On her tour of city schools, Fariña takes a hands-on approach

For students at one Bedford-Stuyvesant middle school, a visit from the New York City’s schools chief started with some advice and ended with a shopping spree.

In February, Chancellor Carmen Fariña paid a visit to M.S. 57 and flatly told Principal Celeste Douglas-Wheeler to reconsider the school’s move away from independent reading time for students. With many of her students entering sixth grade barely able to read, Douglas-Wheeler had opted for a more intensive approach to teaching reading in recent years.

“She said, ‘Look, I think this is something you should not take out of your reading curriculum,’” Douglas-Wheeler recalled.

Two months later, Fariña went one step further to encourage the change. She took Douglas-Wheeler and more than a dozen students on a personally funded shopping spree to Barnes & Noble in downtown Brooklyn, telling them each to pick out books that they wanted to read and add to the school’s library.

Douglas-Wheeler said the extra attention made a mark. This year, the school is adding time for independent reading back into the school day.

“When we got back on the bus, every single child was reading their books,” Douglas-Wheeler said. “It changed something in me and it made me realize that I have to start thinking about what experience my kids are going to have in school that they’re really going to remember. And they’re going to remember that visit to the bookstore with the chancellor.”

In a system of more than 1,700 schools, it would be impossible for Fariña to intervene that way in each of them. But she sees getting into schools as one of her most important responsibilities, and she doesn’t hesitate to personally address school-level concerns while she’s there.

“School visits are the only way you get the information that you need in order to do your job,” Fariña said in a recent interview.

Together, interviews with Fariña and principals she has met with in her first months on the job paint a picture of her preferred management style: keeping a low public profile while focusing on school-level leadership. It’s a detail-oriented approach that has provoked criticism from some who say it’s an impractical way to run the nation’s largest school system. But Fariña says her suggestions during visits aren’t about disrupting typical chains of command, but about passing on her knowledge of what works.

“I’m not a rating officer,” Fariña said. “I’m a suggestion person.”

Where in the school system is Carmen Fariña?

Between January and May, Fariña officially stepped inside more than 70 different schools for just under 90 visits, according to schedules that the Department of Education recently released to Chalkbeat. Many visits were for press conferences with Mayor Bill de Blasio and evening meetings with parents, but most were private tours of the schools for Fariña herself.

Since her first school visit to M.S. 223 in the Bronx on Jan. 2, Fariña has toured schools in every borough. She has focused on visiting middle schools and has preferred seeing high-performing schools—most received As or Bs on their most recent city progress reports, and only the School for International Studies in Cobble Hill received a grade lower than a C.

Early in her tenure, Fariña called a meeting with Clara Hemphill, founding editor of Insideschools and author of “New York City’s Best Public Middle Schools.” Fariña wanted to know what under-the-radar schools she should visit, and she was very interested in “schools that were going in the right direction, rather than schools that are perfect,” Hemphill said.

Fariña has since visited schools that are overwhelmingly poor, such as M.S. 319 in Washington Heights, where 96 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, as well as schools with more affluent students like P.S. 101 School in the Gardens in Forest Hills.

What many of the schools have in common, Fariña said, is that something is working well. I.S. 75, for instance, was the first middle school in Staten Island to offer a popular program for autistic students, while M.S./H.S. 327 in the Bronx has been hailed as a successful “community school” offering a collection of social services.

Principals say Fariña typically spends a focused 90 minutes in each school. A visit typically includes scrutinizing hallway decorations and student work displays, at least one stop in a social studies class or a science lab, and staff interviews.

“She was just asking a lot of questions about what is going on here,” said Barbara McKeon, the school leader of Broome Street Academy Charter School, which Fariña visited in March.

Douglas-Wheeler remembered Fariña asking teachers “some pretty tough questions about what’s working, what’s not working.”

Douglas-Wheeler and McKeon said they welcomed Fariña’s hands-on presence, though at least one educator who attended a school visit with Fariña said it didn’t always go over well. “She seems to forget that she’s the chancellor and coaching a teacher or principal is not always seen in a positive light,” the person said.

The challenge for Fariña, some say, will be to avoid the temptation to attempt to fix what’s wrong in each of the schools she sees.

“The chancellor can be the icon of instructional leadership, but she can’t be an instructional leader,” Seymour Fliegel, president of the Center for Educational Innovation-Public Education Association, one of the city’s largest school-support organizations.

Staying above the fray

Chancellor Fariña’s predecessor Dennis Walcott often visited schools to make announcements or to bring attention to a successful program, with a least a handful of reporters in tow. But Fariña has kept most of her visits out of the public spotlight. Of her nearly 90 school visits, just 15 were public events.

The private events are a sign of Fariña’s aversion to the media, which appeared to grow after her much-criticized “beautiful day” comments during a February snowstorm. Fariña said they also allow her to actually dive into what is causing a school to struggle or shine.

“Principals, when they see the door close, [are] much more likely to give me a whole list of complaints and concerns,” Fariña said. “And that’s where I learn.”

A power shift to City Hall under the de Blasio administration means Fariña is freer to take up the roles of instructional guru and principal’s coach. Strategy for the city’s two biggest education initiatives of the upcoming school year—an unprecedented expansion of pre-kindergarten and of middle school after-school programs—is being overseen by Deputy Mayor Richard Buery out of City Hall, as is the city’s community schools expansion plan. (The Department of Education also has significant roles in all three.)

Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, schools chancellors at times delegated the specifics of teaching and learning to their deputies as they pushed other initiatives. Bloomberg officials also spoke frequently of giving principals new freedom in exchange for student achievement gains.

Fariña, though, is concerned with the nitty-gritty details of principal leadership, believing that specific tactics set them up for success or failure. And her four decades of continuous experience in the city school system and a post-retirement stint as a consultant means Fariña has ties to dozens, if not hundreds, of principals interested in her prescriptions.

“I think Dennis [Walcott] did a great job of raising morale and making principals feel valued,” Fariña said. “I’m using a little bit of a different lens having been a former principal.”

The political shift allowed her to stay slightly above the fray during the year’s most difficult education policy debates. Fariña’s first charter-school visit, to Broome Street Academy, came amid a tense public battle over school space between de Blasio and Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz.

“It didn’t seem like her intent … was to do anything other than learn,” McKeon said. “She was open and objective.”

During her visit, Fariña saw how the school dealt with a disruptive student using its restorative discipline model. Fariña followed up with a glowing letter to the school, and McKeon was later appointed to a citywide advisory committee for community schools. The school will also be the only charter school among 25 “host schools” in Fariña’s Learning Partners Program next year.

Crisis management

Sometimes Fariña’s visits do reflect urgent policy priorities.

One of the few troubled schools she visited was Queens’ P.S. 106, dubbed the “School of No” by the New York Post because of reports that its principal had neglected it for years. Though Fariña initially dispatched a deputy to visit in the immediate aftermath of the public relations mess, she followed up with her own trip two months later.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña on a tour of Manhattan’s P.S. 5 in June with Principal Wanda Soto and Deputy Mayor Richard Buery. (Patrick Wall)

Fariña also paid a personal visit to the Mickey Mantle School in Harlem, a District 75 school that became a flashpoint in the de Blasio-Moskowitz spat, and to Central Park East II, whose middle school expansion plans were nixed by the administration. After Broome Street, Fariña visited six charter schools in two months, including Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School and DREAM Charter School in East Harlem.

Just after the city convened a committee to improve space-sharing arrangements between district and charter schools, Fariña met with three school leaders who shared a building in Prospect Heights. Two of the schools, including one charter school, were new and replacing P.S. 22, which was closing at the end of the year due to poor performance.

“She really wanted to focus on the leaders and how the adults were navigating through the process,” said Morty Ballen, CEO of the management organization that runs the charter school, Exceed Explore Charter School.

With the start of Fariña’s first full school year approaching, she said that she expects to continue to make frequent visits to schools. At the August Panel for Educational Policy meeting she said she planned to visit schools “the whole month of September,” and she’s instructed her staff to reserve Tuesday and Thursday mornings for her visits. Her senior staff will be expected to go on at least three of their own visits per week.

“I always come back with lists that everybody here has to do,” Fariña said. “And I think that is the job.”

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