Transition at Tweed

Deputies named for DOE’s teaching and learning division

When Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced last month that Phil Weinberg, a Brooklyn principal, would head the Department of Education’s reconstituted Division of Teaching and Learning, she also named one of his deputies.

This week, Weinberg let the department know that he had finished fleshing out his leadership team. In addition to Anna Commitante, the longtime Fariña colleague who will direct curriculum and teacher training work, he also picked two other deputies, according to a letter he sent on Thursday.

Douglas Knecht, who had been running one of the department’s five “clusters” of school support networks, will oversee the department’s plan to identify schools that can be models of good instruction and operations. Knecht’s cluster of about 250 schools included many in District 2 and District 15, where Fariña worked, as well as many in the Bronx and elsewhere in Brooklyn.

Before leading the cluster, Knecht was the department’s executive director for academic quality, heading programs such as the Middle School Quality Initiative that he will supervise again. He began his career in the city’s schools as a science teacher at a transfer high school, Humanities Preparatory Academy.

Joanna Cannon, already a top official at Tweed Courthouse, will head the department’s teacher evaluation work, including supervising the testing currently required by law to generate components of teachers’ ratings. Cannon had been the chief strategic officer for the Division of Talent, Labor, and Innovation, which had been separate from the academics division under Bloomberg. Her move signals that the department now sees teacher evaluation as part of its instructional priorities.

Weinberg is also retaining four Bloomberg-era officials in their previous roles overseeing testing, principal leadership, and other initiatives.

“I am excited to partner with such a strong team,” Weinberg says in the letter, posted below. “I ask for your continued patience as we gain clarity about how our teams’ work will fit together.”

Dear Colleagues,

I am writing with an important announcement about the Division of Teaching and Learning. To begin, I’d like to thank you for your patience during this time of transition. I know that the ongoing uncertainty has been challenging, and you’ve handled it with flexibility, grace, and optimism. I am also truly thankful to you for welcoming me into your meetings and teaching me about your work. I have been impressed by the thoughtfulness and caliber of the work you’ve undertaken, and look forward to building on that work together.

I am writing today to introduce you to new members of my leadership team:

§  Douglas Knecht, formerly the leader of Cluster 1, will join our division to oversee citywide model development. In this role, his priority will be to lead efforts to identify best practices for school improvement around the City through setting up school demonstration sites, postsecondary readiness initiatives, the Middle School Quality Initiative, and school quality work including the Quality Review.

§  Anna Commitante, formerly a deputy cluster leader of curriculum, instruction, and professional development, will direct citywide curriculum and professional development work. Her team will provide educators with instructional support which empowers them to ensure that all of our students can meet the high bar of the Common Core Learning Standards.

§  Joanna Cannon, formerly chief strategic officer for the Division of Talent, Labor, and Innovation, will join our leadership team to oversee talent initiatives. She will lead the implementation of Advance, the teacher evaluation and development system. Her portfolio will include our work around teacher effectiveness, Measures of Student Learning, and related research.

I am also pleased to acknowledge existing team members who will continue to lead key aspects of our division’s work:

§  Marina Cofield will continue to direct the leadership team, overseeing a leadership pipeline that provides opportunities to build educators’ capacity for teacher leader, school leader, and advanced leadership roles.

§  Emily Weiss will continue to oversee all performance workstreams, including assessment, academic policy and systems, and research, accountability, and data.

§  Rachel Feinberg will continue to manage implementation and operations of workstreams to support our division’s initiatives.

§  Jocelyn Alter (cc’ed) will continue to serve as chief of staff for the division, and along with her current team, will provide strategic support across the division.

I am excited to partner with such a strong team. I ask for your continued patience as we gain clarity about how our teams’ work will fit together.

Shortly, you will receive a calendar invitation for a brief informal gathering where I look forward to sharing my thoughts and answering any questions you may have.

In the meantime, should you have any questions about these updates, please feel free to reach out to your manager, Jocelyn, or me. Thank you again for your continued patience and unwavering dedication to serving our schools.


Deputy Chancellor
Division of Teaching & Learning

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.’”