meet the new boss

When not in schools, Fariña spent first months with education's power brokers

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
UFT President Michael Mulgrew and Chancellor Carmen Fariña, along with principals union leaders, agreed on a plan Thursday to overhaul two struggling schools.

Michael Mulgrew’s cozy relationship with Chancellor Carmen Fariña was forged at the dinner table, not the negotiating table.

Before contract talks heated up in April, Fariña and the United Federation of Teachers president were monthly dining partners, her meeting schedule shows. The pair met in person at least four times at high-end restaurants and a greasy-spoon diner, and chatted on the phone several more times between January and April.

The schedule offers a detailed view of Fariña’s first months as head of the nation’s largest school system. They show that when she wasn’t visiting schools, Fariña met with Stanford researcher Linda Darling-Hammond, billionaire philanthropist George Soros, along with a host of advocates, executives, elected officials, and union representatives.

The schedule also offers a window into the political nature of Farina’s job responsibilities and a peek into Fariña’s talent search. In a two-day sprint in early January, Fariña met with three principals, two of whom would soon leave their schools to join the administration, and a then-New Jersey superintendent.

Many days were jam-packed with meetings, and few people got multiple time slots in her first few months. Union leaders, including Ernest Logan and Mark Canizzaro of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, the city’s principals union, were exceptions, reflecting their positive relationship and a need to set the stage for contract negotiations.

The city announced a new contract for over 100,000 teachers and school staff in a celebratory May press conference, after which critics said the deal did not include enough union concessions.

In an interview, Mulgrew said his one-on-one meetings with Fariña preceding the agreement didn’t include discussions of labor issues in the contract. Rather, he said they talked about big ideas, like how the union and the city could work together.

“It was just very refreshing,” said Mulgrew, who said he stopped monthly coffee dates with de Blasio’s predecessor Michael Bloomberg with eight months left in his mayoral term.

Mulgrew and Fariña’s first meeting took place in mid-January at The Palm, a midtown steakhouse. The next month, it was breakfast at the Millennium Hilton around the corner from Mulgrew’s offices. Their last two dates were meetings at the Gee Whiz Diner on Fariña’s turf, just a few blocks from where she works at Tweed Courthouse.

Mulgrew said he needed no such arrangement with de Blasio because their communication is much better than it was with Bloomberg, who sparred publicly with the union on a host of education issues in his final years in office.

“I pick up the phone and talk to him. He picks up the phone and talk to me,” Mulgrew said of de Blasio. (The Department of Education declined to comment on Fariña’s meetings.)

Fariña’s first several meetings on the job were with top Department of Education brass and de Blasio aides. Within a week, she was branching out, meeting with InsideSchools’ founding editor to talk middle schools and with longtime organizer: Megan Hester of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

Later that month, Fariña met with more outsiders. On Jan. 17, she met with Soros, New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman, and Lucy Calkins, founding director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, the organization that Fariña consulted for before being appointed chancellor.

Other than Soros, Fariña met often with people in the business and philanthropy communities, including officials at the Wallace Foundation, which is funding a training program for superintendents, and the Robin Hood Foundation, a major charter school funder, and the Maverick Capital Foundation. She also frequently saw board members and officials from the department’s private fundraising arm, the Fund for Public Schools.

Kathryn Wylde, head of the Partnership for New York, a business association, said one of her meetings with Fariña was to discuss how her members could support Fariña’s policy agenda. One result was that the Partnership placed a part-time liaison at the Department of Education tasked with establishing more partnerships between companies and career and technical high schools, like the one that exists between IBM and the Pathways to Early College High School in Crown Heights.

“Education is the top philanthropic priority of most corporations, but when we look at the actually being accomplished, it’s hard to see the impact,” Wylde said. “We feel that if we understand her agenda, we can mobilize employers in a more coordinated way.”

Another of Fariña’s first tasks was picking a leadership team. Two principals she met with early on, Lisa Fuentes of P.S. 24 and Phil Weinberg of the High School of Telecommunications, eventually left their schools to join Fariña. It’s unclear if the third principal, M.S. 223′s Ramon Gonzalez, or the the New Jersey superintendent, Brian Osborne, a former colleague of Fariña’s when she was deputy chancellor, were also on her shortlist. (A spokesperson for Fariña did not immediately respond to questions seeking clarification.)

Osborne, who now oversees the New Rochelle school district, said that his dinner with Fariña was “collegial” and simply an effort to “stay in touch.”

Click here for a complete version Fariña’s schedule that the department provided. A partial list is below:


Jan. 6: Irma Zardoya, president and CEO of the New York City Leadership Academy
Jan. 8: Megan Hester, Annenberg Institute for School Reform
Jan. 9: Clara Hemphill, InsideSchools
Jan. 9: Harold Levy, former New York City chancellor
Jan. 10: Phil Weinberg and Brian Osborne
Jan. 11: Christina Fuentes
Jan. 11: Ramon Gonzalez
Jan. 13: Phone call with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch
Jan. 22: Sharon Dunn and Louise Mirrer, New York Historical Society
Jan. 23: Rashid Davis, principal of Pathways in Technology Early College High School.
Jan. 23: Will Miller, president of Wallace Foundation
Jan. 24: Irma Zardoya
Jan. 27: Tisch and John King, State Education Commissioner
Jan. 28: Catherine Nolan, State Assembly’s Education Committee Chair
Jan. 28: Joann Millman, State Assembly Member
Jan. 29: Kenyatte Reid, principal of Eagle Academy II
Jan. 29: Fariña promotes Weinberg to top teaching and learning post
Feb. 5: Todd Penner, Susan and Michael Dell Foundation
Feb. 5: Claire Sylvan, executive director of International Schools Network
Feb. 5: Norm Fruchter, Annenberg Institute of School Reform and Panel for Educational Policy member, Dr. Dorothy Siegel
Feb. 6: Maggie Siena, principal of the Peck Slip School
Feb. 10: New Dorp High School Principal Deirdre DeAngelis D’Alessio, Ramon Gonzalez, Kenyatte Reid, Christina Fuentes, Phil Weinberg
Feb. 12: Richard Kahan, founder and CEO of Urban Assembly
Feb. 13: De Blasio and Fariña defend decisions to keep schools open during snow storm.
Feb. 14: Rudy Crew, former chancellor
Feb. 18: Steve Strongin, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and board member of Fund for Public Schools
Feb. 20: Stan Litow, former deputy chancellor and president of IBM’s Foundation
Feb. 20: Paulette LoMonaco, executive director of Good Shepherd Services
Feb. 21: Pedro Noguera, New York University
Feb. 22: Meets with charter school leaders
Feb. 24: Lottie Almonte, Principal of Murry Bergtraum High School (site of Success co-location)
Feb. 24: Meets with elected officials
Feb. 25: Moskowitz launches Albany campaign
Feb. 26: Letitia James, public advocate
Feb. 27: Call with elected officials
Feb. 27: De Blasio cancels Success co-locations
Feb. 27: Charlotte Frank, McGraw-HIll
March 6: Scott Stringer, New York City comptroller
March 11: Breakfast with Michael Mulgrew
March 13: Seymour Fliegel, Center for Education Innovation-Public Education Association
March 14: Emary Aronson and David Saltzman, Robin Hood Foundation
March 14: Meeting with Portfolio team
March 17: Naomi Smith, principal of Central Park East II, whose expansion the city nixed.
March 17: Bob Hughes, President of New Visions for Public Schools
March 18: Irma Zardoya, New York City Leadership Academy
March 21; Nancy Zimpher, SUNY Chancellor
March 21: Catherine Nolan
March 21: Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford University
March 22: Rudy Crew
April 1: English Language Learners meeting
April 1: Iris Blanc, director of Virtual Enterprises International, and Pier Duncan
April 3: Rafael Román Meléndez, Secretary of Education for Puerto Rico
April 3: Meeting with Qatar Foundation International
April 4: Funder briefing at Microsoft’s offices
April 4: Gifted & Talented admissions show wide inequities persist
April 5: Meeting with families of students with disabilities
April 6: NYSUT ousts president with support from UFT
April 7: Fariña launches Learning Partners Program
April 7: City wins federal funding for two P-TECH high schools
April 7: John King and Merryl Tisch
April 8: Tensions flare, then subside between de Blasio and Success charters
April 8: Melissa Mark-Viverito, speaker of the City Council
April 8: Allison Sheehan, school support network leader
April 9: City announces changes to grade promotion policies
April 9: Kathryn Wylde and Katy Belot, Partnership for New York
April 10: Manhattan principals protest state reading tests
April 10: Erica Hamilton, director of City Year-New York City
April 10: Melinda Katz, Queens Borough President
April 11: Michael Casserly, Executive Director of Council of Great City Schools
April 11: Major restructuring under way at NYC DOE
April 12: 100 Day Speech. Says she has been to “almost 30 schools
April 16: Hazel Dukes, NAACP-NY
April 17: Clara Hemphill
April 17: Seymour Fliegel
April 21: Jaime Aquino, New Teacher Center, former Deputy Chancellor of NYC DOE

here's the plan

After long wait, de Blasio backs plan to overhaul admissions at New York City’s elite high schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Stuyvesant High School will begin participating in the Discovery program this year.

After sustained pressure from advocates, Mayor Bill de Blasio is backing a two-step plan to reform admissions at eight of the city’s elite high schools and endorsing a specific replacement for the single-test admissions system.

The city’s specialized high schools — considered some of the crown jewels of New York City’s education system — accept students based on a single test score. Over the last decade, they have come under fire for offering admissions to few students of color: While two-thirds of city students are black or Hispanic, only about 10 percent of admissions offers to those schools go to black or Hispanic students.

De Blasio’s solution, laid out in an op-ed in Chalkbeat, would set aside 20 percent of the seats at the eight schools for students from low-income families starting next school year. Students who just missed the test score cut-off would be able to earn one of those set-aside seats through the longstanding “Discovery” program. Just 4 percent of seats were offered through that program in 2017.

The mayor also said he plans to push state lawmakers to change a law that requires admission at three of the schools to be decided by a single test score. That’s something de Blasio campaigned for during his run for mayor in 2014 but hasn’t made a priority since.

Most significantly, de Blasio says for the first time that he backs a system of replacing the admissions test with a system that picks students based on their middle school class rank and state test scores. The middle-school rank component is especially notable, as an NYU Steinhardt report found that the only way to really change the makeup of the elite high schools would be to guarantee admission to the top 10 percent of students at every middle school.

If all of these changes were implemented, de Blasio says that 45 percent of the student bodies at the eight high schools would be black or Latino.

Together, the proposals reflect the most specific plan yet to change a system that, year after year, becomes a symbol of New York City’s racially divided schools. But the changes de Blasio is proposing won’t come easily — and might not come at all.

The part of the plan that the city is promising to do on its own, expand the Discovery program, will only modestly improve diversity by the city’s own admission. And the plan’s more ambitious elements would require buy-in from state lawmakers who have repeatedly resisted de Blasio’s agenda and attempts to change admissions rules.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s plan does not include a move that many legal experts consider to be low-hanging fruit: changing the admissions rules at five of the eight schools without state approval.

While the city’s official position has long been that admissions at all eight schools are set by law, only three schools — Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School — are specifically mentioned, leaving room for the city to reclassify the others. (De Blasio recently said he would ask lawyers about that change, but has not signaled he plans to act.)

The Discovery program has also proved problematic for de Blasio, in part because it is open to all low-income students — something that is not equivalent to black or Hispanic in New York City. The de Blasio administration has already tripled the program’s size since taking office, but its share of black and Latino students has also shrunk.

A lot of questions about the plan remain unanswered. It’s not clear whether the 20 percent of set-aside seats will be spread across the eight schools evenly, for one, or whether some schools like Stuyvesant will have fewer seats earmarked for Discovery. De Blasio doesn’t explain exactly how an admissions system reliant on middle-school grades and standardized test scores would work.

It’s also unclear how the mayor plans to push against opposition from alumni groups and parents who may worry that changing the admissions rules will lower academic standards, though his rhetoric was sharp in the op-ed.

“Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative,” de Blasio wrote. “It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it.”

So far, de Blasio’s incremental steps to boost diversity at specialized high schools have made little change to the overall student body — and therefore garnered little pushback.

It’s unclear whether the lackluster results caused him to switch strategies. More recently, de Blasio has also been under pressure to address school segregation in the city as a whole.

He may also have been pushed by his new schools chancellor, who has been outspoken on the subject since taking the helm of the school system about two months ago. Chancellor Richard Carranza has been talking about the issue since his very first media interview, and has repeatedly hinted that he is interested in changing their admissions process.

“From my perspective it’s not OK to have a public school in a city as diverse… and that you have only 10 African-American students in a high school,” Carranza said in April. “So I’m looking at that, absolutely.”

sorting the students

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Our specialized schools have a diversity problem. Let’s fix it.

PHOTO: Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio hosts a town hall in Brooklyn in October.

I visit schools across this city and it never fails to energize me. The talent out there is outstanding. The students overflow with promise. But many of the smart kids I meet aren’t getting in to our city’s most prestigious high schools. In fact, they’re being locked out.

The problem is clear. Eight of our most renowned high schools – including Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School – rely on a single, high-stakes exam. The Specialized High School Admissions Test isn’t just flawed – it’s a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence.

If we want this to be the fairest big city in America, we need to scrap the SHSAT and start over.

Let’s select students for our top public high schools in a manner that best reflects the talent these students have, and the reality of who lives in New York City. Let’s have top-flight public high schools that are fair and represent the highest academic standards.

Right now, we are living with monumental injustice. The prestigious high schools make 5,000 admissions offers to incoming ninth-graders. Yet, this year just 172 black students and 298 Latino students received offers. This happened in a city where two out of every three eighth-graders in our public schools are Latino or black.

There’s also a geographic problem. There are almost 600 middle schools citywide. Yet, half the students admitted to the specialized high schools last year came from just 21 of those schools. For a perfect illustration of disparity: Just 14 percent of students at Bronx Science come from the Bronx.

Can anyone defend this? Can anyone look the parent of a Latino or black child in the eye and tell them their precious daughter or son has an equal chance to get into one of their city’s best high schools? Can anyone say this is the America we signed up for?

Our best colleges don’t select students this way. Our top-level graduate schools don’t. There are important reasons why. Some people are good at taking tests, but earn poor grades. Other people struggle with testing, but achieve top grades. The best educational minds get it. You can’t write a single test that captures the full reality of a person.

A single, high-stakes exam is also unfair to students whose families cannot afford, or may not even know about, the availability of test preparation tutors and courses. Now, I’d like to stop and say, I admire the many families who scrape and save to pay for test prep. They are trying in every way to support their children.

But let’s ask ourselves: Why should families who can ill afford test prep have to spend their money on it? Why should families who can easily afford test prep have an advantage over those that cannot?

My administration has been working to give a wider range of excellent students a fair shot at the specialized high schools. Now we are going to go further. Starting in September 2019, we’ll expand the Discovery Program to offer 20 percent of specialized high school seats to economically disadvantaged students who just missed the test cut-off.

This will immediately bring a wider variety of high-performing students, from a wider number of middle schools, to the specialized high schools. For example, the percentage of black and Latino students receiving offers will almost double, to around 16 percent from around 9 percent. The number of middle schools represented will go from around 310 to around 400.

This will also address a fundamental illogic baked into the high-stakes test. A great score and you might be in, but beware a point too low and you might be out. Now, a disadvantaged student who is just a point or two shy of the cut-off won’t be blocked from a great educational opportunity.

For a deeper solution, we will fight alongside our partners in the Assembly and Senate to replace the SHSAT with a new admissions process, selecting students based on a combination of the student’s rank in their middle school and their results in the statewide tests that all middle school children take.

With these reforms, we expect our premier public high schools to start looking like New York City. Approximately 45 percent of students would be Latino or black. As an example of growing geographical fairness, we will quadruple the number of Bronx students admitted.

I’ve talked a lot about bringing equity and excellence to our schools. This new admissions process will give every student in every middle school a fair shot. That’s equity. The new process will ask students to demonstrate hard work over time, and show brilliance in a variety of subjects. That’s excellence.

Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative. It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it. This perpetuates a dangerous and disgusting myth.

So let me be clear. The new system we’re fighting for will raise the bar at the specialized high schools in every way. The pool of talent is going to expand widely and rapidly. That’s going to up the level of competition. The students who emerge from the new process will make these schools even stronger.

They will also make our society stronger. Our most prestigious public high schools aren’t just routes to opportunity for deserving students and their families. They are incubators for the leaders and innovators of tomorrow. The kind of high schools we have today, will determine the kind of New York City we will have tomorrow.

Bill de Blasio is the mayor of New York City.