Change in Climate of Education
Since I became Chancellor, I have been humbled by the overwhelming support I have received from teachers, principals, and parents throughout the City. From large town halls to small gatherings, I have been welcomed with open arms by school communities across the five boroughs.
As a child of Spanish immigrants, I entered school unable to even speak English. My teacher marked me absent every day because I never answered during roll call. Why would I? I never heard my name called. My father eventually discovered that my teacher had been mispronouncing it for weeks.
At the time, I could not have imagined going to college, let alone becoming New York City’s Schools Chancellor. Our standard for excellence must be a back-to-basics approach premised on partnership. One person can make a difference, but teams of people can be historic difference-makers.
After a career dedicating myself to our City’s classrooms, I’m reflecting on my first 100 days in office as Chancellor. I’ve unearthed four pillars, and they will be at the epicenter of everything we do.
My first pillar is to return dignity and respect to our work force. We must honor the teachers, principals, and school staff who are doing the incredibly hard, on-the-ground work. These professionals command our respect, and we are committed to providing them with the support and training they need to hone their craft.
One of my first acts as Chancellor was to convene a meeting with principals. Nearly 1,000 showed up—and expressed their frustration at not being honored and recognized. They hungered to be consulted about decisions that would affect their practice, and to be assisted. As a result of this meeting, we produced an all-day conference for relatively new principals hosted by experienced principals. To my delight, principals have remained in touch with one another and are extending their conversations. We all know that teachers play the most critical role in shaping the lives of children. It’s time we give teachers the respect they are due and give them room to do what they do best and in the process return JOY to the classroom.
My second pillar is to improve student achievement by aligning Common Core strategies with everything we do including academics as well as the arts. We must ensure that all of our students, not only graduate, but graduate with a well-rounded education that will enable them to succeed in college and beyond. By stressing the Common Core strategies in everything we do and increasing our use of technology, we increase the opportunities for success. To this end, we are moving professional development into its own department. We are honoring the work principals do by making it a requirement that they have seven years of pedagogical experience before they take charge of a school. This policy, which just got the green light this week, reaffirms the importance of school-based experience. Finally, we are offering teachers and principals professional days in which they can share best teaching practices.
My third pillar is to engage parents in every aspect of school life. Parents matter. Parental involvement and support are crucial to student achievement. Research shows that parents who engage in read-alouds and nurturing educational practices lay a strong foundation for later success in school. When parents are engaged at the school and district level, children and schools benefit.
We have started to form parent advisory groups and are infusing parents into many of our existing structures. In May and June we are holding three full-day parent conferences on both curriculum and strategies to increase parent involvement in their schools. Parents have not only helped us develop the conferences, they are advising us on how to improve our relationship with them moving forward. We’re also hosting an all-day conference later this month for parent coordinators and 600 people have already signed up.
My fourth pillar is to create new collaborative and innovative models within our City and schools. We don’t reach the cutting edge when we work alone. Progress happens when we work together, when we harness the vast and exceptional resources of our city— and one another. I anticipate deeper collaborations with our cultural institutions and universities in ways that impact our classroom work.
These four pillars have become the supporting beams of our school system—and the essence of all of our work going forward. Everything we do will have an impact on the classroom. As a non-English speaking child, I understand how important education, in particular early childhood education, is in giving kids the opportunity to succeed. That’s why I’m such an advocate for truly universal, high quality, full-day pre-kindergarten. And now, because of Mayor de Blasio’s leadership, and with funding in place, the City is moving toward truly universal, high-quality, full-day pre-k. Children in communities across the City will have more time to explore, discover, learn, and make friends during a pivotal time in their development. By the 2015-2016 school year, more than 70,000 students will be able to benefit from this historic initiative.
In addition to an early school start, middle school has been a particular focus of my first 100 days. It’s close to my heart. As you know, middle school is a tough time for a lot of kids. It’s a time of transition. Kids are discovering who they are. As a parent, I remember this time well. If you’re a parent, I’m sure you remember it too. The challenge is this: if 7th graders are not totally engaged in academics, many of them do not even reach high school. It’s clear that if we are to increase our graduation and college readiness rates, we must focus on middle schools. This administration, like none before it, is committed to devoting unprecedented resources to ensure that the best academics are available to all students in middle school grades. This means that all subject areas will be integrated into reading and writing. But our efforts must extend beyond classroom work. It’s crucial that middle schools have an emphasis on the arts, so that every child can experience chorus or drama or being part of a band. There is no better incentive to be successful in school than to stand before an audience and share your talent. And, by the way, parents choose middle schools that have outstanding extracurricular activities.
Something as simple as team sports can also hook kids into school when other things may not. As a superintendent, I urged middle school principals to do phys ed first thing in the morning to improve attendance. It worked! Let us not forget that kids also need the opportunity to learn outside traditional classroom time. That’s why extended time after the school day is crucial, particularly in neighborhoods where students have few opportunities to engage in enrichment activities.
As you may know, we are in the process of expanding our after-school programs to ensure that students who need the extra guidance and support receive it. These programs are currently in 239 middle schools; our goal is for every middle school grade to have free after-school programming. Students will benefit from lessons aligned to what they’re learning in school, including literacy and math support, but they will also get to participate in art, dance and recreational activities. They’ll be having fun, but gaining skills that will help them in applying to our audition high schools.
As Mayor de Blasio has said, “this is not a boutique effort” for only a few kids or a few schools. This is system-wide, historic change.
Nothing epitomizes my commitment to collaboration better than our Learning Partners Program, which we launched on Monday. This is a really exciting initiative that is bringing schools together to share strong practices. The idea is simple: principals and their staff will be more effective if they are able to share ideas, visit other schools, and learn from their peers. So far, we have seven host schools and 14 partner schools, across all five boroughs and all grade levels. Next year, the program will nearly quadruple.
As a lifelong educator, this has truly been a personal dream of mine: to encourage, through an innovative initiative, system-wide collaboration and disseminate best-practices across the entire district. It’s now coming into fruition.
Starting this year, for the first time in a decade, we will not base promotion decisions for students in grades 3-8 solely on exam results. So, going forward, teachers and principals will instead be empowered to make that determination based on a more comprehensive, authentic review of their students’ classroom work.
But I know that often, the deepest learning happens outside a school building. Academics are not the only part of a child’s education, so we are forming unique relationships with cultural and science institutions. Our partnership with Urban Advantage at the American Museum of Natural History, which certifies science teachers, is a prototype that I would like to see replicated at other institutions. This was one of my proudest legacies as Deputy Chancellor.
Another example we are implementing is a museum after-school program, in which seventh graders will be exposed to programs that emphasize American history. They’ll learn in small groups under the instruction of a trained docent. We want to bring experts in the field into our classrooms, and take our classrooms out into the field. These are the types of programs that will help level the playing field.
To be truly successful, we need to tackle something we don’t frequently talk about: summer learning loss, which accounts for two-thirds of the achievement gap in reading by 9th grade. Students from low-income backgrounds are likely to slide two months back in reading every summer, while affluent students enjoy overall growth. To tackle this challenge, this summer we will be expanding NYC Summer Quest - our pilot summer enrichment programs that are designed to support students through fun, engaging, comprehensive activities. We currently have 11 programs in the Bronx, and this summer we are aiming to double that number. With up to 11 more programs serving middle school students, Summer Quest will reach up to 2,800 kids. Summer learning must become a scalable and sustainable strategy for improving student outcomes. But we cannot forget students who need our support most, those with disabilities. And we’re working with schools to develop innovative ways to help them learn. District 75, for example, is working with Alderbaran, a robotics company based in France, to explore how robots might improve teaching and learning for students on the autism spectrum. This is just the kind of innovative approach that we will be developing to lift all of our children up.
We are also renaming the Division of Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners. It will become the Division of Specialized Instruction and Student Support, which more accurately reflects our commitment to make sure children with special needs, ELLs, and those who are teaching them, get the tailored support they need.
We need to create a welcoming and nurturing school system in which every student, every teacher, and every principal is heard and supported. A system in which excellence is expected, and the entire community comes together to make that happen.
I want to enlist your expertise and commitment to our public school students. I speak to you as my partners in this effort. You are teachers and principals representing public, charter, parochial, and independent schools. You are policymakers. You are chief executives. You are parents. You are grandparents. You are New Yorkers. We are all interdependent on one another. Each of you has something to offer. Each of you can help New York City become a world-class educational system.
There’s an old African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Today, you are part of the answer, and with your partnership, we will get to where we need to go.#
Carmen Fariña is the Chancellor of all New York City public schools.