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Ex-DOE official with de Blasio ties offers a NYC schools vision

She says she’s not interested in the job herself, but Carmen Farina has a clear vision for how Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio’s chancellor should lead the city’s schools.

That vision includes some big ideas — including converting empty classrooms into dormitories for homeless students to forcing real estate developers to build space for early education — that the retired educator says have been on her mind recently. On Monday, Farina shared her thoughts publicly on an education panel about the transition underway at City Hall between the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations.

Farina said her philosophy around education policymaking represents an approach that’s been absent at the Department of Education in recent years.

“I want to see us have a system where people do things because they have a sense of joy about it, not because they have a sense of fear,” Farina said during the panel, which was part of a daylong conference about the transition at the CUNY Graduate Center. 

Farina’s four-decade career as a teacher and administrator in city schools included Mayor Bloomberg’s takeover of the system in 2002. She helped oversee an initial restructuring under mayoral control, serving as one of 10 regional superintendents and then moving up to head the department’s instructional division for two years.

Farina has been an unofficial advisor to de Blasio on education, a relationship that dates back more than a decade to when they worked in the same Brooklyn school district. Before he was elected to the City Council in 2001, de Blasio served on the District 15 school board at the same time when Farina was superintendent.

The close ties have led to speculation that she might be de Blasio’s pick for chancellor, a rumor she squelched last month and again on her way out of the room after her panel appearance. She declined to offer the name of a good candidate to fill the position, arguing that de Blasio and people who are helping him with the transition should handle the selection privately.

“When we voted for Bill as mayor we assumed he heard our concerns and would make the right decisions on his picks for commissioners and chancellor,” she said.

Some of what Farina said on the panel hewed closely to priorities that de Blasio campaigned on during the election season. Like de Blasio, she called for the inclusion of more voices than just the mayor’s on the Panel for Educational Policy, the 13-member school board that sets education policies.

She also offered an idea that could address space issues that could stand in the way of de Blasio’s proposal to expand the number of available pre-kindergarten seats and after school programs for middle school students. Real estate developers, she said, should be required to build early childhood education centers that would also serve as community centers for middle school students.

And Farina had a radical solution to serve some of the roughly 18,000 children who are currently housed in city’s homeless shelter system.

“We need to turn some of our large high schools into dormitory schools,” she said, so that homeless students can be accounted for in the hours when they’re not supposed to be in school. (Many large high schools currently house multiple schools, putting them near or over capacity.)

Farina was critical of the Bloomberg administration’s approach to low-performing schools, which largely relied on closing them and opening new schools in their place. An alternative to closing schools, she proposed, is to pair principals from schools with mirroring student populations, where one school is performing well and the other isn’t, to exchange ideas about what works and what doesn’t.

“Principal-to-principal, teachers-to-teachers, are the best vehicle to professional development that I know,” she said.

The panel featured plenty of praise for the some current Bloomberg policies, too. Joining Farina on the seven-member panel was Cass Conrad, executive director of CUNY’s Early College Initiative, who touted the hundreds of small schools that have been created in the last 12 years.

Another panelist, Department of Education Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky, said the city’s evolving school accountability system — dominated by schools’ annual progress report card grades — was worth saving, but with some changes. He said recent changes to the system were providing a more accurate picture of school quality than ever and that bringing test scores, which currently make up most of the scores, into balance with other measures would improve them more.

He also said a pilot to allow schools to opt out of the citywide accountability system had attracted roughly 50 schools and would further test different approaches to measuring school performance.