Fariña reveals preferences in selective embrace of charters
November 25, 2014
By ELIZA SHAPIRO
She has visited at least 13 charters during her chancellorship, and most of them are independent with specialized instruction for high-needs students.
Fariña and Mayor Bill de Blasio have spoken broadly about their shared hope that certain specialized charters can help improve the entire system, but the schools the chancellor has visited suggests she sees them serving a more specific function.
In a recent interview with Capital, the chancellor said she’s interested in both: “Almost all the charters I’ve visited are either serving a unique population or finding interesting solutions to a common problem.”
This spring, she visited Broome Street Academy in downtown Manhattan, a charter high school that works with at-risk teens, many of whom are homeless or in foster care. Most of city charters are elementary schools, and local charters have been criticized for under-enrolling students from the city’s large homeless youth population.
Broome Street provides some of its social services through The Door, an organization for high-needs youth. That system resembles the community school model Fariña and de Blasio have embraced in which schools contract with local organizations for customized services, such as mental health intervention and English language instruction for families.
In April, Fariña called the visit one of her most “inspiring,” and her praise is featured prominently on the school’s website.
“I would say … charter schools are doing innovative work for social and emotional needs and this is really important,” Fariña said last week.
Fariña, who has made inter-school collaboration a signature of her chancellorship, also noted that the school’s principal, Barbara McKeon, has attended many of the Department of Education’s professional development sessions.
Many of the other charters Fariña has visited fit a familiar mold: independent with academic or extracurricular specialization.
The Hellenic Classical Charter School in south Brooklyn has a strong focus on classical education; students take ancient Greek and Latin courses and use Socratic questioning. Fariña provided consulting services for the school during her brief retirement.
The New York Center for Autism Charter School provides specialized instruction for children with autism. And the Voice Charter School, which Fariña visited this fall, offers daily instruction in choral singing.
“I visit all schools with the same thoughts in mind: how is the school community serving the students of that particular community,” Fariña said. “Are they serving English language learners and students with special needs?”
Fariña is facing a wave of criticism from charter school advocates after she claimed some charters under-enroll English language learners and special education students, and that some charters cherry-pick high-performing students to boost test scores.
Groups like Families for Excellent Schools and the New York City Charter School Center have called upon Fariña to provide evidence backing up her claims or to retract them. F.E.S., which declined to comment for this article, will hold a rally at City Hall today demanding an apology from Fariña.
The de Blasio administration has had a troubled relationship with the city’s powerful charter school sector. De Blasio criticized charters during his mayoral campaign, singling out Success Academy C.E.O. Eva Moskowitz, whose schools Fariña has notably not visited. Spokespeople for Success did not respond to a request for comment.
De Blasio suffered a significant political blow in a losing battle against large charter networks during the spring, as the schools battled the mayor over space. During the feud, de Blasio allied himself with a coalition of independent charters, which defended the mayor’s stance on charters.
Many of the politically allied charters in that coalition are among the schools Fariña has visited, including Broome Street, Renaissance Charter School, DREAM Charter School and Amber Charter School. (Charter school advocates pointed out that Amber is one of the few unionized charters in the city.)
Fariña has visited two charters in major networks: Williamsburg Collegiate, which is part of the national Uncommon Schools network, and KIPP Infinity Middle School, part of the KIPP network, whose founder, Dave Levin, helped catalyze the national charter movement.
Fariña has also visited Exceed Charter School, part of Explore, a small network of charters in central Brooklyn. Fariña has frequently praised Explore and its founder, Morty Ballen.
At KIPP, Fariña said, “they are sharing and working well with their co-located school.” Fariña said she saw a “gratitude board” at the KIPP school, where students and staff write thank you messages to each other, that she’d like to see replicated in other schools.
Fariña is also scheduling a visit a school in the large Achievement First network in the new year.
Fariña has also visited Harlem Link Charter School, Brooklyn Prospect Charter School, and the Neighborhood Charter School of Harlem, all of which are independent charters with distinctive focuses. Brooklyn Prospect offers an International Baccalaureate diploma, Harlem Link stresses creative projects and, unlike many charters, does not have high test scores, and the Neighborhood Charter offers an ASD Nest program, an integrated learning program for students on the autism spectrum.
In visiting all charters, Fariña said, she looks “to see how they are opening their doors and inviting other schools, whether they are other charter schools or D.O.E. schools to learn from each other.”
“Whenever I visit a school I am looking for strong leaders that can clearly articulate the vision,” Fariña added. “I’m looking for a leader who can articulate what they are doing and why they are doing it. I’ve seen a lot of strong leaders over the course of my visits.”