Collaboration Celebration

Fariña celebrates collaboration as Learning Partners gets set to expand

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

Chancellor Carmen Fariña has been touting her signature school-collaboration program since April. But the enthusiasm reached new heights this week, as teachers and principals from 21 schools gathered to celebrate the 10-week pilot program at the Brooklyn Marriott on Monday night.

“Carmen, this is a genius plan,” said Christina Fuentes, head of the city’s new Office of Inter-School Collaborative Learning, in her opening remarks.

Fuentes went on to congratulate principals for instituting a variety of changes over the course of the pilot version of the Learning Partners program, which groups schools into triads to share ideas. The program will expand to 72 schools this September, and is an outgrowth of one of Fariña’s guiding principles: that collaboration, not competition, is the way to improve schools.

“I still don’t know what your school report card is,” Fariña said during the event to a table of educators. “I never checked because I don’t care.”

Before the event, the Department of Education released statistics showing that almost all of the participating schools said they plan to make changes in the next academic year based on their experience. How exactly classrooms will be improved—and to what measurable extent—remains to be seen, given the short length of the pilot program.

One English teacher at a co-located school in the Bronx said she had found it helpful to simply communicate with the schools she shares the building with. “Isolation doesn’t work,” she said.

Other educators said they were excited to have been given the chance to visit other classrooms, but acknowledged that it’s not always easy to apply the lessons learned, especially when one school has more resources than another.

The event’s celebratory atmosphere was in line with one of Fariña’s stated priorities as she shifts the department away from the Bloomberg era: to publicly praise schools that are doing well, rather than focus public attention on where the system is struggling. At Panel for Educational Policy meetings, parent town halls, and in emails to principals, she has noted schools that she says are flying under the radar but succeeding with students.

Fuentes, who oversees the Learning Partners Program, did the same on Monday night.

“Way to go, you’re so courageous,” Fuentes said to one principal. “That’s really brave,” she said to another school leader, praising his integration of technology into his school. (The principal, who broke his leg recently, also rolled up to the podium in a wheelchair and stood up to address the group.)

Much of what teachers shared had to do with school atmosphere and culture. For Grace Ballas, a first grade teacher at P.S. 159 in Queens, the takeaway was seeing real teacher collaboration at her host school, P.S. 503 in Brooklyn.

To better apply those lessons to her school, Ballas said she is planning to participate in a book club reading of “The Power of Protocols.” The literacy coach at the same school with Ballas, Allie Myers, explained that it could help teachers trust one another.

“Trust that their opinion matters,” Myers said. “That it’s OK to disagree. That it’s OK to take risks.”

At the end of the remarks, before the triads broke into groups to present what they had learned, Fariña joked with the crowd about the program.

“There is no pressure, but this is my signature program,” Fariña said, amid laughter. “I said, there was no pressure!”

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.”