New schools chancellor has proven record, but will that mean citywide success?

NEW YORK (PIX11) - She’s spent four decades in the New York City public school system, rising through the ranks from classroom teacher to deputy chancellor.  But now that Carmen Farina has been named new schools chancellor, how well her successes in classrooms and schools will translate into results at a citywide level remains an open question.

“My dear friend and next chancellor,” is how Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio introduced the woman who is well known in New York City education circles.  For just about everyone else, however, Carmen Farina (pronounced Fa-reen-ya) is a new face who is breaking significantly from the Bloomberg Department of Education’s tenure.

“So much work left to be done,” said the woman whose family emigrated to the U.S. from Spain when she was four years old.  She said that one significant difference between the Department of Education under her and the one that has preceded her chancellorship is that she’ll understand that “Things need to happen, but they need to happen with people and not to people.”

1.2 million students fill New York City’s classrooms, and Farina has known many of its classrooms personally as she rose through the ranks.  She departed from a senior position within Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s DOE when she felt that it was  emphasizing the wrong things in education.

“You don’t test prep,” Farina said at her introductory news conference at M.S. 51, the Park Slope middle school where Bill de Blasio had sent his two children.  “Good teaching and good interventions and good process is the best way to be successful,” said Farina.

She added that she will make that philosophy a key part of her approach by emphasizing teacher training, and by doing at least one other major thing.

“We are going to communicate often and frequently,” she promised parents, saying also that because she is a person who went through school without English being her first language, she would be sensitive about communicating with public school families that don’t have English as their primary language.

Farina and de Blasio said they will undo many Bloomberg changes, despite acknowledging that their predecessors had made noteworthy strides.  Under Blooomberg mayoral control of New York City schools, the graduation rate rose from 53 percent in 2005 to 64.7 percent in 2012.  Rather than mention improvements of that sort under the current mayor, the mayor-elect emphasized different numbers.

“Only 22 percent of New York City students who graduated on time last year were deemed college ready,” de Blasio said.

He also mentioned that Farina had transformed one school in which she was principal in the 1990s, P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side, from one with mediocre educational results into one which has to turn away far more families than it can take in.  Many of the families that can get in choose P.S. 6 over some of the city’s — and country’s — best private schools.

Translating that sort of school level academic success into strong results system wide may be easier said than done, according to David Bloomfield, Esq., a professor of education and teacher trainer at the CUNY Graduate Center.

“Annual standardized testing is not going away,” said Prof. Bloomfield in an interview.  “Carmen Farina is going to have to walk a fine line between progressive education and the conservative [education] standards of the Obama Administration,” Bloomfield said.  “How do you not teach to the test, but maintain high test scores?”

Answering that question under the new schools chancellor will take time, by her own admission.  “I don’t think at this point we’ll make decisions yet,” Farina said at her news conference.  “I think of January as conversation time.”

A big part of that conversation, she said, are parents, some of whom were at her introductory news conference.  It was held with a backdrop of Park Slope elementary, middle and high school students standing behind her and the mayor-elect.  The students had been brought in from winter break by their parents, who were active at M.S. 51, where the news conference was held, or at schools nearby.

Velma McKenzie, mother of a Park Slope fourth grader, said her concern was for the new state-mandated Common Core testing.  “We’re the guinea pigs, really,” she told PIX11 News, but she said that she was “confident” that Farina would emphasize quality teaching as a way to ensure solid performance on the exam that requires a greater knowledge of information than standardized tests New York students have taken in past years.

“She’s focused on teaching,” said Carl Anderson.  He’s both a New York City public school parent and a teacher training consultant who had worked with Farina when she was the principal at P.S.6.  Anderson said that Farina’s emphasis on collaborative teaching — of teachers working with one another to improve their skills — was a hallmark of Farina’s leadership.  He said that he was convinced that the sorts of results she secured at her Upper East Side elementary school in the 1990’s could be achieved citywide under Farina’s leadership of the entire department.

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