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In talk to principals, Fariña describes an educator-driven agenda for next year

With a new leadership team, a few new policies, and a new deal with the teachers union in place, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said Saturday that she feels the education department has now “turned a major corner.”

So in her remarks at the annual principals conference, Fariña described a series of initiatives for the coming year meant to strengthen the school system, rather than overhaul it, reflecting her vision of an educator-driven district where collaboration and professional growth lead to changes “on the ground level.”

“Our job as educators is to make sure that New York City becomes the best public urban system in this country,” she said, “because educators are committed to making changes.”

The initiatives include $35 million for professional development next school year, the end of a hiring freeze that kept principals from bringing on new guidance counselors, and a shift in school discipline away from punitive policies to “restorative justice,” Fariña said.

“Our schools are learning places,” she said, “not suspension places.”

Many of the new initiatives she previewed stem from the mayor’s recently released budget and the new teachers contract, which must still be ratified.

For example, she touted a plan in the contract to add 80 minutes of professional development to the end of every Monday, which she said should give teachers time to collaborate. The department may also host citywide trainings during that time and educators without colleagues who teach the same subject in their school, such as physical education or certain science classes, may meet with teachers from nearby schools.

The contract sets aside after-school time on Tuesdays for teachers to reach out to parents, which Fariña said is crucial, since “parents are dying for more support.” She added that schools should meet with the parents of students with special needs in September so that they know what services to expect for the rest of the year.

The mayor’s budget poured an additional $20 million into arts education. One plan for those funds, Fariña said, is for neighboring elementary and middle schools to jointly apply for grants so that students can continue in a particular arts program even as they move on to a new school. To emphasize the importance of arts instruction, Fariña repeated her plan for the department to add an arts-focused section to its annual reports on school quality.

Fariña also offered the principals some instructional guidance, reflecting both her decades as an educator and her belief that school improvement begins at the classroom level.

She said students should have time to read independently each day and struggling readers should read books at their level. Both strategies are often associated with balanced literacy, an approach that Fariña has long championed but that some critics say isn’t fully in line with the Common Core standards.

She also recommended classroom “lounges” where students can read, and advised against timing each part of a lesson. Similarly detailed suggestions earned Fariña criticism when she was a deputy chancellor overseeing the rollout of balanced literacy citywide, with some accusing her of “micromanaging” how teachers delivered lessons and arranged their classrooms.

After the talk, several principals said they felt Fariña was steering the school system in a new and promising direction. Andrew Turay, the principal of Peace and Diversity Academy in the Bronx, commended her classroom-centric approach to improving the system.

“With change, it’s not necessary to have a grandiose vision,” he said. “If it’s not in the classroom, if it’s not getting students thinking, then what’s the point?”