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Fariña launches program to pair schools with aim of improving them

Chancellor Carmen Fariña in April visits I.S. 88, one of the few classroom tours where cameras were invited along with her. Fariña has preferred private meetings with school leaders and staff so far in her tenure.

Nearly 100 days into her tenure, Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s dreams are finally coming true.

That’s how she framed the launch today of a new program to pair schools in hopes that their collaboration will lift school quality. It is the first major policy announcement for Fariña, whose tenure up to now has consisted largely of boosting morale, putting out fires, and promoting the de Blasio administration’s pre-kindergarten expansion.

“It’s not often in a lifetime that you get your dreams to come true,” Fariña said at a splashy press conference inside a classroom at J.H.S. 88 in Park Slope, one of the seven schools picked to help two “partner” schools work on specific weaknesses. “And today is one of those times that my dreams are coming true.”

The Learning Partners Program is the citywide version of a program that Fariña instituted when she was a local superintendent more than a decade ago. For months, even before she was appointed to run the school system, she advocated using “demonstration schools” to highlight practices that other schools could emulate.

That kind of sharing will anchor the city’s efforts to improve schools, Fariña said today. “It really boils down to … you learn best when you learn together,” she said.

Officials said the new initiative — which Fariña said was so important that she launched it faster than some confidantes advised —  is meant to foster “collaboration, not competition” among schools. They were offering a veiled criticism of the Bloomberg administration’s approach to school improvement, which centered on giving schools letter grades that weighed their relative performance and shuttering the weakest performers.

“Don’t be looking for A’s and B’s and all of that craziness,” said Council of School Supervisors and Administrators President Ernest Logan, referring to the city’s annual report card grades. “Forget that. Let’s talk about what works in these buildings.”

Those conversations will happen during frequent visits between host and partner schools. Over the 12 weeks before the end of the school year, the host schools will send teams on 10 school visits and host six visits of their own — in addition to carrying out their regular activities.

A Department of Education official will coordinate the meetings for each host-partner relationship. Beyond that, officials did not say today whether the host schools would get extra resources in exchange for the new duties, or whether partner schools would get help implementing the lessons they learn.

But Christina Fuentes, a former principal who heads the initiative, said the participating schools were fully on board with the project — and the city is counting on enthusiastic principals to enable a rapid expansion. The department is soliciting applications now for schools to join the program this fall, when it will expand to as many as 72 schools.

“We have put this together in basically a month,” Fuentes said. “And the degree of commitment and excitement is just palpable.”

Eligible host schools must have received a good evaluation from city reviewers, and schools won’t qualify if they screen for all of their students. Qualifying principals will also need to have at least five years of “leadership experience within one school,” according to the city.

Fariña praised the pilot host schools as having found special ways to reach their student populations. M.S. 88, for instance, does a particularly good job of using technology, while M.S. 223 in the Bronx is especially strong at bringing the arts to a high-need community. Eagle Academy for Young Men II — whose principal, Kenyatta Reid, saw his previous school closed due to low performance after he left — will show off how it meets students’ social and emotional needs.

Fariña said charter schools would be included in the program if they apply.

“Remember the original charter movement was also to add value to what we were doing,” Fariña said. “They were supposed to be doing something cutting edge, so to the degree that some of them are, and want to be a part of it, then absolutely.”

Fariña pointed out that many of the schools that are leading the effort were once struggling schools that have since turned around and are now on an upward trajectory. She said that she hopes the improvements will spread as some partner schools eventually become host schools.

“We don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel,” Fariña said. “We can replicate what works and just refine it.”

She added, “We’re hoping that by June, we’ll bring them all together and say, how do you think your school got better?”

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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.’”