Chancellor Carmen Fariña, back from a two-week vacation, is already thinking about her next book.
Last year, she had just begun a “bucket list” reading project—to read a biography of every American president, in order—and was in the middle of “a very thick book” about George Washington when she got a call from Bill de Blasio asking her to take over the school system.
“I’m really, really excited about re-retiring someday and finishing it all,” Fariña told students at an event at Barnes & Noble in Union Square on Wednesday. “Because to me, books are the answer to everything.”
Students from seven middle schools and three community-based centers were at the event with Fariña to celebrate the end of a reading pilot program called SummerSail, which aims to stem the “learning loss” that affects many students from low-income families when school is out. The implied goal: to make the students enjoy reading as much as Fariña does.
“Reading is not work,” Fariña said. “Reading is pleasure.”
Students in the SummerSail program, a partnership between the city and LightSail were given iPads with access to e-books that they were expected to read for about 30 minutes a day, and then answer questions while teachers who monitored their progress. (Gideon Stein, a member of Chalkbeat’s board, is CEO of LightSail, the company that provided the e-book software to the Department of Education for the pilot.)
Narrowing the summer learning gap is a persistent challenge for the city. The SummerQuest program, a much-touted summertime learning initiative, is growing and popular among students because it offers free access to camp-like activities in addition to academics, but has yet not shown universal learning benefits.
Jenna Shumsky, senior director of the department’s Middle School Quality Initiative, which oversaw the pilot, said that the department was going to analyze the SummerSail students’ reading comprehension skills to determine its impact. But the program’s teachers said they could already see a difference in how the students perceived reading.
“It was just really cool to see middle school students get excited about reading,” said Sara Romeo, a teacher at Emolior Academy in the Bronx.
When talking to the students, Fariña stressed the importance of developing a love of books, which she said could “put you in another planet” and “make life exciting.” Her insistence that reading be seen by students as a leisure activity, rather than a compulsory one, reflects her preference for “balanced literacy” approach to teaching reading and writing, which emphasizes students’ independent reading of books they choose.
The event was Fariña’s second public appearance since returning from a two-week vacation to Spain with her family. After her remarks, Fariña chatted with students and posed for pictures, but, as usual, declined to speak with members of the press.
She did note that her family brought a suitcase full of books on the trip so that her grandchildren could keep reading while school was out. One grandson tried to avoid his hour of daily required reading, she said, while the other was more eager for the literary break.
“When they go back to school in September, who do you think is going to be better prepared for school?” Fariña said.