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Experience as English-Learner Shapes New York City Chancellor's Views

New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio's selection of Carmen Fariña to be the new chancellor of the nation's largest school system is notable for many reasons.

She's the first career educator to land the job in more than a dozen years. She's only the second woman to helm the system. (Cathie Black, who served for a rather disastrous three months in 2011, was the first.)

And, like more than 14 percent of New York City's public school students, Fariña was an English-language learner. She was born in New York City, shortly after her parents immigrated from Spain.

As Fariña briefly recounted in remarks after her appointment was announced, a teacher in her Brooklyn parochial school either could not, or would not, pronounce Fariña's name correctly. So Fariña never responded when the teacher called a name that she did not recognize. Consequently, she was marked absent for several weeks before her parents were notified.

Fariña also shared that a teacher in her later schooling years asked why her mother never came to parent-teacher conferences. Fariña explained that her mother spoke little English and was uncomfortable coming to the school where she understood little to nothing of what teachers had to say.

The new chancellor said those early experiences in school with her immigrant parents instilled in her the importance of treating all parents, regardless of their background, with respect. That, she said, includes regularly communicating with them in languages they can understand.

"We are going to have a system here where parents are seen as real partners and teachers are going to understand that working with parents is a real enhancement for the classroom," she said.

New York City schools have been criticized in recent years by some immigrant advocate groups for failure to adequately communicate with non-English-speaking parents of students. That issue was one of several that the district agreed to address in a 2011 improvement plan it devised with state education officials to improve English-language acquisition programs and services.


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