Yasmeen Khan is a reporter covering education. You can find her stories on the air and on SchoolBook.org, WNYC’s education website.
Chancellor Faces First Test Over Report on Conditions at Queens School
Wednesday, January 15, 2014 - 04:21 PM
Chancellor Carmen Fariña this week faced the first school scandal of her tenure, borne out of a Sunday New York Post story about alleged leadership problems and a lack of resources at P.S. 106 in Far Rockaway, Queens.
Such tabloid gotchas are a staple in the media landscape of coverage about struggling schools. But some longtime observers are noting the speed and force of Fariña's reaction — specifically her decision to send a deputy chancellor to the school within 24 hours of the report.
On Sunday, the Post’s Susan Edelman wrote in detail about a school with no gym or art classes, a chronically late — or absent — principal and a lack of instructional materials. The article relied heavily on anonymous sources.
The Post also staked out principal Marcella Sills to monitor her work habits, and documented her flamboyant style of dress with some pretty striking photos of her wearing fur and stepping out of a BMW.
By Sunday night, Fariña issued a statement calling the report "deeply troubling" and saying she would send Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson to the school on Monday. "What was reported in today's news account is unacceptable and if true will be immediately addressed," she stated. "Serving our children comes first and is our most urgent priority.”
On Monday, Fariña followed up to say that, while the school needed some organizational changes, "the classrooms are orderly, teachers are dedicated, and students are learning."
She pledged to send D.O.E. staffers to the school each week to ensure that the changes are made.
Two former Department of Education staff members, who did not want to be identified, commended Fariña's response and also noted that it was unusual for being so swift and public. It also provided the new chancellor with an opportunity to be out in front of a terrible story.
Others were more forthcoming.
“We were impressed by the swiftness of Chancellor Fariña’s public response and by her decision to send a highly placed deputy to the school,” said Chiara Coletti, chief spokeswoman for the principals' union, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators.
"We were also impressed by the chancellor’s measured response to Dorita Gibson’s findings and are confident that her decisions will be thoughtful and fair," said Coletti.
The C.S.A. would be tasked with representing Sills if the D.O.E. decides to remove her. Principals, like teachers, are entitled to due process in their contracts. But it can be difficult to fire a principal. Last year, an arbitrator forced the city to hire back a principal who engaged in academic fraud.
The school's network, which provides support in areas like instruction, budgeting and compliance, also applauded the D.O.E.'s response to the allegations in the Post.
"I was pleased with her reaction," said Seymour Fliegel, president of the Center for Innovation-Public Education Association, the network for P.S. 106. "Had Carmen gone there or her people gone there and said, 'Hey, this is a disaster here,' I would say 'Wow, we gotta do something better than what's going on.'"
But, he said, a D.O.E. staff visit confirmed that the school was not in the poor state that the Post reported. He also noted that P.S. 106 has previously received high marks on school progress reports. The school earned an "A" in 2010-2011 and a "B" in 2011-2012. The school did not receive a grade last school year because of Sandy.
The local city councilman also suggested to Capital New York that the school's conditions weren't as bad as the Post portrayed them.
Nonetheless, the report did prompt an official investigation into P.S. 106 by the Special Commissioner of Investigation.