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4 Pressing Issues That Will Shape Schools Chancellor Farina's Second Year

By Amy Zimmer | January 13, 2015 7:31am
 Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina, a career educator, is sometimes called "teacher-in-chief."
Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina, a career educator, is sometimes called "teacher-in-chief."
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DNAinfo/Nigel Chiwaya

NEW YORK CITY — During Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña's first year leading the Department of Education, she earned the nickname "teacher-in-chief."

It's partly a compliment, a nod to Fariña's background as a teacher, principal and superintendent. She has earned teachers' trust by changing the tone at the DOE, making teachers feel more valued and respected than they did under the Bloomberg administration, education insiders said.

But it's also a jibe, reflecting concerns that Fariña focuses too much on classrooms when she should be making bigger-picture policy decisions, some school sources said.

"She continues to be tentative in her remaking of the DOE," said David Bloomfield, education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He wondered whether Fariña had the "managerial backbone" to tackle thorny issues, like diversity in schools.

DNAinfo New York spoke to more than a dozen parents, educators and administrators about what they want Fariña to do this year. We also asked the chancellor about her priorities.

Here's what to look for in 2015:

1. Superintendents will regain power to manage principals.

The responsibility for overseeing principals will shift from network leaders to local superintendents, Fariña is expected to announce soon.

Under the Bloomberg administration, principals joined networks based on their educational philosophy or the type of support they wanted, which meant network leaders were managing far-flung groups of schools all across the city.

Fariña will shift back to a geographic management structure, with district and high school superintendents in charge of managing the schools in their areas.

"If we are going to improve student outcomes, it's critical that every school has a strong support system," Fariña said in an email to DNAinfo. She said superintendents were "equipped to move our school system forward," and added that she planned to "announce changes soon."

Many school leaders have already been waiting for months for an announcement, after Fariña required superintendents to reapply for their jobs last year and replaced 15 out of 42 of them.

"The rumors, or expectation without an announcement, I think has caused issues within the system," Bloomfield said of how Fariña has handled the restructuring. "That tentativeness is communicated to the field. Principals don't know what's going to be happening in terms of their accountability to the next level [of command]."

2. Fariña will try to get more parents involved.

One of Fariña's top priorities this year is to get parents more involved in their kids' education.

Teachers must spend an additional 40 minutes per school year with each student's parents under the new United Federation of Teachers contract, which is a good starting point for engaging families, Fariña said.

"With this dedicated 40 minutes for parent engagement, teachers can solicit ideas from parents, schedule parent-teacher home visits, or host activities like a 'homework diner' where educators and parents can share strategies over dinner," she said.

Some parents, however, said they were still waiting for meaningful engagement.

"We're not seeing it," said Laurie Windsor, president of the Community Education Council of southwest Brooklyn's District 20. She called the two additional parent-teacher conferences now required under the UFT contract "a joke," saying, "We've always had parent/teacher conferences. Now we just have more."

Melanie Mendonca, president of Brownsville's District 23 Community Education Council, was waiting to see whether the newly branded Family Welcome Centers — previously known as Borough Enrollment Offices — would be truly helpful to families.

Right now, the centers are open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the week, which are not times many parents can go, Mendonca said.

3. Parents and advocates will keep pressuring Fariña on school diversity.

The highly segregated New York City schools system favors parents who have the time and savvy to navigate the system, often leaving behind low-income families, many parents and education experts say.

Parents and school leaders in areas including Wiliamsburg, the Upper West Side, Prospect Heights and Park Slope have advocated for changing school admissions policies to improve diversity, but so far the chancellor has not been receptive, parent groups said.

"We think segregation is really harmful not just to our schools but to the future of the city," said Lisa Dolan, president of District 1's Community Education Council in the Lower East Side and East Village.

"We have plans and ideas and pilots. But we have not gotten the go-ahead. We tried to have the conversation about this with [the Chancellor] at a town hall [in September]. We opened the door and got no follow-up."

Donlan has continued hosting monthly workshops to discuss ways to desegregate its schools by race, academic ability and language proficiency, and she is planning a town hall in June to present the findings.

Fariña said that while she believes the diversity of the city should be reflected across its schools, "there is no one size fits all solution."

She added: "We continue to support schools that are implementing innovative new admissions policies, and we are engaging the community as we identify best strategies to promote diversity in our schools."

4. The discipline code will get an overhaul.

Discipline practices are already moving away from a zero tolerance approach, according to the Dignity in Our Schools campaign, which noted that in the 2013-2014 school year, there were 53,504 suspensions across city public schools, roughly the same as the year before, but down 26 percent from the 2011-2012 school year. Suspensions — which can increase a students' chance of dropping out — disproportionately affects students of color and those with disabilities.

The chancellor has said she plans to change the code, but has yet to specify how, according to several educators and advocates who have been pushing for a change to the so-called "B21" code for "defying authority," which gives schools wide leeway to suspend students for potentially minor infractions.

Fariña said she was still assessing the current discipline code but hoped to enact "real reforms" that would make schools safe, "but will also help to reduce the need for arrests and suspensions that are ineffective."