Inside baseball

More Dept. of Education top brass leave as Fariña asserts her vision for public education

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
African-American male students from Hinkley High School met with business professionals and discussed race issues Friday at what is expected to be an annual summit for black males.

The Department of Education has wasted no time shedding a slew of top Bloomberg-era officials, offering signs of the school system’s new priorities under Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Recent departures include heads of some of the department’s major offices, including the offices overseeing school support, the implementation of the Common Core learning standards, and school accountability—all areas where Fariña has said policy changes are on the way. Others who have left the department worked on initiatives that Bloomberg favored, such as new school development.

All told, at least 10 high-ranking officials have decamped or plan to resign soon, according to current and former employees. A department spokeswoman wouldn’t confirm the number of departures. 

Experts in school leadership transitions say the turnover isn’t a surprise, given the reshuffling that Fariña has done since taking over four months ago. Just last week, the department announced a major restructuring under Senior Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson, who was promoted from a deputy chancellor under Bloomberg.

The departures also mark a transition between mayors with starkly different visions for public education, said Joseph Viteritti, a public policy professor at Hunter College who has advised urban school district leaders in Boston, New York City and San Francisco during their transitions.

“I would think that the chancellor would want her own people in place so that they are aligned with a particular agenda that is in place,” Viteritti said.

Many of the officials have left for jobs at other education organizations. Sonia Park, who ran the city’s charter schools office, is now executive director at the Manhattan Charter School; Melissa Silberman, who’s steered the city’s expansion of Career and Technical Education programs, recently started at CollegeSpring, a college preparation organization aimed at low-income students.

Last week’s restructuring merged Park’s former office with the Office of New Schools, whose executive director, Alex Shub, is also leaving. The merger is one way Fariña and her new team of advisers are shifting the department’s focus from some of the initiatives Bloomberg favored, like the opening of more than 600 district and charter schools.

Also out is Andrea Coleman, who ran the city’s Innovation Zone, a wide-ranging initiative that encouraged schools to use technology to experiment with new approaches to learning. Another initiative beloved by Bloomberg, the iZone’s future under Fariña is more unclear, since the chancellor hasn’t talked much about technology during in her first 100 days as chancellor.

Coleman left last month to join Bloomberg Philanthropies, several sources confirmed.

There has also been a steady trickle of attrition from high-profile offices that Fariña has either already restructured or indicated that she plans to change. Chief Operating Officer Andrew Buher left recently, as have Josh Thomases and Jocelyn Alter, top aides to former Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky.

Thomases oversaw a variety of high-priority projects, such as the city’s Common Core implementation, while Alter was originally retained by Polakow-Suransky’s replacement, Deputy Chancellor Phil Weinberg, to stay on as chief of staff of the department’s reconstituted division of teaching and learning.

Justin Tyack, who served as chief executive officer of the city’s school support office, is also leaving, sources say. Tyack oversees more than 60 networks that provide support services to city schools, a system that Fariña has said she wants to overhaul (though she sent signals last week that changes wouldn’t happen soon).

Fariña’s hand-picked leaders have filled some of the holes. Anna Commitante, previously the city’s gifted and talented czar, is now in charge of professional development and the city’s Common Core implementation, while Gibson gave her chief of staff, Janel Matthews, some of the operations work that Buher had handled.

Other high-level departures include Andrew Kirtzman, who ran communications and strategy, and Julia Bator, who oversaw the Fund for Public Schools, the department’s philanthropic fundraising arm.

Taken together, the exits still represent a fraction of the department’s top ranks. There are also plenty of signs of intra-administration stability, including Bloomberg-era holdovers like Joanna Cannon, who was retained to oversee teacher evaluations, and Emily Weiss, who has shepherded through changes to the city’s grade promotion policies.

Department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said that staff turnover was “planned for and expected.”

“Some DOE staff seek new opportunities, but many are also staying and continuing to champion the Chancellor’s vision of collaboration, partnership and focus on cultivating learning in the classroom,” Kaye said in a statement.

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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.’”