New York City

With De Blasio’s pick of Carmen Fariña as Schools Chancellor, parents hope to regain voice in kids’ education

Veteran educator a Brooklyn legend; to bring back arts, social studies and the sciences

December 30, 2013 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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In the gym of M.S. 51, the Park Slope middle school once attended by both of his children, Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio on Monday announced his appointment of veteran educator Carmen Fariña as New York City Schools Chancellor.

Saying that Fariña was “universally recognized as one of the great educational leaders in this city,” de Blasio added that the pick was “deeply personal for me and Chirlane as parents.”

“Carmen is not only the Chancellor of the school system, but she’s the Chancellor for my child [Dante, who attends Brooklyn Tech]. As a parent, I could not be more gratified. Carmen understands the system, she knows exactly what teachers and parents are going through, and she will deliver progressive change in our schools that lifts up children in every neighborhood. She knows it because she has lived it.”

Monday’s announcement was a homecoming for the highly respected Ms. Fariña, who has more than 40 years of experience in the city’s schools, many of them in Brooklyn’s District 15.

Fariña described how her parents, early school experiences as a non-English-speaking student, and teachers had influenced her educational philosophy, and promised to communicate “often, frequently and explicitly” with school communities. One of her first steps would be to “meet with CEC [Community Education Council] presidents,” she said. She promised she would restore parent engagement “on Monday.”

Ms. Fariña also stressed professional development for teachers, saying, “I am at heart a teacher. All change happens in the classroom.” And she elicited applause from educators in the packed gym when she promised to bring back arts, social studies and the sciences.

Fariña said she hoped to bring back some of the joy that has been missing from teaching during recent years, and to celebrate success in the classroom.  

Within the limits imposed by state and federal law, Fariña said she hopes to de-emphasize standardized testing. “It has to be age-appropriate. Certain things don’t make sense in the first grade. You don’t do test prep.” She added that over her years in education she had formed relationships at the state level that would help DOE collaborate with Albany.

For her Chief of Staff, de Blasio and Fariña appointed Ursulina Ramirez, a former social worker, Deputy Public Advocate and current Deputy Director of Mayor-Elect de Blasio’s Transition team. Ramirez would help Fariña “stay sane amidst the madness,” de Blasio said. To Ramirez, he said, “Out of the frying pan, into the fire.”

Born in Brooklyn, raised in Brooklyn Heights and a resident of Cobble Hill (where she taught at P.S. 29 for more than 20 years), Fariña is known as an innovator and a team-builder. She is widely credited with the success of Brooklyn’s School District 15 when she was that District’s superintendent and was hailed for turning Manhattan’s P.S. 6 into one of the top schools in the city. Her appointment as Region 8 Superintendent in 2003 brought change to previously underperforming schools in northern Brooklyn, including P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights, where she appointed Principal Seth Phillips and other staff. P.S. 8 became so sought-after that Phillips built an annex and added a middle school.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed Fariña as Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning in 2004. She chose to step down from the position “when she thought students’ needs were being ignored” and after policy disagreements with Mayor Bloomberg, de Blasio said.

She semi-retired to consult and become a pro bono advocate for early education and parental involvement in school policy. “I wasn’t gone, I was just hiding the last couple of years,” she joked, adding, “Seventy is the new forty.”

Fariña said she was committed to serving a full term. “If I take a job, there’s no halfway.” She said she was swayed to take the position by her grandchild Charlie, who told her, “If you can do it, why not?”

As Chancellor, Fariña will take the reins of a school system rocked by a number of contentious issues including co-locations, charter schools, school closures, curriculum changes, expired union contracts and ballooning class sizes.

De Blasio said that he has imposed a moratorium on Mayor Bloomberg’s school co-locations and closures. The moratorium will continue until a system is worked out that respects parents “and benefits students.” There will be “no edict from on high,” de Blasio said. “Parents are the first and last educators, and they will be treated as the stakeholders they are.”

He said that he was adamant about resolving nearly 150 open labor contracts “in the spirit of partnership.”  Fariña added that “teachers and administrators are maligned – they are true partners.”

De Blasio reiterated an agenda that includes full-day universal pre-K and afterschool programs for every middle school student in the city. He also said his administration would establish 100 new “community schools,” where students can receive health care and other services, with a focus on low-income neighborhoods.

His plans also includes new Career and Technical Education pathways, more community voice in school decisions, and enhanced arts and technology programs.

Mayor Bloomberg’s current Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, in a statement on Monday, wished Farina well, calling her “a deeply committed educator with a true passion for improving our schools.”

“Carmen Fariña is an excellent pick – she knows the New York City public school system inside-out and is an expert educator,” Zakiyah Ansari, Advocacy Director for the Alliance for Quality Education, said in a statement. “She is ready-made to carry out Mayor-elect de Blasio’s mandate to take our schools in a new and successful direction.”

“For the first time in many years the nation’s largest school system will be led by an educator with a keen understanding of curriculum and instruction, who is actively committed to supporting our public schools,” said Professor Pedro Noguera, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Center at New York University.

Public Advocate-elect Letitia James also praised the choice of Fariña as Chancellor. “I have worked with Ms. Fariña and I have benefited from her wisdom and insight on what it takes to have successful schools in every neighborhood.”

Park Slope mom Kemala Karmen, with one child attending the Brooklyn New School and the other ICE in Manhattan, told the Brooklyn Eagle, “Being a public school parent politicized me. I’ve been so upset about how things are going.” She said she was concerned about high stakes testing, grading schools “using incredibly reductive measurements,” a budget “that doesn’t prioritize classrooms,” top-heavy management, and class size.

Fariña’s promise to have a place for parents to communicate with the school system heartened Ms. Karmen. “That it doesn’t [already] exist is unbelievable. Have you ever visited the DOE website? It’s impenetrable.”

Brooklyn parent Sandra told the Eagle that her daughter “does not want to go to high school. It’s not an environment she can thrive in. I don’t know where the blame lies. I just know the schools are in terrible shape.”

“De Blasio certainly said the right things.,” she said. “He must have done a heck of a job talking to [Fariña] to get her out of retirement. He must have been impactful enough to convince her that she can make a change.”

“Carmen Fariña is a visionary.  I’m delighted that she came out of retirement to accept the offer,” said Trudy Whitman, whose daughter attended P.S. 29. “Even in retirement she continued her work to advance education as an active member of several forward-thinking  educational boards.  Carmen was my daughter’s third-grade teacher at P.S. 29. Because of her and other gifted teachers she encountered during her schooling, my daughter chose to become an educator herself.”

“As a District 15 parent I couldn’t be more thrilled,” City Councilman Brad Lander, at M.S. 51 for Monday’s announcement, told the Eagle. “What she did here, she will replicate across the city: mentoring principals, building models of inclusive and creative schools. It’s a great choice.” Spreading his arms and smiling broadly, he added, “And this is my son’s gym!”

Charter school officials expressed caution, however. “Carmen Fariña’s experience and track record are impressive, but New Yorkers need to wait and see if she’ll grow and protect public charter schools, which have demonstrated exceptional results. We stand ready to offer our help,” said Jeremiah Kittredge, Executive Director of Families for Excellent Schools.

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