straight talk

Chancellor Fariña: ‘Kids aren’t supermarket items that you can move around’

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Chancellor Carmen Fariña

New York City schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña knows she has something to prove.

When she started in 2014, she seemed intent on moving the nation’s largest school system away from the aggressive policies of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who closed more than 150 schools. Since then, Fariña has established her own program for struggling schools, created new training programs for teachers, and worked to transform school discipline.

When Chalkbeat interviewed her last week, she was proud of her efforts thus far, but mindful of the need to show concrete results.

She pointed to signs of progress at the city’s remaining 86 “Renewal” schools, which were given extra funding to add supports like health clinics and food pantries. While she acknowledged the challenge of sustaining student enrollment at these schools, she dismissed concerns about staffing. “A lot more teachers apply to teach in Renewal schools than apply to leave Renewal schools,” she said.

She also made it clear that, despite the schools’ June 2017 deadline for improvement, she hopes to keep the added supports in place for years to come. “I would think, over time, they will stay, no matter what,” she said.

She didn’t rule out the possibility of closing one or two struggling schools next year, but emphasized that isn’t the backbone of her improvement plan. “Kids aren’t supermarket items that you can move around,” she said. “We’ve got to really stay the course and see progress over time.”

She took a similarly incremental approach to the issue of desegregation, restating her position that diversity plans should spring from districts and schools. Yet, she also said her office was working closely with superintendents to encourage dialogue in the “eight to 12 districts that we feel are really ready and right for this.”

Here is the interview, condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Chalkbeat: Let’s talk about Renewal Schools. Is it hard to attract teachers to those schools, and principals?

A lot more teachers apply to teach in Renewal schools than apply to leave Renewal schools. In one of the classrooms I was in, half of the teachers were in Renewal schools. And when I asked them why they applied, they said, “It’s because we’re going to get a lot more staff development, we’re going to get more support, and we’re going to be able to give back.” And a lot of these teachers have been rated “highly effective” in their existing schools. I think it was 248, but the number’s changing, “effective” and “highly effective” teachers moving into Renewal schools.

Some of these schools have lost a lot of staff. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Can you fill those slots?

I think what you need to do is have high expectations. If we’re going to have an equitable system, the best principals need to be in every single school, not just in some schools. So, I think one of the messages we gave in the very beginning is that not all principals were the highest quality leaders — we moved about 30, 40 principals just from Renewal schools. Because people saw that we only wanted the best people, we had people apply. We didn’t really have trouble recruiting, but we wanted to make sure it was the best person in the job.

What about declining student enrollment, which we know is a struggle at some of the Renewal schools?

It’s a struggle in some places, and one of the things we talk about is rebranding … Let parents come and see your schools. A lot of schools took years and years to get the negative reputation they did. So the neighborhood still knows it as the “bad school,” so unless you bring them into the building, to walk the building with you, then you’re not going to change that around. But [the principal] told me today, this is a Renewal school, that she has more people on the wait-list than she has room for them right now. So that’s good.

Obviously, enrollment, there are just X number of kids to go around. But again, that means that parents have choices, and that goes back to the equity issue as well. If I’m a parent, particularly in middle school, I have choices I can make and it’s great.

It also ups the game because a lot of these schools — I’m thinking of one of the middle schools in Brooklyn — he’s put in so many extra programs in that building. He now has more programs than a middle school that was listed gifted and talented, because he knows he has to work harder to attract parents to come to that building.

The Renewal schools’ state test scores were mostly up. How much weight can we give those numbers, given that the tests changed this year?

Let me be very clear. The test has changed, but as the [State Education] Commissioner [MaryEllen Elia] has said, the rigorousness and the difficulty of the test has stayed the same. What has changed is the amount the time. And I heard a quote that she made last night that I thought was perfect: Are we testing kids’ stamina or are we testing their comprehension? I’d like to think we’re testing their comprehension. And also, the entire state took the same test, so we’re comparing ourselves and I think we have done very, very well.

The other thing I’m particularly proud of and here it goes back to the equity issue: Every single district in the city has progressed. In the past, there’d be the gainers and losers. And that did not happen this year. Some districts progressed more than others, but everyone made progress.

But these Renewal schools are going to be judged at the end of the three-year period [June 2017] and the test scores will be one of the measures.

Absolutely. We’re looking at enrollment, we’re looking at attendance, we’re looking at teacher satisfaction … Is there trust? There’s going to be, even in this coming year, more mergers, consolidations, maybe even one or two closures. So everything is still on the table, but having the progress there raises morale and raises the enthusiasm for the people to do the work.

So if they don’t meet their targets, they definitely could be candidates for closure?

It’s one school at a time. We look at each school individually. We changed enough principals and now teachers. Kids aren’t supermarket items that you can move around. We’ve got to really stay the course and see progress over time.

I think pre-K is a game-changer. I think emphasis on literacy for second graders: game-changer. If you look at the scores, they were particularly high in third and fourth grade, and that shows two-and-a-half years’ effort on writing and reading that we did. Now we need to focus it more on math, which is certainly where we’re going.

When you do hit the deadline for Renewal schools, what happens to the supports in the schools?

I think that’s a question we have yet to — The community schools have definitely been an asset. They’ve been an asset because they’re in neighborhoods, by and large, where we need family support and it gives them that. And again, when you’re looking at equity, equity in the highest-poverty area of the Bronx is not the same as equity, again, in Cobble Hill, where I live. So how do you balance that as well? This family needs more support, they may need the mental health [services], they may need food pantries.

I would think that, over time, [community schools] will stay no matter what. If schools have a certain amount of budget, we don’t take it away from them the next year, regardless of what it is. So I strongly feel that will be part of what we do going forward.

So it’s not like, June 2017 — time’s up?

No, and also, we analyze three times a year. We don’t wait until June on the scores. Right now, attendance is one of our biggest things that we look at, and attendance is up in almost all our Renewal schools. We look at, is chronic absenteeism lowered? And that’s something we focus on a lot. So, are the community schools getting the students into school every single day?

And the other thing, when we look at numbers, in terms of test scores, we’re not looking always at the overall numbers. We’re looking at, did we lessen the number of Level 1 [least proficient] kids? And that was a big success in terms of the Renewal schools. So those are all the kinds of pictures that we look at.

We also look at, do teachers want to teach in the school? I was in a Renewal school recently where I had gone there for some activity, it was 5 o’clock, and all the teachers were still there. So teacher satisfaction is part of what we look at. Do they want to teach in that building?

On integration, the mayor recently talked about a “bigger vision” for diversity and integration. What does that mean?

I think it means we’re really putting a very strong focus on equity and what does equity look like where diversity is aligned. And I now have a deputy chancellor, Josh Wallack, who’s heading this work, and he’s going to be meeting individually with a lot of the superintendents who are in areas where we see a possibility of moving quicker in these areas. Some of the districts have already expressed — you have District 1, you have 3, you have 15 — you have a whole slew of them.

So what does it look like? And it’s going to look a little different in every district, because I also see diversity as fair share of special ed kids. You cannot have three schools within a same geographical area [where] she has 40 percent special ed and you have zero, which is what we’re finding. So, how do we equalize that, I think, is important.

We have a pilot project now with schools that are not necessarily zoned. You have the Brooklyn New School, you have Julie Zuckerman [principal of Castle Bridge School], you have Naomi Smith [principal of Central Park East II], who set aside seats for kids whose parents are incarcerated. So we’re allowing principals who have seats and are not turning away zoned kids to look at diversity as how it suits them. I think we’re going to see that grow.

We’ve also starting putting programs in place, like the Arts [Audition] Boot Camp. And I want to see double the number of kids next year, and these are kids from every borough coming and getting help so they can apply to the specialized arts schools and not have to pay for private tutors for their training. So that’s another way to do diversity.

Another way to do diversity is in co-located buildings, particularly our high schools, to share the AP courses. [Herbert H.] Lehman High School [in the Bronx] comes to mind because I’ve been shouting them out everywhere I go. There are six high schools. Each of those six high schools has a little bit of a different take on diversity. One of the schools is much more focused on arts-centered kids. But if they have to take their AP courses across the whole campus — and AP courses are for all kids, not just kids who score at a certain level — I think that will help with diversity as well.

And I think also a big focus on diversity is going to be in middle school and high schools where there’s more options for kids to travel on their own, rather than zoned schools.

But everyone is talking about it, and I think talking about it is the first part.

But you’re still talking about a school-by-school or district-by-district plan. Any bigger, sort of citywide vision coming out?

I think when you get people to buy into a vision that’s theirs, that they’re creating on their own, you’re going to have much deeper buy-in than if you mandate things from the top. We’ve already started talking to the CEC [Community Education Council] presidents about how much they want to get involved in these discussions. I met with them last week.

Were the CEC presidents receptive and excited about doing this?

Very much so.

In Manhattan’s District 1, we’ve written about whether a “controlled choice” integration plan is going to happen there. It seems like we’re hearing that.

Well, we have more for them to do. And the more they’ll discuss and the more they finalize it, I’m happy to hear what they have to say.

But it’s not a done deal yet.

It’s still in discussion. I mean, they have an advantage, if you want to call it that, that most of their schools are not zoned. It’s not something that can be easily replicated somewhere else, but I’m certainly interested to see what they come up with. But that’s my whole idea. It has to come organically from the people who are going to be engaged in the work.

What happens then, if you have a district like District 3 [on the Upper West Side], where there’s been a fight about rezoning? Some parents want it, some parents don’t. How does the Department decide how to proceed?

You talk, and you talk, and you talk. And you listen, and you listen, and you listen. And we are actually doing a lot more training of superintendents on how to handle the dialogue and get people to the table. I don’t think you do this without doing a lot of listening, and we now have a team that’s going to go out and do this. We designated anywhere from eight to 12 districts that we feel are really ready and right for this, and we’re going to be working with those superintendents to support them and get their ideas.

This is not going to be ‘Carmen says.’ I do that sometimes, but this is not that. Equity means it comes from you, this is what you need. And what you need on the Upper West Side is not necessarily what you need on the East Side.

The City Council asked the Department of Education to make a formal a proclamation in favor of diversity. Why not do that?

Because then it’s just words and no actions.

It would have symbolic weight, though, presumably.

Proclamations, without a plan of action, are proclamations.

Quickly jumping to discipline. What if a principal or a teacher comes to you and says, ‘The proposed ban on suspensions in kindergarten through second grade is going to make my life harder. I need to have all the tools at my disposal to keep my kids safe.’

Look, they’re still going to have tools — let’s be very clear. We are developing a plan where, a principal who has a 7-year-old that is out of control and has been doing that systemically, we’ll have phone numbers to call. We’re certainly putting extra support at the borough levels. We’re going to be training a lot more teachers — all our pre-K teachers went through special training on social-emotional [support].

And the other thing I would say to a principal is, ‘Really? Do you have a grandchild? Do you have a child that was 7 years old at one time? If they had meltdowns, how would you have handled it?’

So I wouldn’t say the principal has no recourse. I mean, most of the principals I’ve spoken to are perfectly OK with the plan for K to 2. In fact, we had principals on the committee that made these decisions. And they were very much in favor of having much more of a child-centered approach to how we look at behavior in the classrooms.

The unions have been hesitant on it.

That’s their role to play. I have my role to play.

I see myself as making sure that every child in New York City has an equitable and safe experience. To me, equity is being in the classroom with your peers. Or the traditional “time out” within a couple of hours in a building — but not at home or someplace else. I mean, how do you say to a 6-year-old, ‘You did something wrong,’ if they’re isolated from the actions that they took?

So, you know, and like I said, I was a mother. I am a mother and a grandmother and I know kids can act inappropriately. But there’s a training that you have to put in place. And keeping them out of the place is not going to change behavior. And a lot of the more successful schools are using something called PBIS [Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports], restorative justice practices. We have so many different programs that we put in place.

I know in my school I had a very small cafeteria. Very large school. We started playing music at lunch. We let the kids pick the music they wanted to play. On Fridays, we had casual Fridays where you could sit anywhere you want. So how do you get the kids involved in changing behavior?

Are you worried about how discipline disproportionately affects some students more than others? Black and Latino students?

I’m concerned about any child who’s excluded from class. Because if they’re not there, they’re not learning. It’s that simple.

taking initiative

Parents, students press Aurora school district to pass resolution assuring safety of immigrant students

A reading lesson this spring at an Aurora family resource center. (Kathryn Scott, The Denver Post).

As a mother of four U.S.-born schoolchildren, but being in the country illegally herself, Arely worries that immigration agents might pick her up while she is taking her kids to school one day.

But what worries her more is that her children could be picking up on her fears — and that it might hurt their focus in school. She’s also concerned for those immigrant students who could be at risk for deportation.

“There are a lot of us who are looking for the security or reassurance from the district — most of all, that our children will be safe,” said Arely, who spoke on the condition that her full name not be used because of her immigration status.

Dozens of Aurora students and parents, including Arely, are pressing the school board of Aurora Public Schools to adopt a proposed resolution for “safe and inclusive” schools that they say would help. While the Denver school board adopted a similar resolution in February, their peers in Aurora have yet to act.

“Knowing that Aurora doesn’t yet have a resolution makes me feel insecure,” Arely said.

A district spokesman said in an email the resolution won’t be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, on Tuesday, but that it would be “part of the Board’s open dialogue.”

“Anytime the Board is contemplating a community request, the Board first openly discusses their interest in a public forum,” spokesman Corey Christiansen said. “If there is interest, the Board would decide to move forward at a future meeting to issue a statement.”

Two board members reached for comment Wednesday — Dan Jorgensen and Monica Colbert — both said they supported the resolution.

“I believe that not only do we have a legal obligation to serve all students, more importantly, we have a moral obligation to make sure that all of our students are in safe and inclusive environments,” Jorgensen said. “This resolution is about doing the right thing, including providing a public statement of support and directing reasonable action on behalf of all children in our schools.”

Colbert said not supporting the resolution would deny the strength of the district’s diversity.

“In a district like Aurora where our biggest strength is our diversity, for us not to adopt a resolution such as this would be not well serving of our students,” Colbert said.

The document presented by parents and students would direct the school district to ensure officials are not collecting information about the legal status of students or their families, that they keep schools safe for students and families, and that a memo the district sent to school leaders in February gets translated and made available to all families and all staff.

The memo outlines the procedures Aurora school leaders should follow if interacting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at a school.

The resolution also calls for district officials to write a plan within 90 days for how to react if an immigration enforcement action prevents a parent from picking up a student from school.

The parents and students started sharing concerns at end of last year after President Trump’s election stoked fears in immigrant communities.

Working with RISE, a nonprofit that works with low-income parents to give them a voice in education issues, the parents and students researched other school district resolutions and worked on drafting their own.

“We didn’t want any words that seemed as if they were demanding,” Arely said. “We just want equality for our children.”

Anjali Ehujel, a 17-year-old senior at Aurora Central High School, said she has seen her friends suffering and worried a lot recently. The most important part of the resolution for her was making sure her fellow students were no longer so distracted.

“This is important because we all need education and we all have rights to get education,” Ehujel said.

Another student, Mu Cheet Cheet, a 14-year-old freshman at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, said she got involved because she saw other students at her school bullied and depressed as they were teased about the possibility of being deported.

“For refugees they would just watch because they didn’t know how to help,” Cheet said. “When I came here, I also wanted to feel safe.”

Cheet, who came to the country as a refugee from Thailand seven years ago, found that working on the resolution was one way she could help.

More than 82 percent of the Aurora district’s 41,000 students are students of color. The city and district are one of the most diverse in the state.

“We really hope APS approves this resolution given it’s the most diverse district in the state,” said Veronica Palmer, the executive director of RISE Colorado.

Here is the draft resolution:



FINAL Resolution to Keep APS Safe and Inclusive 4 21 17 (Text)

maybe next year

Senate Republicans kill bill that would have taken broad look at public education in Colorado

Students at Vista PEAK Exploratory in Aurora work on a math assignment. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

A Republican-controlled state Senate committee spiked a bill Wednesday that was meant to spark a broad conversation about the future of Colorado’s public schools.

Some lawmakers hoped House Bill 1287 would help sell voters on raising taxes to better fund the state’s schools. But the Senate State, Military and Veterans Affairs committee voted 3-2 along party lines to kill the legislation, which would have created a series of committees to examine the state’s education laws and make recommendations for changing them.

Republicans objected to the bill because they didn’t want to create more bureaucracy, and they thought it was a ploy to raise taxes.

The bill’s demise was a defeat for a group of the state’s most authoritative lawmakers on education policy. It was one of the top legislative priorities for state Reps. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, and Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican. Both serve of the state’s budget committee and rallied lawmakers around the bill.

Rankin called the bill the most important of his legislative career.

“I’m bitterly disappointed, although it was expected,” he said. “I certainly don’t intend to give up. We’ve worked for over three years to move this idea forward. We thought we built a bipartisan coalition that was interested and wanted to help. We thought we were making really good progress.”

Hamner also expressed dismay over the bill’s death.

“To die quietly like that in Senate was really, really surprising and disappointing,” Hamner said. “Do we still have a need to establish a vision for the future of our kids? Yes. Apparently we’re going to have to do that without our Senate majority.”

Last-minute amendments brought by state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican, to address Senate GOP leadership’s concerns could not save the bill.

Supporters of the bill said the legislature needed to step in to help rethink Colorado’s education landscape holistically, not with piecemeal legislation. The state’s laws are outdated and clash with 21st century expectations, they said at Wednesday’s hearing.

“Our current collection of policies and laws have failed to keep pace with changes in expectations of our education system,” said Mark Sass, a Broomfield high school teacher and state director of a teacher fellowship program. “We need a deliberate and collaborative conversation in our state, as to our vision of education.”

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said he supported the goal of the bill. His name was listed as a sponsor when the bill was first introduced. But he said he eventually concluded the bill was the wrong approach.

“I’m not sure this is the solution to get us there,” he said. “It’s time for us to take a bottom up approach. I get nervous about standing up and staffing and financing another government program.”

After the committee hearing, Sass said Republican lawmakers failed to realize their unique role in Colorado shaping statewide education policy. The state’s constitution gives no authority to the governor, the education commissioner or the State Board of Education to create a strategic plan.

“We need someone to drive this conversation,” he said. “If the legislature won’t, who will?”

Priola said in an interview that he had hoped for more time to lobby Senate leadership and members of the committee. Instead, he said he’d try again next year.

“We live in a state with 178 school districts and thousands of schools,” he said. “There can’t be one way of doing things, but there also can’t be 1,000. There has to be some commonality on what we’re doing and what direction we’re heading.”

Rankin was less committed in trying again next year.

“I want to think about,” he said. “I don’t think this elected, term-limited legislature with the background they come from can develop the kind of leadership needed for this movement.”

The death of House Bill 1287 puts another bipartisan piece of legislation on shaky ground.

House Bill 1340, sponsored by state Reps. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, and Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, would create a committee of lawmakers to study and make changes to the way Colorado funds its schools.

The state House of Representatives was expected to hold its final vote on that bill Wednesday morning. But Democratic leadership pushed the vote by a day.

Some Democrats in the House saw the two bills as a package, while Republicans in the Senate saw them as competing. With partisan rancor flaring in the waning days of the session, House Democrats could return the favor and kill the finance study bill.

Rankin, the House Republican, said he hoped his chamber’s leadership would let the finance study bill move forward. He introduced a similar bill two years ago but was unable to get the bill through the legislative process.

“I think it’s a good idea to take a hard look at school finance. Maybe we can get some dialogue going,” he said, adding that he believes lawmakers still need to think about a strategic plan for its schools.

Hamner, the House Democrat, said she also supported the finance study.

“I think their bill will be just fine,” she said. “Unless the Senate decides to kill it in State Affairs.”