Head of HISD talks first year challenges, changes to come for the district

As the state's largest district heads back to school, the start of the school year also marks a year since Houston Independent School District Superintendent Richard Carranza took over as head of the system.

Over the past year, Carranza has spent a lot of time talking shop with teachers, school leaders and parents, shifting into focus his plan for success.

His first day on the job in August 2016 began with a whirlwind 60 mile, six school, six hour tour of the district, and since then he hasn't slowed down.

"A mentor of mine once said a superintendent in the field is worth three in the seat," said Carranza as he reflected on a year spent in the crossfire of lawmakers and city leaders over issues like school funding, the bathroom bill and recapture.

Carranza also spent the year meeting with parents and policy makers during a tour of "listen and learn" events.

"It was very obvious that there was a lot of distrust in HISD form some segments of the community in particular," said Carranza of when he took office. "I think being able to go out into that community, not inviting the community to come to the central office, but us going out into various parts of the community and really listening and taking time to listen was time well spent," he said.

A Mexican American with a blue collar upbringing, Carranza's background reflects many of the students he serves. During his time touring the district in his first year, he says he has seen the work teachers have done to embrace an increasingly diverse district with a growing set of needs.

"There are incredible examples of really enlightened teaching that's happening in this school district," said Carranza. "You have students that are suffering from all the societal issues --generational homelessness, poverty and drug addiction and violence, you name it, societal ills. Yet there are pockets of instructional excellence where that doesn't matter when students walk into the classrooms because a teacher has created this environment that is welcoming and that is enriching."
In doing right by teachers, the budget for the 2017-2018 school year includes $49 million in salary increases for educators, despite an anticipated budget shortfall a few years down the road.

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"We're not going to use student test scores against you because student test scores are not to fire teachers, that's not what they're about," he reassured a room of 1,500 new teachers during a rally a few weeks back when talk around town was of a state takeover of failing schools.

RELATED: HISD board members address concerns about potential TEA takeover

In the meantime, 32 of those under-performing schools will get a $15 million boost from Carranza's program Achieve 180. It funds a wide range of educational tools, from backpack giveaways to extra teacher development, in the hope it creates a better, more complete learning environment.

"What Achieve 180 is, is a blue collar, roll up your sleeves, what are the components of a good school, and how do we as a system invest in those components of a good school?" said Carranza.

As for year two on the job, Carranza says it will be a year of what he calls "big, hairy issues," that will surely require his continued presence in the field and out of the office.

"You've got to be out, you've got to listen. That's what I've learned the most," said Carranza.

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