. You know, this morning, I was in Harlem, in a school with students, and they were talking to me about how they have choice in their classroom with their teacher. When I got to open the first day of school, and I was here in the Bronx, I spent the first day in the Bronx, and parents cried and thanked me for opening up the schools, and students were excited, but they were honest. They were like, "I'm really nervous." I think vaccine day for five-to-11-year-old students was super exciting. I was nervous that we might have some criers on camera. We had one young student who said, "If I scream, is that OK?" and Dr. Chokshi and I were like, "If you got to scream, scream," but what they screamed was: "We beat the virus, we beat the pandemic!" And so, I've had so many great days, and all of those days had to do with being in schools, being with children, being with principals and being with teachers.
NY1: One of the things I hear so often when I talk to people about what they think works in leadership of the Education Department, what could work in the future, what's important, is the idea that the person at the top needs to be hearing from the principals, in particular - people on the ground, but principals in particular. You’re a former principal, you know, worked your way up through the ranks at Tweed. Tell me a little bit about how you try to keep those relationships going. How do you make sure that what other principals are experiencing gets to you?
Porter: So when I became a superintendent, a colleague of mine, former superintendent of District 9, Leticia Rodriguez-Rosario said to me, "You're the lead principal for the district." And I was like, "All right, cool. I can do this job because I love being a principal, being a principal is my favorite job." And I feel like as the chancellor, I'm the lead principal for the system. I have conversations with principals regularly, have a Principals’ Advisory Committee, and I'm always asking and centering at [DOE] central, how's this going to land in schools? How is this going to land with principals? Anybody will tell you those are my leading questions, and I think that's important. I also think it's important - principals, teachers, they are the key to what happens in our schools, but there's so many other heroes. Our school safety agents at the front door, our cafeteria workers, our custodians, the folks who keep our buildings running are so important, and so we can't forget them. And you know, the principal's important because the principal never does.
NY1: Whenever you talk about the Bronx, I can tell that you really love it. What are some of the lessons that you've taken from the blocks and why is the borough so important to you?
Porter: This is my home. I live in the Bronx. I've raised my family in the Bronx. I moved to the Bronx when I was 16 years old. And you know, like most New Yorkers know, there's been this narrative about the Bronx that if you don't live here, you don't know the true story. This community is filled with so many dedicated, hard-working people who believe in their neighborhood and have so much pride. You know, I was all around the borough - Bronx strong! - for 20 years. And this borough is important to me because I think that when you have a borough that the world is defining, we have an opportunity to redefine it, and I'm so excited about what I've been able to do in this school. What I was able to do in District 11 as a superintendent, and what I've been able to do as the executive superintendent for the borough. This borough is special to me because I live here, my family's here. It raised me. All of my opportunities came from - I wouldn't be the chancellor if I didn't have the chance to open this school and lead in the Bronx, if I didn't have the opportunity to engage with the community members who worked together with the Urban Assembly to create this school. This school didn't come from Meisha, it didn't come from David. It didn't come from any one person. It came from a group of community members who were deeply invested in what happened and what was built on this spot behind that courthouse. When this building was built, when we talked about this school, when it was just an idea, a group of young people - a group of that I was a part of, “Take Charge Be Somebody,” when we saw that there was going to be a courthouse, we said we didn't want to have a place where young people learned about the inner workings of the court system by going through it. We wanted to create a space where they learned about the court system by being a part of it. And that's what the school is about...That's the Bronx. The Bronx created hip hop, the Bronx created this school, the Bronx sets fashion trends all over the world. And I mean, what more special place? But our job is Bronxites is to really tell the story, and that's what I look forward to doing. That's what I'm always done in my work here in the Bronx, and I believe in the Bronx.
NY1: It's kind of awkward to take a job where, you know, there's probably an end date. With about a month left to go, what's on the top of your agenda?
Porter: Every day I sit in this seat, I’m in this seat. Brilliant NYC. Mosaic curriculum, continuing to lift up our most vulnerable communities. I go to a school, I don't ask the principal what they're doing and why. I ask them, "What can I do for you?" And we always leave being really responsive to the needs. So every day that I'm in this seat, that's what I'm going to do. Every school I visit, I’m going to make sure that my presence changes their experiences. One of my greatest experiences has been going to places where people have said to me, principals have said, "No chancellors have ever come here, ever." District 75 programs, our most vulnerable populations of schools, where no chancellor has ever visited. So that's what I'm looking forward to doing every day that I sit in the seat.
NY1: I know the job you have today is the job you have today. But what comes next?
Porter: Jill, you'll be amongst the first of my friends to know. But it will be good.