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New York City Chancellor Carmen Fariña Gives Herself a B+

If New York City Chancellor Carmen Fariña had to grade herself on her performance during the first full year running the country's largest school system, she would give herself an A-minus for effort and a B-plus for achievement.

The chancellor shared that evaluation of her work with Education Week last month as the school year wound down and she was getting ready to start her 50th year working as an educator in New York City. Fariña has been a teacher, principal, principal supervisor, and deputy chancellor.

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Fariña counts among the department's successes the rollout of the city's pre-k program; a renewed focus on school leadership—she had all of the system's superintendents reapply for their jobs, required that they have teaching experience, and changed the way principals were supported and rated; increased dual-language program offerings; increased attention on middle school students; and expanded professional development opportunities for teachers.

"The thing that I particularly feel proud of, particularly after the first six months, is that we've created a climate of collaboration and innovation, which I think is a little different from the competition that might have existed prior," Fariña said. "I think because I wear the lens of an educator, one of my priorities has been to visit schools, and almost all the decisions I make is based on the visiting of schools. We certainly try to keep the eye on the ball in terms of student achievement."   

To be sure, Fariña has had her critics during her first full year. One persistent gripe, particularly from Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter lobbying group, is the lack of a coherent plan to address the number of the city's schools that are deemed to be failing. Another has been criticism that Fariña seems to lack a big-picture education philosophy. And she has been at odds, at least in the New York City media, with the charter sector over comments she's made about charters.

Fariña listed a few areas in which she and Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration planned to concentrate efforts in her second year (some of those steps are already underway) to push her  B+ grade to an A.

"I think until every 2nd grader is reading on grade level, and every high school student is graduating on time, there'll never be an A," she said. "Getting a good effort grade is important, but getting an achievement grade is still something that we have to work on."

Among the plans:

  • Continue to focus on 2nd, 7th and 10th graders. One of the city's goals is to have every second-grader reading at grade level.
  • Add more PreK seats across the city.
  • Continue to work on increasing parental involvement. (During the year, the chancellor conducted more than 40 town hall meeting, all of which are accompanied by Q & A with the audience, she said.)
  • Continue focusing on English-language learners.  (See Education Week's story on New York City's focus on  ELLs.)
  • Expanding the number of community schools. Fariña said the community school expansion will improve parental involvement, as those school sites provide services that parents have said they wanted, including mental health services. 
  • Focus on special-needs students. Those efforts include more professional development for teachers who work with special-needs children and an initiative to place more speech therapists in the lower grades to reduce the rates of special education placements in later grades. 
  • More training for special-needs teaching fellows. Of the 1,000 or so New York City Teaching Fellows, the majority are attending summer classes on language development
  • More training and targeted programs to help teachers with classroom management. 
  • Examining special needs by different categories.
  • A focus on early literacy.  An emphasis on vocabulary-building that included the roll out of a new handbook for K-12 vocabulary development system-wide.  More workshops for parents on how to read to children, beginning in the womb, and additional steps to address the vocabulary gaps between neighborhoods.

To those who say Fariña lacks a big-picture education philosophy:

"The big picture to me is that we are building a system of great schools and, also  [doing so] through the spirit of collaboration rather than competition," she said.  "Whereas that may not sound as sexy, it's really moving our agenda very, very well. We've started something called Learning Partners, which means that schools are working together. There is one school, for example, recently that was a struggling school that changed . . .everything [in his building] upside down. And why?  Because he was in a learning partnership with another principal who taught him how to do that. . . . Everywhere I go people say, 'we are learning from each other, we are working together.'

"We are looking at student achievement," she continued.  "No matter what the big idea is, it all has to go [to] how do you improve student achievement?

"Trust is crucial," she said.  "If people don't trust you, they are not going to work with you. They are not going to work with me, teachers aren't going to work with principals, principals won't work with superintendents. So I think the big idea is that we want to be the largest urban system in this country that produces productive citizens that are ready to go to college and stay there and that also can go into the workforce in high-paid jobs. But the top thing is how do you do it?  God is in the details, and I have every intention of going in the weeds and doing the details. We've always had people with great visions, but in terms of implementation, it didn't always work. So I think the snapshots that we are putting out and the capacity framework (are) part of this vision."    

"I think they want to hear small schools are the answer, or this is the answer. There is no one answer. It's about hard work, and it's about convincing people that they are on the right path.  . . . I do think strong superintendents are part of this. I think parental involvement coming back strong is part of this.  We are doing a lot more work with universities, in the sense of what it is that we need in our schools. Our CTE [Career and Technical Education] initiative is huge, and we are doing that now in conjunction with the state and business partners. . . . We've increased our number of mentorships and internships in the high schools substantially. These are all parts of the big thing; but again, I would say the big picture is all 2nd graders reading on grade level, all 7th graders being in a good social and emotional place, and all 10th graders on track to graduation. And these are things that we can do. "

On district-charter collaborations, another area where Fariña's gotten some flak:

"This is an area of growth for us, but we have already started," she said, noting that she planned to give a commencement address at the Broome Street Academy Charter High School, which is part of the department of education's "learning partners" initiative.

Fariña said the department was working with the Uncommon Schools charter network, which is "extensively" engaged in joint professional development with one of the system's Brooklyn districts. But she stressed that collaboration was a two-way street, where both charters and traditional district schools should learn from each other. She said the city was helping some charter networks with professional development on English-language learners and other areas where their expertise might be limited. 

"They asked if we would extend ourselves, and I am certainly happy to do that," she said. All principal programs are also open to charter schools, she said.

"It's a growing process," she said. "It's on a need basis. What do you need, what do we have and what can we work on together? But we are certainly looking at that much more targeted for next year, for several of the networks, [and we are] also looking to see how co-located sites may work more closely together."

What Fariña is learning from charter schools:

"It's school by school," she said.  "There is no universal answer. One of the reasons that we are focusing on one of the [charter] networks [Uncommon Schools] in particular is because they have done a good job in working with brand-new teachers. They have a specific approach to teacher development, and the district I partnered them with is a district that has a lot of new teachers.

In terms of the other curriculum areas, I think we are doing a good job. Our science programs, the STEM programs, are actually something I think they can learn from us, but it's a school-by-school [effort]. The school I went to visit in the Bronx, Bronx Community [Charter] School is doing some great work in integrated learning, but [the principal] had been a former public [school principal] so she took a lot of the practices [from her previous experience] and put into her building. . . . I went to a KIPP School, for example, and they were doing some great work in student social and emotional needs . . .and they do it single sex. I sent principals there to observe that, but also I suggested that [the KIPP principal] go visit one of our schools that's doing a lot more writing.

Writing is probably the one thing I am looking for more and more—how can it be done better across the board. So anyone who has good programs that encourage all types of writing will be something on my radar screen."

On the district-charter battles that play out in the press: 

She said she's had meetings with some charter schools operators, but sometimes "soundbites" make better copy.

"I don't want to make it an us vs. them," she said.  "All children in New York City belong to me. I've also just met with the non-public schools. We just had a meeting with the head all the Yeshivas and the Catholic schools. I do that. I believe in it. I was a product of parochial schools. I do think we have a lot to learn from each other, but I think the assumption is always that public schools have a lot to learn from charter schools, and I think it's a two-way street.  There are a lot of things that we are doing so very well, and I think opening our doors to each other, particularly in co-located sites, makes a lot of sense. I think you should spend your energy on positive and not negative. So to the degree that I don't have to fight with people in the newspaper, I'm much more prefer it, but that's not what makes the story." 

On merging and consolidating schools:

The city is looking to merge or consolidate up to a dozen schools. Fariña said this will help bring new energy to some schools that need it—"It's like getting a shot of penicillin, in a way"—and maximize resources in other areas, particularly at co-located sites.

Any merger and consolidation cannot be official until the city's Panel for Educational Policy votes on it in October, but the work will begin this summer in an effort to get community buy-in for the process.

Fariña cites as an example, the principal of Medgar Evers High School, who last year took over the lower-performing Boys and Girls High School. Both schools are located in Brooklyn. She described the merger and or consolidation as a kind of "ambassador principal" program, where a successful principal takes his team, resources, and energy to another site that could benefit from it.

(If this sounds familiar, think about the principal expansion programs in Denver and Clark County, which we wrote about a few months ago. Fariña says she envisions something like that.) 

"It's not a one-size-fits-all [approach]," she said.  "The mergers and consolidations have a lot more to do with what might make more sense to put two schools together so both get maximum [resources].  We have a lot of schools with very small enrollment, like 100 kids, 67 kids . . .; so putting them together gives the schools more resources, [and] also heightens good leadership."

On whether the proposed mergers and consolidations roll back the small schools program that was expanded under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg:

"Oh, no not at all," she said.  "Small schools have a role to play, particularly small high schools; but there is such a thing as too small. Remember, we went from schools of 3,000, 4,000 [students]. But also you can also have high schools of 120 kids that can't take AP courses,  [and] there is not enough support. So what is too small? . . . There is no one model. It's going to take time figuring out what works best in each situation. "

Caption: New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. -- Mike Groll/AP-File

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