visiting hours

On her tour of city schools, Fariña takes a hands-on approach

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
Chancellor Carmen Fariña visited P.S. 154 in the South Bronx this summer to see its enrichment program. She visited more than 70 schools in her first five months as chancellor.

For students at one Bedford-Stuyvesant middle school, a visit from the New York City’s schools chief started with some advice and ended with a shopping spree.

In February, Chancellor Carmen Fariña paid a visit to M.S. 57 and flatly told Principal Celeste Douglas-Wheeler to reconsider the school’s move away from independent reading time for students. With many of her students entering sixth grade barely able to read, Douglas-Wheeler had opted for a more intensive approach to teaching reading in recent years.

“She said, ‘Look, I think this is something you should not take out of your reading curriculum,’” Douglas-Wheeler recalled.

Two months later, Fariña went one step further to encourage the change. She took Douglas-Wheeler and more than a dozen students on a personally funded shopping spree to Barnes & Noble in downtown Brooklyn, telling them each to pick out books that they wanted to read and add to the school’s library.

Douglas-Wheeler said the extra attention made a mark. This year, the school is adding time for independent reading back into the school day.

“When we got back on the bus, every single child was reading their books,” Douglas-Wheeler said. “It changed something in me and it made me realize that I have to start thinking about what experience my kids are going to have in school that they’re really going to remember. And they’re going to remember that visit to the bookstore with the chancellor.”

In a system of more than 1,700 schools, it would be impossible for Fariña to intervene that way in each of them. But she sees getting into schools as one of her most important responsibilities, and she doesn’t hesitate to personally address school-level concerns while she’s there.

“School visits are the only way you get the information that you need in order to do your job,” Fariña said in a recent interview.

Together, interviews with Fariña and principals she has met with in her first months on the job paint a picture of her preferred management style: keeping a low public profile while focusing on school-level leadership. It’s a detail-oriented approach that has provoked criticism from some who say it’s an impractical way to run the nation’s largest school system. But Fariña says her suggestions during visits aren’t about disrupting typical chains of command, but about passing on her knowledge of what works.

“I’m not a rating officer,” Fariña said. “I’m a suggestion person.”

Where in the school system is Carmen Fariña?

Between January and May, Fariña officially stepped inside more than 70 different schools for just under 90 visits, according to schedules that the Department of Education recently released to Chalkbeat. Many visits were for press conferences with Mayor Bill de Blasio and evening meetings with parents, but most were private tours of the schools for Fariña herself.

Since her first school visit to M.S. 223 in the Bronx on Jan. 2, Fariña has toured schools in every borough. She has focused on visiting middle schools and has preferred seeing high-performing schools—most received As or Bs on their most recent city progress reports, and only the School for International Studies in Cobble Hill received a grade lower than a C.

Early in her tenure, Fariña called a meeting with Clara Hemphill, founding editor of Insideschools and author of “New York City’s Best Public Middle Schools.” Fariña wanted to know what under-the-radar schools she should visit, and she was very interested in “schools that were going in the right direction, rather than schools that are perfect,” Hemphill said.

Fariña has since visited schools that are overwhelmingly poor, such as M.S. 319 in Washington Heights, where 96 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, as well as schools with more affluent students like P.S. 101 School in the Gardens in Forest Hills.

What many of the schools have in common, Fariña said, is that something is working well. I.S. 75, for instance, was the first middle school in Staten Island to offer a popular program for autistic students, while M.S./H.S. 327 in the Bronx has been hailed as a successful “community school” offering a collection of social services.

Principals say Fariña typically spends a focused 90 minutes in each school. A visit typically includes scrutinizing hallway decorations and student work displays, at least one stop in a social studies class or a science lab, and staff interviews.

“She was just asking a lot of questions about what is going on here,” said Barbara McKeon, the school leader of Broome Street Academy Charter School, which Fariña visited in March.

Douglas-Wheeler remembered Fariña asking teachers “some pretty tough questions about what’s working, what’s not working.”

Douglas-Wheeler and McKeon said they welcomed Fariña’s hands-on presence, though at least one educator who attended a school visit with Fariña said it didn’t always go over well. “She seems to forget that she’s the chancellor and coaching a teacher or principal is not always seen in a positive light,” the person said.

The challenge for Fariña, some say, will be to avoid the temptation to attempt to fix what’s wrong in each of the schools she sees.

“The chancellor can be the icon of instructional leadership, but she can’t be an instructional leader,” Seymour Fliegel, president of the Center for Educational Innovation-Public Education Association, one of the city’s largest school-support organizations.

Staying above the fray

Chancellor Fariña’s predecessor Dennis Walcott often visited schools to make announcements or to bring attention to a successful program, with a least a handful of reporters in tow. But Fariña has kept most of her visits out of the public spotlight. Of her nearly 90 school visits, just 15 were public events.

The private events are a sign of Fariña’s aversion to the media, which appeared to grow after her much-criticized “beautiful day” comments during a February snowstorm. Fariña said they also allow her to actually dive into what is causing a school to struggle or shine.

“Principals, when they see the door close, [are] much more likely to give me a whole list of complaints and concerns,” Fariña said. “And that’s where I learn.”

A power shift to City Hall under the de Blasio administration means Fariña is freer to take up the roles of instructional guru and principal’s coach. Strategy for the city’s two biggest education initiatives of the upcoming school year—an unprecedented expansion of pre-kindergarten and of middle school after-school programs—is being overseen by Deputy Mayor Richard Buery out of City Hall, as is the city’s community schools expansion plan. (The Department of Education also has significant roles in all three.)

Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, schools chancellors at times delegated the specifics of teaching and learning to their deputies as they pushed other initiatives. Bloomberg officials also spoke frequently of giving principals new freedom in exchange for student achievement gains.

Fariña, though, is concerned with the nitty-gritty details of principal leadership, believing that specific tactics set them up for success or failure. And her four decades of continuous experience in the city school system and a post-retirement stint as a consultant means Fariña has ties to dozens, if not hundreds, of principals interested in her prescriptions.

“I think Dennis [Walcott] did a great job of raising morale and making principals feel valued,” Fariña said. “I’m using a little bit of a different lens having been a former principal.”

The political shift allowed her to stay slightly above the fray during the year’s most difficult education policy debates. Fariña’s first charter-school visit, to Broome Street Academy, came amid a tense public battle over school space between de Blasio and Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz.

“It didn’t seem like her intent … was to do anything other than learn,” McKeon said. “She was open and objective.”

During her visit, Fariña saw how the school dealt with a disruptive student using its restorative discipline model. Fariña followed up with a glowing letter to the school, and McKeon was later appointed to a citywide advisory committee for community schools. The school will also be the only charter school among 25 “host schools” in Fariña’s Learning Partners Program next year.

Crisis management

Sometimes Fariña’s visits do reflect urgent policy priorities.

One of the few troubled schools she visited was Queens’ P.S. 106, dubbed the “School of No” by the New York Post because of reports that its principal had neglected it for years. Though Fariña initially dispatched a deputy to visit in the immediate aftermath of the public relations mess, she followed up with her own trip two months later.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña on a tour of Manhattan's P.S. 5 with Principal Wanda Soto and Deputy Mayor Richard Buery.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen Fariña on a tour of Manhattan’s P.S. 5 in June with Principal Wanda Soto and Deputy Mayor Richard Buery.

Fariña also paid a personal visit to the Mickey Mantle School in Harlem, a District 75 school that became a flashpoint in the de Blasio-Moskowitz spat, and to Central Park East II, whose middle school expansion plans were nixed by the administration. After Broome Street, Fariña visited six charter schools in two months, including Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School and DREAM Charter School in East Harlem.

Just after the city convened a committee to improve space-sharing arrangements between district and charter schools, Fariña met with three school leaders who shared a building in Prospect Heights. Two of the schools, including one charter school, were new and replacing P.S. 22, which was closing at the end of the year due to poor performance.

“She really wanted to focus on the leaders and how the adults were navigating through the process,” said Morty Ballen, CEO of the management organization that runs the charter school, Exceed Explore Charter School.

With the start of Fariña’s first full school year approaching, she said that she expects to continue to make frequent visits to schools. At the August Panel for Educational Policy meeting she said she planned to visit schools “the whole month of September,” and she’s instructed her staff to reserve Tuesday and Thursday mornings for her visits. Her senior staff will be expected to go on at least three of their own visits per week.

“I always come back with lists that everybody here has to do,” Fariña said. “And I think that is the job.”

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here's the plan

After long wait, de Blasio backs plan to overhaul admissions at New York City’s elite high schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Stuyvesant High School will begin participating in the Discovery program this year.

After sustained pressure from advocates, Mayor Bill de Blasio is backing a two-step plan to reform admissions at eight of the city’s elite high schools and endorsing a specific replacement for the single-test admissions system.

The city’s specialized high schools — considered some of the crown jewels of New York City’s education system — accept students based on a single test score. Over the last decade, they have come under fire for offering admissions to few students of color: While two-thirds of city students are black or Hispanic, only about 10 percent of admissions offers to those schools go to black or Hispanic students.

De Blasio’s solution, laid out in an op-ed in Chalkbeat, would set aside 20 percent of the seats at the eight schools for students from low-income families starting next school year. Students who just missed the test score cut-off would be able to earn one of those set-aside seats through the longstanding “Discovery” program. Just 4 percent of seats were offered through that program in 2017.

The mayor also said he plans to push state lawmakers to change a law that requires admission at three of the schools to be decided by a single test score. That’s something de Blasio campaigned for during his run for mayor in 2014 but hasn’t made a priority since.

Most significantly, de Blasio says for the first time that he backs a system of replacing the admissions test with a system that picks students based on their middle school class rank and state test scores. The middle-school rank component is especially notable, as an NYU Steinhardt report found that the only way to really change the makeup of the elite high schools would be to guarantee admission to the top 10 percent of students at every middle school.

If all of these changes were implemented, de Blasio says that 45 percent of the student bodies at the eight high schools would be black or Latino.

Together, the proposals reflect the most specific plan yet to change a system that, year after year, becomes a symbol of New York City’s racially divided schools. But the changes de Blasio is proposing won’t come easily — and might not come at all.

The part of the plan that the city is promising to do on its own, expand the Discovery program, will only modestly improve diversity by the city’s own admission. And the plan’s more ambitious elements would require buy-in from state lawmakers who have repeatedly resisted de Blasio’s agenda and attempts to change admissions rules.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s plan does not include a move that many legal experts consider to be low-hanging fruit: changing the admissions rules at five of the eight schools without state approval.

While the city’s official position has long been that admissions at all eight schools are set by law, only three schools — Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School — are specifically mentioned, leaving room for the city to reclassify the others. (De Blasio recently said he would ask lawyers about that change, but has not signaled he plans to act.)

The Discovery program has also proved problematic for de Blasio, in part because it is open to all low-income students — something that is not equivalent to black or Hispanic in New York City. The de Blasio administration has already tripled the program’s size since taking office, but its share of black and Latino students has also shrunk.

A lot of questions about the plan remain unanswered. It’s not clear whether the 20 percent of set-aside seats will be spread across the eight schools evenly, for one, or whether some schools like Stuyvesant will have fewer seats earmarked for Discovery. De Blasio doesn’t explain exactly how an admissions system reliant on middle-school grades and standardized test scores would work.

It’s also unclear how the mayor plans to push against opposition from alumni groups and parents who may worry that changing the admissions rules will lower academic standards, though his rhetoric was sharp in the op-ed.

“Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative,” de Blasio wrote. “It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it.”

So far, de Blasio’s incremental steps to boost diversity at specialized high schools have made little change to the overall student body — and therefore garnered little pushback.

It’s unclear whether the lackluster results caused him to switch strategies. More recently, de Blasio has also been under pressure to address school segregation in the city as a whole.

He may also have been pushed by his new schools chancellor, who has been outspoken on the subject since taking the helm of the school system about two months ago. Chancellor Richard Carranza has been talking about the issue since his very first media interview, and has repeatedly hinted that he is interested in changing their admissions process.

“From my perspective it’s not OK to have a public school in a city as diverse… and that you have only 10 African-American students in a high school,” Carranza said in April. “So I’m looking at that, absolutely.”

sorting the students

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Our specialized schools have a diversity problem. Let’s fix it.

PHOTO: Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio hosts a town hall in Brooklyn in October.

I visit schools across this city and it never fails to energize me. The talent out there is outstanding. The students overflow with promise. But many of the smart kids I meet aren’t getting in to our city’s most prestigious high schools. In fact, they’re being locked out.

The problem is clear. Eight of our most renowned high schools – including Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School – rely on a single, high-stakes exam. The Specialized High School Admissions Test isn’t just flawed – it’s a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence.

If we want this to be the fairest big city in America, we need to scrap the SHSAT and start over.

Let’s select students for our top public high schools in a manner that best reflects the talent these students have, and the reality of who lives in New York City. Let’s have top-flight public high schools that are fair and represent the highest academic standards.

Right now, we are living with monumental injustice. The prestigious high schools make 5,000 admissions offers to incoming ninth-graders. Yet, this year just 172 black students and 298 Latino students received offers. This happened in a city where two out of every three eighth-graders in our public schools are Latino or black.

There’s also a geographic problem. There are almost 600 middle schools citywide. Yet, half the students admitted to the specialized high schools last year came from just 21 of those schools. For a perfect illustration of disparity: Just 14 percent of students at Bronx Science come from the Bronx.

Can anyone defend this? Can anyone look the parent of a Latino or black child in the eye and tell them their precious daughter or son has an equal chance to get into one of their city’s best high schools? Can anyone say this is the America we signed up for?

Our best colleges don’t select students this way. Our top-level graduate schools don’t. There are important reasons why. Some people are good at taking tests, but earn poor grades. Other people struggle with testing, but achieve top grades. The best educational minds get it. You can’t write a single test that captures the full reality of a person.

A single, high-stakes exam is also unfair to students whose families cannot afford, or may not even know about, the availability of test preparation tutors and courses. Now, I’d like to stop and say, I admire the many families who scrape and save to pay for test prep. They are trying in every way to support their children.

But let’s ask ourselves: Why should families who can ill afford test prep have to spend their money on it? Why should families who can easily afford test prep have an advantage over those that cannot?

My administration has been working to give a wider range of excellent students a fair shot at the specialized high schools. Now we are going to go further. Starting in September 2019, we’ll expand the Discovery Program to offer 20 percent of specialized high school seats to economically disadvantaged students who just missed the test cut-off.

This will immediately bring a wider variety of high-performing students, from a wider number of middle schools, to the specialized high schools. For example, the percentage of black and Latino students receiving offers will almost double, to around 16 percent from around 9 percent. The number of middle schools represented will go from around 310 to around 400.

This will also address a fundamental illogic baked into the high-stakes test. A great score and you might be in, but beware a point too low and you might be out. Now, a disadvantaged student who is just a point or two shy of the cut-off won’t be blocked from a great educational opportunity.

For a deeper solution, we will fight alongside our partners in the Assembly and Senate to replace the SHSAT with a new admissions process, selecting students based on a combination of the student’s rank in their middle school and their results in the statewide tests that all middle school children take.

With these reforms, we expect our premier public high schools to start looking like New York City. Approximately 45 percent of students would be Latino or black. As an example of growing geographical fairness, we will quadruple the number of Bronx students admitted.

I’ve talked a lot about bringing equity and excellence to our schools. This new admissions process will give every student in every middle school a fair shot. That’s equity. The new process will ask students to demonstrate hard work over time, and show brilliance in a variety of subjects. That’s excellence.

Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative. It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it. This perpetuates a dangerous and disgusting myth.

So let me be clear. The new system we’re fighting for will raise the bar at the specialized high schools in every way. The pool of talent is going to expand widely and rapidly. That’s going to up the level of competition. The students who emerge from the new process will make these schools even stronger.

They will also make our society stronger. Our most prestigious public high schools aren’t just routes to opportunity for deserving students and their families. They are incubators for the leaders and innovators of tomorrow. The kind of high schools we have today, will determine the kind of New York City we will have tomorrow.

Bill de Blasio is the mayor of New York City.