Beth Fertig is WNYC’s Contributing Editor for Education. She previously covered politics, which included City Hall during the Giuliani administration, and the U.S. Senate campaigns of Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton. She also covered transportation and infrastructure.
De Blasio Names Trusted Advisor to Lead Schools
Monday, December 30, 2013 - 07:00 AM
Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio named Carmen Fariña, a 40-year veteran of the New York City schools, to serve as the chancellor of the nation's largest school district.
Fariña is a former teacher, principal and deputy chancellor who retired in 2006. She got to know de Blasio in the late 1990's when she was superintendent of District 15 in Brooklyn, and he was a local community school board member. Fariña supported de Blasio's mayoral campaign and served as an informal advisor on education issues.
"She is not only going to be the chancellor of our school system and the person I turn to," said de Blasio, "she is also going to be the chancellor for my child. And as a public school parent I could not be more gratified."
In choosing 70-year-old Fariña, de Blasio has once again opted for an experienced hand. His other high-profile appointees, ranging from deputy mayor of operations to budget director and police chief, are all seasoned players in New York government. He is also sending a strong signal about the kind of chancellor he wants at a time when parents and teachers are anxious about new state standards and a teacher evaluation system that relies partly on student test scores.
De Blasio said he is "going to unpack" a lot of the Bloomberg reforms that are not required by state or federal law, namely the A-F letter grades given to schools. De Blasio said he will also honor his campaign's promise for a moratorium on closing schools for at least a year.
Fariña on Monday said she supported de Blasio's "progressive agenda" and insisted that the school system must be more inclusive of parents.
"We're going to have a system where parents are treated as real partners," she said. She added that she would listen to all sides but that ultimately her decisions will be based on "what's best for kids."
She did praise Bloomberg, however, for improving school safety.
The choice of Farina is a stark contrast from Bloomberg's three chancellors. His longest serving chancellor, Joel Klein, was a former U.S. Assistant Attorney General. The D.O.E. was led by many former high school administrators who focused heavily on test scores as they closed about 200 struggling schools and opened hundreds of new ones and privately managed charters. In contrast, Fariña's background is in elementary education and literacy.
Fariña is a daughter of Spanish immigrants from Galicia who fled the Franco regime. She grew up in Brooklyn, attending parochial schools, and taught at P.S. 29 in Cobble Hill. She later became the principal of P.S. 6, on Manhattan's Upper East side, where she earned a reputation for being quite demanding as she raised the school's profile.
In 2004, she was promoted to the position of Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning. The school system was in the midst of a major shakeup, as Bloomberg gave principals more and more autonomy. Fariña supported the administration's approach to reading, which relied on whole books more than rote instruction. But she differed with then-Chancellor Joel Klein over decisions to reduce professional development. She also disagreed with their decision to eliminate geographically based networks of schools as principals gained more power.
She denied being pushed out in 2006, but told WNYC recently, "It seemed like time to move on." She was replaced by Andres Alonso, who went on to become the Chief Executive Officer of the Baltimore schools before departing this year. He was widely considered to be on de Blasio's short list of potential chancellors.
While Fariña was long thought to have a good shot at the job as recently as last month she said she wasn't interested and that she enjoyed her retirement. She has been a consultant at Teachers College-Columbia University, travels to Spain each summer with her grandchildren and frequently babysits for them. But she told WNYC recently that she changed her mind during a phone call with the mayor-elect. She said they agreed on the three most important challenges facing the school system.
"All day pre-K, a real emphasis on the middle schools and much more communication with parents," she said. "It was very clear if you're going to change quickly, you need someone who knows what's on the inside.”
Fariña also said her decision to come back was shaped by the past six years she has spent visiting city schools through a professional development program at Teachers College, and through the school's Cahn Fellowship for distinguished principals.
"Principals were demoralized" by the mayor's aggressive reforms, she said. "You have to bring the heart back to the system."
Fariña will have plenty of issues on her plate. Along with a new teacher evaluation system and new state standards, teachers have been without a contract for four years. De Blasio has said he wants to charge rent to charter schools and put a moratorium on the closing of new schools. Although Fariña has said she does not oppose charters or the closing of failing schools, she does not appear to view either as a major strategy of school reform.
As her first order of business Fariña appointed Ursulina Ramirez as her chief of staff. Ramirez a former social worker, Deputy Public Advocate and current Deputy Director of Mayor-Elect de Blasio’s Transition.