Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Principal Carmen Fariña

Here's an old piece about Principal Carmen Fariña. You know her better as current NYC Schools Chancellor. She's working for Bill de Blasio, and by virtue of that alone I like her better than Klein, Walcott, or what's her name. She's been good about not abrogating union contracts by placing city schools under the draconian receivership plans we're now seeing in Buffalo, but I haven't seen her move the pendulum as close toward rationality as I'd like.

I'm very curious about this article, which professes she worked wonders on the elementary school she headed. How did she do it?

Carmen Farina is the principal everybody loves to fear. She runs her school -- Public School 6 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, just a block from the Metropolitan Museum of Art -- with a no-nonsense style and gets results through Darwinian selection. She has taken a school once known for serving the children of janitors and doormen and made it competitive with the city's top private schools and attractive to those who can afford them. 

So Fariña made the school attractive to people who could afford private schools, and utilized "Darwinian selection" in the process. You have to wonder, then, where the hell the "children of janitors and doormen" ended up. And what, precisely, constitutes "Darwinian selection?"

Last year, about 200 children applied to P.S. 6, going through an interview intended to detect a certain spark, and about 1 in 7 made it, Mrs. Farina said. At Harvard, the ratio is 1 in 8.  

Okay. This is not a knock on Fariña, though it may appear otherwise. But what the hell is so remarkable about making a school do well when you tell the overwhelming majority of applicants to go elsewhere? The Times is quite specific.

For the winners, admission means a free, top-flight education; for the losers, it often means paying $15,000 or more in private school tuition. 

Clearly the children of janitors and doormen were utterly out of the mix. From the article, I can only conclude that Fariña's school, in addition to improving via taking only the best candidates, also accomplished the dubious public service of saving thousands of dollars for those who least needed them.

So Fariña kept out the riff raff, and the community, with a 1999 median income of 226K, flocked to the school. I'm not sure that's the best way to utilize public schools. Evidently the rich will utilize public schools if we get rid of all those poor people. But a public school ought to be a place where all kids can thrive, not only those who already have all the possible advantages. Fariña's school held a different sort of appeal:

''My private-school friends -- I don't want to call it the Chanel set, but I guess that's what it is -- some do look at me in horror and think I'm possibly some kind of misfit,'' said Ms. Lenz, senior vice president of Sotheby's International Real Estate. 

Wow. I don't see my students, having just arrived from El Salvador, Afghanistan, China or Korea getting much of a shot in a place like that.  It's Dalton without the tuition. What else did Fariña do?

Since her arrival in 1991, Mrs. Farina has replaced 80 percent of her staff, a rare feat in public school, where teachers have tenure and the right to transfer by seniority. She did it, she said, by persuasion. ''Once you create a climate in a building that is hard-working, people will find out whether they are comfortable with it or not,'' Mrs. Farina said. ''And then they have decisions to make.'' 

Of course there is no more seniority transfer, thanks to the 2005 contract that "scrapes the skies," according to Edwize (may it rest in piece). Still, I have to wonder what the hell Fariña means. How did she get rid of all those teachers, really? And why did she need to turn over 80% of her staff in order to make a highly selective school do so well?

Sometimes we see miracles. More often, we see sleight of hand. In the case of the school in the article, we really see neither. It's no miracle at all when you hand pick the kids and the scores improve. It's no miracle at all when you take affluent children and make them do well.

I'd be a lot more impressed with someone who took a straight look at poverty, high needs, special education, ESL kids, and met them where they are. I'd be more impressed with someone who didn't just slam the door in their faces so their affluent students wouldn't be inconvenienced. I'm assuming Fariña ran her place better than some no-excuses Moskowitz test-prep factory. Still, I find something fundamentally wrong with a public school that has to be so selective.

We serve everyone. That's portrayed in the media as our weakness.

Actually it's our greatness.
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