policy promises

Promotion fears persist as de Blasio misses chance to tamp down test anxiety

Dolores Gonzalez, left, with her eighth grade daughter, Sanaya, in the P.S./M.S. 96 auditorium in East Harlem

Dolores Gonzalez knows a little something about the city’s grade promotion policy.

One of her daughters repeated seventh grade two years ago because of low state test scores. Another daughter would have been held back in fourth grade for the same reason but continued to fifth grade because of a learning disability.

So last week, with Gonzalez’s third-grade daughter entering exam season for the first time, the family’s anxiety was palpable.

“She’s worried about being held back,” Gonzalez said of her daughter. “She says, ‘If I don’t pass, are you going to be upset?’ I try to tell her that whatever happens, I’m not going to be upset.”

Gonzalez lacked a piece of information that could have helped her console her daughters, not to mention herself: City and state officials are working to ensure that no student is held back because of low scores.

Gonzalez didn’t know about the possible changes to the city’s promotion policy, which for the past 10 years has hinged grade advancement primarily on state test scores, because Mayor Bill de Blasio has not announced any. Despite signaling for months that they planned changes to the Bloomberg-era policy, de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña left the promotion rules in place as students began taking this year’s tests last week—even after legislators signed a law barring districts from making test scores the main factor in determining whether students should move on to the next grade.

De Blasio’s hesitation to make changes to the policy has caused confusion for parents eager to know how much test scores will matter—if at all—when it comes to admission and promotion decisions. It has also flummoxed parent advocates who say that some kind of notice would have been an anxiety-reducing gesture at a time when emotions around testing are running high.

Maggie Moroff, of Advocates for Children, said she was “stunned” that the administration has remained mum on the subject.

“The city could have been more clear,” Moroff said. “There could have been an announcement about this.”

Instead, de Blasio spent last week touting his pre-kindergarten expansion plans and urging parents of four-year-olds to register for seats, the main thrust of his education initiatives during his four months in office. The city’s aggressive pre-K push, coupled with a busy legislative session in Albany and a high-profile battle with the charter school sector, have kept most Department of Education issues on the back burner, leaving families and educators in the lurch about some important questions.

Still, de Blasio continued to drop hints about a looming change to promotion policy: At a press conference last week, de Blasio said that parents concerned about testing would eventually be “assured” by the changes he’s making.

“Parents are going to feel different about this when they see us move away from high stakes testing in all of the areas that we can,” de Blasio said, adding that he preferred a “multiple measures” approach to assessing students and educators alike.

That change would be welcome for Gonzalez, who says she disagrees with the cut-and-dry reasoning for why her daughter was retained—while acknowledging that the extra year has been good for her academic progress.

At the end of a long week of testing, Gonzalez’s eighth-grade daughter Sanaya, who spent two years in seventh grade, was in a light mood last Friday, joking with her mother in her school’s auditorium about their weekend plans.

She described last week’s exams as “harder than what the teachers teach us,” and said the extra year has helped her in math, but not necessarily in English.

Now, she’s thinking about high school, though to get there she’ll not only have to pass the state tests and do well in her core subject classes, which factor into eighth-grade promotion decisions as well. The extra measures make promotion seem harder, she said, but also make it more fair for people who aren’t great test-takers like herself.

“A lot of us work hard the whole year and I just think they shouldn’t define what kids know just by one test,” she said.

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End of an era

Longtime deputy chancellor Kathleen Grimm to retire

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm (left) at a City Council hearing to discuss the department's five-year capital plan in March 2014.

Kathleen Grimm, the deputy chancellor for operations and a fixture in the Department of Education under four chancellors, is stepping down, Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced Wednesday.

Grimm oversaw a sprawling portion of the department, including the offices overseeing safety, school support, school food, athletics, space planning, enrollment, human resources, and construction. The only official to have remained in a top post at Tweed since the beginning of the Bloomberg era, Grimm saw her responsibilities expand even further under Fariña, who moved some offices under Grimm when she shrunk the department’s cabinet.

“It is with deep personal regret that I announce a leave pending retirement of Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, an esteemed colleague who has worked tirelessly to create safe, nurturing environments in which all of our students can learn and thrive,” Fariña said in an email to department staff members.

Grimm, a tax lawyer, was brought on in 2002 for her budgeting and finance expertise and experience in navigating city and state bureaucracy. She had previously served in the state comptroller’s office and the city finance department.

Over her 14-year career at the Department of Education, Grimm preferred to stay behind the scenes, but was thrust into the spotlight when changes to school bus routes, budget cuts, and space planning made headlines.

Her oversight of the city’s transportation of students meant she faced fierce criticism when repeated changes to bus routes angered parents and City Council members. Her oversight of the capital budget and the Blue Book, which sets guidelines for school space use, also made her a frequent target of class-size reduction advocates, who often said the city’s calculations did not reflect reality.

But Grimm was revered within the department for her calm under pressure. She frequently defended the school system in front of the City Council, bearing the brunt of then-education committee chair Eva Moskowitz’s relentless criticism of the city’s toilet-paper offerings in 2004 and, more recently, testifying at hearings on toxic lighting fixtures and school overcrowding.

“Cool and effective, Kathleen stayed for the full twelve years of the Bloomberg administration and did a tough, unglamorous job with distinction,” Klein wrote of Grimm in his memoir “Lessons of Hope.”

On Wednesday, Fariña offered her own praise. “As a senior member of my leadership team, Deputy Chancellor Grimm has provided a strong foundation for our most critical initiatives, including Pre-K for All, Community Schools, and our expanded school support and safety services,” she said.

Grimm’s chief of staff Elizabeth Rose will take over as interim acting deputy chancellor during a search for Grimm’s replacement, Fariña said.

year in review

In first year as chancellor, Fariña counts on fellow educators to drive changes

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks to superintendents and principals overseeing the city's designated renewal schools.

To understand how things have changed since Carmen Fariña became schools chancellor, consider where she has chosen to be on roughly 200 occasions this year, often five times per week: in schools.

She uses the hour-long visits to find model schools that other educators can tour and to size up principals, noting whether teachers seem surprised to see their bosses (a sign they aren’t poking into classrooms enough) and if the principals bring any deputies along for the tours (a hint they know how to delegate). She inspects students’ writing and asks the principal to show her a strong teacher in action and a weak one.

Twelve months into her stint leading the nation’s largest school system, Fariña’s attention to such details seems misplaced to some critics, who worry that it comes at the expense of big-picture thinking and suggests a shift away from the greater autonomy that principals gained under the previous administration.

But to her many admirers, the visits reflect a belief that even in a system of 1.1 million students and 75,000 or so teachers, change can happen school by school and classroom by classroom when educators are empowered, without the seismic policy shakeups that seemed to occur routinely under her recent predecessors. As Fariña, who has spent nearly half a century working in schools, likes to say, “The answers are in the classroom.” In other words, this is educator-driven education reform.

“There’s a sense,” said Alison Coviello, principal of P.S. 154 in the Bronx, “that we’re all in this together.”

When Mayor Bill de Blasio pulled Fariña from semi-retirement last January, she decided that she would have to roll back the Bloomberg-era policies she disagreed with even as she put her own into place: To “undo while [she’s] doing,” as she told Chalkbeat earlier this year.

And that’s just what she’s done. She downsized the office that helped create new schools — a signature Bloomberg initiative — while resurrecting the department devoted to teacher training. She re-empowered superintendents, who were marginalized under Bloomberg, and insisted that would-be principals and superintendents both spend more years in schools (a rejection of the Bloombergian idea that talent trumps experience). And she axed the Bloomberg policies that tied student promotion to test scores and assigned schools letter grades as she launched her own signature program, which sends educators to visit successful schools to pick up ideas.

That program, called Learning Partners, exemplifies Fariña’s approach. It is educator-led, cooperative, and subtle, allowing Fariña to spread her ideas through proxies rather than edicts.

“We have gotten more schools to change practices not by mandating, but by collaborating,” she said in an interview Monday. “I could have said across the board, ‘Every middle school needs to do X, Y and Z.’ And we didn’t do that.”

She also helped forge new contracts with the principals and the teachers unions, which had given up on negotiating with the previous administration. The teachers got a big payout in the contract (though not big enough to satisfy everyone), while Fariña was able to embed time for training and interacting with parents into teachers’ weekly schedules (at the cost of student-tutoring time, which was repurposed). Cynics charged that the city secured the contracts by giving into most of the unions’ demands, but Fariña argues that they were the product of her collaborative approach.

“What we got out of those contracts,” she said, “probably would not have been possible without that kind of partnership.”

She also helped the mayor fulfill his promise to get 53,000 four-year-olds into classrooms.

“How could I forget?” Fariña said. “Pre-K!”

For all that she has already done and undone, Fariña has a big year ahead of her. On Monday, she ticked off a few of the biggest items on her to-do list.

First, she must help de Blasio add the 20,000 additional pre-kindergarten seats he has promised, even as charter schools demand more space of their own. Then, she must turn two of his most ambitious plans into reality: to convert nearly 130 schools into service hubs for students and their families, and to turn around more than 90 low-performing schools.

That last task will be especially daunting. Rather than shut down chronically underachieving schools or replace their staffs, Fariña has proposed lifting them up through a mix of supports for students and coaching for educators. That is a big gamble, which Fariña made clear at a meeting Monday with the leaders of those struggling schools.

“I’m holding you even more accountable,” she told the principals. “Because I went out on a limb, as did Mayor de Blasio, and said, ‘We’re not closing schools. We’re giving everybody a second chance.’”