straight talk

Chancellor Fariña: ‘Kids aren’t supermarket items that you can move around’

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Chancellor Carmen Fariña

New York City schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña knows she has something to prove.

When she started in 2014, she seemed intent on moving the nation’s largest school system away from the aggressive policies of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who closed more than 150 schools. Since then, Fariña has established her own program for struggling schools, created new training programs for teachers, and worked to transform school discipline.

When Chalkbeat interviewed her last week, she was proud of her efforts thus far, but mindful of the need to show concrete results.

She pointed to signs of progress at the city’s remaining 86 “Renewal” schools, which were given extra funding to add supports like health clinics and food pantries. While she acknowledged the challenge of sustaining student enrollment at these schools, she dismissed concerns about staffing. “A lot more teachers apply to teach in Renewal schools than apply to leave Renewal schools,” she said.

She also made it clear that, despite the schools’ June 2017 deadline for improvement, she hopes to keep the added supports in place for years to come. “I would think, over time, they will stay, no matter what,” she said.

She didn’t rule out the possibility of closing one or two struggling schools next year, but emphasized that isn’t the backbone of her improvement plan. “Kids aren’t supermarket items that you can move around,” she said. “We’ve got to really stay the course and see progress over time.”

She took a similarly incremental approach to the issue of desegregation, restating her position that diversity plans should spring from districts and schools. Yet, she also said her office was working closely with superintendents to encourage dialogue in the “eight to 12 districts that we feel are really ready and right for this.”

Here is the interview, condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Chalkbeat: Let’s talk about Renewal Schools. Is it hard to attract teachers to those schools, and principals?

A lot more teachers apply to teach in Renewal schools than apply to leave Renewal schools. In one of the classrooms I was in, half of the teachers were in Renewal schools. And when I asked them why they applied, they said, “It’s because we’re going to get a lot more staff development, we’re going to get more support, and we’re going to be able to give back.” And a lot of these teachers have been rated “highly effective” in their existing schools. I think it was 248, but the number’s changing, “effective” and “highly effective” teachers moving into Renewal schools.

Some of these schools have lost a lot of staff. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Can you fill those slots?

I think what you need to do is have high expectations. If we’re going to have an equitable system, the best principals need to be in every single school, not just in some schools. So, I think one of the messages we gave in the very beginning is that not all principals were the highest quality leaders — we moved about 30, 40 principals just from Renewal schools. Because people saw that we only wanted the best people, we had people apply. We didn’t really have trouble recruiting, but we wanted to make sure it was the best person in the job.

What about declining student enrollment, which we know is a struggle at some of the Renewal schools?

It’s a struggle in some places, and one of the things we talk about is rebranding … Let parents come and see your schools. A lot of schools took years and years to get the negative reputation they did. So the neighborhood still knows it as the “bad school,” so unless you bring them into the building, to walk the building with you, then you’re not going to change that around. But [the principal] told me today, this is a Renewal school, that she has more people on the wait-list than she has room for them right now. So that’s good.

Obviously, enrollment, there are just X number of kids to go around. But again, that means that parents have choices, and that goes back to the equity issue as well. If I’m a parent, particularly in middle school, I have choices I can make and it’s great.

It also ups the game because a lot of these schools — I’m thinking of one of the middle schools in Brooklyn — he’s put in so many extra programs in that building. He now has more programs than a middle school that was listed gifted and talented, because he knows he has to work harder to attract parents to come to that building.

The Renewal schools’ state test scores were mostly up. How much weight can we give those numbers, given that the tests changed this year?

Let me be very clear. The test has changed, but as the [State Education] Commissioner [MaryEllen Elia] has said, the rigorousness and the difficulty of the test has stayed the same. What has changed is the amount the time. And I heard a quote that she made last night that I thought was perfect: Are we testing kids’ stamina or are we testing their comprehension? I’d like to think we’re testing their comprehension. And also, the entire state took the same test, so we’re comparing ourselves and I think we have done very, very well.

The other thing I’m particularly proud of and here it goes back to the equity issue: Every single district in the city has progressed. In the past, there’d be the gainers and losers. And that did not happen this year. Some districts progressed more than others, but everyone made progress.

But these Renewal schools are going to be judged at the end of the three-year period [June 2017] and the test scores will be one of the measures.

Absolutely. We’re looking at enrollment, we’re looking at attendance, we’re looking at teacher satisfaction … Is there trust? There’s going to be, even in this coming year, more mergers, consolidations, maybe even one or two closures. So everything is still on the table, but having the progress there raises morale and raises the enthusiasm for the people to do the work.

So if they don’t meet their targets, they definitely could be candidates for closure?

It’s one school at a time. We look at each school individually. We changed enough principals and now teachers. Kids aren’t supermarket items that you can move around. We’ve got to really stay the course and see progress over time.

I think pre-K is a game-changer. I think emphasis on literacy for second graders: game-changer. If you look at the scores, they were particularly high in third and fourth grade, and that shows two-and-a-half years’ effort on writing and reading that we did. Now we need to focus it more on math, which is certainly where we’re going.

When you do hit the deadline for Renewal schools, what happens to the supports in the schools?

I think that’s a question we have yet to — The community schools have definitely been an asset. They’ve been an asset because they’re in neighborhoods, by and large, where we need family support and it gives them that. And again, when you’re looking at equity, equity in the highest-poverty area of the Bronx is not the same as equity, again, in Cobble Hill, where I live. So how do you balance that as well? This family needs more support, they may need the mental health [services], they may need food pantries.

I would think that, over time, [community schools] will stay no matter what. If schools have a certain amount of budget, we don’t take it away from them the next year, regardless of what it is. So I strongly feel that will be part of what we do going forward.

So it’s not like, June 2017 — time’s up?

No, and also, we analyze three times a year. We don’t wait until June on the scores. Right now, attendance is one of our biggest things that we look at, and attendance is up in almost all our Renewal schools. We look at, is chronic absenteeism lowered? And that’s something we focus on a lot. So, are the community schools getting the students into school every single day?

And the other thing, when we look at numbers, in terms of test scores, we’re not looking always at the overall numbers. We’re looking at, did we lessen the number of Level 1 [least proficient] kids? And that was a big success in terms of the Renewal schools. So those are all the kinds of pictures that we look at.

We also look at, do teachers want to teach in the school? I was in a Renewal school recently where I had gone there for some activity, it was 5 o’clock, and all the teachers were still there. So teacher satisfaction is part of what we look at. Do they want to teach in that building?

On integration, the mayor recently talked about a “bigger vision” for diversity and integration. What does that mean?

I think it means we’re really putting a very strong focus on equity and what does equity look like where diversity is aligned. And I now have a deputy chancellor, Josh Wallack, who’s heading this work, and he’s going to be meeting individually with a lot of the superintendents who are in areas where we see a possibility of moving quicker in these areas. Some of the districts have already expressed — you have District 1, you have 3, you have 15 — you have a whole slew of them.

So what does it look like? And it’s going to look a little different in every district, because I also see diversity as fair share of special ed kids. You cannot have three schools within a same geographical area [where] she has 40 percent special ed and you have zero, which is what we’re finding. So, how do we equalize that, I think, is important.

We have a pilot project now with schools that are not necessarily zoned. You have the Brooklyn New School, you have Julie Zuckerman [principal of Castle Bridge School], you have Naomi Smith [principal of Central Park East II], who set aside seats for kids whose parents are incarcerated. So we’re allowing principals who have seats and are not turning away zoned kids to look at diversity as how it suits them. I think we’re going to see that grow.

We’ve also starting putting programs in place, like the Arts [Audition] Boot Camp. And I want to see double the number of kids next year, and these are kids from every borough coming and getting help so they can apply to the specialized arts schools and not have to pay for private tutors for their training. So that’s another way to do diversity.

Another way to do diversity is in co-located buildings, particularly our high schools, to share the AP courses. [Herbert H.] Lehman High School [in the Bronx] comes to mind because I’ve been shouting them out everywhere I go. There are six high schools. Each of those six high schools has a little bit of a different take on diversity. One of the schools is much more focused on arts-centered kids. But if they have to take their AP courses across the whole campus — and AP courses are for all kids, not just kids who score at a certain level — I think that will help with diversity as well.

And I think also a big focus on diversity is going to be in middle school and high schools where there’s more options for kids to travel on their own, rather than zoned schools.

But everyone is talking about it, and I think talking about it is the first part.

But you’re still talking about a school-by-school or district-by-district plan. Any bigger, sort of citywide vision coming out?

I think when you get people to buy into a vision that’s theirs, that they’re creating on their own, you’re going to have much deeper buy-in than if you mandate things from the top. We’ve already started talking to the CEC [Community Education Council] presidents about how much they want to get involved in these discussions. I met with them last week.

Were the CEC presidents receptive and excited about doing this?

Very much so.

In Manhattan’s District 1, we’ve written about whether a “controlled choice” integration plan is going to happen there. It seems like we’re hearing that.

Well, we have more for them to do. And the more they’ll discuss and the more they finalize it, I’m happy to hear what they have to say.

But it’s not a done deal yet.

It’s still in discussion. I mean, they have an advantage, if you want to call it that, that most of their schools are not zoned. It’s not something that can be easily replicated somewhere else, but I’m certainly interested to see what they come up with. But that’s my whole idea. It has to come organically from the people who are going to be engaged in the work.

What happens then, if you have a district like District 3 [on the Upper West Side], where there’s been a fight about rezoning? Some parents want it, some parents don’t. How does the Department decide how to proceed?

You talk, and you talk, and you talk. And you listen, and you listen, and you listen. And we are actually doing a lot more training of superintendents on how to handle the dialogue and get people to the table. I don’t think you do this without doing a lot of listening, and we now have a team that’s going to go out and do this. We designated anywhere from eight to 12 districts that we feel are really ready and right for this, and we’re going to be working with those superintendents to support them and get their ideas.

This is not going to be ‘Carmen says.’ I do that sometimes, but this is not that. Equity means it comes from you, this is what you need. And what you need on the Upper West Side is not necessarily what you need on the East Side.

The City Council asked the Department of Education to make a formal a proclamation in favor of diversity. Why not do that?

Because then it’s just words and no actions.

It would have symbolic weight, though, presumably.

Proclamations, without a plan of action, are proclamations.

Quickly jumping to discipline. What if a principal or a teacher comes to you and says, ‘The proposed ban on suspensions in kindergarten through second grade is going to make my life harder. I need to have all the tools at my disposal to keep my kids safe.’

Look, they’re still going to have tools — let’s be very clear. We are developing a plan where, a principal who has a 7-year-old that is out of control and has been doing that systemically, we’ll have phone numbers to call. We’re certainly putting extra support at the borough levels. We’re going to be training a lot more teachers — all our pre-K teachers went through special training on social-emotional [support].

And the other thing I would say to a principal is, ‘Really? Do you have a grandchild? Do you have a child that was 7 years old at one time? If they had meltdowns, how would you have handled it?’

So I wouldn’t say the principal has no recourse. I mean, most of the principals I’ve spoken to are perfectly OK with the plan for K to 2. In fact, we had principals on the committee that made these decisions. And they were very much in favor of having much more of a child-centered approach to how we look at behavior in the classrooms.

The unions have been hesitant on it.

That’s their role to play. I have my role to play.

I see myself as making sure that every child in New York City has an equitable and safe experience. To me, equity is being in the classroom with your peers. Or the traditional “time out” within a couple of hours in a building — but not at home or someplace else. I mean, how do you say to a 6-year-old, ‘You did something wrong,’ if they’re isolated from the actions that they took?

So, you know, and like I said, I was a mother. I am a mother and a grandmother and I know kids can act inappropriately. But there’s a training that you have to put in place. And keeping them out of the place is not going to change behavior. And a lot of the more successful schools are using something called PBIS [Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports], restorative justice practices. We have so many different programs that we put in place.

I know in my school I had a very small cafeteria. Very large school. We started playing music at lunch. We let the kids pick the music they wanted to play. On Fridays, we had casual Fridays where you could sit anywhere you want. So how do you get the kids involved in changing behavior?

Are you worried about how discipline disproportionately affects some students more than others? Black and Latino students?

I’m concerned about any child who’s excluded from class. Because if they’re not there, they’re not learning. It’s that simple.

deja vu

For second straight year, two charter schools denied by Memphis board appeal to the state

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, listens last May to charter appeals by three operators in Memphis.

For the second year in a row, charter schools seeking to open in Memphis are appealing to the state after being rejected by the local board.

Two proposed all-girls schools, The Academy All Girls Charter School and Rich ED Academy of Leaders, went before the Tennessee Board of Education last week to plead for the right to open. Citing weaknesses in the schools’ planning, the Shelby County Schools board had rejected them, along with nine other charter applicants, last month. It approved three schools, many fewer than in previous years.

After state officials and charter operators complained last year that the Memphis school board didn’t have clear reasons for rejecting schools, the district revamped its charter oversight to make the review process more transparent. Now, five independent evaluators help scrutinize schools’ lengthy applications — a job that until this year had been done by three district officials with many other responsibilities. (The district also doubled the size of its charter schools office.)

The new appeals suggest that at least some charter operators aren’t satisfied by the changes.

District officials said the schools did not have clear goals for their academic programs and relied too heavily on grant funding. The board for Rich Ed Academy of Learners said in its appeal letter the district’s concerns were ambiguous and that the school would provide a unique project-based learning model for girls of color from low-income families.

The other school’s board said in its letter that the district’s decision was not in the best interest of students. A school official declined to elaborate.

The state board blasted Shelby County Schools’ charter revocation and approval processes last year, ultimately approving one appeal. That cleared the way for the first charter school in Memphis overseen by the panel.

The state board will vote on the new appeals at its quarterly meeting Friday, Oct. 20. If the state board approves the appeals, the local board would have 30 days to decide whether to authorize the school or relinquish oversight to the state board.

Struggling Detroit schools

The story of Detroit’s schools is much more nuanced than many people realize. Here’s how we can cover it together.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Rynell Sturkey, a first-grade teacher at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit's west side often manages jam-packed classrooms of 37 kids or more. Her students have no music or art or gym. “They’re with me all day in this room. We’re tired,” she said.

Ever since my husband and I announced to friends and family three years ago that we’d made the somewhat-impulsive decision to sell our apartment in Brooklyn and move with our two small children to downtown Detroit, we’ve been confronted with the same persistent questions:

Erin Einhorn
Erin Einhorn

“You live in Detroit” we’re asked, with a tone of skepticism and, frankly, judgement. “And you have kids?”

The questions are rooted in the perception that the schools in Detroit are so awful that no decent parent with other options would reasonably choose to live in this city. It’s a perception I know is grounded in some deeply concerning conditions in Detroit schools, including many of the issues I’ve covered as a reporter for Chalkbeat. I’ve written about the Detroit teachers and families who alleged in a federal lawsuit last year that the conditions in Detroit schools are so deplorable that they violate children’s right to literacy. I’ve spent time in classrooms where a teaching shortage has meant 37 first-graders packed together all day without a break for music, art or gym. And I’ve seen the heartbreak on the faces of students and parents who’ve learned that the charter school they’d chosen would be closing, leaving them to scramble for another school in a city where choice is abundant, but quality is rare.  

I appreciate the concern from friends and family who are worried about my children, but the truth is that my kids are going to be completely fine. My husband and I have a car and accommodating jobs that enable us to enroll our kids in any school in any neighborhood  — options that poor transportation and the uneven distribution of schools have put out of reach for far too many kids. And, as it happens, we found a great public school right in our own neighborhood where our oldest child now walks every day to kindergarten.

The truth is that the story of Detroit’s school is much more nuanced than most people realize. There are serious challenges — no doubt about that — but we’re not going to be able to address them until we stop asking each other what we’re going to do about educating our own children. We need to start asking what we can do to make sure that families in every neighborhood have a shot at a decent education. That’s what we try to do at Chalkbeat. We aim to tell the stories of teachers and students and parents, to put a human face on challenges that would otherwise be difficult to understand. We look at what’s working in our schools and what urgently needs to change.

This school year marks the first full year that Detroit’s main school district will be led by a new school board and superintendent. And it will be Chalkbeat’s first full school year since we formally launched in Detroit last winter. We hope to grow this year, adding another reporter to help us expand our coverage of early childhood education, special education and other matters crucial to the city’s future. And we’ll continue to cover the important issues affecting Detroit children and the way they learn.

We can’t tell these stories without you. So please — reach out! Introduce yourself, join our community by submitting a story tip, giving us feedback or making a financial contribution. Contact us at [email protected], follow us on Facebook and at @ChalkbeatDET. And, please, keep reading!