a guide to a guide

In "A School Leader's Guide to Excellence," signs of Fariña's favored strategies

Chancellor Carmen Fariña has a playbook, and she’s sticking to it.

She explains it all in “A School Leader’s Guide to Excellence: Collaborating our Way to Better Schools,” a 2008 book she co-wrote with Laura Kotch, her longtime partner in education leadership, after leaving her job as a deputy chancellor. With its copies of staff appreciation memos and thank you letters she sent to teachers over the years, the book shows how strongly Fariña believes problems can be solved by making teachers and principals feel supported.

The book is more of a guide for an individual principal than a blueprint for running a huge system of diverse schools. But Fariña seems ready to apply many of its principles, and the book’s table of contents reads like a list of the new chancellor’s recent plans and promises:

Chapter 1: Formulate and Communicate Your Vision. Chapter 2: Engage in One-to-One Conversations. Chapter 3: Implement the Book-of-the-Month Structure. Chapter 4: Celebrate!

Some other points of interest:

FIXING A STRUGGLING SCHOOL: Fariña and Kotch write that soon after being appointed superintendent and deputy superintendent, they visited an elementary school with many English language learners that had landed on the state’s list of schools needing improvement. The principal told them she was struggling to deal with complacency among her teachers, but that one teacher in the school really stood out.

“We happily discovered that the fourth grade classroom she [the principal] brought us to aligned with our goals,” Fariña and Kotch write. “We celebrated the interactive learning environment with the students, complimented the teacher, and encouraged the principal to build on the strengths of this classroom by creating a corps of similarly minded teacher leaders who could study together, visit other schools, and begin to establish a collaborative school culture … We told her honestly that the reorganization ahead would not be easy nor accomplished quickly, but that we believed it could be achieved over time.”

They write that the school was off of the state’s list three years later, though they don’t give more specifics about its improvement.

IT’S NOT ABOUT TEST SCORES: Consistent with Fariña’s statements that she wants to lower the stakes of standardized tests where possible, she and Kotch advise principals to “be willing to take a public stand on unpopular issues,” including the emphasis on short-term, data-driven goals.

“Principled leaders look beyond narrow demands such as raising test scores and focus their priorities on more global initiatives such as graduating students who are inventive, analytical, literate, compassionate, artistic, and creative human beings,” they write.

Later, they’re even harsher about judging schools based on standardized test scores, urging schools to come up with “internal mechanisms to evaluate their own progress.”

LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE: Fariña and Kotch bookend their guide with calls to look beyond a school’s obvious problems. “Recognizing and affirming what is working well, even small beginning steps, is often a better vehicle for improvement than mandates, sanctions, or labels ranking one school against another,” they write.

That’s a straightforward rebuke of the accountability strategies being implemented by then-Chancellor Joel Klein when Fariña left the system. Finding the positive aspects of a struggling school is also something Fariña did recently with P.S. 106.

ATTENTION TO STAFF MORALE: A back-to-school letter from Fariña to principals when she was deputy chancellor reminds them to do walk-throughs of their schools before the teachers arrive to make sure the building is clean and that every teacher has a trash can. “Making sure each classroom has a wastebasket seems like a minor detail, but think about a teacher trying to set up a room without one,” she wrote.

In another note to principals before the holiday break, she urged them to “seek out one totally self-indulgent activity,” joking for them to “keep it legal and not deleterious to your health” and then to bring the energy back to their families and schools. Other suggestions include giving teachers throat lozenges and thank you notes after parent-teacher conferences and creating a committee to oversee school celebrations.

BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS: It’s no secret that Fariña sees a big part of her job as repairing the perception of the Department of Education among teachers and parents. They learned big lessons about communicating her vision and asking for feedback as a principal and superintendent, she writes: “Communicating a list of mandates without getting to know the individuals who are expected to follow the mandates guarantees failure.”

CHANGE TAKES TIME: In describing changes at her schools, Fariña notes that many took years to fully take root. As Congress “prescribes radical changes it believes will instantly lead to improved test scores,” educators know that “swinging the pendulum from one extreme to another” is pointless, Fariña and Kotch write.

NEW FORMS OF PARENT ENGAGEMENT: Fariña and Kotch write that their parents were intimidated by their schools, only appearing for brief parent-teacher conferences even though they took great interest in their children’s education. When Fariña arrived at P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side, she found a few parent leaders making big-picture decisions like hiring and firing staff but doing little for the group of children referred to as “the janitors’ class.”

Both experiences influenced Fariña’s views on how schools should interact with parents, including those who can’t be present at their child’s school and those who might be too present. At P.S. 6, those dynamics changed over a period of 10 years, she writes. At the district level, additional translators and parent coordinators helped reach more parents, but calls for the city to communicate better with parents who don’t speak English have only intensified in recent years.

A MOMENTOUS FIRST MEETING: Fariña has long promoted balanced literacy, the approach to reading and writing pioneered by Lucy Calkins that lets students choose their own books from classroom libraries and limits teacher-led instruction. Calkins calls Fariña and Kotch “the best of the best” in her introduction to their book, in which they recount being awestruck at their first meeting.

“All the books and articles we had read could never teach the way being in the presence of an expert and passionate teacher could,” they write of watching Calkins. Fariña advocated for balanced literacy across her Brooklyn districts and then citywide under Klein, although the model fell out of favor by the end of Klein’s tenure.

WHAT’S MISSING: Many of Fariña’s specific ideas, like morning read-alouds with parents or grandparents day activities, are geared toward schools with younger students, while high school gets less emphasis. Her emphasis on literacy—including a detailed breakdown of her book-of-the-month initiative—also means few specific mentions of math or science instruction.

MORE MANTRAS: At Fariña’s appointment press conference, she said she would be focusing on communication, capacity building, curriculum enhancement, celebration and efficiency—or “five Cs and an E.” It’s a strategy she’s used for years to make her goals memorable. Some past mantras: “equity, energy, expectations, entourage/ensemble” and “courage, curriculum, content, capacity, celebration.”

EARLY PRAISE OF BILL DE BLASIO?: “Many of the best politicians get their start in local PTAs and on school boards, mentored by principals who think aloud as they model consensus-building strategies and collaborative decision making,” Fariña and Kotch write. (De Blasio got his political start on District 15’s school board, serving with Fariña.)

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.’”