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Fariña celebrates collaboration as Learning Partners gets set to expand

Jessica Glazer

Chancellor Carmen Fariña has been touting her signature school-collaboration program since April. But the enthusiasm reached new heights this week, as teachers and principals from 21 schools gathered to celebrate the 10-week pilot program at the Brooklyn Marriott on Monday night.

“Carmen, this is a genius plan,” said Christina Fuentes, head of the city’s new Office of Inter-School Collaborative Learning, in her opening remarks.

Fuentes went on to congratulate principals for instituting a variety of changes over the course of the pilot version of the Learning Partners program, which groups schools into triads to share ideas. The program will expand to 72 schools this September, and is an outgrowth of one of Fariña’s guiding principles: that collaboration, not competition, is the way to improve schools.

“I still don’t know what your school report card is,” Fariña said during the event to a table of educators. “I never checked because I don’t care.”

Before the event, the Department of Education released statistics showing that almost all of the participating schools said they plan to make changes in the next academic year based on their experience. How exactly classrooms will be improved—and to what measurable extent—remains to be seen, given the short length of the pilot program.

One English teacher at a co-located school in the Bronx said she had found it helpful to simply communicate with the schools she shares the building with. “Isolation doesn’t work,” she said.

Other educators said they were excited to have been given the chance to visit other classrooms, but acknowledged that it’s not always easy to apply the lessons learned, especially when one school has more resources than another.

The event’s celebratory atmosphere was in line with one of Fariña’s stated priorities as she shifts the department away from the Bloomberg era: to publicly praise schools that are doing well, rather than focus public attention on where the system is struggling. At Panel for Educational Policy meetings, parent town halls, and in emails to principals, she has noted schools that she says are flying under the radar but succeeding with students.

Fuentes, who oversees the Learning Partners Program, did the same on Monday night.

“Way to go, you’re so courageous,” Fuentes said to one principal. “That’s really brave,” she said to another school leader, praising his integration of technology into his school. (The principal, who broke his leg recently, also rolled up to the podium in a wheelchair and stood up to address the group.)

Much of what teachers shared had to do with school atmosphere and culture. For Grace Ballas, a first grade teacher at P.S. 159 in Queens, the takeaway was seeing real teacher collaboration at her host school, P.S. 503 in Brooklyn.

To better apply those lessons to her school, Ballas said she is planning to participate in a book club reading of “The Power of Protocols.” The literacy coach at the same school with Ballas, Allie Myers, explained that it could help teachers trust one another.

“Trust that their opinion matters,” Myers said. “That it’s OK to disagree. That it’s OK to take risks.”

At the end of the remarks, before the triads broke into groups to present what they had learned, Fariña joked with the crowd about the program.

“There is no pressure, but this is my signature program,” Fariña said, amid laughter. “I said, there was no pressure!”

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