Tips from the Top

Visiting a troubled school, Fariña mixes praise with pointed advice

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen Fariña on one of her hundreds of school visits.

When P.S. 123 in Central Harlem has popped up in the news over the past year, the coverage has not been flattering.

There was the story this month highlighting the school’s “nightmarish” test scores and “unsafe” conditions, one last summer citing its many suspensions for students’ “physically aggressive behavior,” and another in October where a principal unfavorably compared P.S. 123’s academic record to that of his charter school.

So when Chancellor Carmen Fariña invited reporters Tuesday to join her and P.S. 123’s principal on a tour of the school, which is part of the city’s new turnaround program for struggling schools, she mixed advice for the principal with praise for bright spots at the school that haven’t grabbed headlines.

As with other schools in the turnaround program, Fariña said P.S. 123 must get students to show up to class every day, weave writing instruction into every subject, and better train teachers while urging the least effective ones to leave. But, noting the school’s many students who are homeless or have special needs, Farina said Principal Melitina Hernandez has already done great work reaching out to their families and using the arts to draw students into school.

“Let me tell you something: There’s a lot here to build on,” Fariña told Hernandez, who took over the school in 2013, as they walked shoulder-to-shoulder down a hallway. “There’s nothing here that you don’t see progress and you don’t see things moving forward.”

During her tour of P.S. 123, Fariña spoke to students in a fifth-grade math class.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
During her tour of P.S. 123, Fariña spoke to students in a fifth-grade math class.

P.S. 123 is in the city’s turnaround program, called School Renewal, because it ranks among the bottom bottom 5 percent of schools in the state and the lowest quarter of schools in the city. Last year, 5 percent of its students passed the state math exams, and 9 percent passed English.

It was those scores that Khari Shabazz, principal of Success Academy Harlem 5 charter school, compared to his school’s last October. The charter school, which shares a building with P.S. 123, had 97 percent of its third and fourth-graders pass last year’s state math exams, and 68 percent pass English. (Citywide, 34 percent of students earned proficient scores in math, and about 28 percent in English.)

Fariña on Tuesday called such a comparison “definitely apples and oranges.” She noted that nearly a third of P.S. 123 students have disabilities, about one-fifth are still learning English, and more than a quarter live in temporary housing. She said the lottery admissions system at charter schools attracts the most involved parents, and she again suggested that some charter schools shed students in a way district schools do not.

“We would like to be at that percentage,” Fariña said, referring to the Success school’s exam pass rates, “but we keep all our kids from the day they walk in the building.”

Still, Fariña made clear that she expects P.S. 123’s test scores to rise regardless of the many challenges its students face. And Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has been touting the Renewal program in recent weeks, has insisted that he will consider closing schools that fail to improve even with the added support.

Hernandez said she has already received some help through the Renewal program, which launched in November. Turnaround officials have visited the school and offered feedback, she has been given budgeting assistance (though no extra funding yet), and 10 teachers have attended training sessions for a particular writing program, she said.

But, unlike a small group of high-priority struggling schools that the city has given intensive help since the start of the school year, P.S. 123 has only recently received support through the program, Hernandez said. For example, the city has not sent the school a principal mentor or on-site teacher coaches or monitored its progress throughout the fall as it did with some of those early-intervention schools.

“We’re actually a Renewal school starting tier two, is it? Stage two. We’re just beginning the process,” Hernandez said, adding later that she had sent her teachers to training sessions and brought in coaches well before the Renewal program got underway. “We already started a lot of this work through our own urgency.”

Fariña offered P.S. 123 Principal Melitina Hernandez advice about how to get students to show up to school and how to weed out ineffective teachers.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Fariña offered P.S. 123 Principal Melitina Hernandez advice about how to get students to show up to school and how to weed out ineffective teachers.

That work was aided by earlier improvement programs for low-performing schools, including a three-year, $4.1 million federal grant that P.S. 123 won in 2013 to fund teacher training along with arts and sports activities.

During Tuesday’s tour, Hernandez said the school had used that money to install electronic whiteboards in classrooms, fill a technology room with top-of-the-line computers, and add after-school and Saturday classes. The school has also established a competitive chess team, healthy cooking classes for families, and a partnership with a nonprofit that sends teaching artists into schools, Hernandez said.

Fariña commended those efforts, but also made plain her own priorities for the Renewal schools.

Throughout her visit, she said P.S. 123 needs to stay focused on improving its writing instruction and tying it into every class. (She told two different art instructors to add more writing to their projects, and asked a kindergarten student to show her some of her writing.) She also said Hernandez must boost the school’s attendance rate, perhaps by having older students check in on younger ones through a “phone buddy” system or buying alarm clocks for others.

And she said the principal must weed out unmotivated or unsatisfactory teachers by documenting their performance problems and advising them to look for jobs elsewhere. After they stopped by the classroom of a teacher whom Hernandez said she had concerns about, Fariña told her to observe the teacher “many, many more times a day.”

After the tour, Fariña explained that principals can use such methods to convince teachers who are not a good fit for a school to leave.

“Not everything has to be knocking people on the head,” she said. “But if that’s what it takes, we’re happy to do that as well.”

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.”