Master Class

Fariña shares advice with new principals, but avoids touchy topics

The hard-won wisdom could have come from any number of experienced principals: Turn troublesome students into special helpers, invite teachers to help steer school policy, praise the custodians.

But on Saturday, that school-leadership advice came from a veteran principal who is also the new head of the city school system.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke to school leaders who have been in that role for three years or fewer at a conference for new principals at Stuyvesant High School, before veteran principals led workshops on topics such as managing budgets and engaging parents.

Fariña mostly steered clear of matters that have frustrated many principals, particularly the city’s new teacher evaluation system and learning standards, according to principals who participated. Instead, she used the meeting to assure the new school leaders that they can count on her support. That message, part of Fariña’s ongoing effort to “soften the tone” of the education department, appeared to resonate with the principals, who began arriving at 8 a.m. Saturday for the voluntary professional development.

“Sometimes you have PD and it was just another PD,” said Ron Link, principal of the Theater Arts Production Company School in the Bronx. “This wasn’t. This was a sea change.”

Fariña organized the conference for new principals early in her tenure after becoming concerned about newer principals’ skills. “As I visit schools I’m finding that a lot of newer principals really don’t know some of the nitty gritty stuff that they should know and they’re getting really harmed by not knowing that,” she told Chalkbeat in February, shortly after she announced a seven-year experience requirement for new principals.

In Fariña’s keynote speech, principals said, she repeated her “C’s” mantra, saying principals should focus on communication, celebration, curriculum, and capacity-building, by which she means training and empowering teachers. But she also got into the nitty-gritty by sharing what one attendee called “very granular” advice.

Fariña said that when she was principal of P.S. 6 in Manhattan, she made inroads with difficult students by letting them shadow her as “principal for a day.” She boosted staff morale by taking over teachers’ classes on their birthdays. (That gesture also offered her a chance to check out teachers’ rooms when they weren’t around, she has said.) She also described how she had involved teachers in school decision-making, adding that when she visits staff meetings now she expects to hear lively conversations, not principal monologues.

“It can’t just be top down — that’s not the kind of leadership she wants to see,” said a Brooklyn principal who, like several others, asked that his name not be published because he did not have department approval to discuss the meeting.

To illustrate the importance of a welcoming school environment, she told a cautionary tale about a time when she visited a school and not a single person in the main office acknowledged her presence while she stood and fumed. Principals must ensure that front office workers greet callers and visitors warmly, and even make sure they have a comfortable spot to sit while waiting, Fariña said. That must be part of a larger community-building effort where principals honor every person in the school — from school-safety agents to educators — and insist that they do the same with students and their families, she said.

Her message was that “from every cafeteria worker to every kid to every parent, everyone should feel welcome,” said a Bronx middle school principal.

The new-principals conference follows an earlier meeting for all city principals where Fariña announced the new experience rules for principals. Fariña has also met with district superintendents and the leaders of school-support networks. She has promised a series of borough-wide teacher meetings, but some teachers have complained that they feel overlooked for now.

In their remarks, Fariña and her new deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, former principal Phil Weinberg, did not delve into the many difficulties that schools have faced as they implement the new teacher-rating system and the Common Core learning standards. Rather, Fariña simply said the department is “working on” issues with the evaluation system and Weinberg told principals to “be brave in the face of challenges,” as one principal paraphrased his remarks.

“They didn’t give us any specifics,” a Brooklyn middle school principal said.

Other principals said they hadn’t expected much policy talk at the conference, adding that the chancellor’s respectful tone might make principals more willing to work with her on thorny issues.

“Before you can tackle the big work, you have to build relationships,” said one Staten Island principal. “Today was big on building relationships.”

True to Fariña’s penchant for educator-led training and collaboration, experienced principals led breakout sessions on specific topics. For example, the leader of Brooklyn’s J.H.S. 88 talked about forging partnerships with outside groups; the head of Manhattan’s M.S. 319 described ways to help struggling students meet the new standards; and the principal of Queens’ Eagle Academy for Young Men III offered tips for interacting with families. Other veterans invited the new principals to visit their schools.

After the conference, a Bronx principal explained why he made the trek to Lower Manhattan on a sunny Saturday morning, besides the fact that his new boss strongly encouraged him to attend.

“If you want to grow in the profession,” he said, “you have to sacrifice your time.”

here's the plan

After long wait, de Blasio backs plan to overhaul admissions at New York City’s elite high schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Stuyvesant High School will begin participating in the Discovery program this year.

After sustained pressure from advocates, Mayor Bill de Blasio is backing a two-step plan to reform admissions at eight of the city’s elite high schools and endorsing a specific replacement for the single-test admissions system.

The city’s specialized high schools — considered some of the crown jewels of New York City’s education system — accept students based on a single test score. Over the last decade, they have come under fire for offering admissions to few students of color: While two-thirds of city students are black or Hispanic, only about 10 percent of admissions offers to those schools go to black or Hispanic students.

De Blasio’s solution, laid out in an op-ed in Chalkbeat, would set aside 20 percent of the seats at the eight schools for students from low-income families starting next school year. Students who just missed the test score cut-off would be able to earn one of those set-aside seats through the longstanding “Discovery” program. Just 4 percent of seats were offered through that program in 2017.

The mayor also said he plans to push state lawmakers to change a law that requires admission at three of the schools to be decided by a single test score. That’s something de Blasio campaigned for during his run for mayor in 2014 but hasn’t made a priority since.

Most significantly, de Blasio says for the first time that he backs a system of replacing the admissions test with a system that picks students based on their middle school class rank and state test scores. The middle-school rank component is especially notable, as an NYU Steinhardt report found that the only way to really change the makeup of the elite high schools would be to guarantee admission to the top 10 percent of students at every middle school.

If all of these changes were implemented, de Blasio says that 45 percent of the student bodies at the eight high schools would be black or Latino.

Together, the proposals reflect the most specific plan yet to change a system that, year after year, becomes a symbol of New York City’s racially divided schools. But the changes de Blasio is proposing won’t come easily — and might not come at all.

The part of the plan that the city is promising to do on its own, expand the Discovery program, will only modestly improve diversity by the city’s own admission. And the plan’s more ambitious elements would require buy-in from state lawmakers who have repeatedly resisted de Blasio’s agenda and attempts to change admissions rules.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s plan does not include a move that many legal experts consider to be low-hanging fruit: changing the admissions rules at five of the eight schools without state approval.

While the city’s official position has long been that admissions at all eight schools are set by law, only three schools — Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School — are specifically mentioned, leaving room for the city to reclassify the others. (De Blasio recently said he would ask lawyers about that change, but has not signaled he plans to act.)

The Discovery program has also proved problematic for de Blasio, in part because it is open to all low-income students — something that is not equivalent to black or Hispanic in New York City. The de Blasio administration has already tripled the program’s size since taking office, but its share of black and Latino students has also shrunk.

A lot of questions about the plan remain unanswered. It’s not clear whether the 20 percent of set-aside seats will be spread across the eight schools evenly, for one, or whether some schools like Stuyvesant will have fewer seats earmarked for Discovery. De Blasio doesn’t explain exactly how an admissions system reliant on middle-school grades and standardized test scores would work.

It’s also unclear how the mayor plans to push against opposition from alumni groups and parents who may worry that changing the admissions rules will lower academic standards, though his rhetoric was sharp in the op-ed.

“Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative,” de Blasio wrote. “It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it.”

So far, de Blasio’s incremental steps to boost diversity at specialized high schools have made little change to the overall student body — and therefore garnered little pushback.

It’s unclear whether the lackluster results caused him to switch strategies. More recently, de Blasio has also been under pressure to address school segregation in the city as a whole.

He may also have been pushed by his new schools chancellor, who has been outspoken on the subject since taking the helm of the school system about two months ago. Chancellor Richard Carranza has been talking about the issue since his very first media interview, and has repeatedly hinted that he is interested in changing their admissions process.

“From my perspective it’s not OK to have a public school in a city as diverse… and that you have only 10 African-American students in a high school,” Carranza said in April. “So I’m looking at that, absolutely.”

sorting the students

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Our specialized schools have a diversity problem. Let’s fix it.

PHOTO: Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio hosts a town hall in Brooklyn in October.

I visit schools across this city and it never fails to energize me. The talent out there is outstanding. The students overflow with promise. But many of the smart kids I meet aren’t getting in to our city’s most prestigious high schools. In fact, they’re being locked out.

The problem is clear. Eight of our most renowned high schools – including Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School – rely on a single, high-stakes exam. The Specialized High School Admissions Test isn’t just flawed – it’s a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence.

If we want this to be the fairest big city in America, we need to scrap the SHSAT and start over.

Let’s select students for our top public high schools in a manner that best reflects the talent these students have, and the reality of who lives in New York City. Let’s have top-flight public high schools that are fair and represent the highest academic standards.

Right now, we are living with monumental injustice. The prestigious high schools make 5,000 admissions offers to incoming ninth-graders. Yet, this year just 172 black students and 298 Latino students received offers. This happened in a city where two out of every three eighth-graders in our public schools are Latino or black.

There’s also a geographic problem. There are almost 600 middle schools citywide. Yet, half the students admitted to the specialized high schools last year came from just 21 of those schools. For a perfect illustration of disparity: Just 14 percent of students at Bronx Science come from the Bronx.

Can anyone defend this? Can anyone look the parent of a Latino or black child in the eye and tell them their precious daughter or son has an equal chance to get into one of their city’s best high schools? Can anyone say this is the America we signed up for?

Our best colleges don’t select students this way. Our top-level graduate schools don’t. There are important reasons why. Some people are good at taking tests, but earn poor grades. Other people struggle with testing, but achieve top grades. The best educational minds get it. You can’t write a single test that captures the full reality of a person.

A single, high-stakes exam is also unfair to students whose families cannot afford, or may not even know about, the availability of test preparation tutors and courses. Now, I’d like to stop and say, I admire the many families who scrape and save to pay for test prep. They are trying in every way to support their children.

But let’s ask ourselves: Why should families who can ill afford test prep have to spend their money on it? Why should families who can easily afford test prep have an advantage over those that cannot?

My administration has been working to give a wider range of excellent students a fair shot at the specialized high schools. Now we are going to go further. Starting in September 2019, we’ll expand the Discovery Program to offer 20 percent of specialized high school seats to economically disadvantaged students who just missed the test cut-off.

This will immediately bring a wider variety of high-performing students, from a wider number of middle schools, to the specialized high schools. For example, the percentage of black and Latino students receiving offers will almost double, to around 16 percent from around 9 percent. The number of middle schools represented will go from around 310 to around 400.

This will also address a fundamental illogic baked into the high-stakes test. A great score and you might be in, but beware a point too low and you might be out. Now, a disadvantaged student who is just a point or two shy of the cut-off won’t be blocked from a great educational opportunity.

For a deeper solution, we will fight alongside our partners in the Assembly and Senate to replace the SHSAT with a new admissions process, selecting students based on a combination of the student’s rank in their middle school and their results in the statewide tests that all middle school children take.

With these reforms, we expect our premier public high schools to start looking like New York City. Approximately 45 percent of students would be Latino or black. As an example of growing geographical fairness, we will quadruple the number of Bronx students admitted.

I’ve talked a lot about bringing equity and excellence to our schools. This new admissions process will give every student in every middle school a fair shot. That’s equity. The new process will ask students to demonstrate hard work over time, and show brilliance in a variety of subjects. That’s excellence.

Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative. It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it. This perpetuates a dangerous and disgusting myth.

So let me be clear. The new system we’re fighting for will raise the bar at the specialized high schools in every way. The pool of talent is going to expand widely and rapidly. That’s going to up the level of competition. The students who emerge from the new process will make these schools even stronger.

They will also make our society stronger. Our most prestigious public high schools aren’t just routes to opportunity for deserving students and their families. They are incubators for the leaders and innovators of tomorrow. The kind of high schools we have today, will determine the kind of New York City we will have tomorrow.

Bill de Blasio is the mayor of New York City.