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New York City

Inside District 15 with Superintendent Carmen Fariña
“A District That Is Really Moving”
By Marylena Mantas

On the first Tuesday of every month, parents and educators of Community School District 15 gather at local restaurants and dine together. The “dinner date” initiative, launched to support local businesses and the district’s public school system, which receives a percentage of the proceeds, has become possible after months of systematic meetings seeking to open the lines of communication among members of the district.

According to Superintendent Carmen Fariña, establishing this sense of community became her first priority when she was appointed approximately one year ago.

“It was very hard,” said Fariña, adding that it took six months to meet her goal. “We met, met and met until I got a good sense of what everyone was worried about.”

Her experience in the field of education and familiarity with the district—where she lives and was a teacher for 22 years and the director of curriculum for five years—have given Fariña the management expertise, organization skills and networking abilities necessary to effectively administer one of the largest school districts in Kings County, serving approximately 21,000 students.

“You need to have people on board with information,” she said. “You can’t become a superintendent without many years in the field.”

Recently, the district has concentrated its efforts on staff development through developing a unique model based on collaboration with programs such as City College’s Math In the City and the Reading and Writing Institute at Teachers College.

“District 15 is a place where a lot of professional development is taking place,” said Ernestine Volpe, principal of PS 295. “This is a district that is really moving. We are a group
of people who are learning constantly. This openness allows us to grow professionally and educationally.”

In addition, elementary schools in the district have been placed into clusters that concentrate on developing a successful academic model for one academic theme. Clusters are responsible for sharing the expertise they acquire with other schools in the district that will replicate the successful model.

“Through the cluster system everyone has something to offer,” said Fariña. “It’s hard to go school–to–school to make change, but if you have three schools working together, change is more feasible.”

The principals of schools placed in these clusters meet at least twice a month and their schools share resources, such as staff development and afterschool programs. In addition, they often hold joint PTA meetings and school activities. Volpe, whose school participates in the Enrichment cluster, finds the system “very effective” and stated that it fosters “a lot of talking and collaboration.”

“In this neighborhood you find kids with mixed backgrounds,” she said. “The cluster system provides a balance. We create a school community where everyone is learning.”

A member of the Superintendent’s cabinet oversees the progress made by each cluster. According to Fariña, the cabinet, which meets once a week, has become instrumental in facilitating change and progress.

“We really are a team,” said Fariña. “I don’t make all the decisions. I expect them [the cabinet] to come up with its own ideals and agendas. I want people with divergent views, but also people who are autonomous.”

Cabinet members assist the Superintendent in maintaining a hands-on approach and being aware of developments in the district’s schools, which she visits continuously. “When I leave a school I’ll say, I’m sending someone tomorrow to help you work on this problem,” she said.

The Superintendent hopes to expand the cluster system to middle schools by next year and to establish a centralized Pre-K system that
will move all Pre-K programs to one site by September of 2002.

Although she wants to see an increase in reading and math scores, the Superintendent underscored that it does not constitute the basic premise of her vision. Rather, she will measure success by parents who opt to keep their children in the district instead of sending them to private school. Her goal is to foster self-esteem in students based on a strong academic background and a compassion for others.

“I’d like to see students have ownership of their own learning and develop a sense of independence,” she said. “My father instilled within me the basic belief that we don’t go to school to get the answers, but to raise the questions.”#


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