Chancellor candidate Fariña praises Ravitch, but keeps distance

photo 1 (3)They might have come for Diane Ravitch, but many who ventured to Red Hook’s P.S. 15 found another education celebrity in the school’s new library on Wednesday night: Carmen Fariña.

Fariña, who said she assumed she was on Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s shortlist for chancellor, demurred when asked where the selection process stood. “I don’t know who the other people are on the shortlist,” she said. “We’ll see,” she repeated to the well-wishers who sought her out.

And there were many of them, given the significant ideological overlap between Fariña and Ravitch and the fact that Fariña seemed to know just about everyone at P.S. 15. That’s because the retired deputy schools chancellor is a close neighbor, a Red Hook native, and the chair of Friends of P.S. 15 committee, who uses her thick Rolodex to drum up donations and support for the school. (There’s even a Carmen’s Corner in the library, created from donations in honor of Fariña’s recent 70th birthday.)

Fariña served as master of ceremonies and praised Ravitch, the education historian known for her anti-testing positions and as a frequent critic of Mayor Bloomberg’s education policies, in her introduction.

“You only get really smart about education when you go into schools and talk to educators. She’s done that,” Fariña said of Ravitch, who spoke about her latest book, “Reign of Error.”

As the talk became a question and answer session, Ravitch laid out her own vision for the future of New York City public schools: rolling back decisions made by the Panel for Educational Policy in the last two months, not co-locating any more schools, and instituting a universal pre-K program, as de Blasio has campaigned for.

She also said de Blasio should consider putting resources toward additional prenatal care, focus on community schools with attached health services, and reconstitute some of the city’s large high schools—points she said she made during a meeting with the mayor-elect last week. (Ravitch is also a member of de Blasio’s inauguration committee.)

“We have a wonderful, candid relationship,” Ravitch said after the talk. “My greatest hope is that he’s a change agent.”

photo 2 (2)Also on Ravitch’s wish list is for the city to not open any additional charter schools, though “we’ll see how far the mayor agrees with that or not,” she said. She reiterated her opposition to charter schools after a parent asked what should be done about the private school planning to open in Red Hook next year, run by the BASIS charter school organization. “You don’t want that school here,” she said.

It was one of Ravitch’s final points, and Fariña soon returned to the front of the room to thank her. But Fariña subtly changed the tone—and put some distance between herself and Ravitch’s anti-charter rhetoric.

“I think we have to stop worrying about what the other people are doing, and really concentrate on what we have to do better,” she began. “Because part of it is that we let ourselves kind of fall into complacency when we were the only game in town. And by we I’m talking about public education.”

“Because when people had no choice, and then we could say, well, they’re coming to us because—because,” Fariña continued. “I think we have to make sure that we are the best, that our teachers are the best, and keep making them better and better.”

She made it clear that she largely agreed with Ravitch, adding that schools that are run “to be the saviors of certain groups of kids” often turn militaristic—exactly the opposite of the education she wants for her three grandsons.

“So let’s worry more about what we need to do and how we need to do it positively than worry about them,” she concluded. “Because, you know what, they also have our kids in their buildings, and to me, kids are kids. And there are some schools that are doing an OK job no matter what their names are.”

End of an era

Longtime deputy chancellor Kathleen Grimm to retire

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm (left) at a City Council hearing to discuss the department's five-year capital plan in March 2014.

Kathleen Grimm, the deputy chancellor for operations and a fixture in the Department of Education under four chancellors, is stepping down, Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced Wednesday.

Grimm oversaw a sprawling portion of the department, including the offices overseeing safety, school support, school food, athletics, space planning, enrollment, human resources, and construction. The only official to have remained in a top post at Tweed since the beginning of the Bloomberg era, Grimm saw her responsibilities expand even further under Fariña, who moved some offices under Grimm when she shrunk the department’s cabinet.

“It is with deep personal regret that I announce a leave pending retirement of Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, an esteemed colleague who has worked tirelessly to create safe, nurturing environments in which all of our students can learn and thrive,” Fariña said in an email to department staff members.

Grimm, a tax lawyer, was brought on in 2002 for her budgeting and finance expertise and experience in navigating city and state bureaucracy. She had previously served in the state comptroller’s office and the city finance department.

Over her 14-year career at the Department of Education, Grimm preferred to stay behind the scenes, but was thrust into the spotlight when changes to school bus routes, budget cuts, and space planning made headlines.

Her oversight of the city’s transportation of students meant she faced fierce criticism when repeated changes to bus routes angered parents and City Council members. Her oversight of the capital budget and the Blue Book, which sets guidelines for school space use, also made her a frequent target of class-size reduction advocates, who often said the city’s calculations did not reflect reality.

But Grimm was revered within the department for her calm under pressure. She frequently defended the school system in front of the City Council, bearing the brunt of then-education committee chair Eva Moskowitz’s relentless criticism of the city’s toilet-paper offerings in 2004 and, more recently, testifying at hearings on toxic lighting fixtures and school overcrowding.

“Cool and effective, Kathleen stayed for the full twelve years of the Bloomberg administration and did a tough, unglamorous job with distinction,” Klein wrote of Grimm in his memoir “Lessons of Hope.”

On Wednesday, Fariña offered her own praise. “As a senior member of my leadership team, Deputy Chancellor Grimm has provided a strong foundation for our most critical initiatives, including Pre-K for All, Community Schools, and our expanded school support and safety services,” she said.

Grimm’s chief of staff Elizabeth Rose will take over as interim acting deputy chancellor during a search for Grimm’s replacement, Fariña said.

year in review

In first year as chancellor, Fariña counts on fellow educators to drive changes

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks to superintendents and principals overseeing the city's designated renewal schools.

To understand how things have changed since Carmen Fariña became schools chancellor, consider where she has chosen to be on roughly 200 occasions this year, often five times per week: in schools.

She uses the hour-long visits to find model schools that other educators can tour and to size up principals, noting whether teachers seem surprised to see their bosses (a sign they aren’t poking into classrooms enough) and if the principals bring any deputies along for the tours (a hint they know how to delegate). She inspects students’ writing and asks the principal to show her a strong teacher in action and a weak one.

Twelve months into her stint leading the nation’s largest school system, Fariña’s attention to such details seems misplaced to some critics, who worry that it comes at the expense of big-picture thinking and suggests a shift away from the greater autonomy that principals gained under the previous administration.

But to her many admirers, the visits reflect a belief that even in a system of 1.1 million students and 75,000 or so teachers, change can happen school by school and classroom by classroom when educators are empowered, without the seismic policy shakeups that seemed to occur routinely under her recent predecessors. As Fariña, who has spent nearly half a century working in schools, likes to say, “The answers are in the classroom.” In other words, this is educator-driven education reform.

“There’s a sense,” said Alison Coviello, principal of P.S. 154 in the Bronx, “that we’re all in this together.”

When Mayor Bill de Blasio pulled Fariña from semi-retirement last January, she decided that she would have to roll back the Bloomberg-era policies she disagreed with even as she put her own into place: To “undo while [she’s] doing,” as she told Chalkbeat earlier this year.

And that’s just what she’s done. She downsized the office that helped create new schools — a signature Bloomberg initiative — while resurrecting the department devoted to teacher training. She re-empowered superintendents, who were marginalized under Bloomberg, and insisted that would-be principals and superintendents both spend more years in schools (a rejection of the Bloombergian idea that talent trumps experience). And she axed the Bloomberg policies that tied student promotion to test scores and assigned schools letter grades as she launched her own signature program, which sends educators to visit successful schools to pick up ideas.

That program, called Learning Partners, exemplifies Fariña’s approach. It is educator-led, cooperative, and subtle, allowing Fariña to spread her ideas through proxies rather than edicts.

“We have gotten more schools to change practices not by mandating, but by collaborating,” she said in an interview Monday. “I could have said across the board, ‘Every middle school needs to do X, Y and Z.’ And we didn’t do that.”

She also helped forge new contracts with the principals and the teachers unions, which had given up on negotiating with the previous administration. The teachers got a big payout in the contract (though not big enough to satisfy everyone), while Fariña was able to embed time for training and interacting with parents into teachers’ weekly schedules (at the cost of student-tutoring time, which was repurposed). Cynics charged that the city secured the contracts by giving into most of the unions’ demands, but Fariña argues that they were the product of her collaborative approach.

“What we got out of those contracts,” she said, “probably would not have been possible without that kind of partnership.”

She also helped the mayor fulfill his promise to get 53,000 four-year-olds into classrooms.

“How could I forget?” Fariña said. “Pre-K!”

For all that she has already done and undone, Fariña has a big year ahead of her. On Monday, she ticked off a few of the biggest items on her to-do list.

First, she must help de Blasio add the 20,000 additional pre-kindergarten seats he has promised, even as charter schools demand more space of their own. Then, she must turn two of his most ambitious plans into reality: to convert nearly 130 schools into service hubs for students and their families, and to turn around more than 90 low-performing schools.

That last task will be especially daunting. Rather than shut down chronically underachieving schools or replace their staffs, Fariña has proposed lifting them up through a mix of supports for students and coaching for educators. That is a big gamble, which Fariña made clear at a meeting Monday with the leaders of those struggling schools.

“I’m holding you even more accountable,” she told the principals. “Because I went out on a limb, as did Mayor de Blasio, and said, ‘We’re not closing schools. We’re giving everybody a second chance.’”