Even the invitation felt significant.
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña welcomed the presidents of the city’s Community Education Councils to the Department of Education Thursday night to lay out their priorities and establish a relationship. Although CEC members, elected parent leaders, have had the opportunity to meet with chancellors before, several said there was a dramatic change in tone on Thursday.
“This was remarkably different than anything else that I’ve heard before,” said Sam Pirozzolo, CEC president of District 31 on Staten Island. One reason, he surmised, was that Fariña's a veteran educator. “There’s not one issue that we spoke to her about that she was not already familiar with.”
For added emphasis of the city's renewed focus on parents, Chirlane McCray, the city's First Lady, stopped by for part of the meeting,
Fariña did not make promises, or lay out specific changes she would make to the school system, but she said significant change was coming, CEC presidents told WNYC. One small change: Fariña told parents she wanted to stay in regular touch with them.
“She wanted everybody’s phone numbers,” said David Goldsmith, of District 13 in Brooklyn. “And she’s indeed calling people already.”
One possible change -- and a point of contention in school communities for years -- may be an overhaul of the "blue book," the D.O.E.'s formula for calculating capacity and available space in a school building. Many community leaders have for years protested co-locations based on these calculations, saying the D.O.E.'s data was disconnected from life inside a school building.
"She gets it," said Shino Tanikawa, president of the CEC for District 2. "She understands how flawed it is. She was a principal in an old building in District 2. She knows the limitations of the blue book and she wants to reform it, which is amazing to us."
Nick Comaianni, president of CEC for District 24 in Queens, said he was pleased to hear that Fariña intends to focus on rolling out professional development help to educators around the Common Core learning standards.
"Right now, they really have no professional development," said Comaianni. He added that he and many other CEC presidents in the room advocated to dissolve the system of learning networks, groups that assist schools with budgeting and instruction, and return the role to district superintendents.
Fariña emphasized her own priorities of improving middle schools; improving instruction for English language learners and special education students; and sharing best practices between schools.
She asked CEC presidents for help in learning about great schools, particularly the lesser-known and unscreened schools in their districts that may have innovations to share.