Fariña shares advice with new principals, but avoids touchy topics

The hard-won wisdom could have come from any number of experienced principals: Turn troublesome students into special helpers, invite teachers to help steer school policy, praise the custodians.

But on Saturday, that school-leadership advice came from a veteran principal who is also the new head of the city school system.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke to school leaders who have been in that role for three years or fewer at a conference for new principals at Stuyvesant High School, before veteran principals led workshops on topics such as managing budgets and engaging parents.

Fariña mostly steered clear of matters that have frustrated many principals, particularly the city’s new teacher evaluation system and learning standards, according to principals who participated. Instead, she used the meeting to assure the new school leaders that they can count on her support. That message, part of Fariña’s ongoing effort to “soften the tone” of the education department, appeared to resonate with the principals, who began arriving at 8 a.m. Saturday for the voluntary professional development.

“Sometimes you have PD and it was just another PD,” said Ron Link, principal of the Theater Arts Production Company School in the Bronx. “This wasn’t. This was a sea change.”

Fariña organized the conference for new principals early in her tenure after becoming concerned about newer principals’ skills. “As I visit schools I’m finding that a lot of newer principals really don’t know some of the nitty gritty stuff that they should know and they’re getting really harmed by not knowing that,” she told Chalkbeat in February, shortly after she announced a seven-year experience requirement for new principals.

In Fariña’s keynote speech, principals said, she repeated her “C’s” mantra, saying principals should focus on communication, celebration, curriculum, and capacity-building, by which she means training and empowering teachers. But she also got into the nitty-gritty by sharing what one attendee called “very granular” advice.

Fariña said that when she was principal of P.S. 6 in Manhattan, she made inroads with difficult students by letting them shadow her as “principal for a day.” She boosted staff morale by taking over teachers’ classes on their birthdays. (That gesture also offered her a chance to check out teachers’ rooms when they weren’t around, she has said.) She also described how she had involved teachers in school decision-making, adding that when she visits staff meetings now she expects to hear lively conversations, not principal monologues.

“It can’t just be top down — that’s not the kind of leadership she wants to see,” said a Brooklyn principal who, like several others, asked that his name not be published because he did not have department approval to discuss the meeting.

To illustrate the importance of a welcoming school environment, she told a cautionary tale about a time when she visited a school and not a single person in the main office acknowledged her presence while she stood and fumed. Principals must ensure that front office workers greet callers and visitors warmly, and even make sure they have a comfortable spot to sit while waiting, Fariña said. That must be part of a larger community-building effort where principals honor every person in the school — from school-safety agents to educators — and insist that they do the same with students and their families, she said.

Her message was that “from every cafeteria worker to every kid to every parent, everyone should feel welcome,” said a Bronx middle school principal.

The new-principals conference follows an earlier meeting for all city principals where Fariña announced the new experience rules for principals. Fariña has also met with district superintendents and the leaders of school-support networks. She has promised a series of borough-wide teacher meetings, but some teachers have complained that they feel overlooked for now.

In their remarks, Fariña and her new deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, former principal Phil Weinberg, did not delve into the many difficulties that schools have faced as they implement the new teacher-rating system and the Common Core learning standards. Rather, Fariña simply said the department is “working on” issues with the evaluation system and Weinberg told principals to “be brave in the face of challenges,” as one principal paraphrased his remarks.

“They didn’t give us any specifics,” a Brooklyn middle school principal said.

Other principals said they hadn’t expected much policy talk at the conference, adding that the chancellor’s respectful tone might make principals more willing to work with her on thorny issues.

“Before you can tackle the big work, you have to build relationships,” said one Staten Island principal. “Today was big on building relationships.”

True to Fariña’s penchant for educator-led training and collaboration, experienced principals led breakout sessions on specific topics. For example, the leader of Brooklyn’s J.H.S. 88 talked about forging partnerships with outside groups; the head of Manhattan’s M.S. 319 described ways to help struggling students meet the new standards; and the principal of Queens’ Eagle Academy for Young Men III offered tips for interacting with families. Other veterans invited the new principals to visit their schools.

After the conference, a Bronx principal explained why he made the trek to Lower Manhattan on a sunny Saturday morning, besides the fact that his new boss strongly encouraged him to attend.

“If you want to grow in the profession,” he said, “you have to sacrifice your time.”