to do list

Searching for answers to segregation, Fariña enlists top deputy and solicits local ideas

This summer, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña started a new ritual: Every third Saturday of the month, she sits down with a top deputy and spends a couple hours talking about school diversity.

“How are we going to get it done? What are some of the enrollment consequences? How do we bring people to the table?” she said in an interview with Chalkbeat last week.

The meetings resulted in her most significant diversity-related initiative to date: a pilot program announced in November that will allow seven schools to take steps to enroll students from a mix of backgrounds. She expects many more schools to join the program in the future, she said.

During those weekend meetings with her deputy chancellor for strategy and policy, Josh Wallack, the pair identified aspects of the enrollment system that need review, she said at a town hall event last year — things like how students with special needs are placed at schools and how certain middle schools screen applicants. Meanwhile, Wallack has been keeping tabs on two planning teams exploring enrollment systems aimed at boosting diversity.

Wallack’s involvement is an indication of how seriously Fariña is now taking the issues of enrollment and diversity, since he previously oversaw some of this administration’s most complex education initiatives, including the massive expansion of pre-kindergarten and a reorganization of the city’s school-support bureaucracy.

Her attention to those issues follows a rash of reports and public hearings last year that drew attention to the severe racial and socioeconomic segregation that persists throughout New York City schools. It also comes after some lawmakers and advocates criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration for doing little to address the problem, and Fariña herself for suggesting that part of the solution involved teaching students about world religions and connecting them with pen pals.

And while her recent steps have been modest, some of those same advocates view them as a sign that the administration may be open to larger policy shifts aimed at integration.

“We’ve been really pleased to see the evolution of the chancellor’s thinking over the time she’s been in office, particularly over the last six months,” said David Tipson, executive director of the school diversity advocacy group New York Appleseed.

At the same time, Fariña continues to regard diversity as a goal achieved largely through grassroots efforts that the education department can support but not spearhead. And, perhaps recalling an earlier era of widespread “white flight” and protests against court-ordered busing, she remains deeply wary of policies that could provoke middle-class families by reducing their access to top schools or their home values.

“The rezoning and redistricting doesn’t happen because we mandate it — it has to happen because we talked and listened to everybody,” she said. “It’s not a mandate you’re putting down people’s throats.”

Fariña spoke about school diversity at a town hall meeting on the Upper West Side last October.
Fariña spoke about school diversity at a town hall meeting on the Upper West Side last October.

The first phase of Fariña’s tenure was dominated by the pre-K rollout and department restructuring. But more recently, she has been assessing the city’s mind-numbingly varied enrollment systems for pre-kindergarten, elementary, middle, and high schools.

“Enrollment is one of the most serious issues,” she said at the town hall meeting at Manhattan’s P.S. 191 in October. “I would put this even over overcrowding.”

Experts consider enrollment systems key to school diversity, since they influence how evenly students from diverse backgrounds and with different needs are distributed among schools.

Parent-led groups in Manhattan’s District 1 and Brooklyn’s District 13 are using state grants to explore district-wide enrollment systems that would factor in student demographics when making school placements, as a way to more evenly disperse students across schools. Wallack has been studying those groups’ emerging plans, according to a spokeswoman, and he visited the District 13 group.

“I think they are beginning to look seriously at student enrollment, which has a lot to do with segregation,” said David Goldsmith, president of District 13’s community education council.

Fariña has also discussed enrollment and diversity issues at a couple of her regular meetings with parent leaders. But rather than seek feedback on potential policies, she has asked the district representatives to share their own ideas, according to participants.

That could reflect the fact that the city’s 32 local districts have very different demographics and varying levels of interest in school diversity. It also indicates Fariña’s willingness to let her newly empowered superintendents play a larger role in district planning, some parent leaders said.

“I got the sense that she wants to do something more bottom up than top down” regarding diversity, said Nan Eileen Mead, first vice chair of the chancellor’s parent advisory council.

Pursuing community-designed changes to enrollment policy would also guard Fariña from imposing plans that inflame parents — particularly affluent parents with the ability to opt out of the public system and the political clout to fight any changes. When the education department proposed new zone lines in the Upper West Side last year, families who stood to lose their spots in a sought-after school protested and the plan was tabled.

Fariña is acutely aware that many families choose to buy or rent housing based on the performance of the local schools, since the city’s zoning policies generally guarantee families seats in their nearest elementary school.

In the interview, she recalled the time an older woman holding a slip of paper with an address scribbled on it arrived at P.S. 6, the popular Upper East Side school where Fariña was principal for many years. The woman wanted to make sure that the apartment she planned to buy her daughter was zoned for the school, Fariña said, so that her future grandchild could attend.

De Blasio is also well aware of that phenomenon. When asked last year why the city does not redraw more zone lines to spur integration, he said that would be unfair to families who have “made massive life decisions and investments because of which school their kid would go to.”

But Fariña also suggested that the city’s changing demographics — in particular, the influx of middle-class families into mixed-income neighborhoods — set up the conditions for diversity.

“Partially, some of this is almost going to be taken care of by the fact that the city is changing so radically with gentrification,” she said.

Experts dispute the idea that gentrification automatically promotes school diversity, pointing out that many middle-class families cluster at the same high-performing schools or selective programs. In a follow-up interview, Fariña revised her message.

“I just want to be clear that gentrification is not my strategy for diversity,” she said. “It’s just a reality of life, particularly in some neighborhoods in the city.”

Meanwhile, Fariña insists that integration often happens school by school, parent by parent.

She has encouraged principals to add dual-language programs — which are popular among parents across race and class lines — and to hold more open-house events to market their schools. And she has urged parents to reconsider schools that may once have had dicey reputations or where all the children do not resemble their own.

Fariña noted that she had enrolled her own children in Brooklyn’s P.S. 29, where she taught and where many students at that time came from low-income families, she said.

“Diversity is very important to me,” she said. “It’s how I’ve lived my life as a teacher, a principal, and even as a parent.”

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.”