When Bill de Blasio was elected New York City’s mayor in 2013 he chose Carmen Farina to be the chancellor of our education system, the nation’s largest.
Chancellor Farina has been working in our public schools for over 40 years. She started as an English teacher at PS 29, where she taught for 22 years, then became the principal of PS 6. Later on, she was appointed superintendent of District 15. Mayor de Blasio convinced her to come out of retirement and accept the job.
On August 7, other YCteen writers and I interviewed Chancellor Farina. She and the de Blasio administration are working to convince lawmakers to approve more funding for after-school programs, early childhood education, and middle schools. We talked to her about issues ranging from overcrowded schools to the reinstatement of art and music programs. Although she didn’t get as specific about solutions as we would have liked, her answers were honest and straightforward and it’s clear that action is being taken to resolve many of our issues.
YCteen: Are there any plans to reinstate elective programs like music and art?
CF: We just received a $23 million art grant, and that money will mostly go to middle and high schools. These programs will include bands, visual arts, and dance and will be offered during the school day and after school. I’m a big believer in the arts so this is a huge priority. We also just found a company who’s willing to renovate all the old musical instruments.
YCteen: I went from a school in a poor part of Brooklyn that was mostly black to a school in Tribeca, a wealthy part of Manhattan that was mostly white. The Brooklyn school was overcrowded, and they didn’t help you with your goals or college prep. The school in Tribeca had enough class space, the kids were on a first-name basis with their teachers, and they were always helping you prep for goals; they even had a class for that. What can you do to make schools more equal?
CF: You may have heard Mayor de Blasio talk about the tale of two cities and the lack of equity, and what you experienced is part of that. Since I have to start somewhere, I’m starting with the middle schools, making sure they all have after-school programs and guidance counselors. I also think you’re coming from an experience where principals in older schools lose their energy (like the one in Brooklyn) and we’re trying to develop programs that re-energize them, such as “Learning Leaders” where teachers from all over the city meet to share their best ideas. But I can’t say it’s going to happen tomorrow.
YCteen: Is there any way to reduce the relentless focus on state testing?
CF: Unfortunately, as long as the funding comes from the state and they require testing, we need to comply. There is a lot of fear associated with low test scores among principals. They’re afraid they’re going to lose state money or their reputations will suffer. But you are newspaper reporters, and as you get older you can start campaigning against state testing. We’re always going to have to be assessed, and we should hold kids to high standards. But we need to rethink test prep as a way of teaching. It’s not the same as teaching through projects and lots of class discussion.
YCteen: Is there any way to reduce class size? Some schools don’t have enough desks or books because the classes are so big.
<b>CF:</b> There are people who would like to see 18 kids in a class, but that’s way too small; other people say 25 is a good number although I don’t think that’s ever going to happen either. One reason class size is high is that the number of teachers a school gets is dependent on how many students it has. When I was principal I put two extra children in my 3rd grade classes so I could hire a music teacher. Not having enough materials was common last year but not something I was aware of this year. If there is a school that doesn’t have enough textbooks or desks, I generally take care of it right away.
YCteen: Under Mayor Bloomberg, I heard that teachers were pushed to pass students to keep the graduation rate high. What is your policy?
CF: The promotion rate is only good if the kids who get promoted are successful at the next level. Therefore my emphasis is on college readiness so that students we promote go to college and stay there. So step one is making sure all kids are reading at grade level in 2nd grade. Then I feel kids should be getting ready for college in 7th grade. High school is too late.