Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña plans to preserve the hallmarks of New York City’s gifted programs, the immensely popular classes and schools that draw high achievers but have been criticized as shutting out low-income children.
Ms. Fariña, in an interview this week covering a variety of issues, pledged to continue using a contentious gifted admissions exam for 4- and 5-year-olds that was put in place under former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. She also promised to preserve the number of gifted programs citywide.
“What exists right now is serving the purpose of communities, and I have no intention of touching it,” she said during an interview at the Education Department headquarters on Monday.
She outlined plans to improve academic options for low-income students, including getting teachers at high-performing schools to advise teachers at struggling ones, and strengthening instruction in algebra, where many middle and high school students founder.
But Ms. Fariña, a longtime teacher, principal and administrator who got a quick introduction to politics this year, was careful to note that she intended no changes that could drive middle- and upper-class families from the system.
She said she opposed eliminating zone-based elementary school admission, which has been pushed by some advocates as a way of increasing racial diversity.
“You would find parents who have invested in certain places,” she said. “You’re not going to tell them this is your zoned school but you can’t go.”
And while she said she planned to expand tutoring for low-income children seeking entry to the city’s elite high schools, she said she would not mandate the return of an admissions program that allowed some disadvantaged students into the schools even if they did not score high enough on the entry test.
Some advocates had hoped Ms. Fariña would overhaul the gifted and talented programs, which they see as a critical front in the effort to reduce inequality in the school system. As principal of Public School 6 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the 1990s, Ms. Fariña ended a popular gifted program, arguing that students would be better served if they were mixed by ability.
In recent years, the city has struggled to increase the number of black and Hispanic students in gifted programs. In 2007, under Mr. Bloomberg, the Education Department instituted a citywide test that it hoped would make the admissions process fairer, replacing a system in which districts set their own standards. Instead, it wound up widening racial and socioeconomic disparities, with students in wealthier districts qualifying for gifted seats in far greater numbers than their poorer counterparts.
“The inequities in the current makeup of our gifted and talented programs are a citywide disgrace,” said James H. Borland, a professor of education at Columbia University. Professor Borland suggested that the city judge students relative to the performance of their neighborhoods, rather than the whole city.
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Ms. Fariña said she was eager to bring strategies used in gifted programs, including project-based learning, to schools across the city. She said bright children outside gifted programs could be served by other means, including clubs, lunchtime programs, and science, technology, engineering and math enrichment.
“There’s a lot of other ways to reach the needs of these kids,” she said.
Nearly six months into her tenure as schools chief under Mayor Bill de Blasio, Ms. Fariña said she was focused on improving the quality of teaching, especially at low-income schools. She said she was proud of her efforts to require new principals to have more teaching experience, to reduce the role of standardized tests and to negotiate a teachers’ contract that included bonuses for educators who take on leadership roles.
“We have changed the climate in terms of people feeling good about the jobs they’re doing,” she said.
Mr. de Blasio has promised to involve parents and neighborhood leaders more actively in the work of schools. On Tuesday, he announced a $52 million grant to create 40 community schools, which combine traditional academic programs and social services with the aim of addressing issues like chronic absenteeism.
Given a new state law requiring the city to provide free space to new charter schools or to help pay their rent, Ms. Fariña said she did not expect battles over space to end anytime soon, given the scarcity of available classrooms and the city’s efforts to expand prekindergarten programs.
Job protections for teachers may also emerge as a topic of contention. A California court recently found teacher tenure laws unconstitutional, and legal scholars expect copycat cases.
Ms. Fariña said she did not believe tenure laws hindered education. But she said principals had to be vigilant and work to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom.
“Getting tenure might be a goal, but also removing tenure when necessary is also a goal,” she said.
Ms. Fariña said that she was enjoying her job, and that she would stay on at least through the end of Mr. de Blasio’s current term. She said her biggest regret was a remark she made at the height of a snowstorm in February. Defending a decision to keep schools open, she said that it was a “beautiful day” outside, even as snow and freezing rain continued to hit the ground.
She said that the line had become a conversation starter, and that strangers shouted it to her on the street. “It’s going to be on my tombstone,” she said, “and I can live with it.”