School & District Management

New Schools Chief May Take N.Y.C. in Different Direction

By Lesli A. Maxwell — January 06, 2014 5 min read
Carmen Fariña smiles during a news conference held to announce her appointment as the chancellor of New York City’s public schools. A longtime city educator, Ms. Fariña is coming out of retirement to lead the school system.
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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has chosen Carmen Fariña, a 40-year veteran of the city’s public schools, to be his schools chancellor. She’ll steer an agenda that could sharply pivot the nation’s largest school district from the policies that have dominated it for more than a decade.

Just two days before being sworn in as mayor on Jan. 1, Mr. de Blasio announced his appointment of Ms. Fariña at Middle School 51, a selective-admissions public school in Brooklyn that his two children attended. He succeeded Michael R. Bloomberg, who governed the city for 12 years and brought sweeping, often controversial, changes to its 1.1 million-student school system.

Ms. Fariña, 70, who stepped down from the Bloomberg-run district in 2006 as the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, came out of retirement to take its helm. Over four decades in the city’s public schools, she worked as a teacher, principal, and community and regional superintendent.

Her appointment is widely viewed as the clearest signal yet that Mayor de Blasio, a Democrat elected in November, will shift from the hallmarks of Mr. Bloomberg’s education agenda: rapid expansion of charter schools, the closing of underperforming schools, and an increased use of student test scores for high-stakes decisions, such as assigning letter grades to schools. Mr. de Blasio’s education platform during the campaign focused on modifying or undoing those policies and ushering in more prekindergarten and early-childhood programs for the youngest children.

Mr. de Blasio praised Ms. Fariña’s long record as a city educator and said her experience would “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. Three chancellors served under Mr. Bloomberg: Joel I. Klein, a former federal prosecutor and corporate executive; Cathleen P. Black, a publishing executive; and Dennis Walcott, a former deputy mayor for education.

Candidate Pool

Mr. de Blasio said he carefully weighed several strong candidates for the chancellor’s job, including people from outside New York City. Among the candidates was District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who acknowledged she was approached about the job, but withdrew from consideration. Other reported contenders were Joshua Starr, the superintendent of the Montgomery County, Md., schools, and Kathleen Cashin, a member of the New York state board of regents.

Incoming New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio listens as Carmen Fariña, his appointee as schools chancellor, speaks during a news conference at a middle school in Brooklyn last week. Ms. Fariña is the first educator in more than 12 years to lead the district.

“Every time I looked at different people and different options, I kept coming back to Carmen Fariña,” the incoming mayor said in the Dec. 30 news conference.

One urban education expert said Ms. Fariña’s best 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 parochial school in the city’s Brooklyn borough. She is the eldest child of immigrants from Spain.

The new chancellor said she was marked absent for weeks by a teacher who called her by another name because she 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 backgrounds, with 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.

Outlook for Charters

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 de Blasio, who favors charging rent to charter schools that currently share space with regular city schools. Mr. de Blasio wants to 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 charter schools, said Ms. Fariña’s reputation as a tough manager who believes in accountability was “heartening.” Mr. Merriman called her a bridge builder and noted that Ms. Fariña has avoided “divisive language” when talking about the role of charter schools in the city.

“I think the mayor 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 moratorium on allowing charter schools to share space with regular public schools would effectively freeze the opening of new charters. He also said that charging rent to co-located charter schools—which don’t receive state funding for facilities—would make the 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.”

Among the challenges Ms. Fariña will have to tackle in her first year is negotiating a new contract with the United Federation of Teachers.

Both Mr. de Blasio and Ms. Fariña refrained from detailing forthcoming major policy changes for the school system, though the mayor unequivocally pledged to scrap the grading system that uses various metrics—including standardized-test scores—to assign letter grades to schools.

“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.” He acknowledged, however, that state and federal requirements may limit his ability to make changes to testing policies.

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 2014 edition of Education Week as Fariña to Lead N.Y.C. Public Schools

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