Six things we don’t yet know about Fariña’s system overhaul

Chancellor Carmen Fariña unveiled a set of long-promised changes to the way the city’s schools operate on Thursday. Superintendents are gaining power and staff, and the dozens of support networks that helped manage schools will be gone by next year. Seven borough support centers will emerge in their place as part of Fariña’s plan to oversee schools more directly and offer schools help closer to home.

That’s what we do know about the shake-up, which we explained in more detail here and here. Here are a few things we’re waiting to find out.

How will the new borough support centers work?

We know the seven “Borough Field Support Centers” will take over many of the roles networks have played in recent years. The centers will each have a director and experts on instruction, school operations, counseling, English language learners, and students with disabilities.

Officials said Thursday that they’re still working out how many staffers those centers will have  and where they will come from, though they said the networks have some talented staffers they will recruit. If network staffers do shift to the regional centers, it’s unclear what kind of hiring process they will face.

The administration’s theory is that by pooling the resources of some 55 networks into seven borough centers, each center can offer more specialized and robust support. However, it remains to be seen whether principals will find it as easy to access the centers’ resources as they could the networks’. (Of course, some schools never found their networks very responsive.) What is clear is that principals’ route to the support will be less direct, since superintendents will act as go-betweens connecting the schools and centers.

Meanwhile, some principals are wondering if they will experience any gaps in support as staff members transition from networks to the borough centers, which open this summer.

Who pays for what?

Today, principals spend a chunk of their budgets on network services, sometimes springing for extra help that costs even more. But the city is still figuring out whether it will fund the new borough centers directly or schools will pay for their services, officials said Thursday.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear who will pay the nonprofit groups and universities that will continue to help manage some schools, or how much they will receive.

What will the oversight of the struggling Renewal Schools look like?

Most principals wouldn’t lose any control of their budgets or hiring under the reorganization, Faiña said Thursday. Unless, she added, they’re in charge of struggling schools.

That’s because this new system is all about “earned autonomy,” officials explained: High performing schools get some leeway, while troubled ones are subject to more intensive oversight.

Schools in the city’s new turnaround program get extra resources and training. But they also face more scrutiny from their superintendents, along with specific directives around teaching practices. Next year, each superintendent will have one staffer devoted to troubled schools, and will have a say in those principals’ hiring and budgetary decisions, officials said.

The city says it will customize those interventions for each school in the program. Still, it remains to be seen how light or heavy-handed the city will be as it nudges those schools down the path to improvement.

What will happen to the nonprofits that help manage schools?

Most networks were staffed by education department employees, but a handful were run by nonprofits or universities. Those “Partnership Support Organizations” include groups like New Visions for New Schools, the Urban Assembly, the City University of New York, and Fordham University. They’re generally well-regarded, with years of experience supporting schools.

Fariña said that, unlike the rest of the networks, at least some of those groups will remain. Now called “affinity groups,” they will “continue to provide targeted support to schools,” she said.

But some things will be different. Now they will report to superintendents, who will monitor the services they provide, officials said. And their main job will be to offer instructional help, meaning that schools will turn to the new borough centers with operational issues. That suggests the groups will lose some staffers and funding.

While the officials said they are in discussion with all the current PSOs, it is not yet clear that they will all take on this new, somewhat diminished role as “affinity groups.” The head of Urban Assembly said Thursday that his group would stay on, but other PSO leaders said earlier this week that they were still unsure. Officials at several PSOs said they were asked to submit “concept papers” by this week describing their potential roles in the new system. 

Who will oversee instruction?

Forget the networks — if schools need help with their academic programs, they’ll soon turn to the new borough centers. Right?

Technically, superintendents are now responsible for school support. That means that if they spot instructional problems at a school or school identifies its own, the superintendents will direct them to specialists at the borough centers. How smoothly that will work is anyone’s guess.

Another job of the re-empowered superintendents is to facilitate “the implementation of the broader DOE vision for instruction,” the city says. As Fariña put it Thursday, they will help ensure “consistency across and within the system.” She has already met one-on-one with the 45 superintendents for an hour each, presumably to help explain her vision to them.

How hands-on will superintendents be as they try to create consistency across their schools? They will only have staffs of six, though one person will focus on instruction. Will they organize district-wide trainings? That’s unclear, though some superintendents already are hosting all-school meetings to get everyone on the same page.

Will schools continue to collaborate with peers in their networks?

For some schools, network affiliation was a fairly arbitrary choice. For others, like the networks where many schools oppose high-stakes testing or serve immigrant students, the groupings were ideological and meaningful.

About 120 of those schools have lobbied the de Blasio administration to let them keep their networks, saying the collaboration with like-minded peers helps further their practice and transcend district boundaries. So what will happen to those partnerships? 

Officials said schools can participate in the city’s peer-to-peer training programs, such as Learning Partners. The city is also working with some schools to form new “professional learning communities” that would help schools that met through the networks keep collaborating, the officials said. Still, it’s likely that many educators will start to see a lot more of their district colleagues, and a lot less of their old network pals.