Schools Chancellor Challenges Status Quo on Charters, New Schools

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Carmen Fariña, in a Bronx middle school class about Machiavelli, sees an opportunity to explain leadership styles

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said she would focus more on classroom instruction than her predecessors and she would consider keeping senior staff members -- if they embraced her "paradigm shift." In an exclusive WNYC interview, she also stood by Mayor Bill de Blasio's proposal to charge rent to some charter schools.

Here are some choice excerpts from the interview:

What does she think of charter schools?

"I find that a charter school, from my litmus test, has to be one that follows the rules. So you have a lottery, you accept X number of kids, your obligation is to graduate the same kids you accepted by lottery. It's not about throwing out the kids that don't fit the mold, it's not about throwing out the kids were not going to do well on the test, it's not about excluding special needs kids or English Language Learners."

"I work with some charters that are phenomenal. The other original idea for a charter school was they were supposed to do innovative things that then we could, the public schools, could learn from. I haven't seen that part of the charter world doing as much on that as they could. And I think there's some really great ones... I'm not making a blanket statement good or bad. I don't say all public schools are good or bad. I think we have to look at them individually."

Should charters pay rent for space in public school buildings?

"I'm not going to get into the political quagmire but I think that a lot of people make a lot of money on this, if there's money for some things there's got to be money for rent as well. I don't know. I think right now we need space for our own kids, you're going to have a large pre-k initiative. Where are we going to put some of those kids? I think our system for the first time in many years is overly utilized. But I think that is certainly the mayor's agenda."

Will parents have a greater say in D.O.E. decisions?

"It's going to be a process. It's not going to be, we meet behind closed doors and tomorrow the gang goes there and says you don't exist tomorrow. I don't think that's reasonable. And also I don't think it's respectful to kids. If there's schools, and there might be some down the pike that you know are not goods for kids, but then how do you make those decisions with parents and then say to kids, 'all of you are going to have a place that's better than where you are now'? I don't think there's been a lot of respect, to be honest, for different constituencies."

What was missing in the Bloomberg era?

'The thing that really surprised me was how many principals didn't feel they got clear direction." Specifically, Fariña said she heard complaints from principals that they didn't get enough support for academic interventions that could help low-performing students. "I have gone to so many schools where the principal says 'what is that exactly?' That shouldn't be a secret."

Would she keep Bloomberg's top Education Department officials?

"I think good teaching is good teaching and most people come to the system with good hearts. And I think as long as the paradigm shift is clear and evident and people are willing to work under a paradigm shift, I don't have a problem with keeping people. Not everybody may be doing the same jobs they're doing now because we're really going to shift some of the work to be more school specific."

Are the new teacher evaluations too onerous?

"The paperwork issue I've heard everywhere... But I do think principals visiting classrooms is crucial and I think in a lot of cases that wasn't being done."

Her approach to the teachers union?

"Twenty-two years as a teacher, that's my credential to this. I'm not negotiating - the mayor will do that. But the reality is, I certainly understand that there are things we can do better and I certainly also understand there are things that they can do better. So how do we negotiate that? That's for another time."

Can she name three Bloomberg reforms she supports?

"Oh, absolutely, and there's probably a lot more than three. One that really stands out to me is that there was certainly a time when a principal left there was a principal vacancy, whether illness, frustration whatever, we had maybe three interim acting people before we had a full one. And I don't think that happens almost anywhere now."

"The other thing that I really feel is much improved, I see, again I visit a lot of buildings, I see facilities that are actually cleaner, they are painted. I went to school I taught in that used to have, literally on my head, the ceiling was coming in because there was water coming in. And now it's been painted in bright yellow."

"I think the use of data, I think it may not be used in all the ways I'd like to see it used ... I think we might have abused a little bit in terms of holding all other things tied into it that might not have been meant to do but I think that's really a good thing."

Does she see any places for savings in the $25 billion budget?

"I don't think we need to do so much outsourcing stuff. Because we have a lot of very smart people here. So a lot of the consulting contracts that are very, very expensive... particularly for professional development we could probably do in-house"

What would she do with the money?

"One of the surprises that I kind of got recently is how many fewer teachers we now have in early childhood grades and I'm going to look at that."

"I think the most important thing to do is what happens in the classroom. The best teacher in the classroom with kids who have the support they need, that's what's going to move the system. The structures all around and constantly shifting is not going to move anything but anxiety."