help wanted

Mayor de Blasio wants New York City’s next schools chief to be like Fariña — but finding a replacement won’t be easy

PHOTO: Rob Bennett, mayoral photography office
Chancellor Fariña and Mayor de Blasio at Queens' P.S. 239.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a search for a new schools chief, he said he would look for someone very much like retiring schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. But as the search intensifies, that approach could pose a dilemma for the mayor, and make it harder to find someone well-suited to running and improving a system that sees itself as a model for school districts across the country.

On the one hand, the search for someone in Fariña’s mold would make the position ideal for a proven leader from within the department. But some observers said there is a dearth of internal options, and that few of Fariña’s deputies have the right background or public persona to take on the role.

At the same time, looking outside the education department could present its own challenges, especially if the job will emphasize carrying out an existing agenda rather than encourage making key changes to a system that has made some incremental gains in recent years but still faces big inequities.

“If you’re just going to keep the trains running on time that’s not going to be a huge incentive to run an education system, even if it’s New York City,” said Josh Starr, a former schools superintendent in Connecticut and Maryland who was considered for the job four years ago. “The best person is probably someone who’s been a lifer in the [education department] who they trust.”

The appeal of running America’s largest school system — which is by itself the size of a large city — might seem obvious. It represents a chance to shape education policy in the national spotlight under a mayor who has shown an interest in ambitious education programs, including the widely-praised launch of free prekindergarten for every family.

But candidates might also be dissuaded by an arrangement where most major policy initiatives in recent years have been handed down from City Hall, there is a relatively short time frame to implement changes, and a job description that suggests the next chancellor will be tasked with continuing the existing blueprint rather than making his or her own mark.

Meanwhile, the next chancellor will have to tackle difficult problems that the current administration has struggled to address: how to serve a growing number of homeless students, yawning achievement gaps, and persistent requests from charter schools for more space to operate. On top of that, whoever takes the job might have less funding to tackle those issues.

“We’re in for some really horrible budget times with the new tax law and there’s going to be a lot of pressure on Washington to cut budgets,” said Clara Hemphill, director of education policy and Insideschools at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.

Still, whoever lands the job will inherit a school system that has enjoyed relative stability and progress: Test scores and graduation rates have incrementally climbed, and perhaps the mayor’s most ambitious education initiative — universal pre-K — has been widely hailed as a success. The relative calm means the next chancellor will be taking over a system many consider to be on the right track, though that could complicate efforts push through more ambitious — and potentially risky — changes.

In many ways, that legacy is exactly what de Blasio wanted from Fariña. In contrast with former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who tried to systematically disrupt the system, Fariña was brought in to rebuild trust with educators and lend a steady hand. Some observers say she accomplished that mission — conducting legendary school visits to gauge the system’s health instead of leaning on reams of data, repairing the department’s relationship with the teachers union, and focusing on small-bore policies to encourage collaboration rather than competition between schools and educators.

But critics say the administration has never articulated a clear vision for improving the system as a whole, refused to tackle key equity issues like school segregation head on, and struggled with an expensive program to improve low-performing schools that has at best achieved mixed results — challenges a new chancellor must contend with.

Another legacy, some observers said, is that Fariña has not set up a natural successor. The New School’s Hemphill said that few of the department’s top deputies — including Dorita Gibson, Fariña’s second in command — have the visibility or political savvy to take on the job. And Josh Wallack, the deputy who helped execute the mayor’s signature pre-K expansion, does not meet de Blasio’s requirement that the chancellor must be an educator.

Finding an outsider to take the post could present challenges of its own. Not only is the chancellor’s salary is relatively low compared with some other school systems, which could give pause to the head of a higher-paying district, but also City Hall has engineered many of this administration’s high-profile education efforts.

Pedro Noguera, a UCLA professor who was reportedly floated for the role, said that the administration’s lack of a unifying vision for the system dissuaded him from considering the position.

“The items on their broad list – I have no objection to those,” he said in an interview. “But I don’t think they add up to the strategy that the system needs.” (Noguera said he was contacted by a third party about the job, but not directly by city officials.)

Still, many observers are optimistic about the mayor’s odds of fielding strong candidates. Fariña’s predecessor, Dennis Walcott, said running the nation’s largest school system will be difficult to resist — and there’s plenty of time for the next chancellor to make their mark.

“The person will be in charge of the largest municipal agency in the country,” he said. “The mayor is term limited, but he has a long four years in front of him.”

charter talks

Hopson weighs charters as school turnaround tool for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson leads Shelby County Schools in Memphis, home to Tennessee's highest concentration of low-performing schools.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has opened a crack in the door to charter school partnerships that might help his district avoid losing more schools to Tennessee’s turnaround district.

Hopson emailed his principals this week to clarify his recent comments to the editorial board of The Commercial Appeal about possibly recruiting charter organizations for turnaround work. The report’s original headline read: “Hopson says he’s willing to hand schools over to charters, if they have a plan for improvement.”

The superintendent quickly turned to Twitter to label the headline “misleading and inaccurate” and, as he sought to regain control of dialogue on the thorny matter, dispatched an email to his school principals.

“…It is my top priority to ensure all of our schools have the necessary resources to provide students with the high-quality education they deserve,” he wrote on Tuesday. “If the Tennessee Department of Education offers us the opportunity to select a charter operator that is willing to collaborate closely with District leaders to improve a school instead of losing it to the (Achievement School District), then I believe it is our responsibility to explore the option.”

Hopson’s comments hint at a potentially significant shift for a district that has battled openly with the charter sector over students being absorbed by the state’s 6-year-old turnaround initiative known as the ASD.

They also point to the tough spot that the superintendent is in.

On the one hand, the growth of the city’s charter turnaround sector has been a thorn in the side of local school leaders since 2012 when the state-run district began taking control of low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators. Now with 29 Memphis schools, the ASD has siphoned off thousands of students and millions of dollars in an already under-enrolled and under-funded school environment — and made mostly anemic academic gains. (The local district also oversees about 50 charter schools that it’s authorized.)

On the other hand, Shelby County Schools has its hands full trying to improve a substantial number of struggling schools. It’s made some important headway through its Innovation Zone, which adds resources, extends the school day, and pays more to top principals and teachers who are willing to do some of the toughest education work in America. But the iZone is an expensive model, and few of its schools have exited the state’s priority school list.

In addition, some education reform advocates are lobbying to shift Memphis to a “portfolio model,” in which districts actively turn over schools to charter operators and manage them more like stocks in a portfolio. In other words, successful ones are expanded and failing ones are closed. Indianapolis has a robust portfolio model and, last fall, the philanthropic group known as the Memphis Education Fund took several Memphis school board members there for a tour. (The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

In his email to principals, Hopson said the school board ultimately would decide whether to authorize charter schools for the district’s turnaround work, and that he expects to discuss the matter with members in the coming weeks.

“All that said, I want to be very clear that my preference would always be to keep schools under the governance of (Shelby County Schools),” the superintendent added.

Hopson has been in discussions with the state Department of Education about several school improvement avenues available in Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law. Among them is an option for Shelby County Schools to voluntarily convert priority schools to a charter, according to department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

One school board member told Chalkbeat he needs more information from the district and state before he would support any move forward. Chris Caldwell added that he thinks the board isn’t up to speed on options under the state’s new education plan.

“At this point, there’s so little information that I’ve been given,” Caldwell said. “I don’t want to conjecture what (a charter conversion) would actually will be like, but I have reservations with any kind of collaboration with the state.”

What would it take for such a shift to be successful?

One Memphis charter advocate says the ground rules are already in place because of a charter compact developed in recent years to address turf issues such as facilities, funding, and accountability.

“In order for a charter to manage a district school that’s underperforming and for it to be successful, that charter needs to have supports from the district to be successful,” said Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

The next school board work session is scheduled for Jan. 23.

School and church partnership

Detroit district aims for faith-based partnerships for every school to support student needs

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surrounded by religious and district leaders wearing new "Got Faith?" shirts.

Each Detroit public school might soon have its own church, synagogue, mosque, temple, chapel, or parish as a partner.

The district on Thursday announced an initiative to connect every district school with a faith-based community partner to help with academic support, student basic needs, and personal and career development, among other services.

The district is now trying to determine which schools have a defined partnership with a religious institution, but estimates that 25 to 30 percent of schools already do. Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director of family and community engagement, said that the district hopes that, by the end of the year, every one of its 106 schools “has a religious partner working with them in tandem toward the goal of helping our children achieve.”

The program was announced at a press conference at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, attended by educators, school board members, and invited guests.

“It doesn’t surprise me when I look around the room and see our religious leaders, because you guys, for a long time, have been investing in our children and our people, and it’s been an informal effort,” Buckman said. “You’ve worked with a number of our schools across the district, so today we recognize that we don’t need to do it informally anymore — we need to make this a formal part of how we move this district forward.”

The district is not unique in its approach: church-school partnerships are common across the country and in the state. The national partnering organization Kids Hope USA is based near Holland, Michigan. Supporters believe that stronger faith-school ties will not only improve local support for schools, but also help provide vital services for children and a more stable personal and family foundation upon which learning could take place.

District leaders “cannot lift our children up to their full potential by themselves,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the press conference. “We need help in that work.”

The district is looking to the faith-based partners to provide services such as tutoring, coaching, chaperoning; deliver before and after school support; donate uniforms and other goods; and highlight teachers at their institutions through announcements and bulletins.

R. Khari Brown, a professor of sociology at Wayne State, said the faith community is already deeply ingrained in Detroit in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of community centers that closed down over the years in the city, and most churches in the city provide some sort of programming,” he said. “They provide backpacks and school supplies, so [the partnership] makes sense.”

Religion is also a large part of the culture of many African Americans, he said, and a significant force in a district where 81 percent of the students were black in 2016-2017.

“Most African Americans want their churches to be involved on the ills that disproportionately affect black people.” he said.

While other communities might balk at such intermingling of church and state, Brown said he believes that it is a “non issue” in this case because the religious institutions are not receiving money from the district.

The ACLU of Michigan said it had no comment at this time but that the organization hopes to “continue to learn more” about the district’s initiative.

Vitti said a more explicit district-faith community partnership could provide both protection and support for Detroit’s children.

“What I’m talking about is developing a stronger safety net to ensure that what students are not receiving in homes, what students are not receiving in school, can be addressed through the faith-based community,” Vitti said. “When we go back to when the city was at its peak, we worked together as a team to lift children up. When children fell through the cracks, there was a safety net to catch them and lift them back up. That happened through the school system, through the churches, the synagogues.”

Vitti said the initiative is part of his larger effort to align schools and the community more closely. Since starting in his position as superintendent in May of last year, he has been pressing programs like the parent academy.

The academy will provide parents with lessons on subjects like what to ask during parent-teacher conferences, how to create stronger readers, how to fill out FAFSA paperwork, and even how to print a resume. Vitti said most of all, it would empower parents to pursue educational goals for their children, even if they weren’t the best students themselves.

“Every parent knows education is important, but parents don’t know how to navigate the system often, and they feel hypocritical when they push their children when they know they didn’t do well in school,” he said.  

Vitti said he envisions a time when faith-based institutions could house some of the parent services.

He said he also sees the faith community working side by side with the district’s 5,000 role models initiative. The program is recruiting volunteers to work with middle and high school African American and Hispanic students, and plans to have sponsors in each school to work with students daily, taking them on field trips and providing an open line of communication.