NEW YORK—Roaring applause filled the auditorium of Brooklyn P.S. 503 as the room stood up in homage to the leader of the city’s public schools, Education Department Chancellor Carmen Fariña.
“Whatever talent you have, whatever interest you have, whatever gift you have to give, I stand here today to invite you to join me and Mayor de Blasio in transforming our school system,” she concluded her speech, transitioning smoothly into Spanish for a few final words.
For anyone following her actions for her past nine months as a chancellor, there wasn’t much new. But this was the first time Fariña summarized her priorities and put forth a unified vision.
As the most tangible point on her agenda, Fariña announced an overhaul of school report cards, dominated since 2007 by A to F grades given to schools, almost entirely based on state test scores in English and math. “You notice I’m smiling—I’ve been dying to do this,” she quipped, earning laughter from the audience.
Based on 100 school visits, Fariña said, current report cards “often gave a misleading impression to families about what was actually happening in the school.”
The new report cards will have no overall score and simplified indicators for progress on tests. On the other hand, they add a review of the school by an Education Department observer, focusing on the areas Fariña highlighted as the centerpiece of her strategy.
“Pay close attention, ’cause I’m gonna say this many times,” she said, prefacing her six-point agenda inspired by University of Chicago research led by Anthony Bryk, currently president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
This often-repeated education reform mantra means, in Fariña’s vocabulary, children in all grades reading, writing, and doing math “with energy and excitement.”
To achieve so she relies on the Common Core, a set of education standards put in place two years ago and promising, if met by graduation, readiness for community college freshmen courses.
The Common Core has been criticized for being too uniform though—demanding too much too early from some students while too little from others.
“Social and emotional growth is as important as academic growth,” the chancellor said, expecting to see students discussing what they’re learning with their teachers and each other.
“A school that is silent is a school that is not learning,” she explained. “I want to see interactive learning in every single classroom.” Guidance counselors, social workers, and community organizations partnering with schools are to play a part on this point.
Fariña already created an office in her department dedicated to professional development of guidance counselors and added 250 more of them.
“I’m encouraging people to steal from each other—very legitimately,” Fariña said, referring to finding and sharing best practices among teachers and schools.
Her pilot program in over 70 schools aims to do just that, assigning a school with success in a certain area to two other schools interested in learning the same practice.
Principals and administrators should make their vision “clear, coherent, and visible.” Fariña already hinted her direction by requiring all new principals to have at least seven years of classroom experience.
Strong Family-Community Ties
Fariña repeatedly pleaded for more parent involvement. She plans to open 40 new community schools in the next year—schools partnering with community organizations to provide after-school tutoring, medical, and other services within school walls.
Community schools also provide programming for parents, such as workshops, and show promise in engaging parents in volunteer work for their schools.
Unheard of among a few previous chancellors, Fariña holds meetings with and answers questions of parents in Community Education Councils. It’s also been said that she experiments with Saturday meetings with parents.
Culture of Continuous Learning and Trust
“We will create a school culture where value and respect exist across the system,” Fariña said. “We’re no longer forcing change on people, we’re creating change with people.”
Though the last point should be an “engine” driving all the others, it’s the “hardest one to do,” Fariña said. She didn’t announce any specific policies to enhance trust, but based on multiple interviews and her experience being a teacher, principal, superintendent, and deputy chancellor, she has built trust in her rank-and-file audience.
“It’s just absolutely inspiring,” said one of the audience members Frances Lucerna, founder and former principal of the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice. “I think people are truly feeling that this time around, we’re really going to be part of a real change.”
She expects though for the changes to take time.