Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s redesigned system for supporting and overseeing schools entered a new phase Wednesday with the official launch of seven new help centers where schools will turn for guidance on everything from budgeting to teacher training.
The centers have been slowly coming to life over the past several months, as their directors hired about 600 staffers who have helped principals craft their budgets for next year. With their formal kickoff July 1, the centers officially replace the previous administration’s system of about 55 smaller support teams called “networks.”
The education department sent notices and hosted informational sessions to prepare principals for the changeover, and several reported a smooth budgeting process at the centers. But even as the centers officially open their doors, some work remains to get them up and running: Their leaders must still fill about 15 percent of their positions and plan trainings available to schools this summer, officials said.
As hundreds of people transition into their new positions, basic logistics of the centers are still being hashed out. An employee at one center said staffers without desks or computers are working in conference rooms on Blackberries, and Bernadette Fitzgerald, director of one of the Brooklyn centers, said her team was still figuring out “where people will be sitting, how they’ll be collaborating,” but that things were proceeding as planned.
“It’s busy,” she said Tuesday, “and very exciting.”
The centers spring from the shakeup Fariña announced in January, a bid to create more uniformity across the city’s 1,600 district schools and equalize the support they receive. The overhaul shifted new authority onto the system’s 45 superintendents to supervise schools, and also made it their duty to get schools the help they need. But because each superintendent has a staff of just six to serve dozens of schools, they must outsource help for schools to the new “borough field support centers.”
While most of the networks served schools spread out over multiple boroughs, each new center — two in Brooklyn and Queens, and one in each of the other boroughs — will focus on schools in the same area. The centers range in size from 150 employees in the Bronx to 50 staffers on Staten Island, depending on the number of schools they will serve and those schools’ needs, officials said. The center directors hired some personnel from schools or outside the education department, but most came from the previous system of support networks and groups of networks called “clusters.”
Many of those former network employees who assisted schools with instructional matters such as analyzing student data or meeting the needs of students with disabilities only recently learned at which centers and in what roles they will now work. (Some who were unhappy with their placements are appealing them; officials said they will work with those people to find the right positions.) In an email last week, Fariña thanked those veterans of the previous system for their “patience, professionalism, and eagerness to help during this eventful year.”
“As we move ahead with our reorganization,” she wrote, “I will continue to turn to you in your new roles for support.”
Some of the first hires were former network staffers with experience helping schools with budgeting and hiring. They began calling principals into their centers last month to work on next year’s budget — a change for many who were used to network employees traveling to their schools or other nearby locations. To some, that signaled a larger shift: Whereas principals chose their networks and paid for their services, they are now assigned to their borough centers, which answer only to the education department.
“When someone works for you, it’s different,” a Queens principal said. “They want to make the customer happy.”
Still, that principal and several others said they received the same quality of service from their center when setting next year’s budget as they had from their networks. Nigel Pugh, principal of the Richard R. Green High School of Teaching in Manhattan, said he was impressed when the center staffers asked him to talk about his school before they began crunching numbers.
“I’ve found the people to be highly responsive, well-selected and knowledgeable,” Pugh said.
Principals have yet to see how the centers help them with them with day-to-day business, from coaching teachers to handling discipline issues to running programs for non-native English speakers. The centers officially take over that role Wednesday, though most of those issues won’t arise until the new school year begins.
However, principals are already asking who at the centers will work with them on those issues, and how their superintendents will fit in. In the past, schools contacted the networks directly, but now superintendents are expected to be principals’ go-to people.
“Some of my members are still trying to figure out who’s doing what,” said principals union President Ernest Logan. He added that, in conversations with city officials, the union has “made it abundantly clear that we’re holding superintendents accountable for supporting schools.”
The new structure is designed to give schools more uniform guidance. To that end, the officials overseeing instructional support at each of the centers have been training together at education department headquarters, explained Kevin Moran, director of the Staten Island center.
They will then run workshops for principals and school staffers using a common training curriculum. While some principals have already started grumbling about the prospect of one-size-fits-all trainings, Moran said this approach offers “consistency and coherence.”
“There will be standard threads woven through all the curriculum” used in the trainings, he said. “These are the non-negotiables.”
In the past, the networks offered summer training sessions for schools. Officials said the centers will run workshops this summer, but first their directors must meet with superintendents and central office officials to determine what trainings are already being offered.
Some principals said it would be hard to take advantage of those offerings since teachers have already made travel plans. Julie Zuckerman, principal of Castle Bridge School in Manhattan, said her network used to run two-dozen or so workshops each summer on topics ranging from special-education teaching methods to math curriculum design. With her network now defunct and her new support center still getting off the ground, she said her teachers are left with less help to prepare for next school year.
“This is a lost summer,” she said.
Logan, the union president, said the centers and superintendents have the potential to serve principals better than the networks did by offering an additional layer of oversight, but only if the new system works as it’s designed to.
“This is very, very different,” he said, “and the jury is still out on what is going to happen.”