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Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Fariña shares her shaky path to college, and vows to keep NYC students on firmer ground

The leader of the country’s largest school system always knew she wanted to be a teacher, but didn’t know how to get there. She started taking secretarial classes in high school, not realizing it was the wrong path.

It wasn’t until a teacher told a young Chancellor Carmen Fariña that she needed to be on a college-bound track — one that involved geometry — that she realized she nearly missed the chance to become a teacher.

That’s hard to fathom now that Fariña has been an educator for 50 years, but she sees her story as instructive for the students she oversees as chancellor.

“All students should have options, and if we don’t get them college-ready, that’s not an option they have,” she said at training session Tuesday focused on college access. “You shouldn’t reach a certain age and say ‘Oh my god, I wish I could have, but I didn’t have this in place.’”

The session, held at Brooklyn Law School, was part of College Access for All, a prong of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Equity and Excellence” education agenda, which focuses heavily on college-readiness and boosting high school graduation rates. This program is meant to train school staff to better guide students through the process of applying to college — mapping out when to write application essays, for instance, and how to apply for financial aid.

Though academics are important, focusing on applying to college is key because that is often a make-it-or-break-it moment for students who are the first in their families to attend college, Fariña said.

She should know, as the first in her own family to make that leap. “I had no one to guide me,” she said. “If my teacher hadn’t really sat with me and done this work, I don’t even know if I would have gone.”

Still, helping students through all the twists and turns of applying to college is difficult, particularly without enough staff to closely monitor each individual student. Another initiative in the mayor’s “Equity and Excellence” plan, the Single Shepherd program, does just that. Students in two of the city’s lowest performing districts, in the South Bronx’s District 7 and Brooklyn’s District 23, will have a counselor or social worker assigned to guide them through the process from middle school through high school.

The Single Shepherd program is an enhanced version of College Access for All, Fariña said. But both are designed to tackle a difficult task: replacing critical help that, for some students, is provided at home.

“In a perfect world, a lot of the single shepherds are their families, their parents,” she said. But she knows that many students don’t have that support.

When asked whether academics or college applications posed the bigger obstacle for students, Fariña paused for a moment. “I think on each individual student the split is different,” she said, “but I think it’s definitely both.”