Future of Schools

Fariña promised to involve parents. Now, parent leaders reflect on her tenure — and offer tips for her successor

PHOTO: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña speak with parent leaders about school safety at the Harry Belafonte Library in October.

When Carmen Fariña took the helm of the New York City school system four years ago, she vowed to involve parents in “every aspect of school life.”

She made parent engagement one of the “four pillars” that guided her approach to overseeing the nation’s largest school district, saying after her first 100 days in office: “When parents are engaged at the school and district level, children and schools benefit. We know they’ve been shut out for far too long.”

Many families appreciated the sentiment and were pleased to have an educator overseeing the system. But others still felt shut out, and wondered how much their feedback really influenced the chancellor’s decisions.

Now that Fariña is on her way out of office, parent leaders are reflecting on her tenure — and thinking about what they want to see in her successor. Here’s what some had to say the day Fariña officially announced her retirement.

Naomi Pena is on the Community Education Council of Manhattan’s District 1, which includes the Lower East Side and the East Village. The district is pioneering a district-wide integration effort.

Having a chancellor as an educator is huge. It’s key to really envisioning the success and keeping in mind the people that matter, which is ultimately the kids and the families. For that she was great.

The next chancellor also needs to be an educator and cultivate not just hearing parents but understanding their perspective. One thing the next chancellor needs to understand is that parents can be your best friend or your worst enemy… A lot of the answers to their questions on how to make things more effective: parents already have the answers.

Shino Tanikawa is the parent council diversity-committee chair in Manhattan’s District 2, which includes some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. 

She is an educator and treated the profession of teaching as honorable and with respect. Returning instructional authority to superintendents — although there are principals who are not happy with the restructuring — and re-establishing community school districts are two things I personally appreciated. If anything, putting pedagogy back in education … was a welcome change and can be considered her legacy.

[The next chancellor should be] a career educator who has been a classroom teacher and an administrator. Someone who can collaborate with parents — not just affluent white parents but all parents. Someone who thinks racial segregation of our schools is a top priority.

Kim Watkins sits on the Community Education Council of Manhattan’s District 3, which covers the Upper West Side and part of Harlem.

I’m absolutely thrilled that Mayor de Blasio brought her out of retirement to stabilize the system that was being torn apart by politics. She was able to focus on instruction, special education, outcomes at the school level. The community-school program — that work is still really exciting.

But then we get to the issue of more than $500 million spent on the “Renewal” schools. … As a taxpayer, I’m furious at what basically amounts to 21 schools improving. We went from where everything was decentralized to an incredibly centralized system, where in December, we get a rollout of closures, after the middle school and kindergarten deadlines. It’s so abusive to treat parents that way.

The new chancellor needs to be a bridge builder. I do think we need to cast a wide net for the next chancellor. And the elected parent leaders that have been chosen by the constituent parents should be very much involved in this process – why not? … Tap into our expertise – we have so much of it.

Johanna Garcia is the president of the Community Education Council of Manhattan’s District 3.

Our schools continue to be underfunded, segregated, overcrowded, with an overemphasis on harmful and unproven standardized testing. …

The new chancellor should focus on changing enrollment and admission practices in kindergarten, intermediate, and high school to assist in diversifying all schools, fully funding and supporting our public schools equitably, reducing class sizes, and developing inclusive learning environments for children of all needs and backgrounds.

Lori Podvesker is a parent who works with INCLUDEnyc, which advocates for students with disabilities.

We’re definitely looking for the next chancellor to focus more on students with disabilities and shrinking the gap between students with disabilities and general education students.

Our students are at 10 percent proficiency rates. Graduation rates are rising as the overall rates are rising, but we want to see more growth. We want to see stronger related services, stronger communication with parents. We’d also like to see more focus on programmatic access as well as physical access. We’re hoping the next chancellor focuses more on inclusion, especially in co-located schools [with District 75 students].

Elissa Stein is a parent who runs a service called High School 411 to help parents navigate the high school admissions process.

The chancellor of the city schools is basically an impossible job, where it seems much time is spent with crisis management making it even more challenging to look at bigger-picture issues.

As a high school parent, I generally felt high schools, as a whole, were overlooked unless there were specifics issues that needed to be addressed. While in many ways the chancellor brought a personal touch and a career’s worth of experience to her position, too often that expertise didn’t make it to high schools. We got initiatives and sound bites — AP for All, mandatory computer science — which didn’t address bigger-picture issues that teenagers in New York City public schools face.

get out the vote

Can schools encourage students to be more involved citizens? A new study suggests yes they can.

Democracy Prep charter network superintendent Seth Andrew at a 2012 admissions lottery event.

In a city of roughly 1,800 schools, many have names that have little to do with what students experience.

Not so for Democracy Prep, a network of charter schools that a new study concludes makes students far more likely to vote once they turn 18.

The study, conducted by independent researchers commissioned by Democracy Prep, took advantage of New York City’s charter school admissions rules to examine the impact of applying to, getting accepted to, and enrolling in the network’s schools on later civic participation.

Looking at more than a thousand students who applied between 2007 and 2015 who were old enough to vote in 2016, the researchers found that just being selected in the admissions lottery was correlated with a slight increase in voting rates. Students who were chosen voted 6 percent more often than students who were not.

The impact was much greater on students who were chosen and actually enrolled: They voted 24 percent more often than students who applied but never got a chance to attend.

The findings suggest that Democracy Prep is achieving its explicit goal of promoting civic participation. They also offer one answer to the question of whether charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, undermine democracy.

“Democracy Prep provides a test case of whether charter schools can successfully serve the foundational purpose of public education—preparation for citizenship—even while operating outside the direct control of elected officials,” the researchers write. “With respect to the critical civic participation measures of registration and voting, the answer is yes.”

Seth Andrew, who started the network with a single middle school in Harlem in 2006, said he was pleased by the findings — and unsurprised, because the network has baked civic participation into its culture and academic program. Students must take on a personal “Change the World” project and pass the U.S. citizenship exam to graduate.

“This idea of ‘change the world’ was very central to what we were trying to get our kids prepared and excited to do,” he said.

Creating more engaged citizens takes more than just adding a civics class, said Katie Duffy, the CEO of Democracy Prep. Schools have to make democracy a part of the daily culture, she said.

“The more you talk about the importance of voting, the importance of elections, the importance of advocacy,” she said, “the more it becomes ingrained in our kids.”

The network has also long used Election Day — when district-run schools are often closed so their buildings can be used as polling stations — as a teachable moment.

In 2008, Democracy Prep students spent the day working to get out the vote in their neighborhoods. Four years later, Democracy Prep schools were among the few housed in city space that got special permission to stay open — and the network sent students out to advance the “Vote for Somebody” campaign it had kicked off in a catchy viral video. The next year, students promoted a different message — “I can’t vote but you can” — in an effort to boost the city’s 11 percent primary election voter participation rate.

The network’s influence extends far beyond its students. In 2012, six years into the network’s existence, officials estimated that students had helped 5,000 New Yorkers register to vote. Now, the network runs 22 schools in five states.

Andrew said the study’s findings about the impact of the network — which he left in 2012 to work on other civic engagement initiatives, including at the White House — offer only a start at a time when the United States lags behind other developed countries in voter turnout.

“I was thrilled with the outcome,” said Andrew. “But the as the guy that founded Democracy Prep I feel like there’s a whole lot of room to grow.”

bills bills bills

New legislation aims to diversify New York City’s elite high schools. Here are 3 reasons to be skeptical.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
State Senator Jamaal Bailey unveiled legislation to boost diversity at the city's specialized high schools on Thursday.

Legislation introduced Thursday aimed at integrating New York City’s specialized high schools skirted one big issue: the admissions test.

Instead, the bills would create a new citywide test for sixth graders designed to help them prepare for the exam; establish a commission to study the admissions process and issue recommendations; and require that all specialized high schools admit some students who just missed the cutoff score.

“We want to make sure that we’re doing more to allow more students access to the test,” said Jamaal Bailey, a state senator who represents parts of the Bronx and crafted the legislation.

Specialized high schools have remained starkly segregated for years, despite pledges from Mayor Bill de Blasio to promote diversity at them. Last month, the education department announced black and Hispanic students accounted for just 10.4 percent of offers to the eight specialized schools that admit students based on a single exam — a number that has gone essentially unchanged since de Blasio took office more than four years ago. (Citywide, nearly 70 percent of students are black or Hispanic.)

Standing on the steps of City Hall, and flanked by the alumni foundation president at Brooklyn Tech — a specialized school — Bailey unveiled a legislative package he said would help move the needle.

But there are good reasons to be skeptical of the plan. Here are three of them.

1. Experts say changing the admissions process is crucial to integrating specialized schools. This legislation leaves it alone.

Critics of the current admissions system argue that it favors students who have time and resources to prepare for an admissions test that serves as the sole gatekeeper for the ultra-selective schools. And researchers at New York University have shown that changing the admissions requirements to offer admission to the top 10 percent of students at every middle school is one of the few surefire ways to “substantially change” the schools’ demographics.

2. The proposal doubles down on a diversity program that is already in place — and isn’t making a dent.

Bailey’s legislation requires each specialized high school to participate in the Discovery program, which allows a small set of students to gain admission even if they score just below the cutoff. The city has already expanded that program to include every specialized school and it has helped a shrinking share of black and Hispanic students in recent years. And even if it helped more underrepresented students, its impact would likely be small: Just 4 percent of all specialized school admissions offers were issued through the program last year.

3. The bill assumes preparation will help underserved students gain admission, but the city’s test prep programs haven’t made a big difference.

The legislation creates a citywide test for sixth graders that would mimic the current exam for eighth graders, giving students a head start on preparing for the exam while simultaneously increasingly awareness of it. “Many children in my district don’t know about the test,” he said. But the city has already boosted public test prep programs (which some students have said are not high-quality) and expanded outreach to increase the number of students who take the exam. None of those efforts have changed the racial balance at specialized high schools, which are just as segregated as they were before those programs were expanded.

Bailey, who is himself a graduate of Bronx Science, a specialized school, acknowledged that his proposals may not radically change the demographics at the elite schools. But he said he is “not averse” to broader changes and said he imagined the new commission created by his legislation could recommend more systemic changes.

“I believe they will pay off,” he said. “It’s more opportunities and more information for children.”