PEP Talk

Before storm, Fariña talks special education and snow days at PEP meeting

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Debra Zito was one of several parents at a Staten Island meeting this year who spoke about the need to improve special education services.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña defended her snow day decision-making at a public meeting Wednesday evening, shortly before announcing that schools would remain open Thursday despite heavy snowfall.

At this year’s second Panel for Educational Policy meeting, held on Staten Island, Fariña also hinted at possible policies changes around student promotion and special education and previewed a series of town hall-style meetings with teachers.

Echoing comments she made after last week’s non-snow day, Fariña said Wednesday that many working parents rely on open schools and many children rely on school meals. Saying she felt “very comfortable” with her snow day decisions so far, she noted that the city rarely closes schools due to snow — “10 snow days in 40 years basically” — but said students’ safety is always a top concern.

She added, “as a joke, but I also mean it,” that even on snow days, Macy’s and other stores remain crowded with customers.

“So if people can get themselves to the malls,” she said, before adding, “I don’t mean to say this in a belittling way, I’m just saying the reality is that school is an important thing.”

Shortly after the meeting ended, Fariña announced that schools would remain open Thursday.

But looming bad weather seemed to be the least of parents’ concerns. In public comments, many raised issues about the way their children with special needs are being served by their schools. Several added that the shift to the Common Core standards had left their children farther behind.

“I feel like every special ed parent I talk to has the same complaint — that special ed is being left out that, they’re not being differentiated,” said Jaclyn Visone, the parent of two children with special needs at Staten Island’s P.S. 3.

Fariña noted that the new evaluation system measures teachers’ ability to differentiate, adding, “There’s no such thing as you can’t differentiate.”

But she also said she was considering some policy changes, such as revamping in-school interventions for students and adjusting the timeline when personalized learning plans, known as IEPs, are crafted for students with special needs. She said IEPs are set and schools are staffed at different points in the year, potentially causing a disconnect between the personnel required by the plans and who is hired.

“To the degree that we can change the paradigm of how it’s been done in the past, we will strongly look into it,” Fariña said.

When a parent suggested that schools not consider test scores when deciding whether to promote students to the next grade, Fariña said she was “certainly looking at things like promotional policy,” as she told parents last week in Brooklyn.

Fariña mentioned several upcoming events that are in the works, including a parent conference in May and teacher meetings in each borough that would be “strictly Q and A” between her and educators.

Several charter school parents, many of them members of the advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools who traveled to the meeting from other boroughs, described the uncertainty caused by the city’s plan to review previously approved co-locations, which many charter schools rely on to open or expand.

Fariña said she had been holding “voluntary” meetings with charter school leaders as her department considers each proposed co-location. She also suggested that some schools may be more worthy of public space than others.

“The reality is,” she said, “that like not all public schools are created equal, not all charter schools are created equal.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”