As New York gears up for a new chancellor, Walcott looks back

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After eight years of Joel Klein and 96 days of Cathie Black, New York City schools got Dennis Walcott as chancellor in April 2011. Previously a deputy mayor whose portfolio included education, Walcott was charged with executing Mayor Bloomberg’s education agenda in the waning years of his administration.

Under his leadership, the Department of Education closed dozens of schools and tried unsuccessfully to shutter others, launched an initiative to boost the performance of black and Latino male students, and began implementing new academic standards and teacher evaluation rules. But Walcott also gained a reputation for his athletic pursuits and frequent visits to city schools — both of which made him different from his predecessors.

We sat down with Walcott earlier this week to get his take on the job he’s leaving behind Dec. 31. He told us that while the city is still not a place where he would be comfortable enrolling his grandchildren in any school, he has no regrets about his time in office.

GothamSchools: Let’s zoom ahead to 12 years from now.

Walcott: Twelve years from now? Now you’ve got my full attention.

We have a new history [now] of what was going on 12 years ago. What do you hope that people will be saying about your administration 12 years from now?

DW: That’s interesting. That we laid a solid foundation for the future success of our children. That we shook up the system to improve outcomes for our students. And that they were not afraid to tackle very difficult and thorny issues and not worry about polls.

[That] they were not hesitant as far as the belief in trying to provide quality choices for our students. And looking back and having a very whimsical smile on their face on the meetings that lasted until four o’clock in the morning but at the same time, it was worth it. Because looking from 12 years back, if shows that they were truly committed to withstanding a variety of different types of pressures to really focus on children.

You mentioned a couple of times the pressures and the controversy. Joel Klein last week was talking about “the noise,” as he does, and said that wasn’t something that really bothered him. We saw in your administration that you really did put a value on having a civil conversation and to some extent fostered that.

A little bit. The noise never bothered me either.

So what advice would you give the next administration? About how to move the needle, while also [promoting civility]?

I’ve been reluctant about giving advice. I’m not going to be presumptuous enough to give advice. They’re going to come in and set their own tone and set their own priorities. I think for me, the focus is always about our students and how do we try to move it away from what’s in the best interest of the adults and really talking about students.

So the noise part, I always like to tell the story … It was one of our noisier panel meetings. And the student was testifying at the microphone and had difficulty reading the testimony. And I came off the stage and went up to the microphone, and people were shocked. And helped the student hold her testimony while she lambasted me. And to me it’s about the respect of the students.

Just keep the focus on the students, and be clear that there will always be decisions that are unpopular. The chancellor position, along with the police commissioner and the mayor, basically are the three positions that are polled. So it’s something that really is very grounding and humanizing. And at the same time you can’t allow polls to dictate your policies. Just like you can’t allow the issue of money, like in the evaluation deal, to dictate bad policy either.

One of the other things that Joel Klein said is that he regretted not spending time and emphasis thinking about curriculum. What you wish you could have spent more time on, or focused more on?

I think for me it’s how you have a broader discussion around that all schools are there to serve our students. And students who attend charter schools are not students from Mars, they’re students from New York City. And having that kind of public discourse to not have it solely focused through the panel meetings as the lens for the discussion.

Having discussions take place about charters as bad, when in reality charters are just as good as district schools. But we have created more district schools than charter schools. The deepening of the role of parents, and I think we tackled that in a number of ways, with the parent coordinators and our webinars, and trying to make sure accountability reports are more understandable to parents.

I don’t reflect back. I mean, one of the things I’m most proud of kind of goes back to your 12 years question. We weren’t afraid to tackle difficult topics and really get into the trenches as far as change. One difficult topic was obviously the bus contracts. That was a major issue that had not been tackled for 39 years. And over a period of time that will have a benefit through the system overall. So, those are the things that I, not necessarily regret or wish I had tackled, but there were just so many things going on that we tried to do well.

The corollary is looking forward: If you had four more years, what would be on your agenda?

I think raising the standards, as far as making sure that all of our schools are hitting the standards and benchmarks … to the point where my child or grandchildren will be able to attend any school in New York City. We’re not there yet.

The issue [of] how we deal with the equity issue of black and Latinos, and making sure that with we continue changing that dynamic and having honest conversations about it with the public as well — I think that’s really important.

And, I think, how to use the overall bully pulpit of talking about the role of parents in an increasingly complex society and making sure their children are not just learning what it means to be college and career ready in school but also having it reinforced in homes as well. And having that type of discussion I think is extremely important.

I think taking a look at the contract, and how one can change the contract for the better to deal with not just the evaluation system but overall the opportunities that are available. You have pieces on the union side as well as on the management side. Tackling ATRs, what it means to deal with the ATR pool

That would be a contract issue you’d hope gets tackled?

Oh, no question. If we had a couple more years, really getting into how we deal with reform of a variety of issues within the contract. The centers, the districts that are hard to staff. Subject areas, obviously, that are hard to staff as well. What that means around developing some form of merit or incentives to attract teachers. The issue that we had laid on the table in one of the mayor’s State of the Cities around attracting the best and the brightest in the schools and having the ability to have loan forgiveness for those students.

Can you describe a moment when you’d seen things [in a school] where you said, this needs to change.

For me, if I saw barriers for parents having access to schools — how can we make it more open for parents having access schools, making [them] more open.

Knowing there is unlimited potential … I get frustrated when I hear excuses. I really don’t tolerate excuses well. And how I see schools working with difficult populations, and how that needs to be imported to other schools where they don’t have an image of what’s correct. They don’t have an image as far as the students’ capacity of doing something — like that the students are able to do something. There’s real potential there, and how do we import that knowledge to others?

Those are the types of things that when you go into an environment and you can sense that an environment is a healthy educational environment, and sometimes it’s not. And being able to pick up on that, becoming more sensitive to that, as I became better at discussing these situations, [is important].

What was your most challenging moment, or, the moment you wouldn’t go back to?

I don’t have any regrets. I’m not giving you lip service. I really don’t have any regrets, because everything was about trying to do the right thing and learning from something if it wasn’t done correctly. With this job, when you wake up in the morning until you go to bed at night. there is always going to be some challenge out there.

You’ve got to accept the fact that unfortunately something is going to happen. Whether at school or at home, I get reports about the students if something happens to them. So anything that happens to any of our students bothers me. That’s the personal side.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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.’”