Incoming New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s choice of early childhood advocate Carmen Fariña to become the new public schools chancellor is being met with praise by the city’s parents and teachers—and with “cautious optimism” by its school librarians, they tell School Library Journal.
“The New York Library Association [NYLA] is pleased to have the opportunity to collaborate with Ms. Fariña to raise the success level of New York City students,” Sara Kelly Johns, NYLA’s president, tells SLJ.
Though Fariña has yet to publicly address the role that school libraries may play in her vision for city school reform, “We expect that her experience as a teacher, principal, and advocate of early literacy will result in her support of a school librarian in every school,” Johns says.
Parents praise choice
Fariña brings 40 years of experience in NYC’s Department of Education (DOE), the nation’s largest school system, to her new role, having previously served as a district superintendent and the city’s deputy schools chancellor from 2004 to 2006. It is this history of hands-on experience—coupled with Fariña’s famed focus on collaborative learning, professional development, and the de-emphasis on high-stakes testing during her career—that have parents and educators lining up in her corner.
“True change happens not through mandates and top-down decision making but through communication, collaboration, and celebrating the successes along the way,” Fariña says. “Raising the success rate of our students is the only goal. I anticipate the entire city will aid us on this effort.”
Rocio Espada, a parent leader at advocacy group Make the Road New York, welcomes Fariña’s appointment wholeheartedly, she tells SLJ. “[Fariña’s] history in involving parents in their kids’ education, not teaching to the test, but truly creating an atmosphere where learning happens and students succeed, is what we need now in our schools,” she says. Espada, a Mexican immigrant and single mother of four, has three children attending the city’s public schools.
Zakiyah Ansari, parent leader and advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), agrees. “Our children’s future is looking brighter already, as we will finally have an educator as a chancellor. Parents, students, teachers, and advocates have been waiting for this moment and are ready to collaborate with Chancellor Fariña to give every child the high quality education they deserve.“
Adds Jenny Sedlis, executive director of advocacy group StudentsFirstNY, “Carmen Fariña has walked more school hallways than most will in a lifetime.” Despite some concerns that Fariña does not support charter schools as StudentsFirstNY does, nevertheless Sedlis tells SLJ that, “We share Fariña’s commitment to high quality teaching and teacher training and we hope that the historic reforms that helped make New York City the nation’s model are not rolled back.”
Educators eye change
The inspiring choice of Fariña is being lauded by the city’s teachers. “Carmen is a real educator,” Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) union, tells SLJ.
“She has a deep knowledge of schools and our system, and is on record criticizing Mayor Bloomberg’s focus on high-stakes testing,” Mulgrew says. “We look forward to working with her to help make sure every child has access to an excellent education.”
New York’s school librarians, who are also certified teachers, are also looking forward to strong leadership from Fariña, especially when it comes to school librarian staffing levels, which have been eroding for years despite a longstanding mandate from the New York State Education Department (NYSED). In August, after the DOE made an official request for a waiver from that staffing level mandate, NYLA, the UFT, Make the Road, AQE, and many other advocacy groups stepped in to protest.
The groups have been on standby for NYSED’s Commissioner, Dr. John King, to make a decision ever since—perhaps until now. Jeremy Johannesen, NYLA’s executive director, tells SLJ that he is doubtful NYSED will grant such a waiver, and NYLA “looks forward to working with the new chancellor to ensure that every student has access to a vibrant school library staffed by a certified school librarian.”
Johannesen adds, “My personal opinion is that it was nothing short of a strategic, tactical maneuver designed to run out the clock. The only way for [NYSED] to provide a waiver would be for them to open up the [regulations] and put in a paragraph that would state under which conditions a waiver would even be allowable. And since they haven’t done that, there’s nowhere to go with any of this.”
But that doesn’t mean the school library profession doesn’t still need—and expect—strong support from Fariña going forward, Johannesen says.”[We] need to figure out a way to address the co-locations of schools within a single building, [where] a high school for 3,000 kids is now segmented into three 1,000-kid schools,” he explains. “There’s still a library there that would meet the requirements, but no one entity wants to be the one to foot the bill for the librarian.”
Should Fariña step in to resolve that all-too common situation in the city? “That’s what I would love to see, if she wanted to tackle that,” Johannesen says, adding, “We need to enforce the existing laws and existing regulations, so bringing New York City schools into compliance would be Job #1.”
Expanding librarians’ reach
On the “not- too-distant horizon,” NYLA also plans to reach out to Fariña—as well as to NYSED—to endorse new legislation that would require minimum librarian staffing levels in all of the city’s (and state’s) elementary schools, which are not currently covered by the state’s mandate.
”Every elementary school student in the state should have access to a certified school librarian, for any number of reasons, but among them the need for digital literacy,” Johannesen says. “There’s just very little [time] for the classroom teacher to cover how to evaluate information, how to be safe online—all these things that are becoming more and more important, especially at younger and younger ages.”
In the meantime, despite an anticipated packed agenda for the new chancellor—where she must contend with issues as varied as the Common Core State Standards to testing to inequities to the influx of charter schools, organizations like NYLA and UFT will be watching Fariña closely to find the right time to start, and advance, the conversation on the importance of certified school librarians, they say.
Adds Johannesen, “If we can get her to say ‘library’ just once, that would be great!”