chancellor chat

New York City schools chief asks principals to ‘take a chance’ on unassigned teachers that she sends them

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña urged principals in a televised interview Tuesday to keep an open mind as she sends them teachers who lost their previous jobs — though she also vowed to help them get rid of any teachers who shouldn’t be in the classroom.

She made the comments during a two-part interview with NY1’s Errol Louis, where she also spoke about an often-overlooked benefit of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s free preschool program, her goal for schools in the “Renewal” program, which infuses struggling schools with extra resources, and what she considers a major cause of school violence.

Here are some highlights:

On the “Absent Teacher Reserve”: Fariña asked principals to “take a chance” on teachers who lost their jobs at other schools.

Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to drain the pool of teachers —  known as the “absent teacher reserve” — who lost their permanent jobs for disciplinary or legal reasons, or because their previous positions were eliminated, but who still receive full salaries. To do that, the city is placing those teachers in schools with openings — to the chagrin of critics (including some principals) who worry the city will offload troubled teachers onto needy schools. Fariña urged principals to keep an open mind about the teachers, while also promising to send a “whole squad” to evaluate any who cause problems.

“As a principal, I always had some of these people…I got a few teachers that ended up being really good and one or two that were miserable. And then it was my job to say, ‘OK, not only not for my school, but not for the system as a whole.’

And that’s what we’re asking principals to do, take a chance on some of these [ATR teachers] who may be very good [but] for any number of reasons they’re not in their schools. But if there’s one who you really feel should not be in any school — not just in your school — then we’ll support you.”

On a fatal school stabbing: She defended her department and the leaders of a Bronx school where two students were recently stabbed, saying no red flags were “apparent.”

At the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation last month, a student stabbed two of his classmates, killing one and wounding the other. After the incident, reports emerged that the school struggled with bullying and an unsafe environment. When asked about whether the school should have reacted sooner to “red flags,” Fariña suggested the warning signs were not clear.

“This is one of those cases where, you know, in hindsight, could you have done something differently? I still feel…I’ve been to that school four times already and I plan on going back more often. I don’t think that that was something that was really apparent. I mean, there’s a lot of issues that are still under investigation, so I don’t think that whatever is in the press is necessarily the whole story.”

On metal detectors: She walked a fine line, saying she doesn’t think they solve school violence — but she also doesn’t plan to get rid of them.

Since the stabbing, some advocates have called for more metal detectors in schools. Fariña rejected that as a solution to school violence, but also signaled that she is in no hurry to get rid of existing metal detectors.

“I don’t think metal detectors are the answer. We’re not taking them out of our schools. We have them, we’ll keep them there. But as we look at the numbers, where might we want them? There are schools that don’t want them anymore. So we look at the statistics to get that done.”

On mental health: She cited mental health as a major problem among school children — and said it can lead to school violence.

Under First Lady Chirlane McCray, the city has made improving mental health care a priority and that effort has included extra support in schools. Fariña suggested that more guidance counselors or teacher training could help students overcome any violent impulses.

“When you start looking at our kids, in second grade, that are depressed, that are anxious. I mean, it’s become a national phenomenon. How do we change that so kids do not want to either be violent or do violence to themselves?”

On universal pre-K: She noted that free preschool doesn’t just benefit kids — it also saves parents money and lets them go to work.

De Blasio’s pre-kindergarten program has been widely hailed as a success; now, he’s pushing to extend it to younger children. Though one goal of early learning is to prepare students for elementary school, Fariña suggested the positive outcomes extend to adults too.

“The most important thing that was a surprise is how much parents are benefiting in ways we didn’t expect. For example, we’re getting a lot of remarks from parents who were able to go back to work full-time. They were able to raise their family’s economic status.”

On struggling schools: She drew a line in the sand, saying schools that fall far below a target could be shuttered.

Under federal law, the state must intervene in high schools whose graduation rates sink below 67 percent. Fariña said schools in the city’s Renewal program are being held to that standard and that she will consider closing them if they fall too far behind. That’s setting a high bar for the city’s most troubled schools, many of which have graduation rates far below that level.

“Every school has a set of benchmarks. For example, in the high schools you need to graduate at least 67 percent of your students. How far away you are from the benchmark, we give you a certain amount of time. … If you’re too far low, we close.”

Top teacher

Former Tennessee teacher of the year wins prestigious national award

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Franklin, receives the 2019 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of NEA)

Former Tennessee teacher of the year Cicely Woodard has received the nation’s highest teaching honor through its largest teacher organization.

The eighth-grade math educator in Franklin accepted the Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation. The honor, which includes a $25,000 prize, was presented Friday at a gala in Washington, D.C.

“Teaching can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming,” said Woodard. “But the impact that we make on the lives of students — and that they make on us — is powerful, life-changing, and enduring.”

A graduate of Central High School in Memphis, Woodard has been a teacher since 2003. She taught in Nashville public schools when she was named Tennessee’s top teacher in 2018 and has since moved to Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, south of Nashville, where she teaches at Freedom Middle School.

Woodard was among 46 educators nominated for the NEA Foundation award by their state education associations and was one of five finalists who received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, which carries an additional $10,000 prize. The Member Benefits Award winner was announced at the finale of the gala attended by 900 people.

“Cicely has been selected for this award by her peers not only because of her mastery as an educator, but also because of the empathy and compassion she shows for her students,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

Known for her inquiry-based approach to mathematics, Woodard holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in secondary math education from Vanderbilt University.

She has had numerous state-level roles, including serving on the education department’s teachers cabinet and on the testing task force created by former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. She also is on the steering committee for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based education research and advocacy organization.

You can watch Woodard in her classroom in the video below.

Penny Schwinn

What we heard from Tennessee’s education commissioner during her first week

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) speaks with students during a visit to LEAD Neely's Bend, a state-run charter school in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of LEAD Public Schools)

From students in the classroom to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Penny Schwinn introduced herself as Tennessee’s education commissioner this week by praising the state’s academic gains over the last decade and promising to keep up that momentum by supporting school communities.

Schwinn toured seven schools in Middle and East Tennessee during her first three days on the job to get a firsthand look at what’s behind the academic growth that she’s watched from afar as chief accountability officer for Delaware’s education department and more recently as deputy commissioner over academics in Texas. She plans to visit schools in West Tennessee next week.

The goal, she said, is to “listen and learn,” and she told a statewide gathering of superintendents at midweek that Tennessee’s successes can be traced to the classroom.

“It has to do with the hard work of our educators … every single day getting up, walking in front of our children, and saying ‘You deserve an excellent education, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,’” she said.

On policy, she affirmed Tennessee’s decade-long blueprint of setting rigorous academic standards, having a strong assessment to track performance, and holding school communities accountable for results.

“If we can keep that bar high … then I think that Tennessee will continue to improve at the rate that it has been,” she told legislators during an appearance before the House Education Committee.

Schwinn was the final cabinet member to start her job after being hired by Republican Gov. Bill Lee just days before his inauguration on Jan. 19. Her whirlwind first week began with school visits on Monday and concluded on Friday by attending a policy-heavy session of the State Board of Education.

But perhaps the biggest introduction came on Wednesday before district leaders attending a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, also known as TOSS. These are the local administrators she’ll work with most closely to try to improve student performance.

The superintendents group had stayed neutral about who should succeed Candice McQueen in the state’s top policy job but hoped for a leader with extensive experience both in the classroom and as a Tennessee school superintendent. Schwinn is neither, having started her career in a Baltimore classroom through Teach For America and later founding a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she also was a principal and then became an assistant district superintendent.

She appeared to wow them.

“Our job at the state Department of Education is to figure out what you all need to help your teachers be the best that they can be for our students. My job is to lead this department to ensure that this happens,” she told the superintendents.

Schwinn shared a personal story about adopting her oldest daughter, now age 6, and the “powerful moment” at the hospital when the birth mom said she loved her baby but couldn’t provide her with the future she deserves. “I think you can,” she told Schwinn, “and so I’m giving you my baby.”

Penny Schwinn speaks to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. (Photo courtesy of TOSS)

“When I think about my responsibility as a teacher or a principal or as commissioner of the state of Tennessee, I think about all of our parents … who pack up lunches, pack up backpacks, drop them off at the door and they give us their babies,” she said.

“That is the most powerful and important responsibility that we have as educators,” she said, “and I take that very, very seriously.”

Several superintendents stood up to thank her.

“I am encouraged. I feel like you have the heart that we all have,” said Linda Cash, who leads Bradley County Schools in southeast Tennessee.

“What she did most is she listened,” said TOSS Executive Director Dale Lynch of his earlier meeting with Schwinn. “As superintendents and directors, that’s very important to us.”

Here are other things we heard Schwinn say this week:

On whether Tennessee will continue its 3-year-old literacy program known as Read to be Ready:

“It is incredibly important that we have initiatives that stick and that have staying power. I think we’ve all had the experience of having … one-and-done initiatives that come and go. … From [my early school] visits, it was underscored time and time again the importance of initiatives like that.”

On the role of early childhood education:

“I think that early education — and that’s both academic and social development — is incredibly important to ensure that we get kindergartners who are ready to learn and ready to be successful.”

On the state-run turnaround district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools:

“High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly. There are good conversations to be had and some questions to be asked. But I will say that I am committed to ensuring that our lowest-performing schools achieve and grow at a much faster rate than they have been.”

On Texas’ academic growth in the 1990s that later flattened:

“They got very comfortable. It was, ‘We’re just doing just fine, we’re doing a great job,’ and then slowly some of the big reforms that they put into place in the ’90s started peeling back little by little. … It’s hard to get things done, but it’s really hard to hold the line.”

Here are six other things to know about Penny Schwinn.