The woman who shaped de Blasio on schools

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Bill de Blasio. (Bill de Blasio)
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Carmen Farina, a leading chancellor contender, not only shares an educational philosophy nearly identical to Bill de Blasio’s, but helped to construct the mayor-elect’s beliefs during the decade she has advised him on school issues.

“They are of one mind,” said Dorothy Siegel, an education advocate, former District 15 school board member and a close ally of Farina and de Blasio.

Sources close to Farina and de Blasio say the mayor-elect is trying to convince his longtime adviser to become the next schools chancellor, and that Farina is considering the post.

The 70-year-old Farina’s influence on de Blasio’s educational philosophy is strong. Her progressive stance of focusing on the whole child and doubling down on early childhood education and middle school are themes de Blasio adopted in his campaign. He made education his centerpiece, promising universal pre-k and after-school programs for every middle schooler.

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Previously, Farina insisted to Capital and other outlets that she was not planning on coming out of retirement for the schools chancellor post. Now, she’s not returning Capital’s phone calls, and sources say she’s begun to reconsider in the last few days after telling de Blasio of her dissatisfaction with the newest crop of chancellor candidates, including Barbara Byrd-Bennett, now superintendent of Chicago schools, and Kaya Henderson, chancellor of Washington’s schools, who both support the expansion of charters and closing of poor performing schools.

Former Baltimore superintendent Andres Alonso, considered a leading contender a few weeks ago, is reportedly not interested in the post, and state Regent Kathleen Cashin, more of a traditional educator who has said she wants the job, is not considered a frontrunner, sources say.

Montgomery County, Maryland superintendent Josh Starr is still a contender, but appointing another white male could be problematic for de Blasio, sources say.

Farina and de Blasio met when Farina was the principal at P.S 6 on the Upper East Side, long considered one of the city’s best public schools in District 2, another of the city’s most prestigious districts which shares a progressive philosophy with District 15.

They started working together in 2001, when the District 15 school board, of which de Blasio was a member, elected Farina to be superintendent. De Blasio was a District 15 parent himself; both his children attended the Childrens’ School near his Park Slope home. The Children’s School, or P.S. 372, is the city’s only all-inclusion elementary school where every class is a mix of special needs and general education children.

“I do believe part of de Blasio’s educational philosophy comes from the great District 15 education that his kids got,” said Brad Lander, the councilman from de Blasio’s Park Slope district. “There is a commitment to inclusion and diversity in the district, the Childrens’ School is premised on inclusion.”

“He directly benefited from the progressive tradition of the school,” Siegel said.

De Blasio and Farina developed a close working relationship while he was on the District 15 school board, said Siegel, who was also a board member in the 1990s.

After de Blasio was elected to the City Council in 2001, he and Farina still spoke often, said Siegel, who worked with both of them as a District 15 school board member. “He wanted Carmen to teach him everything that she could. Bill was her pupil,” Siegel said. “She has a lot of respect for him.”

Parents and colleagues spoke positively of Farina’s tenure in New York City’s schools, where she rose from a classroom teacher at P.S 29 in Cobble Hill to a principal at P.S 6 to superintendent of District 15, eventually working her way up to deputy chancellor under Joel Klein before she retired.

“She was indefatigable,” said Trudy Whitman, whose daughter was a student of Farina’s when she was in fourth grade. “She had so much energy, we knew she would go far. She was a great motivator in getting P.S 29 to be one of the best schools in the borough and the city.”

Whitman recalled Farina holding parent-teacher conferences in her home close to the school, and teaching her class about apartheid and other social issues of the time.

“She’s tough, and she’s an expert in early childhood education,” said Kami Kim, who was a P.S 6 parent when Farina was principal. “She’s very smart and has vision.”

When Farina was principal of P.S 6, Siegel said, she would visit each classroom at least once a day to check on teachers and students. “It was an expected contact,” she said, “and she did exactly the same thing as superintendent.”

When she took over as District 15’s superintendent, Farina told Siegel, ‘I feel like I have to get my arms around each of these 35 schools, all together at once.’”

Norm Fruchter, an associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, who also sat on the District 15 board, said Farina distinguished herself by placing unusual emphasis on teacher development and identifying middle schools as a problem area in need of improvement.

She created several new, small middle schools in District 15 during her tenure as superintendent. De Blasio’s focus on middle school during his campaign shows Farina’s influence; the mayor-elect made his pledge to provide after-school programs for every middle schooler in the city one of the key issues of his campaign, and he has cited the particular difficulty of the middle school years.

“She knows a lot about the development of reading, particularly in young kids,” Fruchter said, again showing how Farina’s educational priorities mirror de Blasio’s. The mayor-elect has made his campaign promise of universal pre-K for all New York City’s children his first major promise as mayor.

During Farina’s tenure, District 15 also came to exemplify a philosophy that distinguished the district from the D.O.E.’s central office and which has clearly influenced de Blasio: a rejection of standardized testing a major factor in measuring performance. The district has focused on “a more comprehensive, portfolio-based commitment to a more holistic model of what kids need to develop into full humans,” Lander said. 

De Blasio has criticized what he has called the over-reliance on testing as an accountability measure.

Farina did not return multiple calls for comment.