School & District Management

Carmen Fariña to Head New York City Schools Under de Blasio

By Lesli A. Maxwell — December 30, 2013 4 min read
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Carmen Fariña, a former principal and deputy chancellor in the 1 million-student New York City public schools system, has been tapped by Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio to be the city’s next chancellor.

Mr. de Blasio made the announcement this morning at Middle School 51 in Brooklyn, after news of Ms. Fariña’s selection was widely reported in the New York City media last night and this morning. Ms. Fariña, who stepped down from the city school district in 2006 as the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, will come out of retirement to take the helm of the nation’s largest public school system.

Her appointment is widely viewed to represent a major departure from the policies that have been the hallmarks of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education policies: rapid expansion of charter schools, the closing down of underperforming schools, and an increased use of student-test scores to grade the performance of teachers and schools. Much of Mr. de Blasio’s education agenda during the campaign was focused on modifying or undoing those policies and ushering in more prekindergarten and early-childhood programs for the city’s youngest children.

Mr. de Blasio praised Ms. Fariña’s long record as an educator in New York City, saying her extraordinary experience will “immediately command the respect of parents, teachers, and principals and all members of the school community.”

“She is one of the great educators in this city,” Mr. de Blasio said, noting that Ms. Fariña is the first educator to lead the school system in more than 12 years.

Mr. de Blasio said he carefully weighed several strong candidates for the chancellor’s job, including people from outside New York, before making his choice.

“Every time I looked at different people and different options, I kept coming back to Carmen Fariña,” he said in the news conference.

One urban education expert said Ms. Fariña’s top asset is her deep knowledge of what needs to happen in classrooms for children to be successful.

“This will be the first time in many years that New York City has a leader who understands curriculum and instruction,” said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University. “This will be huge given the rollout of the [Common Core State Standards] and the need to know how to best support struggling schools.”

Ms. Fariña also brings a firsthand understanding of one of the challenges many students in New York City schools’ face: learning English as a second language. Ms. Fariña was an English-learner herself in her early years of education in a Brooklyn parochial school. She is the eldest child of immigrants from Spain.

The new chancellor said she was marked absent for weeks by a teacher in the school who did not know how to correctly pronounce Ms. Fariña’s name.

In remarks after she was introduced by Mr. de Blasio, Ms. Fariña spoke extensively about the value of partnering with parents and treating all parents, regardless of their background, with the utmost respect.

“We are going to have a system here where parents are seen as real partners and teachers are going to understand that working with parents is a real enhancement for the classroom,” she said.

New York City’s charter school sector—with more than 180 schools and some 70,000 students could face a very different environment under Mayor-elect de Blasio, who favors charging rent to charter schools that currently share space with regular city schools. De Blasio said again today that he will put a moratorium on any future proposals to “co-locate” charter schools with regular district schools

James Merriman, the chief executive officer of the New York City Charter School Center, an advocacy and support organization for charters, said Ms. Fariña’s reputation as a tough manager who believes in accountability is “heartening.” Mr. Merriman called her a bridge builder and noted that the new chancellor has avoided “divisive language” when talking about the role of charter schools in New York City.

“I think the mayor-elect and the new chancellor recognize that there is enormous demand for good schools and that charters are providing a lot of good seats in areas where hitherto there weren’t many,” he said. “I think they will agree that there is probably room for growth for charters that are getting the job done.”

Still, Mr. Merriman said any kind of moratorium on allowing charter schools to share space with regular public schools would also effectively freeze the opening of new charters.

“I hope that any moratorium would be short-lived, because we can’t really create great schools unless we have co-location,” he said. He also said that charging rent to co-located charter schools—which don’t receive state funding for facilities costs—would make New York City “less hospitable for great charters to start and great charters to continue, and [provide] less seats at the end of the day for students.”

Mr. de Blasio called Ms. Fariña’s appointment one of the most important decisions he will make as mayor. Both de Blasio and Fariña were careful in answering questions Monday about forthcoming major policy changes for the school system, though the mayor-elect was unequivocal in his statements about testing and using student test scores to make high-stakes decisions.

“We are going to do everything in our power to reduce the focus on high-stakes testing,” he said. “It’s taken us down the wrong road, and within the limits of state and federal law, we will do all we can to roll that back.”

Mr. de Blasio and Ms. Fariña officially take office on Wednesday.

(Photo: Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, right, listens as Carmen Fariña speaks during a news conference on Monday at Middle School 51 in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Fariña, a former teacher, principal and longtime advocate of early-childhood education, will be the next leader of the nation’s largest public school system. De Blasio takes office on Jan. 1. --Mark Lennihan/AP )

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.