Q&A

Exclusive: Two years in, Carmen Fariña’s philosophy on improving NYC schools is clearer than ever

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña

As Chancellor Carmen Fariña marches into her third year on the job, she can point to graduation rates and test scores that are moving in the right direction.

But, during an interview last week with Chalkbeat, she was just as likely to cite different metrics: The number of teachers who attended a workshop, the share of faculty members who are satisfied with their weekly trainings, the number of guidance counselors who emailed her messages of gratitude.

Those measures are crucial to Fariña because they cut to the core of her theory of school management: That schools improve and students learn only when the adults in the building are happy, well-trained, and working together. She gathers heaps of data on those measures herself, through hundreds of school visits, public forums, and emails.

Many educators and parents praise Fariña’s school-by-school approach, saying they feel respected and reassured by her intimate knowledge of the system.

But her critics often scoff at it. Those who identify as education reformers (a label Fariña also applies to herself) say her theory of change is too incremental and founded on experience over research, while some principals complain about micromanaging.

However, Fariña insists her changes are working: Just look at the numbers, or read the grateful emails.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation, condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Chalkbeat: You’re now in your second full school year as chancellor. How would describe your vision for where the schools are headed, and your agenda? When you see all the things happening at individual schools, how do you take back what you see in and create a larger vision?

First of all, certainly student achievement — we have to see it grow in every single place.

Pre-K is key, because I want to see all pre-K students graduate with more stamina for kindergarten. And certainly I look at the writing when I go to schools. Are we increasing vocabulary? Are we increasing parent workshops so these parents will be invested in these kids’ careers forever?

I’m looking at second grade. Are we getting the literacy piece going? One of the things we’re doing this coming summer is a lot more summer school placement for second graders. Also, in seventh grade, a lot more after-school programs that deal with social-emotional issues.

I think getting the message out to parents and the business community that everyone needs to be invested in success. And for all this to happen, we need to have professional development. You can’t ask teachers to do things, particularly things like Common Core, without giving them the tools. So we now have given them unit studies, we’ve given them books, we’ve given them everything possible, including training.

That’s the sort of thing I feel is crucial: professional development, across the city, where all teachers are treated equitably. I came from two districts that were particularly good at this. So, to equity and excellence, I could almost add access. Everyone should have access to the best PD [professional development], everyone should have access to the best principals and the best teachers. This is a real challenge, but it’s certainly part of what we’re trying to do.

As you’ve started to put this vision into effect — the teachers contract that has time for professional development, Learning Partners where schools can learn from each other — what kind of indicators are you looking at to see whether that’s working? And what are they showing you?

I think the 80 minutes [of weekly training time for teachers built into their latest contract] showed us that we need to do a lot more training of principals on how to get the most out of your time. I am personally doing a workshop Feb. 24 and 25 about maximizing resources: time, money, and power.

I’ve asked the deputy chancellors and myself at least once a month to go visit one of these 80 minutes to see how it works.

We have received an over 90 percent satisfaction from teachers on what they’re getting out of [the time], so that to me is particularly good. The 40 minutes for [teachers to engage with] parents is a little more of a struggle, a little bit more uneven. But here again, I go visit them to see what’s happening.

So feedback from people on the ground, from teachers and parents, about how things are going. Are there other indicators you’re looking at to see whether the changes you’ve made are having the effect you intended?

Certainly at the end of this year one of the things I’m going to be looking at very closely is teacher retention and principal retention. Are people looking to stay? Are people happy? You can’t have people working well if their morale is low.

I sent out a letter this week to all guidance counselors in the city thanking them for their efforts. I’ve gotten over 200 responses: “Thank you for thinking of us, no one ever says thank you, these are some of the things I’m doing in my school.” So that is really important. Guidance counselors are part of student achievement as well.

You know, New York City has multiple, multiple issues. I went to visit a school where I think 147 children are in a domestic violence shelter. That has an impact on the teaching in that building.

We’ve said the results will only be shown if we start supporting the parents and the teachers. Because if you’re a teacher and you’re coming into this situation every day, it’s not about just how you teach this kids, but how do you emotionally support them. So the results are crucial, but we need them to have support.

You have this agenda and teachers, in a lot of ways, seem to be responding well to it. But another role of the chancellor is to sell the public on that vision, and to enlist them in what you’re trying to do — to make clear what the agenda is and get them on board. Do you see that as an important part of your role? And how have you tried to do that?

Absolutely.

I’ve done over 50 town hall meetings. I do CECs [community education councils], CPACs [the chancellor’s parent advisory council]. I meet with the CEC presidents once a month on Saturdays, which is a big change, because I want to give them at least two hours of undivided attention. I answer all questions. Certainly when I went to Albany to do my testimony, one after the other said, I can’t believe you answered every question. You know every school.

So I will go speak to communities. [Partnership for New York City CEO] Kathy Wylde has come asked me to speak to the business community, I’ve done that. I’ve spoken at college commencements. I’ve met with several of our big funders. Microsoft is very happy with us. They just went to visit Thomas Edison High School, and said it’s the best CTE they’ve ever seen. And also, I do workshops for the City Council members, who are very crucial.

How would you describe your message when you go to these groups?

I think it’s, together we can make a difference.

One of the words I love is “reformers.” I’m a reformer too, but I just think I use different tools to reform.

[As a superintendent,] I had Park Slope, but I also had Red Hook, I had Sunset Park with a lot of English language learners, I had Crown Heights, and I had Bed Stuy — I had it all. But those principals had never talked to each other. I had 154 schools in that superintendency, and we created sister schools. I took every school that was in the top tier and partnered them with a school in the middle tier or the bottom tier, knowing full well that everybody had something to learn no matter where you were on these tiers.

So reform, to me, is making sure you have the best people doing the hardest work to raise student achievement. But they can’t do it without training, and whether the training is for the principal, for the teacher, for the borough directors. Training is everything.

Since you’ve been chancellor, can you see areas where tangible gains have been made?

Our results show it: better graduation rates, better reading scores moving in the right direction, more willingness of people to go out of their way for professional development. There was a time when people wouldn’t show up. We had a workshop recently on technology and 1,000 teachers showed up.

I’ve put out something called P Notes [a newsletter for principals] every month. I just got an email from one of the principals to thank me for having listed him in the P Notes. He never realized the power of P Notes, because he’s gotten five different phone calls from other principals who now want to know, can they come and visit and see what I complimented him on. So he said, “Thank you, Carmen, because usually my school would not be one that other people would see as an example.”

When you’re celebrated by your peers, that’s very energizing. I want to see more energy in our schools. I don’t want to see people beaten down.

You were talking about superintendents and how they fit into your vision. It’s come up recently with [principals union president] Ernie Logan [who said that principals of struggling schools now have a “shocking lack” of autonomy]. How do you balance having a clear chain of command versus principals wanting to have flexibility and autonomy? Logan said that’s become a challenge, and I’ve heard from some principals who feel like they’re seeing more compliance work and being pulled out of their schools more often. So how do you see that balance?

I think it all depends what people are complaining about. I think there’s a lot of areas where they’re still autonomous. They hire their own teachers, they certainly plan their own PD. I don’t put out blanket statements that every Monday must look like this.

I think on other issues — how many special-ed kids do you accept, do you accept English language learners — [principals are] not autonomous. We need to have equity, and if we’re going to have equity, everyone has to do their fair share.

If you are a [low-performing school in the “Renewal” program] or a school where you have struggling kids, you have less autonomy. Then you have a school where you’re a host Learning Partner. All our host Learning Partner schools are pretty much autonomous.

I keep saying to Ernie, if they complain to you, then all they need to do is complain to me and we’ll take it one issue at a time. I don’t think you have an overwhelming number of people doing this.

But I do think one of the things we need — we need an equity system. And you’re not going to have it if the principals in the Bronx can do certain things differently than the principals in Park Slope.

There’s always going to be a tension. I think total autonomy sometimes doesn’t serve kids, it serves adults. And that’s something [former schools Chancellor] Joel [Klein] used to say all the time: We’re in this business to work for kids, they are our clients.

And that’s how I look at it now. It’s all about the kids, it’s what happens in the classroom.

the one to watch

Inside the three-candidate battle for northeast Denver’s school board seat

File photo of student at Marrama Elementary School in northeast Denver. (The Denver Post)

Of the Denver school board races on the November ballot, none packs more intrigue than the fight for District 4.

The three-person slate of candidates features an appointed incumbent who’s never run for office and supports the district’s current path, an outspoken recent high school graduate who sharply disagrees, and a former charter school educator with a more nuanced view and — in what on its surface may seem surprising — the endorsement of the teachers union.

The seat represents a large swath of northeast Denver with a wide range of income levels, including areas that are gentrifying quickly and others that have been home to some of the district’s most aggressive school improvement strategies.

The Nov. 7 election is high stakes. Four of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs. If candidates who disagree with Denver Public Schools’ direction win all four races, they’ll have the political power to change key policies in the state’s largest school district and one nationally recognized for its embrace of school choice and autonomy.

Tay Anderson is one of those candidates. The 19-year-old graduated from Denver’s Manual High School last year and is now a student at Metropolitan State University. On the campaign trail, he has doggedly criticized the district for what he describes as weak community engagement efforts and a move to “privatize” public education by approving more charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run (in Denver, by nonprofit operators).

He also has led the charge in attempting to tie the current school board and the incumbent candidates to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose stance on school choice — and especially private school vouchers, which DPS does not support — have made her a controversial figure.

    This is the first of a series of articles profiling this year’s Denver school board races. You can read about where candidates in all the DPS races stand on issues here, in Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire. Check out our coverage of the campaign’s first campaign finance reports here.

When DeVos came to Denver in July to give a speech to a group of conservative lawmakers from across the United States, Anderson organized a protest against her. In front of a crowd of hundreds, he called out the current Denver school board members.

“We can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’” he said.

Anderson has a compelling personal story. The teenager struggled in high school before becoming a leader at Denver’s Manual High. He was student body president, chairman of the Colorado High School Democrats and a member of the Student Board of Education.

Anderson was also homeless for a time and has said his own challenges give him valuable insight into the lives of other Denver students living in difficult situations. About two-thirds of the district’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty.

“I have had nobody in my corner when I was a homeless student and when I was in and out of foster care,” Anderson said at a recent televised candidate debate. “And now it is my turn to turn to our students and say, ‘I am going to be your champion.’”

His candidacy has attracted more local and national press attention than is usual for a school board race. But while Anderson has said his young age would bring a fresh perspective to the board, his opponents have questioned whether he has the experience to serve.

“It’s one thing to swing a hammer at a frustration, but it’s another to know where to swing it,” said candidate Jennifer Bacon, one of Anderson’s two opponents.

Anderson is running against Bacon, 35, and incumbent Rachele Espiritu, 48. Espiritu was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in May 2016. The appointment process was long and marked by controversy. The first appointee, MiDian Holmes, stepped aside after details about a misdemeanor child abuse conviction and her mischaracterization of it came to light.

Both Espiritu and Bacon were among the finalists for the position. But Bacon withdrew, explaining at the time it was “in consideration of my need for growth and readiness for this position, as well as my interests in supporting the board.”

Asked recently to elaborate, Bacon said she withdrew because she sensed she wasn’t going to be appointed. She said she, too, had an arrest in her background: for stealing a necklace from Macy’s when she was in college. Bacon said the charge was dropped and she was not convicted. (No charges showed up in a background check done by Chalkbeat.)

Bacon, who attended college in Louisiana, said the arrest was a turning point at a time when she was struggling to find her purpose. She went on to join the Teach for America corps, teaching for a year in New Orleans and a year in Miami.

After teaching, she went to law school and then moved in 2010 to Denver, where she worked first as a dean for the city’s largest charter school network, DSST, and then in alumni affairs for Teach for America. She is now a regional director with Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for policy changes.

Bacon said she wondered whether her positions on key issues also made her an unlikely appointee. For instance, she has said she’s not opposed to charter schools but believes Denver has reached its threshold and should focus on shoring up its traditional schools.

“People ask me if I’m pro-charter,” Bacon said in an interview. “I’m pro-community.”

Since Espiritu was appointed, she has largely voted in line with the rest of the school board. But she chafes at the idea that the board is monolithic or a rubber stamp for the administration. Much back-and-forth occurs before a decision, she said in an interview, and each board member brings a unique background and set of life experiences to the table.

Espiritu often says on the campaign trail that she’s the only immigrant to serve on the board in the last century. She was born in the Philippines and came to the United States as a toddler. She holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder and helped found a small business called Change Matrix that assists organizations with planning, putting into place and monitoring change. She and her family moved to Denver in 2012.

Espiritu has two sons. Her oldest goes to DSST: Stapleton High, a charter school. Her youngest goes to William (Bill) Roberts School, a K-8 district-run school. She has said that in choosing schools for her children, she focused on quality and not on type.

As a member of the board, Espiritu has paid particular attention to efforts to improve student mental health. She recently encouraged DPS to become a “trauma-informed school district.”

“I want us to be a district that addresses student and educator trauma in a proactive or preventative way that’s culturally sensitive and systematic in fashion,” she said at a September board meeting. “…We need to shift our thinking from asking what is wrong with a child to what happened with a child.”

Parts of northeast Denver have struggled academically. The region is home to the district’s biggest-ever school turnaround effort, as well as two of three schools the board voted unanimously last year to close due to poor performance.

The candidates’ disparate views on school closure offer a window into what differentiates them. Espiritu voted for the closures, though she noted at a subsequent board meeting that doing so was “a painful process … and such a difficult decision.”

Anderson has said he opposes closing any more traditional, district-run schools. Bacon, meanwhile, has said that while she doesn’t believe in “trapping kids in failing schools,” ideas about how to turn things around should originate with affected families.

Two local groups that traditionally endorse candidates and contribute large sums of money struggled this year with who to support in District 4. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed Bacon, but a progressive caucus of the union chose to separately support Anderson. The pro-reform group Stand for Children did not endorse any candidate, explaining that both Bacon and Espiritu surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Of the three candidates, Espiritu had raised the most money — $73,847 — as of Oct. 11, when the first campaign finance filing period ended. Bacon had raised $59,302, including $10,000 from the teachers union, while Anderson had raised $16,331.

Espiritu and Bacon have also benefitted from the support of independent expenditure committees. A union-funded group called Brighter Futures for Denver spent $139,000 on Bacon. Two other groups, Students for Education Reform and Raising Colorado, which is associated with Democrats for Education Reform, spent a total of $73,229 on Espiritu.

Sorting the Students

As Nashville heads to court over sharing student information with the state, here’s why Memphis probably won’t

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville's Davidson County Chancery Court building where the state filed against Metro Nashville Public Schools over sharing contact information with charter schools.

Tennessee’s two largest school districts are often in lockstep on key issues. But in a recent tiff with the state about sharing student information with charter schools, the two districts are poised to part ways.

Leaders of Nashville’s school district have repeatedly defied an order from Tennessee’s education commissioner to share student addresses, phone numbers, and other information with the state’s controversial turnaround district, as required by a new state law. The state filed a lawsuit this week in response.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Memphis district have spoken out about the rule — but are preparing to comply. The district has given parents until Sunday, Oct. 22 to opt out of sharing their contact information with charter schools.

Instead of outright rejecting McQueen’s deadline last month like Nashville did, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson sought a compromise and the district has indicated contact information after the opt out window could be shared.

“… we respectfully request you extend your deadline until October 23, 2017 to allow our families the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding their rights and to give our board an opportunity to vote on the release of the data,” Hopson said in a letter to McQueen.

The state education department says it is holding off filing a similar suit against that district, for now. The Memphis district “is still deciding whether to comply, whereas Metro [Nashville] has made its decision already,” state spokeswoman Sara Gast said. “Given that, it is appropriate to file here and then review Shelby’s decision to decide if litigation is necessary.”

Shelby County Schools declined to share how many parents have chosen to opt out so far, but said it plans to share information with its board about the effort next week.

The fight has ignited long-simmering tensions around enrollment and the state’s influence in local schools, and comes on the heels of Metro Nashville Public Schools board voting to join Shelby County Schools in its landmark funding lawsuit against the state.

Memphis leaders have also said that the issue at hand is student privacy, though a robocall to Memphis parents indicated that the main goal of the opt-out process was not to lose students to charter schools.

Memphis’ compromise stance will be good news to groups like parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift, which says it has gathered about 1,200 parent signatures urging Shelby County Schools to release the contact information.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The legal questions at stake are the first challenge to a slight, but significant, amendment to federal rules

The Nashville school board cited two reasons for defying the state’s order in late August: One is U.S. Department of Education rule that allows districts to have discretion on who gets student directory information. The second was that when state lawmakers crafted the law that requires school districts to share student information, they did not intend for that information to be used for recruitment.

According to Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer and director of The Brechner Center at the University of Florida, said the lawsuit could have national implications.

“What we’re about to see is the first test of whether the U.S. Department of Education amended rules in 2011 are enforceable or not,” he said. What it comes down to, he said, is if a federal rule can give local districts the permission to violate state law.

The Nashville board’s second justification reflects concerns from State Rep. John Forgety, who chairs a key House education committee. He says the state is misinterpreting the law he helped create.

The state said in a statement that Commissioner Candice McQueen is seeking to confirm her interpretation of the new state law, “ensuring that families can be informed of all public education opportunities available to them.”

Below is a copy of the state’s court filing: