Carmen Fariña's game plan to undo (and redo) the Bloomberg years

Mayor Bill de Blasio has tasked schools chancellor Carmen Fariña with helping to extend the Department of Education in new ways—first and foremost through the city’s much-hyped expansion of pre-kindergarten. But as she settles in to her job, Fariña is simultaneously focused on turning back the clock.

When we sat down with Fariña this week, she made it clear that she’s working to make the department look more like the one she left almost eight years ago, bringing back experts, positions, priorities, and entire divisions that got short shrift or eliminated altogether during the later years of the Bloomberg administration. 

She also revealed some concrete plans for changing how superintendents and network leaders interact, explained why calling individual parents will actually save her time, and told us how she wants her success as chancellor to be measured. (Spoiler alert: It’s not by test scores.)

Here are a few excerpts from our conversation, condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Chalkbeat: It’s been only a short time, we see that, and it’s clear what City Hall’s big priorities on education are at the moment. But we feel like we haven’t heard all that much from you about your vision for K to 12 during the school day, which is of course what the meat is here. So what is that vision, and when is the public going to start hearing about it?

I think you’re going to get the rollout plan probably relatively soon. But at the very least, this is what we’ve already started to put in place.

We have resurrected the professional development department. Anna Commitante is heading that, and we’re staffing it with someone who’s going to have a special focus on literacy, social studies, STEM, science, technology, math. Their job is going to be to go back and visit the Common Core, and look at it with new eyes—figure out where it’s working out there in the city and finding schools that are doing it particularly well.

A lot more selling of the Common Core to parents. I just did a short thing with the Manhattan elected officials about what it is and what it isn’t, which I think surprised them. Because it’s not that difficult, but you’d have to know what it is. So I’d say certainly Common Core, professional development, make it easier for people to understand.

The second thing is we’re focusing very strongly on middle schools. I have visited around 18 middle schools. The purpose of the 18 middle schools is to kind of get a sense of what’s similar across the middle schools and what’s different. And what I’m finding is there’s a lot more differences than similarities.

We’ve also kind of compressed the leadership team at Tweed. There are four deputy chancellors, each with a very definitive role, so that instead of 18 people I can have a meeting with five people.

Note: Those four are Dorita Gibson, senior deputy chancellor; Phil Weinberg, deputy chancellor for teaching and learning; Kathleen Grimm, deputy chancellor for operations; and Corinne Rello-Anselmi, deputy chancellor overseeing students with disabilities and English Language Learners.

Dorita’s job is really to look at principals, superintendents and network leaders, and one of her major tasks, which she’s already set up is superintendents and network leaders should start working together. Which is really a really, really very different way of looking at things.

Chalkbeat: What does that mean practically? What’s an example of something they weren’t doing that now they should?

A superintendent in the past was not allowed to come to a school without an invitation from the principals. Network leaders I don’t know exactly but there are 55 of them and they all do it differently. The task that we gave them is that each of them should figure out two schools in the district that need the most support.

[Superintendents] should talk to the network leaders of those particular schools and they should go in together and develop a plan of support. Not a plan of closure, but a plan of support. And then let us know what support they need from us.

Chalkbeat: In 2004, 2005, you were kind of out in front on the changes to promotion policy that Bloomberg was talking about. Have there been things in the intervening years that have made you change your mind about any of that?

I believe in [there being] a grade which you look at more strongly. And I do believe third grade is the grade.

What I fought for at the time, and got, was a tremendous amount of money for intervention strategies. We not only got all this money, but I was able to hire a whole intervention team here at Tweed, and we had one at every region. Remember, before I left we still had the regional structure. After I left, I think within a few days it all went down the drain.

We had in every single region a head of intervention and an intervention person in every school where they had a tremendous amount of struggling students. To me, if you’re going penalize kids, if you’re going to hold kids back, you then have a responsibility to support them to succeed better. So every child who was on that list for retention then had an individual IEP — not a special ed IEP, but something that said, you’re going to have this extra support. That was all thrown out, gone away. So now what you do is hold a kid back but you’re not supporting them in the way they need to be supported.

The other thing we’re bringing back in additional to professional development: we’re recreating our whole intervention strategy. Dr. Esther Friedman is going to head that department, and she’s going to put in place what we call the Toolkit, which we used to have way back when. Which is a list of the 20 most commonly used intervention strategies for struggling readers. That hasn’t gone out to the field in years.

Chalkbeat: It sounds like from everything we’ve heard, pre-K, after school, these are going to be expensive changes. I’m wondering where the flexibility is going to come from to pay for more interventions.

What has happened here is that a lot of the people who were trained in all these things have all been given different hats. And we all don’t know exactly where everybody is. So we’re looking for them. And Esther’s job has been to research, where have all these people relocated and actually bring them back to us so they can do this. We’re actually already paying a lot of these people, but they’re not necessarily in a place where they can be the most effective.

It’s not about adding extra money, it’s how do we take the money we’re using already and maybe relocating it to where it’s the most effective and most necessary right now. That’s certainly something we’re looking at.

For example, the ELLs department, Claudia Aguirre, just brought back Aida Walqui. She’s the foremost national, probably international expert on English Language Learners. She had done a tremendous amount of work with us when I was deputy chancellor. She was summarily told we don’t need her anymore. And yet her results nationally show tremendous growth for ELL kids. She’s coming back.

Chalkbeat: You’ve said, we’re bringing this back, we’re bringing this back. Is there an example of something new, a new expert, a new strategy, that you’re hoping to push out that wasn’t one you worked with before?

I think the demonstration sites are going to be very different, that hasn’t been done before. I think we’re also looking at what’s working out there at schools and saying to them, if you have it and we can afford to pay you for it, give it to us, so we can collaborate better. I certainly feel that the notion of superintendents and network leaders actually working together is a big deal, which it shouldn’t be but it is.

I think going out there and doing a lot of parent workshops — I think I’m scheduled for 20 parent workshops between now and the end of May. A listening tour, [saying] what can I do for you? Always with follow-up phone calls. Parents have been kind of surprised on a Saturday mornings to hear it’s the chancellor calling.

Chalkbeat: We heard about those. How are you picking those people?

I only pick up the phone to call people who asked a question that I have an answer to pretty clearly. A lot of questions about co-locations, space, Blue Book, whatever. To the degree I have an answer and didn’t get to it at the meeting, I call them up and give them the answer. More than anything, it’s just communicating that I do read these cards.

Chalkbeat: I’m just wondering how your finding an answer and telling someone, how that translates system-wide.

Because I think the word gets out that you’re willing to listen. Remember, a lot of people don’t want the specific answer. They want to know that you listened to what they had to say.

People say, oh my God, you’re back, thank God, you’re one of us, you care. If that gets out there, people are not going to drive you crazy about other things. It gives you breathing space to get the work done.

You have to do two things simultaneously in this job, and that’s the one thing I probably did not expect — you have to undo while you’re doing … I’ve been working all these years, but I’ve been working mostly with principals. So I had a pretty good idea of what wasn’t working. But I had no idea that what was at Tweed had to be undone; a lot of stuff. I would say it’s the undoing first, and then doing. And sometimes doing them simultaneously.

Chalkbeat: So the big overarching concept of the Bloomberg years, and Joel Klein’s vision for schools, was more autonomy and more accountability. I’m just wondering how you feel about that bargain. Was that a good one?

I don’t feel that they had more autonomy, I’ll be honest with you. I think I as a principal under Tony Alvarado had a lot more autonomy than most principals had. I think there was more accountability, probably, but was it the right kind of accountability, I would have a question mark. I think you can only be accountable for what you’re a part of deciding, but I will let the principals answer that.

Chalkbeat: One thing that I’ve heard when I’m at certain schools is, principals and teachers, especially in some more impoverished areas, are excited to have you here but there is lingering skepticism — ‘Is District 15, is the Upper East Side, are those strategies going to work here?’ What would you say to them?

The proudest work I ever did was as regional superintendent: [districts] 13, 14, 15, and 16. High poverty in 16. Mixed in 13. And 14 was probably one of the hardest districts to change, because of the politics that were ingrained in District 14. So I have had all that.

In my last few years of consulting, I have been all over the city, particularly in the Bronx. Spent a lot of time in the Bronx, the Rockaways. Which was really interesting, particularly after Sandy. So I have had a lot of experience in all those areas. So do I know what that’s all about? In fact, I would say if anything, the people in the Bronx were the ones who embraced me the most because that’s where I have worked the most recently. In terms of the last few years, a lot of the work I did with Teachers College was in the Bronx.

And my answer is, good education is good education no matter what, except that you need to have more of these interventions. And that’s what I really felt bad about. We had a system for helping struggling kids … things that somehow got lost in the process.

Chalkbeat: What do you want your legacy to be?

I should survive! I think that people say, she did the best she could, and as a result, our kids are in a better place.

Chalkbeat: And how should we be measuring that? What yardsticks matter to you?

I think retaining the best principals, rather than having them leave. Making sure that teachers see that teaching can be a career, not just a stepping stone to something else. Making sure that parents understand that their neighborhood schools are good choices for their kids, that they shouldn’t be despairing that they have to go far afield to find the right place. I think all those are very important yardsticks.

Sure, the standards matter, and the scores. But I think the scores, once we teach people a little bit more, give them more confidence to use the Common Core, they’re going to go up. I have no doubt about that. I’m not saying this year — most change takes two to three years to really solidify.

To me, good educational policy is, when you’re no longer here, your successor wants to continue the policy. If your successor comes in and the first thing they’re going to do is get rid of some of the policy, then it probably wasn’t good policy in the first place.

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.’”