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.’”

Q and A

Here’s what Richard Carranza had to say in his first TV interview as New York City chancellor

Chancellor Richard Carranza was pressed on segregation, testing and metal detectors in schools.

New York City schools chief Richard Carranza has been cramming, if his first media interview since taking over the city’s schools on Monday is any indication.

Carranza spoke with NY1’s Lindsey Christ for about 30 minutes Wednesday, with an empty classroom as a backdrop. She pressed him on some of the most pressing issues facing the city, including school segregation, whether metal detectors belong in schools, and the city’s expensive Renewal program for struggling schools — where Carranza signaled that changes could be coming. He also addressed a gender discrimination lawsuit from his time as the head of San Francisco schools and called boycotts of standardized tests an “extreme reaction.” 

A few times, Carranza acknowledged he is still learning the ropes: Until he arrived in New York City, he had never worked in the country’s largest school system. He comes from Houston, where he was superintendent for less than two years.

Here’s what he had to say in Wednesday’s interview, which you can watch in its entirety here.

On segregation

Carranza is proving to be more frank than his boss — and his predecessor, retired Chancellor Carmen Fariña — on the issues of segregation and integration. Mayor Bill de Blasio has avoided those terms, preferring to speak more broadly about “diversity.” Carranza didn’t mind saying that “segregation and integration” have been issues in every district where he has worked. In Wednesday’s interview, Carranza was asked about his choice of words.

Back to Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court used the word segregation. So it is what it is. I think we get caught up sometimes in the terminology and miss the broader picture. The broader picture is that, if we have a public education system that truly belongs to the public, then every member of that public body — every single student, regardless of race, class, socioeconomic status, religious creed — should have access to all — all — opportunities in that system. And if [there is] segregation, then we need to work to end it.

On specialized high schools

New York City’s specialized high schools are some of the most prestigious in the system, but they are also starkly and persistently segregated. Only 10.4 percent of admissions offers for next year’s ninth-grade class went to black and Hispanic students, even though they make up about 70 percent of students citywide. Under de Blasio, the city has tried a number of initiatives to address the problem, but the admissions picture has not budged. Carranza suggested he wanted to see changes — but signaled that he had accepted his boss’s position that state law could be a barrier.

I’m starting to learn about what these issues are… State law notwithstanding, other protocol notwithstanding, how is that OK? 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. So I’m looking at that, absolutely.

On a gender discrimination settlement from San Francisco

Shortly after Carranza was named chancellor, the New York Daily News uncovered a 2015 gender discrimination lawsuit involving Carranza when he was superintendent of San Francisco schools. The suit, which was settled for $75,000, was filed by a district employee who said she was denied a leadership role during Carranza’s tenure because of her gender and charged he retaliated against her for confronting him about flirting with a woman during a work conference. City Hall told Chalkbeat that officials were aware of the lawsuit but believed the allegations to be false — which Carranza echoed.

It just didn’t happen. It never happened. I’ve been an educator almost 30 years. I’ve worked with thousands of colleagues and there are many people who would talk about my character and who I am … I will stand on my record and I’ll stand on the relationships that I built. But it never happened.

On the city’s long-running investigation into yeshivas

In 2015, the education department said it would investigate whether private yeshivas offer adequate instruction in secular subjects such as math and science. The results of that politically charged investigation have yet to be revealed, and the city hasn’t offered a timeline for when it would be completed. Meanwhile, a new state law seems to hand state education leaders the power to evaluate the schools — rather than the local district. Carranza wouldn’t commit to a timeline to wrap up the city’s investigation, or even promise to finish it.

I haven’t been fully briefed on the investigation, or what this history of the investigation has been, but I believe that every student — regardless of where they go to school — needs to have a quality education. … My commitment is to be very transparent in terms of where the investigation is and what the next steps in the investigation are.

On metal detectors

Metal detectors are a polarizing issue in the debate over how to keep schools safe. Some advocates say the city would be better off investing in services like mental health supports, but others argue that metal detectors keep students and staff safe. Once metal detectors are installed in schools, they are almost never removed. But Carranza signaled he is open to having conversations about taking scanners out of schools.

The most effective, in my experience, security system is an environment where students feel a responsibility for their safety and feel comfortable in reporting when they hear or they see something… I think in some places there may be a very good reason why we have metal detectors. Again, I’m just getting here but that’s one of the topics I really want to explore. If we have metal detectors, what’s the reason for it, what’s the justification for it and if there’s no need for it, then how do we get rid of those?

On testing

New York has one of the largest opt-out movements in the country, with parents instructing their children to refuse to take standardized tests. Carranza said English and math tests should not crowd out other subjects such as art, but he also was clear that he does not encourage opting out.

I think it’s an extreme reaction to where I think we could have a much more nuanced approach. All right, let’s look at how much testing is happening in our schools, and then let’s decide what has to be there so that we know where our students are, and then let’s eliminate whatever we don’t need to have… There are a number of tests that serve a purpose. I think that’s a more nuanced conversation. What’s the purpose and why is that important?

On the Renewal program for struggling schools

De Blasio has spent more than $500 million to support struggling schools through Renewal, which floods dozens of struggling schools with extra support, social services such as health care, and a longer school day. Though the mayor promised “fast and intense” improvements, Renewal has produced mixed results. Carranza called the program “incredibly proactive,” but also suggested there might be changes coming.  

Where have the results been mixed and then how do we change strategies or how do we update our strategy? How do we become strategic in certain areas? That’s part of improving.

Compare and Contrast

Five first days of school: How Richard Carranza’s start as chancellor compares to his predecessors’

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Richard Carranza climbed the steps of Tweed Courthouse, the education department headquarters, on his first day as chancellor. Carranza previously led schools in San Francisco and Houston.

Richard Carranza’s first day as New York City schools chief started with a photo opportunity: a snowy walk-and-wave into Tweed Courthouse, the education department’s Lower Manhattan headquarters, shortly before 9 a.m.

Later today, he plans to have lunch at an iconic New York City restaurant, Katz’s Delicatessen, with Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray. (It must be said: The third day of Passover makes an unusual choice for a visit to a Jewish deli.)

What Carranza won’t be doing: visiting any schools. This week is spring break, giving Carranza at least five work days before he’s likely to face any on-the-ground challenges. That should give him time to get to know his colleagues at Tweed and start getting up to speed on the major issues he’ll have to tackle.

The schedule makes Carranza’s first day very different from those of the most recent chancellors he succeeds. Here’s a look at what each of them did on day one.

Carmen Fariña eased into the limelight.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

On her first day in 2014, Fariña made a public appearance at one school, M.S. 223 in the Bronx, where she answered questions about where she planned to take the city’s schools. As a longtime veteran of the city’s schools appointed by a mayor who had vowed to shift the education department’s direction, would she seek to roll back Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education agenda? She said she would work, at least at first, within “the framework that existed” — though four years later it’s clear that she changed the education department substantially.

Fariña also said her first day had been busy, with lots of coffee, lunch skipped, and meeting with current staffers to talk about ways to “duplicate” their policy successes — a mission at the heart of some of the programs she created. And she also foreshadowed her hesitance to be a public figure, saying “the word chancellor kind of gives me the shivers.” De Blasio is reportedly hoping Carranza will take a different approach.

Dennis Walcott made waffles.

PHOTO: Anna Phillips

He was still a few days shy of officially taking over the city’s school system when Dennis Walcott, then still a deputy mayor for Bloomberg, stopped by P.S. 10 in Brooklyn to make his trademark waffles in an appearance that many education insiders remember as his inaugural public appearance. The visit — not even his first since being appointed — fulfilled a promise made to a third-grader to prove that Walcott’s waffle recipe (sugar-free, in keeping with his fastidious health regimen) was the best in the world. A student’s question also presaged the chancellor’s first marathon several months later. The visit kicked off a gruelingand, he said, rewarding — pace of school visits that characterized Walcott’s tenure, which lasted until Bloomberg left office at the end of 2013.

Cathie Black made what might have been her longest public appearance.

PHOTO: Maura Walz
Cathie Black visited P.S. 262 in Brooklyn on her first official day as chancellor in 2011.

Cathie Black’s appointment came as a shock, but her first day on the job in January 2011 was thoroughly choreographed as she visited schools in each of the five boroughs. The city had time to prepare: It took several weeks between when Bloomberg picked her for state policy makers to give her the waiver she needed to run the city’s schools despite a total lack of education experience, and she didn’t take office for six weeks after that. At the time, Black told us she had visited roughly 20 schools before her official first day, when she stopped by a music-themed high school, a charter school that teaches Korean, and a school for students with severe disabilities. But her school-visit schedule quickly slowed as her public appearances became landmines for the city, and she resigned just three months after her official first day.

Oh, and Joel Klein was uncharacteristically quiet.

Joel Klein. (GothamSchools file photo)

Schools were also closed when Klein took office in August 2002, but he didn’t stick around the education department’s headquarters, then still located in Downtown Brooklyn. “I wanted to send a clear message that I’m going to be out and in the schools,” Klein said about why he met with a deputy in Bedford-Stuyvesant on his first day. “If schools were open today, I’d be in school. Because that’s going to be a key part of my mission.”

That meeting was closed to the press, as part of a first day that the New York Times reported “represented a striking departure from tradition, and suggested that he might, at least for now, keep a lower profile than his predecessors.” (Several of them visited schools and held press conferences, according to the Times story, and one served French toast to students — likely with syrup.) Ultimately, that proved to be far from the case: Klein was a relentless leader and divisive public figure, frequently rolling out game-changing new policies during splashy press conferences without first building support from people who worked in schools.

A takeaway from Klein’s first day more than 15 years ago: A quiet first day hardly means a low-key administration — something to watch for now as Carranza digs in.