Weighing in

Advocates: Four traits we want in NYC’s next schools chief — and four candidates we don’t want

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen Fariña is preparing to step down in the coming weeks.

With a transition in New York City’s education leadership imminent, insiders are jockeying to make sure their perspectives are taken into account.

We received a letter from two advocates who say they want the city’s next chancellor to be a lot like the outgoing one, Carmen Fariña. David Kirkland, the executive director of NYU’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, and Natasha Capers, the coordinator of the Coalition for Educational Justice, say they want Mayor Bill de Blasio to pick someone who, like Fariña, would bring experience, commitment, a belief in collaboration, and a focus on equity.

But they’re asking for more: Capers, a harsh critic of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education agenda who was often allied with the education department under Fariña, has more recently pushed for more transparency from the de Blasio administration and called for the city to do more to encourage culturally responsive teaching. The letter says the next chancellor needs to tackle this issue more than Fariña has. (The letter does not mention racial segregation, an issue that Kirkland focuses on as a member of the city’s new school diversity advisory group and leader of a resource center meant to support activists, officials, and school administrators focused on school integration.)

Capers and Kirkland also draw a line in the sand for the kind of chancellor they couldn’t support: one with any association with the Broad Academy, a leadership program for school administrators with ties to the school reform movement that Bloomberg’s education policies exemplified.

The full letter is below. The chancellor search could be heading into its final stretch, if Fariña’s farewell tour is any indication — or not. City Hall has been tight-lipped about where the search to replace her stands.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio chose Carmen Fariña as Chancellor four years ago, parents and advocates were excited to have an experienced educator and former public school parent in leadership. This has meant an increased focus on teaching and learning, stronger supports for struggling schools, and an emphasis on educating the whole child through arts, physical education, language and more.

The choice of Chancellor Fariña’s successor is crucial. De Blasio represents a marked departure from the Bloomberg market-based approach to schooling that used testing to grade and punish schools, and saw parents and communities as nuisances. De Blasio has prioritized reforms that support quality teaching and whole child development. This includes universal full-day pre-K, community schools with social and emotional supports for students, arts and physical education, and moving from punitive to positive discipline policies. But to date Mayor de Blasio’s reforms have not gone far enough. The success or failure of his next Chancellor will determine the Mayor’s legacy and whether or not his reforms, beyond pre-K, survive his tenure.

Four key traits are necessary for the next Chancellor: Commitment, Experience, Equity, and Collaboration.

Commitment: Chancellor Fariña has demonstrated a strong commitment to public education as a public good. The next Chancellor must also be deeply committed to keeping public schools public and accessible to all students, and not undermining access through the illusion of choice and privatization.

Experience: As was the case with Chancellor Fariña, the next Chancellor must be an experienced educator with a track record of leading a large urban school districts, and have specific experience and knowledge of the New York City school system—which is by far the nation’s largest and most complex.

Equity: The next Chancellor must be driven by a deep commitment to eliminate the opportunity gap based on race, ethnicity, gender, language and ability, and improve education for historically oppressed populations. This includes a commitment to culturally responsive education which to date the de Blasio administration has failed to adequately embrace.

Collaboration: The Chancellor should have a track record of working in partnership with parents, students, educators and community organizations; building and sustaining partnerships between the district and the community; and addressing problems by bringing multiple stakeholders together to devise solutions. The Mayor’s critically important signature reform of Renewal Schools and community schools has suffered as the Department of Education has struggled with genuine collaboration among families, schools, district staff, central DOE, and community partners, and at providing the efficient supports and leadership needed to help these schools succeed.

To meet these criteria, the Mayor will have to stay away from the crew of Broad-trained administrators who represent the brand of “education reform” that de Blasio ran against. Those include John White, Superintendent of Louisiana; Paymon Rouhanifard, Superintendent of Camden, NJ; Kaya Henderson, former Chancellor of DC Public Schools; and Jaime Aquino, a former Deputy Superintendent in Los Angeles who was involved with a conflict-of-interest scandal regarding purchase of iPads.

De Blasio has moved in the right direction on education, but he has had neither the boldness nor the focus our families expect from the Mayor. He must be certain that the next Chancellor shares the vision of reform that is based on supporting students and providing equity, but the next Chancellor must also have the experience and commitment needed to navigate the complexity of our massive school system and the skills at collaborating with families and communities needed to succeed.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”