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.

Achievement School District

Tennessee’s turnaround district gets new leadership team for a new chapter

PHOTO: TN.gov
Malika Anderson became superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District in 2016 under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is bringing in some new blood to lead its turnaround district after cutting its workforce almost in half and repositioning the model as an intervention of last resort for the state’s chronically struggling schools.

While Malika Anderson remains as superintendent of the Achievement School District, she’ll have two lieutenants who are new to the ASD’s mostly charter-based turnaround district, as well as two others who have been part of the work in the years since its 2011 launch.

The hires stand in contrast to the original ASD leadership team, which was heavy with education reformers who came from outside of Tennessee or Memphis. And that’s intentional, Anderson said Friday as she announced the new lineup with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“It is critical in this phase of the ASD that we are learning from the past … and have leaders who are deeply experienced in Tennessee,” Anderson said.

New to her inner circle as of Aug. 1 are:

Verna Ruffin
Chief academic officer

PHOTO: Submitted
Verna Ruffin

Duties: She’ll assume oversight of the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by former executive director Tim Ware, who did not reapply. She’ll also promote collaboration across Achievement Schools and the ASD’s charter schools.

Last job: Superintendent of Jackson-Madison County School District since 2013

Her story: More than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of secondary curriculum, assistant superintendent and superintendent in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. At Jackson-Madison County, Ruffin oversaw a diverse student body and implemented a K-3 literacy initiative to promote more rigorous standards.

Farae Wolfe
Executive director of operations

Duties: Human resources, technology and operations

Current job: Program director for the Community Youth Career Development Center in Cleveland, Miss.

Her story: Wolfe has been city manager and human resources director for Cleveland, Miss., where she led a health and wellness initiative that decreased employee absenteeism due to minor illness by 20 percent. Her work experience in education includes overseeing parent and community relations for a Mississippi school district, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Leaders continuing to work with the state turnaround team are:

Lisa Settle
Chief performance officer

PHOTO: Achievement Schools
Lisa Settle

Duties: She’ll oversee federal and state compliance for charter operators and direct-run schools.

Last job: Chief of schools for the direct-run Achievement Schools since June 2015

Her story: Settle was co-founder and principal of Cornerstone Prep-Lester Campus, the first charter school approved by the ASD in Memphis. She also has experience in writing and reviewing curriculum in her work with the state’s recent Standards Review Committee.

Bobby White
Executive director of external affairs

PHOTO: ASD
Bobby White

Duties: He’ll continue his work to bolster the ASD’s community relations, which was fractured by the state’s takeover of neighborhood schools in Memphis when he came aboard in April 2016.

Last job: ASD chief of external affairs

His story: A Memphis native, White previously served as chief of staff and senior adviser for Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton, as well as a district director for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

A new team for a new era

The restructuring of the ASD and its leadership team comes after state officials decided to merge the ASD with support staff for its Achievement Schools. All 59 employees were invited in May to reapply for 30 jobs, some of which are still being filled.

The downsizing was necessary as the state ran out of money from the federal Race to the Top grant that jump-started the turnaround district in 2011 and has sustained most of its work while growing to 33 schools at its peak.

While the changes signal a new era for the state-run district, both McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have said they’re committed to keeping the ASD as Tennessee’s most intensive intervention when local and collaborative turnaround efforts fail, even as the initiative has had a mostly lackluster performance.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently,” McQueen said Friday, “and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan …”

In the next phase, school takeovers will not be as abrupt as the first ones that happened in Memphis in 2012, prompting angry protests from teachers and parents and outcry from local officials. Local districts will have three years to use their own turnaround methods before schools can be considered for takeover.

It’s uncertain where the ASD will expand next, but state officials have told Hamilton County leaders that it’s one of several options on the table for five low-performing schools in Chattanooga.

transfer talk

This seemingly small change could make it easier for guidance counselors to send students to transfer schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A guidance counselor at Bronx Academy of Letters

New York City is planning to make it easier to refer students to alternative high schools — part of a broader effort to remove obstacles for students seeking admission to them.

The change will affect the city’s 52 transfer schools, which are designed to catch up students who have dropped out, are over-age or behind in credits. Guidance counselors at traditional high schools will be able to electronically recommend up to three transfer school options for students they believe would be better served in different settings.

That change might seem minor, but it is at the center of a wider debate playing out behind the scenes between the city’s education department — which has indicated that transfer schools are being too picky about who they admit — and transfer schools themselves, some of which worry the new policy could lead to an influx of students who have been pushed out of their high schools.

“There’s a significant fear from transfer schools that these will essentially be over-the-counter placements,” said one Manhattan transfer school principal, referring to a process through which the city directly assigns students who arrive after the admissions process is over, often mid-year. “It doesn’t necessarily make for a better fit for a student.”

Unlike most high schools in New York City, transfer schools admit students outside the centrally managed choice process. Instead, they set their own entrance criteria, often requiring that students interview, and meet minimum credit or age requirements. The schools themselves largely determine which students they admit, and accept them at various points during the year.

Some transfer school principals say this intake process is essential to maintaining each school’s culture, which depends on enrolling students who genuinely want to give school another try after dropping out or falling behind elsewhere.

But city officials have quietly scaled back the type of sorting transfer schools can do, banning them from testing students before they’re admitted, for example, or looking at attendance or suspension records. The transfer school superintendent also now has the power to directly place students if they are rejected from three transfer schools.

Given those changes, some transfer school principals are wary of the latest policy, which will allow guidance counselors at traditional schools to electronically “refer” students for up to three specific transfer schools, and requires transfer schools to track their interactions with those students.

The city says the new system will make it easier to find the right match between schools and students. It will “make the transfer high school admissions process easier and more transparent for students and families, while also ensuring better tracking and accountability,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement.

He noted the city is still working on implementation and the change won’t will happen before spring 2018. (The education department currently doesn’t have a way to track how many students are being recommended to transfer schools versus how many are actually accepted.)

Mantell could not say whether guidance counselors would need a student’s consent before electronically referring the student to a transfer school, and could not point to any specific policies on when it is appropriate for guidance counselors to refer students — though he noted there would be additional training for them.

Ron Smolkin, principal of Independence High School, a transfer school, says he appreciates the change. He worries about students who have fallen behind being told they “don’t qualify” for a transfer school, he said. “That’s why we exist.”

But other principals say it will make it easier for traditional schools to dump students because they are difficult to serve, regardless of whether they are good candidates for a transfer.

“There’s a greater risk of pushouts,” the Manhattan transfer school principal said.

Transfer school principals also worry about the consequences of accepting students who might be less likely to graduate than their current students — a potential effect of the new policy. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires high schools to graduate 67 percent of their students; those that don’t will be targeted for improvement.

Some transfer schools have called that an unfair standard since, by design, they take students who have fallen behind. The state has said transfer schools will not automatically face consequences, such as closure, if they fail to meet that benchmark, but it remains to be seen whether that entirely solves the problem.

One transfer school principal said the city’s desire to better monitor the admissions process makes sense, but won’t prevent schools from gaming the system — and is being implemented without adequate input from principals.

“Our voices haven’t been heard in this process,” the principal said, “and there are a lot of reasons to distrust.”