Principals applaud Fariña, de Blasio as leaders present a "tone shift"

It was a night of applause at Brooklyn Tech, as hundreds of the city’s principals assembled to hear from‚ and cheer for, new chancellor Carmen Fariña and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

A few principals clapped when Fariña mentioned her new deputy chancellors. Others cheered when she announced new principal training requirements. But no reaction matched the principals’ applause after one seemingly mundane announcement: their email inboxes will no longer be capped.

That inbox size limit meant principals had to spend a few hours every few months, or a bit of time every day, deleting emails. It was exactly the kind of day-to-day frustration that they didn’t expect administrators to address, principals said.

“It’s such a small detail but it shows being in tune with our reality,” Julie Nariman, principal at High School of Language and Innovation, said of the change.

For principals, Wednesday night was their first look at de Blasio-era education policy, and Fariña focused on communicating that she understood the difficulty of their jobs. She also unveiled a number of small-scale policy changes, while distancing her leadership style from that of the previous administration.

“Our tone is going to be softer,” Fariña said. “Our tone is going to be certainly more grateful.”

De Blasio was even blunter. “I’ll say it very simply. I am not trying to bring an outside model, a corporate model, a private sector model,” he said, earning a loud round of applause.

Fariña set up her praise for principals in direct contrast to her predecessors, who she said told principals at one gathering that they “were not cutting it.”

“I’m here to tell you New York City principals are making it, and are cutting it, and are the wave of the future,” Fariña said.

Other moments reflected the new leadership’s desire to be seen as inclusive. Fariña said she would be creating elementary, middle, and high school advisory panels that would approve all new policies before they left Tweed.

Fariña used the meeting to introduce the three members of the department leadership that she appointed today, including her new second-in-command, Dorita Gibson, and her new deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, Phil Weinberg. Both had been principals, she noted.

One of Fariña’s announcements was a new qualification for that job: seven years of experience. That stands in direct contrast to the Bloomberg administration’s creation of a fast-track principal training program that drew scorn for filling the city’s schools with inexperienced leaders.

Fariña did not specify what type of work would count toward those seven years, and a Department of Education spokesperson could not immediately provide clarification.

In keeping with her focus on collaboration, the department will also be setting up “demonstration schools,” for principals-in-training or principals looking for new models to visit, Fariña said.

The chancellor didn’t directly mention one of the biggest changes facing teachers and principals this year: the rollout of the Common Core standards. She also gave no indication of her plans for the network structure of school support, an issue that many principals have already been lobbying on both sides of.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña addressed the city’s principals during a meeting Wednesday evening at Brooklyn Technical High School. (Patrick Wall)

But Fariña did tell principals she had met with state Education Commissioner John King and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, alluding to the fact that she was looking for ways to improve the teacher evaluation system.

Fariña said she had also been meeting with union leaders, mentioning the principal’s union president Ernie Logan and a recent “lunch with Michael,” referring to teachers union chief Mulgrew.

De Blasio briefly brought up his plan for a new tax to pay for pre-kindergarten, which he said he “asked for and expects to receive,” and noted that reducing class sizes would be a long-term goal.

Together, the speeches reflected a shift that many principals said they were hoping to hear when they greeted Fariña with a long standing ovation.

“You know, I knew you were happy. But I didn’t realize you were this happy,” Farina said, after telling everyone to sit down.

An hour later, Michael Lerner, principal of Bard High School Early College, called the night “uplifting.”

“There’s a sense of respect,” he said. “We’ve been waiting for a month to hear her vision, and we definitely heard it. It means a lot.”

Nariman agreed. “Principals are such hard drivers. To be told we’re actually doing a good job—it’s kind of shocking,” she said. “We’re always thinking, what should we do next?”

While Fariña kept the mood celebratory, the mayor did insert one sobering moment, acknowledging that New York City schools still had much room for improvement. “We don’t stand pat and say that’s acceptable,” he said.

Rafiq Kalam Id-Din, co-principal of Teaching Firms of America Professional Prepatory Charter School, said that reality is never far from principals’ minds—which is precisely why Fariña’s tone was so welcome.

“We all know there’s a lot of work to do. There’s no need for a caustic atmosphere,” Id-Din said. “Everyone knows we have to roll up our sleeves.”

To Wilpur Morales, principal of West Bronx Academy for the Future, it was notable that Fariña was meeting with principals before she planned to meet with superintendents and network staff. “Under the previous administration,they would notify us,” he said. “Obviously she is notifying us before she is notifying them.”