meet the new boss

De Blasio chancellor pick Fariña promises 'progressive agenda'

PHOTO: Anika Anand
Carmen Fariña was named schools chancellor Monday at Brooklyn's M.S. 51, where she promised to pursue a "progressive agenda."

Carmen Fariña, the longtime educator whom Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio named as chancellor Monday, pledged to steer the city’s school system in a new direction by turning parents into “real partners” and doing more to support teachers.

A teacher, principal and administrator who entered kindergarten unable to speak fluent English, Fariña promised to pursue a “progressive agenda” that would reduce standardized-test preparation in classrooms while restoring the arts and sciences to the curriculum.

Fariña, 70, who retired as deputy chancellor in 2006 after a four-decade career in the school system, also batted away suggestions that she had accepted the appointment on a temporary basis.

“My commitment is total,” she said, adding, “They tell me 70 is the new 40.” She said she had sacrificed “sunny days in Florida,” where her husband will reside, in order to take charge of the nation’s largest school system.

De Blasio explained the lengthy vetting process that led to Monday’s announcement by emphasizing the importance of the post and saying that he had considered candidates from across the country, but “kept coming back” to Fariña because of their shared views on education and her vast experience.

“Literally no one knows our school system better,” de Blasio said during the press conference inside Brooklyn’s M.S. 51, the well-regarded school his children attended inside the district that Fariña led as superintendent. He said her appointment ended a “trend” in which the previous four schools chancellors were non-educators who required state waivers to land the job.

Flanked by children whose stamina flagged during the hourlong event, Fariña declined to say how she will attack some of the most contentious education quandaries facing the new administration, such as whether to charge rent to charter schools in public buildings or how to forge a new contract with the city’s teachers, who have gone four years without one.

Instead, she vowed to “review everything” while making some immediate adjustments, such as creating an easier process for parents to interact with the education department.

“Day one, we’re going to figure out where you go when you’re a parent and you have an issue,” Fariña said.

Fariña cited her experience as a first-generation Spanish immigrant and English language learner who became the first in her family to graduate from college as the source of many of her core beliefs about education.

Parent-teacher conferences that were “excruciatingly painful” for her Spanish-speaking mother and a teacher who made a young Fariña feel “invisible” by mispronouncing her name convinced her that schools must embrace families of all backgrounds, she said.

“A promise I make to every parent in New York City is that your child will be spoken to by the name that you gave her, not by the name someone else gives her,” Fariña said. At one point in her remarks, she switched to her native Spanish to talk about English language learners.

Fariña cited her experience as the daughter of immigrants and an English language learner as the source of many of her views on education.
Fariña cited her experience as the daughter of immigrants and an English language learner as the source of many of her views on education.

She said her father — a maintenance worker who Fariña said arrived in the United States with only a third-grade education — advised her to analyze more than memorize in school, which shaped her views about education and testing.

“It’s always been something I’ve believed in — we learn facts maybe to take tests, but we learn thinking to get on in life,” Fariña said.

Fariña taught at Brooklyn’s P.S. 29 for 22 years before becoming principal of P.S. 6 in Manhattan, which climbed to the system’s top tier of schools during her tenure. She was later picked to become superintendent in Brooklyn’s District 15, then was made a regional superintendent and finally deputy chancellor for teaching and learning in the Bloomberg administration.

De Blasio said Fariña’s decision to leave that role after two years was driven by her policy disagreements with the previous mayor and his then-Chancellor, Joel Klein.

“Carmen came to the feeling that the needs of school communities were being ignored,” de Blasio said. He added, “She didn’t want to continue policies she didn’t believe in.”

Fariña added that family considerations had factored into her decision and that she had subsequently stayed involved in education, even teaching demonstration lessons in classrooms as recently as last month.

De Blasio said he still needed to review a parent-led lawsuit meant to stop the Bloomberg administration’s plans to put more charter schools inside existing school buildings, but he would not allow any new co-location plans for now. He also announced that Ursulina Ramirez, an official on his transition team and a former childcare worker, would serve as Fariña’s chief of staff.

Laura Scott, the principal of P.S. 10 in District 15, said after the announcement that as superintendent Fariña had instructed principals to fully incorporate special-needs students into their schools, to promote collaboration among teachers, and to beef up their parent associations. Fariña also advised them to use “testing to inform instruction, as opposed to a way to penalize teachers.”

M.S. 51 Principal Lenore DiLeo-Berner said that she and other educators who had worked under Fariña consider her an ideal schools chief.

“It’s like a dream come true,” she said.

End of an era

Longtime deputy chancellor Kathleen Grimm to retire

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm (left) at a City Council hearing to discuss the department's five-year capital plan in March 2014.

Kathleen Grimm, the deputy chancellor for operations and a fixture in the Department of Education under four chancellors, is stepping down, Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced Wednesday.

Grimm oversaw a sprawling portion of the department, including the offices overseeing safety, school support, school food, athletics, space planning, enrollment, human resources, and construction. The only official to have remained in a top post at Tweed since the beginning of the Bloomberg era, Grimm saw her responsibilities expand even further under Fariña, who moved some offices under Grimm when she shrunk the department’s cabinet.

“It is with deep personal regret that I announce a leave pending retirement of Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, an esteemed colleague who has worked tirelessly to create safe, nurturing environments in which all of our students can learn and thrive,” Fariña said in an email to department staff members.

Grimm, a tax lawyer, was brought on in 2002 for her budgeting and finance expertise and experience in navigating city and state bureaucracy. She had previously served in the state comptroller’s office and the city finance department.

Over her 14-year career at the Department of Education, Grimm preferred to stay behind the scenes, but was thrust into the spotlight when changes to school bus routes, budget cuts, and space planning made headlines.

Her oversight of the city’s transportation of students meant she faced fierce criticism when repeated changes to bus routes angered parents and City Council members. Her oversight of the capital budget and the Blue Book, which sets guidelines for school space use, also made her a frequent target of class-size reduction advocates, who often said the city’s calculations did not reflect reality.

But Grimm was revered within the department for her calm under pressure. She frequently defended the school system in front of the City Council, bearing the brunt of then-education committee chair Eva Moskowitz’s relentless criticism of the city’s toilet-paper offerings in 2004 and, more recently, testifying at hearings on toxic lighting fixtures and school overcrowding.

“Cool and effective, Kathleen stayed for the full twelve years of the Bloomberg administration and did a tough, unglamorous job with distinction,” Klein wrote of Grimm in his memoir “Lessons of Hope.”

On Wednesday, Fariña offered her own praise. “As a senior member of my leadership team, Deputy Chancellor Grimm has provided a strong foundation for our most critical initiatives, including Pre-K for All, Community Schools, and our expanded school support and safety services,” she said.

Grimm’s chief of staff Elizabeth Rose will take over as interim acting deputy chancellor during a search for Grimm’s replacement, Fariña said.

year in review

In first year as chancellor, Fariña counts on fellow educators to drive changes

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks to superintendents and principals overseeing the city's designated renewal schools.

To understand how things have changed since Carmen Fariña became schools chancellor, consider where she has chosen to be on roughly 200 occasions this year, often five times per week: in schools.

She uses the hour-long visits to find model schools that other educators can tour and to size up principals, noting whether teachers seem surprised to see their bosses (a sign they aren’t poking into classrooms enough) and if the principals bring any deputies along for the tours (a hint they know how to delegate). She inspects students’ writing and asks the principal to show her a strong teacher in action and a weak one.

Twelve months into her stint leading the nation’s largest school system, Fariña’s attention to such details seems misplaced to some critics, who worry that it comes at the expense of big-picture thinking and suggests a shift away from the greater autonomy that principals gained under the previous administration.

But to her many admirers, the visits reflect a belief that even in a system of 1.1 million students and 75,000 or so teachers, change can happen school by school and classroom by classroom when educators are empowered, without the seismic policy shakeups that seemed to occur routinely under her recent predecessors. As Fariña, who has spent nearly half a century working in schools, likes to say, “The answers are in the classroom.” In other words, this is educator-driven education reform.

“There’s a sense,” said Alison Coviello, principal of P.S. 154 in the Bronx, “that we’re all in this together.”

When Mayor Bill de Blasio pulled Fariña from semi-retirement last January, she decided that she would have to roll back the Bloomberg-era policies she disagreed with even as she put her own into place: To “undo while [she’s] doing,” as she told Chalkbeat earlier this year.

And that’s just what she’s done. She downsized the office that helped create new schools — a signature Bloomberg initiative — while resurrecting the department devoted to teacher training. She re-empowered superintendents, who were marginalized under Bloomberg, and insisted that would-be principals and superintendents both spend more years in schools (a rejection of the Bloombergian idea that talent trumps experience). And she axed the Bloomberg policies that tied student promotion to test scores and assigned schools letter grades as she launched her own signature program, which sends educators to visit successful schools to pick up ideas.

That program, called Learning Partners, exemplifies Fariña’s approach. It is educator-led, cooperative, and subtle, allowing Fariña to spread her ideas through proxies rather than edicts.

“We have gotten more schools to change practices not by mandating, but by collaborating,” she said in an interview Monday. “I could have said across the board, ‘Every middle school needs to do X, Y and Z.’ And we didn’t do that.”

She also helped forge new contracts with the principals and the teachers unions, which had given up on negotiating with the previous administration. The teachers got a big payout in the contract (though not big enough to satisfy everyone), while Fariña was able to embed time for training and interacting with parents into teachers’ weekly schedules (at the cost of student-tutoring time, which was repurposed). Cynics charged that the city secured the contracts by giving into most of the unions’ demands, but Fariña argues that they were the product of her collaborative approach.

“What we got out of those contracts,” she said, “probably would not have been possible without that kind of partnership.”

She also helped the mayor fulfill his promise to get 53,000 four-year-olds into classrooms.

“How could I forget?” Fariña said. “Pre-K!”

For all that she has already done and undone, Fariña has a big year ahead of her. On Monday, she ticked off a few of the biggest items on her to-do list.

First, she must help de Blasio add the 20,000 additional pre-kindergarten seats he has promised, even as charter schools demand more space of their own. Then, she must turn two of his most ambitious plans into reality: to convert nearly 130 schools into service hubs for students and their families, and to turn around more than 90 low-performing schools.

That last task will be especially daunting. Rather than shut down chronically underachieving schools or replace their staffs, Fariña has proposed lifting them up through a mix of supports for students and coaching for educators. That is a big gamble, which Fariña made clear at a meeting Monday with the leaders of those struggling schools.

“I’m holding you even more accountable,” she told the principals. “Because I went out on a limb, as did Mayor de Blasio, and said, ‘We’re not closing schools. We’re giving everybody a second chance.’”