All together now

Inside the ‘passion project’ Carmen Fariña can’t quit: helping New York City schools share space better

Herbert Lehman High School in the Bronx shares its campus with other schools in the building.

Brady Smith runs a small school, and he likes it that way. With fewer than 300 students enrolled, he can get to know everyone at the James Baldwin School in Chelsea.

But being small has its drawbacks, too. Smith shares a building with five other schools, which means every academic year begins with negotiations over who gets access to which stairwells, the cafeteria, the auditorium — and when. It’s hard to field a theater group with such a small roster. And since budgets are based on enrollment, money is short for much needed renovations in a building that he calls “literally old school.” (It went up in the 1930s.)

“Obviously the scale is both a positive and a challenge,” said Smith, who serves as the school’s principal but splits leadership responsibilities with a teacher. “There are economies of scale that could bring some really wonderful experiences into co-located buildings.”

Carmen Fariña, the outgoing schools chancellor, emphatically agrees and is taking a post-retirement role shepherding the Co-Located Campus Initiative — a two-year-old office that helps school leaders like Smith collaborate better on shared campuses. The education department says Fariña will serve as a volunteer advisor for the “passion project” after she steps down at the end of March — a move that her replacement, Richard Carranza, said he welcomes.

Like much of Fariña’s tenure, the initiative can be seen partly as a reaction to the policies of the previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who broke up large high schools across the city. The large schools were replaced with clusters of smaller schools within a single building.

While research has credited Bloomberg’s approach with boosting graduation rates, the small schools movement also created a new set of problems on many campuses. About 380 district schools are co-located throughout the city.

Shared space can lead to logistical hurdles and personality clashes, and the Department of Education has the Office of Campus Governance mediate disagreements about space-sharing and host training sessions on how school leaders can get along. The department even published a 122-page handbook laying out how colocated schools can work together. (A separate office handles relationships between charter schools and traditional schools that share buildings.)

“It can be a nightmare,” said one Bronx principal who shares a building with multiple schools and requested anonymity because he said he did not have permission to speak about his job. “It’s like a nine-dimensional puzzle.”

But Fariña’s initiative aims to move beyond the logistical and administrative headaches of space-sharing and focus on how schools can work together in the classroom. The goal is “collaboration in instructional practices, sharing of resources, and maintaining a safe and collegial campus where students and parents feel welcomed and appreciated,” the city’s handbook says.

Small schools can struggle to meet their students’ needs. With strained resources, some co-located schools can’t provide minimum required instruction time or math, social studies and science course offerings, according to a 2014 report by the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College. Co-located high schools struggled to provide enough foreign language classes that allow students to earn an advanced Regents diploma — even though those classes are required by the state, the report found.

Nicole Manning has taught on co-located campuses for much of her career, including currently at the Business of Sports School, which shares a building in Hell’s Kitchen. She said she’s long noticed that arts programs are lacking at the schools, with few opportunities for drama, band, or vocational courses.

“I think the experience for the kids could be richer,” she said. “I don’t think that’s one person’s shortcoming. I think that’s a systems thing.”

Under Fariña’s leadership, the city has merged or closed some small schools. Now, through the initiative, Fariña wants to encourage schools to pool their budgets and staffs while still maintaining their size.

So far, 24 campuses across all the boroughs are involved, touching 138 schools and programs. In a signal of how important the work is to Fariña, Aimee Horowitz was tapped to lead the initiative — a move that raised eyebrows over the outgoing chancellor’s influence. Until now, Horowitz has led the mayor’s high-profile Renewal turnaround program.

“We work to improve the overall culture and climate across schools on campuses, and make sure resources are shared so teachers and kids can have access to more programs and opportunities,” Fariña wrote in a recent op-ed.

Fariña has zeroed in on campuses where she wants to push that work forward, meeting one-on-one with principals to kick it off. One of those campuses is the Bayard Rustin Educational Complex, where Smith’s school is located.

As part of the initiative, Smith said the education department is helping to pay for a welcome center for parents who visit the imposing building — a priority he said the chancellor has emphasized.

The Rustin Complex schools are already doing a host of other things laid out in the co-location initiative. A campus-wide group of parents meet regularly, recently diving into the contentious issue of whether metal detectors should be installed. Students come together in an afterschool club where young men create rap songs about their lives. Principals split the costs and for building-wide college trips which are chaperoned by staffers from each school.

“I think we all recognize that they’re all our students, even though there are six schools in one building,” Smith said.

Other issues are tougher to work out, especially when schools with diverging philosophies share the same building. Fariña has called for schools to open up their advanced courses campus-wide so more students have access to college-level work. But what if schools use different grading methods or testing practices to track student progress? Which principal should oversee that teacher’s work? And who, ultimately, should be held responsible for that student’s outcomes?

The same kinds of questions arise when it comes to implementing a campuswide approach to school discipline, or deciding what kind of training to offer all the teachers in the building — both laid out as initiative priorities — while also maintaining the characteristics that make each school unique.

“It’s exactly because of that, that we’ve chosen not to do more sharing,” the Bronx principal said.

Shino Tanikawa, a parent in Manhattan’s District 2 who served on a city working group dealing with school space, said she is generally opposed to co-locating schools. It creates extra work for administrators when they could be serving students, she said. But she also recognizes that it would be difficult to undo the legacy of small schools. Parents and students become attached to their schools. Some principals and teachers, even while acknowledging the difficulties, say they can build deeper relationships when there are fewer students to keep track of.

With that in mind, Tanikawa said the education department might as well help co-located schools grapple with the situation they’ve been dealt.

“They are not going away,” she wrote in an email. “Given that, I think it is good to focus on how to make it work.”

Speaking Up

Letters to J.B.: Here’s what 10 Illinois educators said governor-elect Pritzker should prioritize

PHOTO: Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

As governor-elect and national early childhood education advocate J.B. Pritzker assembles his transition team and builds out his early agenda, we asked educators to weigh in with items he should consider.

Here are 10 of their responses, which range from pleas for more staffing to more counseling and mental health services. Letters have been edited only for clarity and length. Got something to add? Use the comment section below or tell us on Twitter using #PritzkerEdu.

From: A non-profit employee who works with schools in the city and suburbs

Letter to J.B.: I work with a number of students from the City of Chicago and sadly most of them lack basic skills. Most of the students lack the ability to read and write properly, and perform below grade level. It is alarming how many students don’t have critical-thinking and analytical skills. The lack of education in low-income and minority population will hurt our city and state in years to come.

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From: A youth organizer at Morrill Elementary, a K-8 school on Chicago’s Southwest Side

Letter to J.B.: Morrill School has suffered from constant turnover due to an unstable Chicago Public Schools environment that cares more about upholding its own self-interest than the people it should be serving. We need representatives that will advocate for what communities say they need!

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From: A music teacher at a Chicago charter school

Letter to J.B.: I work at a charter school and I don’t think we are doing the best we can for our kids. Our school’s policies are too harsh and dehumanizing.

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From: A Chicago charter school social worker

Letter to J.B.: We’ve cut mental health services throughout the city and that has crippled us. Parents have a hard time getting jobs and having enough money to supply basic needs.

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From: A Chicago principal

Letter to J.B.: My school is 100 percent free- and reduced-price lunch-eligible, or low-income population. We are a middle years International Baccalaureate school. Our children were once were the lowest performing in the area and now we are a Level 1-plus school. Our school was on the closing list back in 2005 when I took over.

But now we are an investment school. Teachers are dedicated and work hard. We need funding for a new teacher to keep classes small and additional funds to purchase multiple resources to continue and strengthen overall academics. We have a vested interest in educating all of our children!

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From: A teacher at A.N. Pritzker Elementary in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood

Letter to J.B.: Great kids. Great staff. No librarian. Extremely poor special education services. No substitute teachers. No time for planning. No time for anyone to provide mental health services for those in need.

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From: A teacher at Whitney Young High School on Chicago’s Near West Side

Letter to J.B.: Every teacher knows that well over 90 percent of the students with academic problems have serious problems at home and in their neighborhoods. In the suburbs, social worker and psychologist staffing levels are often five to 10 times what they are here in the city, where kids are dealing with way more challenges, not less. If you’re looking for bang for your buck, fund psychologists and social workers!

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From: A teacher in the Galesburg CUSD 205

Letter to J.B.: Our school is diverse in all definitions of the word. We have a diverse population in terms of race, money, and ability. We currently don’t have the money to keep all of the schools in our district open and are in the process of closing some of the buildings in order to get the others up to code and comfortable; many of our schools don’t even have air conditioning.

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From: A teacher at Kiefer School, a Peoria school that educates children with severe behavioral and learning challenges

Letter to J.B.: We work with students with behavioral and mental challenges who need more help getting mental health services. We’ve had children deflected from being hospitalized due to no beds being available.

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From: A teacher at Unity Junior High School in Cicero

Letter to J.B.: People often think that our school is “bad,” but the truth is, we have so many staff and students that work hard every day to bring positive change.

The right stuff

Who will be Tennessee’s next education chief? Gov.-elect Bill Lee is getting lots of advice

PHOTO: TN.gov
As outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam looks on, Gov.-elect Bill Lee speaks at the state Capitol the day after being elected the 50th governor of Tennessee. His 75-day transition will end with his inauguration on Jan. 19.

The changing of the guard that’s coming to the Tennessee governor’s office will now definitely come also to the department overseeing state education policy.

Candice McQueen took herself out of the running to continue as education commissioner with last week’s announcement that she’ll transition in January to a new job as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

While it was unlikely she would have stayed on permanently given the challenges with testing during her four-year tenure, McQueen’s planned departure cleans the slate for Gov.-elect Bill Lee to start fresh in finding the right fit to lead his vision for Tennessee schools.

The Republican businessman faces lots of choices in making one of the most important picks of his 23-member cabinet: Homegrown talent or a national search? Classroom teaching experience or workforce expertise? A quick hire or an extended search?

And he’s been getting a lot of advice.

From advocacy and philanthropic groups to the higher education and business communities, Tennessee has a large number of partners and stakeholders who care deeply about continuing the state’s momentum to improve student achievement.

“We believe that decisions made around talent and who is going to be working on education — either in the governor’s office or state Department of Education — are some of the most important decisions that the next governor will make,” said David Mansouri, president of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, a nonprofit group that works closely with the education department.

“We’re looking for someone who’s going to hold the line on the school accountability framework that the state has worked so hard to build,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, a leader with Conexión Américas, which advocates for Latino families in Nashville. “We want to keep up the urgency around improving performance of different student groups and making sure that we are bringing up all kids.”

Transition period

Since winning the election on Nov. 6, Lee has huddled with a small team of advisers in a windowless office at the state Capitol to plan the transition to a new administration, including sorting through about 600 resumes submitted for various jobs in all departments.

Transition spokeswoman Laine Arnold said the plan is to have the full cabinet in place by Lee’s Jan. 19 inauguration. But, she added, “we will be open to extending this process if needed.”

Lee’s pick for schools chief is considered key — and not just because the governor-elect made education a priority on the campaign trail, including a frequent call for stronger career and technical education.

The new commissioner eventually will manage a department of more than 600 employees overseeing a public school system for about a million students, 78,000 certified educators, and $6 billion in school funding.

And because Congress voted to cede much control over K-12 policy to state officials under a 2015 federal law, the commissioner plays an even larger role than in decades past.

Homegrown vs. national

Because of the high stakes, groups like SCORE are urging Lee to cast a wide net in his search for a successor to McQueen.

“We should aspire to have best-in-class and best-in-the-nation talent, just like we’ve had the last 10 years,” said Mansouri. “That may mean the person is from Tennessee, or from somewhere else.”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen was one of Gov. Bill Haslam’s most visible cabinet members.

Other groups emphasize the value of being familiar with Tennessee schools.

“As an organization comprised of school district leaders, we believe it would be an advantage for a state commissioner of education to have experience both in the classroom and as a public school system leader in Tennessee,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Adds Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association: “The next commissioner should have a practical understanding of what goes on in our public schools. Having that kind of leader in place will go a long way to restoring teachers’ confidence in our Department of Education.”

Last handoff

When Republican Bill Haslam took the baton from Democrat Phil Bredesen in 2011 in the last gubernatorial handoff, he conducted a national search before plucking Kevin Huffman from the ranks of the education reform movement as his point person on schools.

A lawyer who was an executive with Teach For America in Washington, D.C., Huffman was tasked with managing Tennessee’s just-approved overhaul of K-12 schools as part of its $500 million federal Race to the Top award. The Obama-era competition had incentivized states to adopt shared academic standards, improve its lowest-performing schools, measure students’ growth over time, and design policies to reward and retain top teachers.

State education commissioner Kevin Huffman.
PHOTO: TN.gov
Kevin Huffman was Tennessee’s education commissioner from 2011 to 2014.

A polarizing leader, Huffman left after three years of clashing with teacher groups, district leaders, and state lawmakers over policies ranging from teacher licensing and evaluations to charter schools and Common Core.

Haslam then turned to McQueen, a native of Clarksville, Tenn., former teacher, and respected dean of education at Nashville’s Lipscomb University.

“She was a kinder, gentler Kevin Huffman,” said Dan Lawson, long-time school superintendent in Tullahoma. “They shared the same political agenda and underpinning, but Candice was able to deliver it in a smoother, less abrasive fashion.”

McQueen held the rudder steady on the state’s new roadmap, plus bolstered supports for teachers, tweaked school turnaround strategies, and launched a major reading initiative. But ongoing fumbles delivering a state test took their toll.

Interim or not

The complexities of education policy, including Tennessee’s pioneering changes over the last decade, are why SCORE leaders hope that Lee doesn’t rush to make a hire.

“We think that having a thoughtful approach that looks for the best in the nation is the right one,” said Mansouri. “If that takes time, that’s OK. It’s about getting the right person.”

There’s precedent here.

Before Haslam hired Huffman several months after taking office, he leaned on acting commissioner Patrick Smith, who had led the state’s Race to the Top oversight team under Bredesen.

Other groups agree that a thorough search is in order.

“My sense is that the Lee administration will look for top talent and let quality drive their hiring decisions. But having some ties to Tennessee will be a huge bonus,” said Shaka Miller, state director of the American Federation for Children, a group that Lee has supported and that backs a “school choice” agenda, including charter schools and voucher-like programs.

Qualities and qualifications

On the campaign trail, Lee pledged to hire the most talented and qualified people for his administration.

Arnold adds: “He’s looking for those who share his vision in making Tennessee a national leader, while also ensuring geographic and individual diversity.”

While she declined to discuss names, Lee has sought advice from two superintendents from West Tennessee — Dorsey Hopson in Shelby County and Marlon King in Fayette County — both of whom were on a 72-person campaign list of Tennesseans who supported or advised him on education.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Dorsey Hopson is superintendent of Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district.

Hopson’s backing of the millionaire Republican candidate from affluent suburban Williamson County raised eyebrows — and some fury — among his mostly urban Democratic district in Memphis, which has the state’s highest share of impoverished students.

Hopson told Chalkbeat at the time that he was “not angling for a job,” but rather that he and Lee had developed a mutual respect while getting to know each during the last year and a half.

“We routinely discussed faith, family, government, and education issues,” said Hopson, a lawyer who has headed Tennessee’s largest district since 2013. “I appreciated the thoughtful and humble way that he sought my input.”

Asked last week about Hopson, Lee told Memphis TV station Local 24 News that he hadn’t spoken with the superintendent specifically about his administration but added: “He has a role. We talk. We’ve become friends. I have a great deal of respect for his expertise.”

Hopson would have to take a pay cut, however, if Lee offered and he accepted the commissioner’s job. As superintendent, he makes $285,000 a year. The salary for the state’s education chief is $200,000.