YouthComm’s writers asked tough questions about the issues they face at school.
Here are New York City Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter’s positions on back-to-school COVID safety, New York City’s long history of education inequality, student vaccinations, and how to work successfully with a new mayor.
This interview took place in July and has been edited for clarity.
Miles Dale, a student at Hillside Arts and Letters Academy.Courtesy of Miles Dale
Miles Dale, Hillside Arts and Letters Academy: Do you think every student should get the vaccine, even students under 12?
Chancellor Porter: I think every person who is eligible for the vaccine should take the vaccine. I have had to do vaccine education with my own family. I think it’s important for our society — it’s not just about school, it’s about our world, it’s about our city, it’s about our country.
I am a Black woman, and you know that our community is very concerned about taking the vaccine, and there are a lot of theories. But I really leaned into what was important to us as a family — being together, coming together, celebrating. I had a very good experience with the vaccine. I didn’t have any side effects; I just was tired.
Kaylee Pierre, a student at Forest Hills High School.Courtesy of Kaylee Pierre
Kaylee Pierre, Forest Hills High School: There are over 900 students in my graduating class but only two college counselors. What is being done to increase college resources and college counselors in schools like mine?
Chancellor Porter: My sister went to Forest Hills High School, and it was big then too. We’ve made it one of our priorities to focus on college [and] career readiness, making sure that all students have access to college advisement. You should start doing research on colleges in ninth and 10th grade. And so that meeting you have in the 11th grade should be technical; it shouldn’t be your first meeting, your first experience.
Elijah Elvin, a student at Brooklyn Technical High School.Courtesy of Elijah Elvin
Elijah Elvin, Brooklyn Technical High School: I’m a senior at a school with over 5,000 students and teachers. When COVID numbers fluctuate, what do you plan to do to ensure our safety?
Chancellor Porter: I’m an educator first, but I’m also a mother who has an 11th grader going into a public high school every day. So, it is very important to me that you’re all safe.
Part of health and safety is educating young people, and right now with the COVID rates, the safest place to be is in school. We will still have masking, health screenings, hand sanitizer all throughout buildings, PPE (personal protective equipment), and nurses. We’re also going to keep the situation rooms readily available in case there has to be a closure in classrooms or school buildings. We’re going to ramp up access to vaccines.
Dominique De Castro, a student at Brooklyn Technical High School.Courtesy of Dominique De Castro
Dominique De Castro, Brooklyn Technical High School: There is a noticeable amount of inequality in educational opportunities and resources for children. What is the best solution to level out the playing field?
Chancellor Porter: My mission is to create an environment where every family can proudly send their kids to any school and feel confident that they’re receiving the education that they deserve. You should have access to AP classes and college counselors and career readiness in all schools. We need to level the playing field so families can feel fine about their children’s education if their children don’t get into specialized high schools.
YouthComm writer and New York City student Leroy Chen.Courtesy of Leroy Chen
Leroy Chen: I read your piece, “A Rigorous Curriculum in Schools” in the Daily News. What would be the strategy to successfully create curricula that “truly connects to who students are” — to their identities and life experiences?
Chancellor Porter: I think it’s important for students to see themselves in the curriculum and to see themselves as strong leaders to make changes across the city and our country. It’s also important for students to see cultures different from their own in the curriculum. It helps society to value differences. In the article, we talked about the launch of the Mosaic curriculum. I think young people need to have a voice in what they learn and a voice in the development of that curriculum. I think all of those things will make a significant difference.
Yotam Pe’er, a student at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School.Courtesy of Yotam Pe’er
Yotam Pe’er, Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School: In November, Eric Adams will most likely be elected the next mayor. He has more conservative stances on education than you. How do you plan on incorporating his ideas into your plans?
Chancellor Porter: Opening in the fall is going to be, I think, less about anybody’s political stance and more about what students need to come back to school after being out for 18 months during a pandemic. Really grounding our focus on the social-emotional needs and the academic needs of our students has to be everyone’s priority.
Liza Tuyuc, a student at East-West School of International Studies.Courtesy of Liza Tuyuc
Liza Tuyuc, East-West School of International Studies: Do you believe that Eric Adams’ push for improved online learning would affect your agenda and the plan of opening schools, and how would you shift your priorities to accommodate both of these different plans?
Chancellor Porter: I’ve been in online classes, and I’ve seen and experienced it in a very different, innovative, engaging way. I think, as a system, we’ve got over 500,000 devices. We need to lean in and leverage those tools. Teachers learned so much about online learning platforms and how to use them to create more creative classrooms.
Kiran Yeh, a student at Brooklyn Technical High School.Courtesy of Kiran Yeh
Kiran Yeh, Brooklyn Technical High School: Asian American students make up 62% of New York City specialized high schools seats, yet we make up only 16% of the population for all city high schools. African American students make up 3.9 % of the specialized schools’ population, but 25% of all city high schools. In order to diversify these schools, should the SHSAT be abolished completely or should there be more criteria added in the admissions process for students applying to specialized high schools?
Chancellor Porter: I don’t think there should be any school in the system that has one measure to get students into that school. I know that many Asian American families have made great sacrifices to prepare their students for that exam. I don’t think they should have to do that! I also know, having spoken to many Asian American students, that there is a level of pressure that comes with that, and so I think it is important that we not rely on one measure.
Kiran: Thank you so much, yes it was very stressful.
Chancellor: I’ll call your mother!
Anthony Ortiz, a student at JVL Wildcat Academy Charter School.Courtesy of Anthony Ortiz
Anthony Ortiz, JVL Wildcat Academy Charter School: In my opinion, the heavy presence of police and metal detectors demeans students into being treated like cattle as they enter school. Are there any plans to reconsider heavy police and security measures so students do not feel so dehumanized?
Chancellor Porter: I worked in the Bronx for many, many years and really pushed against metal detectors. I think in this moment of coming back to school, I don’t want you to walk in the building and feel uncomfortable. I want you to walk in and feel excited. There’s also another side of that conversation: there’s a whole group of people who feel safer because of metal detectors. I think there’s an opportunity to build a bridge with our student safety agents. Not being at the door, saying, you know, pull up your pants and why do you have a cellphone? But, welcome, good morning, it’s so good to see you, it’s so good to have you in this building.
Richard Zhao, a student at Brooklyn Technical High School.Courtesy of Richard Zhao
Richard Zhao, Brooklyn Technical High School: The Discovery program is a summer enrichment program for eligible, rising, low-income ninth grade students who take the SHSAT and score right below the cutoff. As a current student who has gone through the Discovery program, do you have any ideas for the future expansion of this program?
Chancellor Porter: We worked really hard to expand this program in the Bronx and did. I think we should expand the Discovery program, but I also think that we should make sure to have multiple measures to enter [specialized high schools]. When you apply to college, you have to take a test, tell your story, demonstrate your learning, share your grades. Some of you probably even had to go through an interview. When we talk about college and career readiness, why aren’t we starting earlier by ensuring that students are engaging in a selection process that is similar to the college process in middle school?
Geraldy Mercedes, a student at Kingsbridge International High School.Courtesy of Geraldy Mercedes
Geraldy Mercedes, Kingsbridge International High School: Are suspensions necessary and, more importantly, effective? In my high school, problems were solved between two parties by suspending both without properly hearing what happened. I was beaten up by a girl when I was a freshman, and yet I was suspended as well.
Chancellor Porter: I think we have to look at more restorative ways of solving conflict, and teaching young people how to solve conflict, how to identify their emotions, so when you are getting a little too high, how to bring yourself down. We also want to help kids recognize their triggers so they can learn from their mistakes. And also helping you acknowledge when you are in a space where you may be behaving inappropriately. I don’t think suspension has ever done any of that for the system, and I think we have an opportunity to think differently.
Etana Williams, a student at Brooklyn Technical High School.Courtesy of Etana Williams
Etana Williams, Brooklyn Technical High School: Do you have any ideas for making students of color feel less targeted or ostracized, specifically at schools lacking diversity?
Chancellor Porter: I believe that the work of transforming communities is about the merger of hearts and minds. So when I talk about the Mosaic curriculum, that’s one thing. The other part of it, training and development of teachers to see students, to see their beauty, to see their talents, to see their authenticity, but also to lean into that as a way to bring you into the room. So, ensuring that students of color don’t feel left out is about curriculum, it’s about how I value your lived experiences; it’s about how I value the community that you come from.
I think that this moment is also celebrating the cultures and heritages of young people who make up our school system. I think this is also a moment when, as a system, we have to value student voice in a very real and significant way, to tell us when you show up at your school building, “What do I feel? What do I think? What do the people greeting me or not greeting me in the morning tell me? What does the curriculum tell me about how you feel about me? What is the way my teachers check in or don’t check in tell me about how you feel about me? What’s up in our hallways? As I walk through the buildings, what do I see?”
This interview was originally published in YouthComm Magazine.