New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke to Education Week last week about her vision for the 1.1 million-student school system, the nation’s largest.
Since Mayor Bill de Blasio selected the veteran educator to helm the district in January, she has been steering the city’s K-12 system away from many of the signature policies of former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Just today, the New York Daily News reported that the chancellor has fired more than a dozen district-area superintendents and replaced them—part of a strategy that she earlier had said would ensure that leaders who directly oversee the city’s schools and principals have deep education experience.
Fariña spoke via telephone on her way to announce a new principal for Boys and Girls High School in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, a long-struggling school that had become a source of bad news for the school district in recent days.
The school’s former principal, Bernard Gassaway, had resigned a week earlier, criticizing the administration in parting shots that were published in various New York City media outlets. He accused the chancellor and district leaders for failing to produce a plan to turn around the city’s worst performing schools. (Boys and Girls had received F grades from 2010 to 2013—under Gassaway’s leadership.) The new principal, Michael Wiltshire, had been at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School, which has a four-year graduation rate of 97 percent, according to the Daily News.
The interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.
Q: Can you tell me about...your vision for the schools and some of the programs and initiatives you’ve put in place since January?
A: First of all, as a lifelong educator with 49 years in the system, I really do understand how people in the field feel. I was teacher, I was a principal, superintendent, deputy chancellor, so everything, through my vision, is how it will affect all these people. And, because I’m also a grandmother, how ultimately does it affect the kids...One of the most important parts of the vision is trust. I need to trust the people who work for me, and the people who look to me for direction—and that includes the parents—need to trust me. So, everything that I come up with as an ideal has to be something that either I’ve tried, or I’ve researched, or I firmly believe in. So, trust is number one.
I also think [that] rigorous instruction [is important]. I was a teacher for 22 years, and in my classrooms...I had high expectations for all kids, especially English-language learners, since I was one, and I know that that you can...learn two languages...if teachers believe in you. Rigorous instruction is what I fostered as a principal. I expected my kids not only to graduate on level but beyond level. I think that is one of the reasons we put back our professional-development department, we put back our prevention department—neither one of which had existed in the past few years.
I also believe in collaborative work, and one of the signature programs I’ve started [is] learning partners. We are looking for schools that are doing certain things particularly well and partner[ing] them with schools that want to learn how to do that thing well. We have schools, for example, that have...special needs children, dual-language programs, and we are matching other schools with them so they can learn how to do better work because they have seen it from the ground up. It’s not...coming from the top down, but from the bottom up. I think collaboration also means that if you have a good idea, you give it away.
I think one of the things that we are getting particularly good results with is family engagement. As part of the last teachers’ contract, we are one of the first cities in the country to put in an extra 40 minutes every single week for teachers to engage with parents, both in workshops, phone calls, newsletters, a multitude of ways....We want to see parents involved in every phase of the school life, and this is one of the pillars that I strongly believe in.
Q: In telling me about your vision, you mentioned some of the practical things that you have already done to put that in place. In addition to what you’ve mentioned to me, what are some of the signature programs...that I if had only three or four to list, you’d definitely want me to list those?
A: Certainly, pre-K... We have now 51,000 children in all-day pre-K, and that goes to the vision that the sooner we get children in school, the more ready they will be, and the more successful and college-ready [they will be]. You can’t start college ready in high school. The grades that we are focusing in on as part of the vision are 2nd grade, 7th grade and 10th grade. Pre-K is a big initiative. Second-grade professional development is a big initiative. Middle schools have been really one of my signature pieces for the last eight months. I visit at least three to four middle schools every week—I just went to two of them today...We’ve extended the school day for middle schools. We’ve put more arts programs in middle school. We believe that in middle school, kids need to be actively engaged in things other than academic[s]. So that’s a real important piece of what we are doing. In high school, we are really focusing on more [career/technical education] programs, so that the students who feel there is a workforce ready for them, they are much more inclined to come to school but also go on to college, because almost every [type of] work that we do now, we require some kind of college preparation.
Q: What are you doing for the special-needs population (for ELLS and for special needs students)? What are you doing to drive up their graduation rate and their proficiency?
A: Well, first of all for English-language learners, the first thing that we did, we created their own department. They had been embedded in a different department and we created a department that stands alone. This year we are increasing our dual-language programs, supporting new dual-language programs, which will start next September. This is really a signature piece because we’ve been doing it in bits and pieces, but this is a major effort to really raise the level, and saying that having a second language in this century is really important. Also, for special needs kids, [we are] looking at how much extra support we can give them through specific interventions. We have brought back training on Wilson [a special education reading program] and other intervention strategies that we know will help improve student learning, but also we are holding all schools accountable to ensure that they serve well the special needs [students] and the English-language learners that are in their communities.
Q: For ELL students, their graduation rates are significantly lower than the general population of students in NYC public schools. What are the specific programs? I know there is [a new chief of English-language learners] who would be in charge of that, but can you share some of what she would be putting in place...to drive up their graduation rate?
A: I think first of all we have to make sure that our teachers who are working with our English-language learners are better trained, so we are meeting with a lot of... universities to see which ones would come on board to help us retrain our teachers and train the teachers of tomorrow to work in these programs. We also need to be very cognizant of the fact that many of our English-language learners are coming to us in middle school and high school, and that we need to have special programs for them so that we take advantage of the skills they bring, but also make sure that we [provide them with] the ones they need to catch up on....But I think most important is making sure that teachers understand that these children can learn like everyone else, which is why there is another emphasis on parent engagement. We have been doing a lot more talking to parents in their native language. I do at least one evening a week on just parents. Every Wednesday, I am out there talking at town hall meetings, and I think raising [raising levels of parental involvement has] a very important role to play in the education of their children.
Q: In recent weeks there have been some criticism about the lack of a plan to deal with the worst performing schools or the failing schools. Some people see that as “lack of urgency” since it was something the mayor brought up when he was campaigning—that he was not going to follow Mr. Bloomberg’s policy of closing failing schools. There was the expectation that this would have been something that would have been ready, and it’s 10 months later and it’s not. So can you talk to me about that, where you are, and what [the plan] might entail?
A: First of all, I am the queen of urgency, and I am perfectly cognizant of what the schools need that are really struggling. We have been working with many of them already. In terms of a specific plan, it will be ready...soon, but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t been servicing these schools and working with these schools all summer long, and we will have a plan that’s extremely detailed.
In fact, I am going to a school tonight to announce a particular change that’s going to be very unique. Also, [as] part of the new contract...[it] says every week teachers have to have 80 minutes of professional development. In the schools with high needs, what does that look like? We’ve been developing plans for principals to follow. I actually would disagree that there is no sense of urgency. I think the reason I took this job was to be able to make more schools successful as I know they can be, and make sure that instead of closing schools, we are renewing them.
Q: Final thoughts?
A: The one thing I’d like to really dispel is that there is no vision. There is a definite vision based on all my years in schools. The one thing I can tell you is that when I speak before an audience—and I’ve been doing it on an almost daily basis—people are very happy. They understand what I am talking about. They think having a chancellor [who is] an educator brings a sense of comfort. But, also, people who know me know that I have very high ideals, and this is what it’s all about...My goal is to make sure, to every degree possible, that in the next year and a half we would have made a real turnaround in New York City. I am devoting myself to that, and I think I’ve surrounded myself with the right people to get this vision across...The mayor and I are in synch on this, and it’s easy to work with someone who shares your vision and your ideas.
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.