day one

Fariña eases expectations and adjusts to limelight on first day

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen Fariña at the Bronx's M.S. 223 in January.

A day after Mayor Bill de Blasio used his inaugural speech to double down on his promise of progressive change for the city, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña offered a more moderate vision of what is in store for the school system.

After touring a successful South Bronx middle school on her first school day on the job, Fariña told reporters Thursday that she would devote new attention to middle schools and parents, citing two of de Blasio’s education priorities.

But she also tried to tamp down expectations — and perhaps concerns — about some of the new mayor’s other campaign-trail pledges.

She said she does not oppose charter schools and will work to adjust how the city uses test scores but not necessarily to reduce the amount of testing that students endure. And she said that any staff changes she makes will be within “the framework that existed,” signaling that she does not intend to overhaul the Bloomberg-era Department of Education overnight.

“My job is to come on board and calm the waters,” Fariña told reporters when asked about changes she might make to the series of state standardized tests students will take this spring. She said about charter schools: “There are some I love to death.”

After spending more than four decades in schools as an educator and administrator, she also appeared to be adjusting to the sudden scrutiny of her views on a wide range of school policies and how she might alter them.

“Guys, give me a break. Remember, it’s my first day on the job,” she told the reporters crowded into a classroom at M.S. 223 The Laboratory School of Finance and Technology. As the briefing ended, she asked the press to call her Carmen, since “the word chancellor kind of gives me the shivers.”

In a forum for mayoral candidates last year, de Blasio promised to “put the standardized testing machine in reverse.” On Thursday, Fariña suggested that students will continue to take many of the same standardized tests, most of which are mandated by state and federal law, but that the city may rely less on the scores when making important decisions, such as school and teacher ratings and student promotion.

“I think it’s what we do with the test results that matters, versus the tests themselves, because life is full of testing,” she said.

Fariña did not suggest how she might enact de Blasio’s charter schools proposals — to charge some rent or to stop new ones from moving into existing school buildings — but simply said students in all types of schools are important.

She offered her support of the Common Core standards, saying that some of the resistance to the more challenging standards has been due to misunderstandings. But she added that officials had not done enough to guide educators as they adopted them, alluding in particular to problems with the delivery of Common Core-aligned materials to schools.

“It doesn’t seem fair to me that teachers, with all the other things they have to do, have to be inventing the curriculum as they go along,” she said, promising more training and explicit instructions about how to teach them, as well as more information for parents.

Fariña toured three classrooms at M.S. 223 with Principal Ramón González, whom she praised for adding extra programs to the school.
Fariña toured three classrooms at M.S. 223 with Principal Ramón González, whom she praised for adding extra programs to the school.

Some education department staff will likely be replaced, Fariña suggested, but added that “any changes will be very comfortable within the framework that already existed.” Asked whether she would retain Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s instructional chief who was considered a possible chancellor candidate due to his deep knowledge of the school system, Fariña said that no personnel decisions have been made yet.

Fariña said she had a busy first day, where she drank lots of coffee, skipped lunch, and met with current staffers to talk about ways to “duplicate” their policy successes.

She said she chose to visit M.S. 223 — one of the first new schools created by the Bloomberg administration — because of its “devoted teachers” and because its principal, Ramón González, had added arts, after-school and summer programs to the school partly by securing private funding.

But she also wanted to signal her focus on middle schools, arguing they play an outsize role in preparing students to succeed — or struggle — in high school and beyond.

“I really believe if we get middle school right, the rest is going to be a piece of cake,” Fariña, promising to visit more of the schools and to share the practices of their most successful principals.

González – who has been adept at using media attention to attract donors for the school’s supplemental services and facilities – said in an email that he considered Fariña a mentor and was “extremely proud” she decided to visit Thursday. He said that in a closed-door meeting they discussed how the school found funding and support to add 400 extra school hours over three years and “ways to share best practices and sustain them.”

M.S. 223 shares a building with South Bronx Preparatory, a grade 6-12 school that has earned high marks on city progress reports. Some staff there said they were disappointed that the new chancellor did not also visit their school Thursday.

“It’s a missed opportunity for her,” said Taneesha Crawford, the school’s parent coordinator.

A Department of Education spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

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.’”