chancellor chat

New York City schools chief asks principals to ‘take a chance’ on unassigned teachers that she sends them

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña urged principals in a televised interview Tuesday to keep an open mind as she sends them teachers who lost their previous jobs — though she also vowed to help them get rid of any teachers who shouldn’t be in the classroom.

She made the comments during a two-part interview with NY1’s Errol Louis, where she also spoke about an often-overlooked benefit of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s free preschool program, her goal for schools in the “Renewal” program, which infuses struggling schools with extra resources, and what she considers a major cause of school violence.

Here are some highlights:

On the “Absent Teacher Reserve”: Fariña asked principals to “take a chance” on teachers who lost their jobs at other schools.

Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to drain the pool of teachers —  known as the “absent teacher reserve” — who lost their permanent jobs for disciplinary or legal reasons, or because their previous positions were eliminated, but who still receive full salaries. To do that, the city is placing those teachers in schools with openings — to the chagrin of critics (including some principals) who worry the city will offload troubled teachers onto needy schools. Fariña urged principals to keep an open mind about the teachers, while also promising to send a “whole squad” to evaluate any who cause problems.

“As a principal, I always had some of these people…I got a few teachers that ended up being really good and one or two that were miserable. And then it was my job to say, ‘OK, not only not for my school, but not for the system as a whole.’

And that’s what we’re asking principals to do, take a chance on some of these [ATR teachers] who may be very good [but] for any number of reasons they’re not in their schools. But if there’s one who you really feel should not be in any school — not just in your school — then we’ll support you.”

On a fatal school stabbing: She defended her department and the leaders of a Bronx school where two students were recently stabbed, saying no red flags were “apparent.”

At the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation last month, a student stabbed two of his classmates, killing one and wounding the other. After the incident, reports emerged that the school struggled with bullying and an unsafe environment. When asked about whether the school should have reacted sooner to “red flags,” Fariña suggested the warning signs were not clear.

“This is one of those cases where, you know, in hindsight, could you have done something differently? I still feel…I’ve been to that school four times already and I plan on going back more often. I don’t think that that was something that was really apparent. I mean, there’s a lot of issues that are still under investigation, so I don’t think that whatever is in the press is necessarily the whole story.”

On metal detectors: She walked a fine line, saying she doesn’t think they solve school violence — but she also doesn’t plan to get rid of them.

Since the stabbing, some advocates have called for more metal detectors in schools. Fariña rejected that as a solution to school violence, but also signaled that she is in no hurry to get rid of existing metal detectors.

“I don’t think metal detectors are the answer. We’re not taking them out of our schools. We have them, we’ll keep them there. But as we look at the numbers, where might we want them? There are schools that don’t want them anymore. So we look at the statistics to get that done.”

On mental health: She cited mental health as a major problem among school children — and said it can lead to school violence.

Under First Lady Chirlane McCray, the city has made improving mental health care a priority and that effort has included extra support in schools. Fariña suggested that more guidance counselors or teacher training could help students overcome any violent impulses.

“When you start looking at our kids, in second grade, that are depressed, that are anxious. I mean, it’s become a national phenomenon. How do we change that so kids do not want to either be violent or do violence to themselves?”

On universal pre-K: She noted that free preschool doesn’t just benefit kids — it also saves parents money and lets them go to work.

De Blasio’s pre-kindergarten program has been widely hailed as a success; now, he’s pushing to extend it to younger children. Though one goal of early learning is to prepare students for elementary school, Fariña suggested the positive outcomes extend to adults too.

“The most important thing that was a surprise is how much parents are benefiting in ways we didn’t expect. For example, we’re getting a lot of remarks from parents who were able to go back to work full-time. They were able to raise their family’s economic status.”

On struggling schools: She drew a line in the sand, saying schools that fall far below a target could be shuttered.

Under federal law, the state must intervene in high schools whose graduation rates sink below 67 percent. Fariña said schools in the city’s Renewal program are being held to that standard and that she will consider closing them if they fall too far behind. That’s setting a high bar for the city’s most troubled schools, many of which have graduation rates far below that level.

“Every school has a set of benchmarks. For example, in the high schools you need to graduate at least 67 percent of your students. How far away you are from the benchmark, we give you a certain amount of time. … If you’re too far low, we close.”

meet and greet

Tennessee seeks reset in Memphis with next leader of its school turnaround district

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Stephen Osborn (right), a finalist for superintendent of Tennessee's Achievement Schools District, speaks with Mendell Grinter, leader of the Campaign for School Equity, during a meeting at Martin Luther King College Preparatory School in Memphis.

Pastor Ricky Floyd says he was an “early cheerleader” when the state began taking over low-performing schools in Memphis in 2012 and assigning them to charter operators to improve.

But no more.

Disappointed with those schools’ academic progress and even more disappointed with how Tennessee’s Achievement School District engages with Memphians, he now feels “hoodwinked” by the state.

“What is your plan to cultivate relationships with the community again?” Floyd asked Stephen Osborn, a finalist to become the next superintendent of the state-run district.

Osborn, who is chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education, met with Floyd and other community members Wednesday as Tennessee seeks to whittle down its list of four superintendent candidates revealed last week.

Their brief exchange — in which Osborn pledged to earn community trust by creating better schools — captures the challenge that the district’s next leader will face.

Local trust in the Achievement School District is low, taxed by years of painful state takeovers of neighborhood schools with promises of fast turnarounds but lackluster results. In recent years, several national charter networks have left the district, mostly because of low enrollment but also due to the high cost of turnaround work. And several schools have closed or changed hands.

“I’m sorry that’s been your experience,” Osborn ultimately told Floyd, pastor of the Pursuit of God congregation in the city’s Frayser neighborhood. “I don’t expect to get folks’ faith on day one. I’m going to need to earn it.”

All four candidates have met with Memphis leaders, but Osborn was the first to be brought back for a second round, said Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who will make the hire along with Gov. Bill Haslam.

McQueen called the leadership change “a restart moment” and said community input is part of the transition. She emphasized that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The other top candidates include Keith Sanders, a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education; Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen joins Osborn during meetings with community stakeholders.

McQueen accompanied Osborn Wednesday as he met with Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin, along with funders, parents and community leaders. A day earlier, he was in Nashville speaking with the governor’s staff and members of the State Board of Education, as well as staff with LEAD Public Schools, which operates two ASD schools in the state’s capital city.

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools — the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis — at a time when the Achievement School District has much less authority than when it launched during the Race to the Top era.

Osborn said he has been watching the ASD’s work from afar and said he is ready to get into the mix.

“This role is one where there’s no bigger impact make in terms of making better outcomes for families and this children,” he told reporters. “Tennessee has a bright, strong and vibrant future.”

Superintendent search

Rhode Island school improvement leader among finalists to head Tennessee’s turnaround district

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Memphis is the home of most of the Achievement School District's turnaround work.

A Rhode Island education leader who is a finalist to lead Tennessee’s school turnaround district was in Memphis Wednesday to meet with community members.

Stephen Osborn is the chief for innovation and accelerating school performance at the Rhode Island Department of Education. He is among finalists to lead Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

A second finalist has not been chosen from among the four candidates revealed last week, according to Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education.

She denied a report earlier Wednesday from Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, that Osborn and Memphis education consultant Keith Sanders were the two finalists.

“I truly think we’re still having conversations about the other candidates,” Gast said.

White later walked back his comments. “She’s right. I was making an assumption. I apologize,” he told Chalkbeat in an email.

Before joining Rhode Island education leadership, Osborn was an assistant superintendent with the Louisiana Department of Education and a chief operating officer with New Beginnings Charter School Network in New Orleans.

He was visiting with Memphis community groups Wednesday with Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, including a meet-and-greet in the city’s Frayser neighborhood, which is a hub of state-run district’s work. 

Earlier this month, Gast said the state would narrow down the candidates list from four to two based on input from key district and community members in Memphis. “The final decision on who to hire will be jointly determined by the commissioner and the governor,” she told Chalkbeat.

Sanders is the CEO of his own consulting group in Memphis and is the former chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education. He was a principal at Riverview Middle School in Memphis before leaving in 2007 to co-found the Miller-McCoy Academy in New Orleans, an all-boys charter school that shuttered in 2014.

The two other candidates are Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

All four have visited Memphis and met with key leaders, according to Gast.

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. 

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools — the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis — at a time when the Achievement School District has much less authority than when it launched in 2012 during the Race to the Top era.