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.

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.