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.”

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.’”