new era

Principals applaud Fariña, de Blasio as leaders present a "tone shift"

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

It was a night of applause at Brooklyn Tech, as hundreds of the city’s principals assembled to hear from‚ and cheer for, new chancellor Carmen Fariña and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

A few principals clapped when Fariña mentioned her new deputy chancellors. Others cheered when she announced new principal training requirements. But no reaction matched the principals’ applause after one seemingly mundane announcement: their email inboxes will no longer be capped.

That inbox size limit meant principals had to spend a few hours every few months, or a bit of time every day, deleting emails. It was exactly the kind of day-to-day frustration that they didn’t expect administrators to address, principals said.

“It’s such a small detail but it shows being in tune with our reality,” Julie Nariman, principal at High School of Language and Innovation, said of the change.

For principals, Wednesday night was their first look at de Blasio-era education policy, and Fariña focused on communicating that she understood the difficulty of their jobs. She also unveiled a number of small-scale policy changes, while distancing her leadership style from that of the previous administration.

“Our tone is going to be softer,” Fariña said. “Our tone is going to be certainly more grateful.”

De Blasio was even blunter. “I’ll say it very simply. I am not trying to bring an outside model, a corporate model, a private sector model,” he said, earning a loud round of applause.

Fariña set up her praise for principals in direct contrast to her predecessors, who she said told principals at one gathering that they “were not cutting it.”

“I’m here to tell you New York City principals are making it, and are cutting it, and are the wave of the future,” Fariña said.

Other moments reflected the new leadership’s desire to be seen as inclusive. Fariña said she would be creating elementary, middle, and high school advisory panels that would approve all new policies before they left Tweed.

Fariña used the meeting to introduce the three members of the department leadership that she appointed today, including her new second-in-command, Dorita Gibson, and her new deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, Phil Weinberg. Both had been principals, she noted.

One of Fariña’s announcements was a new qualification for that job: seven years of experience. That stands in direct contrast to the Bloomberg administration’s creation of a fast-track principal training program that drew scorn for filling the city’s schools with inexperienced leaders.

Fariña did not specify what type of work would count toward those seven years, and a Department of Education spokesperson could not immediately provide clarification.

In keeping with her focus on collaboration, the department will also be setting up “demonstration schools,” for principals-in-training or principals looking for new models to visit, Fariña said.

The chancellor didn’t directly mention one of the biggest changes facing teachers and principals this year: the rollout of the Common Core standards. She also gave no indication of her plans for the network structure of school support, an issue that many principals have already been lobbying on both sides of.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña addressed the city's principals during a meeting Wednesday evening at Brooklyn Technical High School.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña addressed the city’s principals during a meeting Wednesday evening at Brooklyn Technical High School.

But Fariña did tell principals she had met with state Education Commissioner John King and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, alluding to the fact that she was looking for ways to improve the teacher evaluation system.

Fariña said she had also been meeting with union leaders, mentioning the principal’s union president Ernie Logan and a recent “lunch with Michael,” referring to teachers union chief Mulgrew.

De Blasio briefly brought up his plan for a new tax to pay for pre-kindergarten, which he said he “asked for and expects to receive,” and noted that reducing class sizes would be a long-term goal.

Together, the speeches reflected a shift that many principals said they were hoping to hear when they greeted Fariña with a long standing ovation.

“You know, I knew you were happy. But I didn’t realize you were this happy,” Farina said, after telling everyone to sit down.

An hour later, Michael Lerner, principal of Bard High School Early College, called the night “uplifting.”

“There’s a sense of respect,” he said. “We’ve been waiting for a month to hear her vision, and we definitely heard it. It means a lot.”

Nariman agreed. “Principals are such hard drivers. To be told we’re actually doing a good job—it’s kind of shocking,” she said. “We’re always thinking, what should we do next?”

While Fariña kept the mood celebratory, the mayor did insert one sobering moment, acknowledging that New York City schools still had much room for improvement. “We don’t stand pat and say that’s acceptable,” he said.

Rafiq Kalam Id-Din, co-principal of Teaching Firms of America Professional Prepatory Charter School, said that reality is never far from principals’ minds—which is precisely why Fariña’s tone was so welcome.

“We all know there’s a lot of work to do. There’s no need for a caustic atmosphere,” Id-Din said. “Everyone knows we have to roll up our sleeves.”

To Wilpur Morales, principal of West Bronx Academy for the Future, it was notable that Fariña was meeting with principals before she planned to meet with superintendents and network staff. “Under the previous administration,they would notify us,” he said. “Obviously she is notifying us before she is notifying them.”

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.’”