New Schools Chancellor Brings Applause—and Some Concerns

Carmen Fariña has held a lot of titles in the city's Department of Education over her 40 years of service: teacher, principal, superintendent and deputy chancellor. Her promotion to chancellor is being cheered by educators who are happy to see one of their own running the nation's largest school district.

"A school system as vast and complicated as New York City needs someone with superior organizational skills, but it also needs someone with instructional expertise," said Dan Feigelson, who replaced her as principal of Manhattan's P.S. 6 and now works for the D.O.E. running a network of schools. "I can't think of anyone more qualified than Carmen."

Fariña's appointment was also praised by the teachers and principals unions, along with outgoing chancellor Dennis Walcott. 

Most notably, the appointment marks a return to an experienced educator running the city school system. Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed an attorney and a publishing executive as chancellor. Walcott was a deputy mayor who had taught kindergarten earlier in his career.

In contrast, Fariña will be the first chancellor since Rudy Crew who will not need a waiver from a state law requiring the chancellor to hold a superintendent's license. She also has a background in primary education, unlike many of the top level administrators at the D.O.E. who came from high schools and who put a big focus on the testing grades. Educators say her appointment not only sends a political message but also marks a different approach to leadership.

"One of the things that stands out about Carmen is her focus on collaboration and her ability to create line alliances and think tanks and partnerships," said Lucy Calkins, a Teachers College-Columbia University professor who co-founded an approach to teaching called the Reading and Writing Project. Fariña has worked as a consultant at Teachers College since she retired in 2006.

Calkins said Fariña was dedicated to sharing what worked as a principal and superintendent. She called tours through schools "glory walks," and said they were for educators to see good teaching in action all over the city. As principal of the prestigious P.S. 6 on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Fariña would occasionally loan her teachers to struggling schools for a few days, Calkins said.

“She would say, ‘It does so much good to go out to other schools and help the other schools. It does my teachers good as well as people receiving it,’” Calkins said.

Fariña's ability to build relationships by pairing different types of schools was also praised by Liz Phillips, principal of P.S. 321 in Park Slope, who recalled Fariña's style first as a district and then as a regional superintendent. "Being exposed to different kinds of instruction, different ways of providing professional development, different approaches to parent involvement, was helpful to all schools," she explained. "But definitely to more struggling schools." 

Katherine Moloney, principal of P.S. 100 in Coney Island, said Fariña came to her school 10 years ago. "She was so inspiring and to this day, one of the reflective questions she encouraged us to ask ourselves and our staff was, 'What is one thing you do well that no one has ever asked you to do,'" Moloney recalled. "This  still resonates with me and helps me motivate our school community."

But while Department of Education insiders praised Fariña as a master educator and collaborator, she is also known for toughness. When she led P.S. 6, a 1999 profile of her in the New York Times described her as "the principal everybody loves to fear."

After years of rising in graduation rates under the Bloomberg administration, there are also those who now worry Fariña may undo some of the mayor's reforms. Supporters of charter schools are wary of de Blasio's plan to charge the privately managed schools rent, based on their means, if they take space in public school buildings.

"I know Carmen well and she is an educator who cares," said Eva Moskowitz, C.E.O. of the Success network of charter schools and a target of de Blasio's critiques of charters. "The question is will she protect and expand public charter school options for families who need and are demanding them?"  

Eric Nadelstern, a Teachers College professor and a former deputy superintendent for school support and instruction during the Bloomberg era, also acknowledged Fariña was qualified. But, as a former high school leader who worked on raising graduation rates, he questioned whether she's the right person to keep making progress with the more than 30 percent of students who don't graduate on time.

"Can she attract some of the leading thinkers in education reform from around the country to put together the kind of comprehensive strategic plan that will provide confidence that we are going to make serious inroads during her tenure?"