no cubicle left behind

Introducing herself, schools boss is full of personality but light on details

PHOTO: Emma Sokoloff-Rubin
Chancellor Carmen Fariña greeted members of her staff at Department of Education headquarters today.

Carmen Fariña and her new staff haven’t had much time to get to know one another. Appointed chancellor just a week ago, Fariña has technically been on the job less than three days, one of which was a day when schools closed due to a snow storm.

On Monday, an extended introduction yielded a strong sense of the new boss’s personality, but not many details about her staffing and policy plans.

Fariña referred to the Department of Education employees gathered in the Tweed Courthouse rotunda — many of whom don’t know for sure that they’ll have the same jobs a month from now — as “my army” and stressed the idea of teamwork to the masses.

“I was worried where is my army, but here you are,” she said, and seemed surprised at the size of the crowd.

Fariña said she plans to stop by every cubicle in the department by Friday. “I want to know what you do and how you do it.”

But she didn’t hint at what she plans to do with that information and seemed to play it safe by focusing on process rather than policy. She spoke in general terms in discussing challenges ahead in the department.

In her remarks, Fariña reinforced what she’s said would be her focus as the new boss of the school system: collaboration, communication and restoring “joy” in the classroom.

She said that along with her chief of staff, Ursulina Ramirez, she plans to make herself to staff available every other Friday from 8-9 for anything they want to discuss, including both what’s working and what’s not.

“Bring me good news one in a while, okay guys?” said Fariña, who struck a light-hearted tone that was reflected in the crowd’s mood.

She told people not to be surprised if she calls them in for meetings with people they don’t know or never expected to work with — a process she said was already under way.

Other tasks that have kept her busy through her tenure’s first official 72 hours: visiting schools, amassing entire books worth of her growing to-do list and sitting down for one-on-one conversations and cubicle visits with her leadership team.

Kathleen Grimm, who introduced Fariña, worked with Bloomberg-appointed chancellors for three terms and, like many of her colleagues, has had to adjust overnight to her new boss’s style and policy goals. Grimm alluded to that adjustment when she said that she and Fariña “didn’t always agree on everything,” when Fariña was a deputy chancellor, but that she learned from working with Fariña and believes the rest of the department will “learn a great deal from her.”

Department of Education employees gathered in the Tweed rotunda to hear their new boss speak.
PHOTO: Emma Sokoloff-Rubin
Department of Education employees gathered in the Tweed rotunda to hear their new boss speak.

Fariña’s talk left many questions unanswered, including speculation about who among the department’s top leadership will stay and who will go. Fariña was not made available for questions from reporters.

Reiterating a distaste for formal titles, Fariña reminded her staff to call her Carmen. But in a joking nod to the challenges ahead — and to the fact that interactions may not always be characterized by such ease — Fariña added, “if I have a look on my face that says I’ve been through hell and back, maybe that’s not the time to call me Carmen.”

She ended by emphasizing her resistance to following someone else’s script. “I don’t write my speeches,” she said, holding up a neon post-it note she brought with her to the podium. “The first time they gave me a three page speech I ripped it up.”

End of an era

Longtime deputy chancellor Kathleen Grimm to retire

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm (left) at a City Council hearing to discuss the department's five-year capital plan in March 2014.

Kathleen Grimm, the deputy chancellor for operations and a fixture in the Department of Education under four chancellors, is stepping down, Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced Wednesday.

Grimm oversaw a sprawling portion of the department, including the offices overseeing safety, school support, school food, athletics, space planning, enrollment, human resources, and construction. The only official to have remained in a top post at Tweed since the beginning of the Bloomberg era, Grimm saw her responsibilities expand even further under Fariña, who moved some offices under Grimm when she shrunk the department’s cabinet.

“It is with deep personal regret that I announce a leave pending retirement of Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, an esteemed colleague who has worked tirelessly to create safe, nurturing environments in which all of our students can learn and thrive,” Fariña said in an email to department staff members.

Grimm, a tax lawyer, was brought on in 2002 for her budgeting and finance expertise and experience in navigating city and state bureaucracy. She had previously served in the state comptroller’s office and the city finance department.

Over her 14-year career at the Department of Education, Grimm preferred to stay behind the scenes, but was thrust into the spotlight when changes to school bus routes, budget cuts, and space planning made headlines.

Her oversight of the city’s transportation of students meant she faced fierce criticism when repeated changes to bus routes angered parents and City Council members. Her oversight of the capital budget and the Blue Book, which sets guidelines for school space use, also made her a frequent target of class-size reduction advocates, who often said the city’s calculations did not reflect reality.

But Grimm was revered within the department for her calm under pressure. She frequently defended the school system in front of the City Council, bearing the brunt of then-education committee chair Eva Moskowitz’s relentless criticism of the city’s toilet-paper offerings in 2004 and, more recently, testifying at hearings on toxic lighting fixtures and school overcrowding.

“Cool and effective, Kathleen stayed for the full twelve years of the Bloomberg administration and did a tough, unglamorous job with distinction,” Klein wrote of Grimm in his memoir “Lessons of Hope.”

On Wednesday, Fariña offered her own praise. “As a senior member of my leadership team, Deputy Chancellor Grimm has provided a strong foundation for our most critical initiatives, including Pre-K for All, Community Schools, and our expanded school support and safety services,” she said.

Grimm’s chief of staff Elizabeth Rose will take over as interim acting deputy chancellor during a search for Grimm’s replacement, Fariña said.

year in review

In first year as chancellor, Fariña counts on fellow educators to drive changes

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks to superintendents and principals overseeing the city's designated renewal schools.

To understand how things have changed since Carmen Fariña became schools chancellor, consider where she has chosen to be on roughly 200 occasions this year, often five times per week: in schools.

She uses the hour-long visits to find model schools that other educators can tour and to size up principals, noting whether teachers seem surprised to see their bosses (a sign they aren’t poking into classrooms enough) and if the principals bring any deputies along for the tours (a hint they know how to delegate). She inspects students’ writing and asks the principal to show her a strong teacher in action and a weak one.

Twelve months into her stint leading the nation’s largest school system, Fariña’s attention to such details seems misplaced to some critics, who worry that it comes at the expense of big-picture thinking and suggests a shift away from the greater autonomy that principals gained under the previous administration.

But to her many admirers, the visits reflect a belief that even in a system of 1.1 million students and 75,000 or so teachers, change can happen school by school and classroom by classroom when educators are empowered, without the seismic policy shakeups that seemed to occur routinely under her recent predecessors. As Fariña, who has spent nearly half a century working in schools, likes to say, “The answers are in the classroom.” In other words, this is educator-driven education reform.

“There’s a sense,” said Alison Coviello, principal of P.S. 154 in the Bronx, “that we’re all in this together.”

When Mayor Bill de Blasio pulled Fariña from semi-retirement last January, she decided that she would have to roll back the Bloomberg-era policies she disagreed with even as she put her own into place: To “undo while [she’s] doing,” as she told Chalkbeat earlier this year.

And that’s just what she’s done. She downsized the office that helped create new schools — a signature Bloomberg initiative — while resurrecting the department devoted to teacher training. She re-empowered superintendents, who were marginalized under Bloomberg, and insisted that would-be principals and superintendents both spend more years in schools (a rejection of the Bloombergian idea that talent trumps experience). And she axed the Bloomberg policies that tied student promotion to test scores and assigned schools letter grades as she launched her own signature program, which sends educators to visit successful schools to pick up ideas.

That program, called Learning Partners, exemplifies Fariña’s approach. It is educator-led, cooperative, and subtle, allowing Fariña to spread her ideas through proxies rather than edicts.

“We have gotten more schools to change practices not by mandating, but by collaborating,” she said in an interview Monday. “I could have said across the board, ‘Every middle school needs to do X, Y and Z.’ And we didn’t do that.”

She also helped forge new contracts with the principals and the teachers unions, which had given up on negotiating with the previous administration. The teachers got a big payout in the contract (though not big enough to satisfy everyone), while Fariña was able to embed time for training and interacting with parents into teachers’ weekly schedules (at the cost of student-tutoring time, which was repurposed). Cynics charged that the city secured the contracts by giving into most of the unions’ demands, but Fariña argues that they were the product of her collaborative approach.

“What we got out of those contracts,” she said, “probably would not have been possible without that kind of partnership.”

She also helped the mayor fulfill his promise to get 53,000 four-year-olds into classrooms.

“How could I forget?” Fariña said. “Pre-K!”

For all that she has already done and undone, Fariña has a big year ahead of her. On Monday, she ticked off a few of the biggest items on her to-do list.

First, she must help de Blasio add the 20,000 additional pre-kindergarten seats he has promised, even as charter schools demand more space of their own. Then, she must turn two of his most ambitious plans into reality: to convert nearly 130 schools into service hubs for students and their families, and to turn around more than 90 low-performing schools.

That last task will be especially daunting. Rather than shut down chronically underachieving schools or replace their staffs, Fariña has proposed lifting them up through a mix of supports for students and coaching for educators. That is a big gamble, which Fariña made clear at a meeting Monday with the leaders of those struggling schools.

“I’m holding you even more accountable,” she told the principals. “Because I went out on a limb, as did Mayor de Blasio, and said, ‘We’re not closing schools. We’re giving everybody a second chance.’”