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City Council quizzes DOE on details of Fariña’s system restructuring

At the City Council’s education hearing on Thursday afternoon, council members attempted to understand the Department of Education’s new school-support structure and tease out its implications for struggling schools, principals, and parents.

The new system, announced by Chancellor Carmen Fariña last January, abolished the city’s 55 support “networks” and consolidated them into seven borough-based support centers. Fariña also gave superintendents more power to oversee schools and new staffers to help them.

The city contends that it took a confusing system established under the Bloomberg administration and replaced it with a clearer chain of command. But plenty of questions remain about how the system, which went into effect this summer, will work in practice.

Council members grilled department officials about the relationship between local superintendents and the new borough centers, whether schools not in the city’s turnaround program will receive extra support, and where principals can turn if they are not receiving the help they need.

Many of the questions asked asked by committee members were first posed in a Chalkbeat story in January. Here is how the city responded:

What is the relationship between the district superintendents and borough centers?

Council member Inez Barron wanted to know whether superintendents or the directors of the new borough centers have the final word on decisions.

City officials responded that the two offices are on equal footing, though they handle different issues and are different sizes. Each superintendent’s office has six or seven staffers, give or take, who handle specific needs like the schools in the city’s “Renewal” program, family engagement, and principal leadership. Borough centers are much larger and are meant to provide ongoing help with instruction, operations, and serving special-needs students and English language learners.

“The relationship is that they need to collaborate,” said Senior Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson. “There’s not a hierarchy.”

Barron asked what happens if the two offices disagree. Gibson said there is a protocol for handling disagreements, but she hopes her staff will not have to moderate battles between borough centers and superintendents.

What if a high-needs school is not a Renewal school?

It was unclear to council members whether the department’s restructuring provides support for schools that are underperforming, but have not been labeled as struggling by the state or identified as Renewal schools, which which receive additional funding but face a strict timeline to improve.

“I have significant concerns as to whether the resources promised to struggling schools will actually reach the struggling schools in my district,” said Deborah Rose, a council member from Staten Island.

Gibson responded that there is one staff member in each superintendent’s office designated to help Renewal schools. These staff members, she said, should also be offering support to those schools on the verge of becoming Renewal schools.

Where can principals turn if they are not getting the support they need?

Under the old network system, there was an element of competition among the support networks. If principals were not pleased with their support, they could turn to one of the other networks if it was not already overburdened.

Council member Benjamin Kallos noted that under the new system, most schools don’t have a choice about who to turn to for help. He asked officials how they planned to handle principals who felt they are not getting what they need.

Officials responded that they expected the collaboration encouraged by the new system to work for schools.

“We’re all held accountable for improving results,” said Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, who helped design the new system. “The idea is that, over time, all schools can improve.”

Kallos also wondered what happens when principals feel uncomfortable going to their superintendent for help with a problem, since the superintendents are also their supervisors. Deputy Chancellor Gibson said that, as she envisions it, a superintendent should know that a principal needs help before they even ask.

How do parents fit in?

Under the new structure, two of the staffers in each superintendent’s office are designated “family engagement officers.” Department officials stressed the chancellor’s belief in getting parents involved in schools, and noted that she regularly appears at community education council meetings.

Some of the council members wondered whether the family engagement officers will be an effective enough avenue for parental involvement, suggesting that CECs, the elected bodies of local parents that currently have few official responsibilities, should be granted new powers.

“They should be a part of the flowchart,” Councilman Alan Maisel said.

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