All together now

Inside the ‘passion project’ Carmen Fariña can’t quit: helping New York City schools share space better

Herbert Lehman High School in the Bronx shares its campus with other schools in the building.

Brady Smith runs a small school, and he likes it that way. With fewer than 300 students enrolled, he can get to know everyone at the James Baldwin School in Chelsea.

But being small has its drawbacks, too. Smith shares a building with five other schools, which means every academic year begins with negotiations over who gets access to which stairwells, the cafeteria, the auditorium — and when. It’s hard to field a theater group with such a small roster. And since budgets are based on enrollment, money is short for much needed renovations in a building that he calls “literally old school.” (It went up in the 1930s.)

“Obviously the scale is both a positive and a challenge,” said Smith, who serves as the school’s principal but splits leadership responsibilities with a teacher. “There are economies of scale that could bring some really wonderful experiences into co-located buildings.”

Carmen Fariña, the outgoing schools chancellor, emphatically agrees and is taking a post-retirement role shepherding the Co-Located Campus Initiative — a two-year-old office that helps school leaders like Smith collaborate better on shared campuses. The education department says Fariña will serve as a volunteer advisor for the “passion project” after she steps down at the end of March — a move that her replacement, Richard Carranza, said he welcomes.

Like much of Fariña’s tenure, the initiative can be seen partly as a reaction to the policies of the previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who broke up large high schools across the city. The large schools were replaced with clusters of smaller schools within a single building.

While research has credited Bloomberg’s approach with boosting graduation rates, the small schools movement also created a new set of problems on many campuses. About 380 district schools are co-located throughout the city.

Shared space can lead to logistical hurdles and personality clashes, and the Department of Education has the Office of Campus Governance mediate disagreements about space-sharing and host training sessions on how school leaders can get along. The department even published a 122-page handbook laying out how colocated schools can work together. (A separate office handles relationships between charter schools and traditional schools that share buildings.)

“It can be a nightmare,” said one Bronx principal who shares a building with multiple schools and requested anonymity because he said he did not have permission to speak about his job. “It’s like a nine-dimensional puzzle.”

But Fariña’s initiative aims to move beyond the logistical and administrative headaches of space-sharing and focus on how schools can work together in the classroom. The goal is “collaboration in instructional practices, sharing of resources, and maintaining a safe and collegial campus where students and parents feel welcomed and appreciated,” the city’s handbook says.

Small schools can struggle to meet their students’ needs. With strained resources, some co-located schools can’t provide minimum required instruction time or math, social studies and science course offerings, according to a 2014 report by the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College. Co-located high schools struggled to provide enough foreign language classes that allow students to earn an advanced Regents diploma — even though those classes are required by the state, the report found.

Nicole Manning has taught on co-located campuses for much of her career, including currently at the Business of Sports School, which shares a building in Hell’s Kitchen. She said she’s long noticed that arts programs are lacking at the schools, with few opportunities for drama, band, or vocational courses.

“I think the experience for the kids could be richer,” she said. “I don’t think that’s one person’s shortcoming. I think that’s a systems thing.”

Under Fariña’s leadership, the city has merged or closed some small schools. Now, through the initiative, Fariña wants to encourage schools to pool their budgets and staffs while still maintaining their size.

So far, 24 campuses across all the boroughs are involved, touching 138 schools and programs. In a signal of how important the work is to Fariña, Aimee Horowitz was tapped to lead the initiative — a move that raised eyebrows over the outgoing chancellor’s influence. Until now, Horowitz has led the mayor’s high-profile Renewal turnaround program.

“We work to improve the overall culture and climate across schools on campuses, and make sure resources are shared so teachers and kids can have access to more programs and opportunities,” Fariña wrote in a recent op-ed.

Fariña has zeroed in on campuses where she wants to push that work forward, meeting one-on-one with principals to kick it off. One of those campuses is the Bayard Rustin Educational Complex, where Smith’s school is located.

As part of the initiative, Smith said the education department is helping to pay for a welcome center for parents who visit the imposing building — a priority he said the chancellor has emphasized.

The Rustin Complex schools are already doing a host of other things laid out in the co-location initiative. A campus-wide group of parents meet regularly, recently diving into the contentious issue of whether metal detectors should be installed. Students come together in an afterschool club where young men create rap songs about their lives. Principals split the costs and for building-wide college trips which are chaperoned by staffers from each school.

“I think we all recognize that they’re all our students, even though there are six schools in one building,” Smith said.

Other issues are tougher to work out, especially when schools with diverging philosophies share the same building. Fariña has called for schools to open up their advanced courses campus-wide so more students have access to college-level work. But what if schools use different grading methods or testing practices to track student progress? Which principal should oversee that teacher’s work? And who, ultimately, should be held responsible for that student’s outcomes?

The same kinds of questions arise when it comes to implementing a campuswide approach to school discipline, or deciding what kind of training to offer all the teachers in the building — both laid out as initiative priorities — while also maintaining the characteristics that make each school unique.

“It’s exactly because of that, that we’ve chosen not to do more sharing,” the Bronx principal said.

Shino Tanikawa, a parent in Manhattan’s District 2 who served on a city working group dealing with school space, said she is generally opposed to co-locating schools. It creates extra work for administrators when they could be serving students, she said. But she also recognizes that it would be difficult to undo the legacy of small schools. Parents and students become attached to their schools. Some principals and teachers, even while acknowledging the difficulties, say they can build deeper relationships when there are fewer students to keep track of.

With that in mind, Tanikawa said the education department might as well help co-located schools grapple with the situation they’ve been dealt.

“They are not going away,” she wrote in an email. “Given that, I think it is good to focus on how to make it work.”

Frequently asked

New Denver teacher contract: We answer the most common questions about the tentative pact

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Students in class at Dora Moore ECE-8 during the second day of the Denver Public Schools teachers strike.

One reason many Denver educators didn’t like the district’s old ProComp pay system was that it was too complicated and unpredictable. Both sides agree that the deal reached early Thursday morning creates a much simpler pay system for teachers.

But educators — and the general public — still have a lot of questions about the tentative ProComp agreement, which still needs to be ratified by union members and the Denver school board. Here we’ve answered some of the most common questions we’ve heard since the end of the strike.

How do I place myself on the salary schedule?

The salary schedule is made up of “steps” and “lanes.” The “steps” represent years of service for which a teacher had a positive evaluation. The “lanes” represent levels of education. The new schedule has 20 steps and seven lanes.

Worked in Denver Public Schools for five years and have a master’s degree? Go to step five and then slide your finger over to the master’s degree lane. That’s your base salary.

Did you have a year when your evaluation wasn’t good? Go back one step. Have an additional 18 credits on top of your master’s degree? Go up one more lane.

Teachers can also go up a lane once they hit the 10-year mark because the district wanted to reward longevity. Other milestones that merit a lane change: earning national board certification or an advanced license, or completing six “professional development unit” training courses.

Still not sure? Denver Public Schools plans to put a salary calculator on its website soon.

What if I have more than 20 years of experience?

If you have 20 or more years of experience, you’re placed at the top of the salary schedule, on step 20. After step 20, you’ll get yearly cost-of-living raises. You’re still eligible to change lanes, but you won’t get any more step raises.

Does the district know everything it needs to know about individual educators to pay them the correct salary?

Denver Public Schools plans to send letters or emails this spring to every teacher and special service provider (nurses, counselors, and others) covered by the contract, laying out where the district believes that employee falls on the schedule based on information they have on file. Educators will have a certain amount of time to correct any wrong information and get on the correct step and lane for the 2019-20 school year.

Under the new salary schedule, it looks like I’ll earn less next year than I do now. Am I taking a pay cut?

No. The agreement includes a “hold harmless” clause that ensures everyone will get a raise next year. Those whose salaries are higher now than they would be under the new schedule will get a cost-of-living raise each year until the salary schedule catches up with them.

How are bonuses and incentives different under the new contract?

The bonuses and incentives are different in three ways: There are fewer of them, the dollar amounts are different, and the dollar amounts won’t change year to year.

This year, there are six bonuses and incentives offered by the district: one for educators who work in Title I schools where 60 percent or more of the student population qualifies for subsidized meals; one for educators who work in hard-to-fill positions; one for educators who work in “hard-to-serve” schools; one for educators who work in one of 30 “highest-priority” schools; one for educators who return year over year to those schools; and one for educators who work in schools deemed top-performing or high-growth, as based on school ratings.

Here’s what’s left in the new contract: Teachers in Title 1 schools and those in hard-to-fill positions, such as secondary math, will get $2,000 a year. Teachers who return year over year to 30 highest-priority schools will get $3,000 a year. Teachers in 10 schools deemed “distinguished” will get $750 a year, with the criteria to be determined by the district and the union.

Why aren’t the district and the union tying bonuses to test scores anymore?

Unions have traditionally been skeptical of paying teachers based on student test scores because the scores are so closely correlated with factors like race and household income. In Denver, these bonuses were also less predictable for teachers because the district often changed the criteria it used to rate schools and award “top-performing” bonuses.

The district also came to see these bonuses as canceling out the effects of bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools. A teacher could get nearly the same kind of monetary reward by moving to a more affluent school or by staying in one where students face more challenges. The new bonus system provides clearer monetary benefits to working in a high-poverty school.

Why did the union agree to keep the incentive for highest-priority schools, when that had been such a sticking point?

In any negotiation, there’s give and take and a lot of moving pieces. 

Here’s what lead negotiator Rob Gould said to district officials during bargaining: “We are open to the incentive because we know it’s important to you. And we’re willing to entertain your ideas if we can get the base salary schedule that our teachers need. Because if we can get the base salaries we need, we can keep our teachers in Denver.”

This was also an issue that divided teachers, with some teachers at schools that received the highest-priority incentive pushing to keep them.

Did teachers get a better deal out of the strike than the district’s last offer before the strike?

Teachers were getting a raise no matter what. The district was offering an average 10 percent raise before the strike (this included a cost-of-living raise that was agreed to back in 2017). Now teachers will get an average 11.7 percent raise, though individual teachers will see a wide range.

The district is putting the same amount of new money — $23.5 million — into teacher compensation as it was offering before the strike. It can give a larger average raise with that same amount of money because the incentives are smaller than under the previous proposal and because of limits on how teachers can use training to get raises. That gives the district more predictability about how many teachers will get raises each year.

Union leaders call the deal a win. They secured more opportunities for teachers to earn raises and move into higher categories on the salary schedule, including through completing training partially during work hours at no additional cost. And teachers can get to $100,000 in 20 years, rather than the 30 years in the last district proposal.

However, individual teachers aren’t necessarily getting more base pay next year than they would have under the district’s last offer. Early-career teachers without advanced degrees would have earned more in base pay under the district’s last offer. The teachers who do better under the deal reached after the strike are veteran educators with more education.

To take two examples: A second-year educator with a bachelor’s degree and no extra credits or training would have earned $47,550 in base pay under the district’s last offer before the strike but will earn $46,869 under the deal reached this week.

But a 20-year educator who has a master’s degree and an advanced license who has been with the district for 10 years will earn $88,907 in base pay under the new agreement, compared with $87,550 under the district’s last proposal before the strike.

The union fought for this kind of salary schedule in part to address a longstanding complaint that teachers have little reason to stay in a district where base pay levels off.

You can see the salary schedule from the district’s last offer here and the schedule from the tentative agreement here.

Is this deal financially sustainable for the district?

Denver Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino says that is the “million-dollar question,” perhaps closer to the “half-billion-dollar question,” since that is roughly how much the district spends on educator compensation.

Ferrandino believes the answer is yes, with the standard caveat that all projections are just that.

What will be cut to pay for this?

The district plans to cut $20 million from administrative costs over the next two years. That includes cutting 150 jobs in the central office and ending all executive bonuses. The bulk of it — $13 million — will go to fund the ProComp agreement.

District officials have not yet said which central office jobs will be cut, though Superintendent Susana Cordova has said cuts will be to “discretionary” departments. Departments that will not be cut include special education, English language acquisition, and transportation, she said.

Teachers will get a raise. What about paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers?

These other district employees, much lower paid than teachers, are not covered by the contract that was the subject of the strike. Cordova has said these workers also deserve raises and a portion of administrative cuts will go to pay for them.

But how much of a raise will they get? That will all be worked out over the next few months and include discussions with the unions that represent these employees.

Will striking teachers get back pay?

Not according to district officials. After this story was published Friday, we asked for further clarification on this. We received this statement Saturday morning:

Superintendent Cordova understands that when teachers make the choice to strike, they are doing so to make a statement and bring attention to the importance of the issue at hand. Foregoing pay during the time that a teacher is not working is a challenging decision that no one makes lightly, and consequently, brings with it an impact that is intended to push for change.

DPS did not feel that it would be fair or appropriate to provide back pay to striking teachers when many others — including more than 40 percent of classroom teachers — chose to remain at work this week. However, DPS is working with the DCTA to offer all teachers the opportunity to attend a Saturday session to replace the professional development day that was cancelled in the days leading up to the strike. Any teacher who attends will be paid a day’s salary.

When will the new agreement go into effect? How long will it last?

Assuming both sides ratify it, the new agreement technically (and retroactively) went into effect Jan. 19, the day after the old one expired. But educators won’t start receiving the new salaries, incentives, and bonuses negotiated under it until Aug. 1. The agreement expires Aug. 31, 2022.

Teens Talk Back

‘Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait.’ Teen group says New York City diversity plan doesn’t move fast enough.

PHOTO: Courtesy/Teens Take Charge
Teens Take Charge members at a "virtual" press conference in New York City on Thursday

A teen group representing students from more than 30 New York City high schools sharply criticized a recent report from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group as offering no real solutions for increasing integration in the city’s starkly segregated high schools.

At a virtual press conference on Thursday, broadcast live on Facebook by Teens Take Charge, students expressed support for the report’s broad policy aim of achieving greater integration but also disappointment that the findings offered few specifics for how to reach this goal. The mayor’s Diversity Advisory Group has said a follow-up report will provide more details later this year.

“We have been told to wait, to be patient, that change is coming soon,” said Tiffani Torres, a junior at Pace High School in Manhattan. “Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait any longer.”

Teens Take Charge has long advocated for greater efforts to end segregated enrollment patterns in the city’s high schools. Sokhnadiarra Ndiaye, a junior at Brooklyn College Academy High School, said that students’ expectations of the mayor included his announcing “a comprehensive plan” — even if it took years to realize — “to racially, socioeconomically, and academically integrate high schools before the end of this school year,” she said.

Among Teens Take Charge’s specific recommendations are doing away with academic screens for admission to the city’s high schools, a more transparent process for applying to them, and more resources for low-income schools. Early last year, the group produced an Enrollment Equity Plan for increasing educational opportunities for low-income black and Hispanic students.

And because concrete plans for increasing integration would take time, Ndiaye said the teen organization supports several interim measures as well to address inequities in the school system. These include providing more college and career counseling for junior and seniors at low-income, under-resourced high schools. The teen group would also like to see the city provide vouchers to low-income families to access extra-curricular activities and programs offered by private companies or the ability to participate in such programs at other public schools if theirs don’t offer them. (Some city teens joined a class-action lawsuit against the education department and Public School Athletic League for allegedly denying black and Hispanic students equal opportunity to play on school sports teams, in violation of local human rights law.)

Torres described how Teens Take Charge has had “several meetings and phone conversations with Department of Education officials over the past year,” and schools chancellor Richard Carranza has stated that students have his ear. “We’re listening,” he tweeted in response to a Chalkbeat story with excerpts of the students’ views.

In December, the city’s education department posted a new job listing for a “Student Voice Manager” who would gather students’ thoughts on education policies. But while acknowledging this seat at the table, several students expressed frustration at the slow pace of change.

Bill de Blasio’s office declined to comment about Teens Take Charge’s concerns or their specific recommendations, beyond referencing remarks the mayor already made about the School Diversity Advisory Group report.

Doug Cohen, an education department spokesman, said in a statement, “We’ve taken real steps toward school integration,” pointing to initiatives such as a $2 million diversity grant program for school districts and communities citywide to develop their own local diversity plans, and a program that enables middle-schoolers to visit college campuses. “We know there is more work to do, and we thank Teens Take Charge for its continued advocacy on these issues,” he added.

Students at the group’s event urged swift change. “They know our plan; they have our information,” said Sophie Mode, a sophomore at Brooklyn Millennium. “They need to take action now.”