chancellor's chances

Focus turns to school leader search in de Blasio transition

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio aside his pick for first deputy mayor, Anthony Shorris. Next to Shorris are Dominic Williams, who will be the first deputy mayor's chief of staff, and Emma Wolfe, de Blasio's director of intergovernmental affairs.
Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio aside his pick for first deputy mayor, Anthony Shorris. Next to Shorris are Dominic Williams, who will be the first deputy mayor’s chief of staff, and Emma Wolfe, de Blasio’s director of intergovernmental affairs.

As the dust settles from Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s two-day spree of administrative appointments, all eyes have now turned to his next big decision: who he’ll pick for New York City schools chancellor.

Speculation around a handful of candidates has been around for months, but this week the rumored list was shuffled and whittled down. Some names have vanished while others surfaced at the top of the rumor mill, a rearrangement that reflects concerns that de Blasio’s top administrative picks so far aren’t diverse, observers say.

The newest contenders to emerge are Kaya Henderson, District of Columbia’s schools chancellor, and Chicago schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who was in New York City recently, fueling rumors of her candidacy, sources said. Montgomery County Superintendent Josh Starr also remained in the mix, as did New York-based Carmen Farina, the city’s former city chief academic officer and Regent Kathy Cashin.

Andres Alonso, the former chief executive officer the Baltimore schools once considered a frontrunner for the job, has not been mentioned as prominently.

The short list of education leaders outside New York City reflects a wide swath of backgrounds and ideas about education policy, some of which seem to align closely with de Blasio’s views, and some of which don’t. For de Blasio and his advisors, their choice will be a signal of how faithful he plans to stick to some of the campaign pledges that helped distinguish him from more centrist Democratic candidates during the primary.

De Blasio himself has said nothing publicly about who he’s considering for the job, other than acknowledging this week that he’s begun talking to candidates. A de Blasio spokeswoman also declined to comment or confirm details about the selection process, which is taking place mainly behind closed doors.

Starr, Henderson and Byrd-Bennett share at least one thing in common on education. All were teachers in the New York City school system before moving up their career ladder. They also all run relatively large school districts, though they range in size (Chicago has 400,000 students compared to Montgomery’s 150,000 and D.C.’s 45,000) and demographics (Montgomery County, which runs up to the edge of D.C. boundaries, is largely suburban).

Their differences in other areas are stark, which could factor into de Blasio’s decision. Of the three, Starr, 44, appears to have the most in common ideologically with the mayor-elect. Both de Blasio and Starr are opposed to using tests scores as an accountability tool to measure the performance of teachers and schools, and both have railed against the use of school grading systems like the one New York City currently has.

Both are also against using test scores as a sole determinant in student admissions policies, a position that moved Starr  to try to desegregate middle school classrooms during a six-year superintendency in Stamford, Conn.

Starr was in Brooklyn last week and it is reported that de Blasio’s team has reached out to him. A spokesman for Starr did not comment on the reports, saying only that he is “aware that his name has been mentioned for the position.”

But observers say chances may have faded a bit for Starr, who is white, after seeing who de Blasio picked this week for first deputy mayor, Anthony Shorris and police commissioner, Bill Bratton.

“Given his commitment to wanting a diverse government, his selection of two white males for the two key appointments he’s made, I would think, raised the probability that the appointment of the schools chancellor would will not be a white male,” said Joe Viteritti, a professor of public policy at Hunter College who has advised school leaders in New York City, San Francisco and Boston.

Henderson and Byrd-Bennett, both African American women, are seen as being on the other side of the education reform spectrum. As leaders of urban school districts that have pushed aggressive policies around teacher evaluations, charter schools and intervention for struggling schools, they are closely associated to Bloomberg’s brand of reform, which de Blasio ran against in the election.

For Byrd-Bennett, it’s not the first time her name has been floated for chancellor — this year or even this decade. She was reportedly then-Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott’s top choice for the job when Mike Bloomberg took over City Hall in 2002.

Byrd-Bennett ran the Chancellor’s District under Chancellor Rudy Crew in the 1990s, a group of low-performing schools that received extra resources to improve. The model has been cited by Michael Mulgrew and Randi Weingarten as a preferred intervention than Bloomberg’s school closure strategy.

But that was a long time ago. Most recently, Byrd-Bennett has enraged the union in Chicago as Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s schools chief. Last year, Byrd-Bennett was the face of the administration’s cost-saving plan to shutter 49 school buildings, a story that gained national headlines.

Byrd-Bennett still has close ties to New York City, however, and some see her work in Chicago more as an extension of Mayor Rahm Emmanuel than a reflection of her actual positions.

She was in New York City prior to Thanksgiving, a source said, fueling speculation that she is being taken seriously by de Blasio. The source did not know specifics of the trip.

A Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman, said she “can’t confirm her travel schedule” when asked of Byrd-Bennett’s visit.

Henderson, under then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee, helped negotiate a 2010 teachers contract that included merit pay for high-performing teachers and helped implement the district’s new teacher evaluation system. In 2011, she took over for Rhee, who resigned when the mayor who appointed her lost a re-election.

Henderson has continued most of the district’s reforms, but without the brash managerial style that made Rhee a divisive presence both in D.C. and nationally. This year, D.C. saw big student gains on national tests, though it still ranked low in overall achievement.

A spokeswoman for Henderson confirmed she had spoken to de Blasio, but did not say what they talked about.


End of an era

Longtime deputy chancellor Kathleen Grimm to retire

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm (left) at a City Council hearing to discuss the department's five-year capital plan in March 2014.

Kathleen Grimm, the deputy chancellor for operations and a fixture in the Department of Education under four chancellors, is stepping down, Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced Wednesday.

Grimm oversaw a sprawling portion of the department, including the offices overseeing safety, school support, school food, athletics, space planning, enrollment, human resources, and construction. The only official to have remained in a top post at Tweed since the beginning of the Bloomberg era, Grimm saw her responsibilities expand even further under Fariña, who moved some offices under Grimm when she shrunk the department’s cabinet.

“It is with deep personal regret that I announce a leave pending retirement of Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, an esteemed colleague who has worked tirelessly to create safe, nurturing environments in which all of our students can learn and thrive,” Fariña said in an email to department staff members.

Grimm, a tax lawyer, was brought on in 2002 for her budgeting and finance expertise and experience in navigating city and state bureaucracy. She had previously served in the state comptroller’s office and the city finance department.

Over her 14-year career at the Department of Education, Grimm preferred to stay behind the scenes, but was thrust into the spotlight when changes to school bus routes, budget cuts, and space planning made headlines.

Her oversight of the city’s transportation of students meant she faced fierce criticism when repeated changes to bus routes angered parents and City Council members. Her oversight of the capital budget and the Blue Book, which sets guidelines for school space use, also made her a frequent target of class-size reduction advocates, who often said the city’s calculations did not reflect reality.

But Grimm was revered within the department for her calm under pressure. She frequently defended the school system in front of the City Council, bearing the brunt of then-education committee chair Eva Moskowitz’s relentless criticism of the city’s toilet-paper offerings in 2004 and, more recently, testifying at hearings on toxic lighting fixtures and school overcrowding.

“Cool and effective, Kathleen stayed for the full twelve years of the Bloomberg administration and did a tough, unglamorous job with distinction,” Klein wrote of Grimm in his memoir “Lessons of Hope.”

On Wednesday, Fariña offered her own praise. “As a senior member of my leadership team, Deputy Chancellor Grimm has provided a strong foundation for our most critical initiatives, including Pre-K for All, Community Schools, and our expanded school support and safety services,” she said.

Grimm’s chief of staff Elizabeth Rose will take over as interim acting deputy chancellor during a search for Grimm’s replacement, Fariña said.

year in review

In first year as chancellor, Fariña counts on fellow educators to drive changes

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks to superintendents and principals overseeing the city's designated renewal schools.

To understand how things have changed since Carmen Fariña became schools chancellor, consider where she has chosen to be on roughly 200 occasions this year, often five times per week: in schools.

She uses the hour-long visits to find model schools that other educators can tour and to size up principals, noting whether teachers seem surprised to see their bosses (a sign they aren’t poking into classrooms enough) and if the principals bring any deputies along for the tours (a hint they know how to delegate). She inspects students’ writing and asks the principal to show her a strong teacher in action and a weak one.

Twelve months into her stint leading the nation’s largest school system, Fariña’s attention to such details seems misplaced to some critics, who worry that it comes at the expense of big-picture thinking and suggests a shift away from the greater autonomy that principals gained under the previous administration.

But to her many admirers, the visits reflect a belief that even in a system of 1.1 million students and 75,000 or so teachers, change can happen school by school and classroom by classroom when educators are empowered, without the seismic policy shakeups that seemed to occur routinely under her recent predecessors. As Fariña, who has spent nearly half a century working in schools, likes to say, “The answers are in the classroom.” In other words, this is educator-driven education reform.

“There’s a sense,” said Alison Coviello, principal of P.S. 154 in the Bronx, “that we’re all in this together.”

When Mayor Bill de Blasio pulled Fariña from semi-retirement last January, she decided that she would have to roll back the Bloomberg-era policies she disagreed with even as she put her own into place: To “undo while [she’s] doing,” as she told Chalkbeat earlier this year.

And that’s just what she’s done. She downsized the office that helped create new schools — a signature Bloomberg initiative — while resurrecting the department devoted to teacher training. She re-empowered superintendents, who were marginalized under Bloomberg, and insisted that would-be principals and superintendents both spend more years in schools (a rejection of the Bloombergian idea that talent trumps experience). And she axed the Bloomberg policies that tied student promotion to test scores and assigned schools letter grades as she launched her own signature program, which sends educators to visit successful schools to pick up ideas.

That program, called Learning Partners, exemplifies Fariña’s approach. It is educator-led, cooperative, and subtle, allowing Fariña to spread her ideas through proxies rather than edicts.

“We have gotten more schools to change practices not by mandating, but by collaborating,” she said in an interview Monday. “I could have said across the board, ‘Every middle school needs to do X, Y and Z.’ And we didn’t do that.”

She also helped forge new contracts with the principals and the teachers unions, which had given up on negotiating with the previous administration. The teachers got a big payout in the contract (though not big enough to satisfy everyone), while Fariña was able to embed time for training and interacting with parents into teachers’ weekly schedules (at the cost of student-tutoring time, which was repurposed). Cynics charged that the city secured the contracts by giving into most of the unions’ demands, but Fariña argues that they were the product of her collaborative approach.

“What we got out of those contracts,” she said, “probably would not have been possible without that kind of partnership.”

She also helped the mayor fulfill his promise to get 53,000 four-year-olds into classrooms.

“How could I forget?” Fariña said. “Pre-K!”

For all that she has already done and undone, Fariña has a big year ahead of her. On Monday, she ticked off a few of the biggest items on her to-do list.

First, she must help de Blasio add the 20,000 additional pre-kindergarten seats he has promised, even as charter schools demand more space of their own. Then, she must turn two of his most ambitious plans into reality: to convert nearly 130 schools into service hubs for students and their families, and to turn around more than 90 low-performing schools.

That last task will be especially daunting. Rather than shut down chronically underachieving schools or replace their staffs, Fariña has proposed lifting them up through a mix of supports for students and coaching for educators. That is a big gamble, which Fariña made clear at a meeting Monday with the leaders of those struggling schools.

“I’m holding you even more accountable,” she told the principals. “Because I went out on a limb, as did Mayor de Blasio, and said, ‘We’re not closing schools. We’re giving everybody a second chance.’”