chain of command

New school-support centers will help create consistency across schools, Fariña says

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

When a visitor walks into a second-grade classroom in Queens, she should see the same sort of work happening as in a classroom in Brooklyn, the Bronx, or any other borough, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said Tuesday while discussing her recent school-system overhaul.

“One of the things I was hoping the reorganization would do is that you don’t go into a school in one part of the city and a school in a different part of the city and see a very different focus,” she said. “You need to have more consistency. You need to have more kids all on the same page.”

Fariña described her vision during a visit to one of seven new school-support centers, which the chancellor said will help create a more uniform school system by offering training and other assistance based on guidance from education department headquarters. The centers, which officially launched last week, are byproducts of Fariña’s school-system shakeup.

The new system, which put superintendents squarely in charge of principals and also established the help centers to assist principals, replaces a structure under the previous administration that gave principals considerable autonomy but left some feeling stranded with little support. Under the new centralized support system, all schools will receive the same high caliber of help but also be expected to reach the same high expectations, Fariña said.

That push for consistency makes sense, experts said, but it will be a heavy lift in a system of 1,600 diverse district schools.

“What she is trying to do is bring everybody up to a standard. The gap was widening when people were left on their own,” said Lily Woo, the longtime principal of Manhattan’s P.S. 130 who now runs a principal-training program at Teachers College. But, she added, “It’s much easier done in a system that’s much smaller.”

Under the old structure, principals chose from about 55 different multi-borough support teams, called “networks,” that helped schools manage everything from budgets and hiring to teacher training and curriculum. Now, principals will first turn for help to their superintendents, who will then refer them to one of the centers. Unlike the networks, principals do not choose their centers, they are assigned them based on location: Brooklyn and Queens both have two centers, while the other boroughs have one each.

The centers will act as a conduit for ideas from the chancellor’s office to flow into schools, Fariña said Tuesday.

Staffers at the new support centers will receive guidance from the education department, which they will pass onto schools.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Staffers at the new support centers will receive guidance from the education department, which they will pass onto schools.

For instance, the deputy directors at each support center in charge of instruction, special education, and services for English learners have been meeting with the education department officials who lead those divisions. The deputies will then oversee workshops at their centers on topics like reading instruction or special-education methods, which representatives from each school will attend, then train their colleagues on.

“There will always be a connection from the deputies to Tweed, so there’s one message only,” Fariña said, using the name of the education department headquarters. “This is not, ‘You decide what you want to do because you’re here, versus over here.’”

Under this model, superintendents are tasked with making sure principals get the help they need from the centers, and also that they are running their schools according to the city’s guidelines. With clearer instructions from the department about what should happen inside classrooms and during teacher trainings, superintendents will have an easier time supervising schools, said Kim Nauer, education research director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.

“The giant philosophical change is that the principals now have bosses: the superintendents,” she said. “If you’re going to do that, you have to have some level of consistency in terms of what the superintendents are looking for in classrooms, and in terms of the supports they’re offering.”

However, the urge to standardize practices at schools comes with risks.

Former Chancellor Joel Klein — the same schools chief who created the network system that freed principals from much department oversight — ordered most schools to adopt standard reading and math programs. As Klein’s deputy chancellor charged with rolling out that initiative, Fariña was accused by some teachers of micromanaging what happened inside their classrooms. Klein eventually backed off that approach, and schools were later allowed to choose their own curriculums.

Nauer said that most schools could use guidance in certain challenging areas, such as adapting lessons for students with special needs, so it would make sense for the department to suggest research-backed practices. But it would be impractical to try to make schools serving different student populations adopt identical teaching methods, she said.

“This is a giant school system with all types of very different kids,” she said, “so I doubt you could take a single model of anything and make it work across the board.”

Fariña said Tuesday that she has no plans to do that.

She doesn’t want “robotic teaching or robotic principals,” but rather ones who make instructional decisions based on their students’ particular needs. And low-performing schools will receive personalized support, she has said.

Still, she recalled how as an elementary school principal she wanted sixth-grade teachers across the city to expect a certain level of preparedness from her graduates. With more uniformity across the school system, teachers today could have similar expectations of their new students no matter what schools they came from, she said.

“That’s really what I want to see,” she said. “I want to see more congruence and consistency.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”