Fariña eases expectations and adjusts to limelight on first day

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.

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.