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Fariña’s vision through the prism of special ed

New York Teacher
Chancellor's appearance was a breath of fresh air.
Maria Bastone

UFT Vice President Carmen Alvarez (left) says that the appearances of Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Deputy Chancellor Corinne Rello-Anselmi (right) at the UFT Functional Chapter Leader training weekend on March 29 was a breath of fresh air.

See more photos in the gallery.

Our new chancellor gets it. Carmen Fariña knows who you are and what you do. She respects you and values the work you do. Fariña and Deputy Chancellor Corinne Rello-Anselmi’s recent appearance at a training weekend for UFT functional chapter members was a breath of fresh air. Through both word and deed, they conveyed their desire to have different relationships with the union and school staff. In addition to sharing their personal experiences in schools as both teachers and school leaders, they circulated among the audience and spoke directly with members.

Have you heard about Fariña’s vision for the Department of Education? She calls it “five C’s and an E” — collaboration, communication, capacity-building, curriculum, celebration and efficiency. In this column, I share my thoughts on how the chancellor’s vision can be operationalized in the realm of special education.

Chancellor Fariña sees collaboration as pairing successful schools with struggling ones (something she has already begun to do). I can think of few practices that are more foundational for special education than collaboration. The process for developing IEPs is supposed to be collaborative, and instruction in integrated co-teaching classes is supposed to be cooperatively planned and delivered. The proposed contract frees up time for teachers and paraprofessionals to engage in these activities.

The chancellor’s notion of communication, the next C, is very much in sync with ours at the UFT. She speaks of restoring the checks and balances that were largely eliminated under mayoral control. In special education, that includes transparency about funding. Let’s follow the money and see whether schools are not receiving enough money to fund the new school-level programs and services called for in the special education reform, as many principals contend, or whether some principals are diverting the money earmarked for special education to other student populations and for other purposes.

The chancellor has moved quickly to demonstrate her commitment to capacity-building, her third C, by restoring the Division of Teaching and Learning. This office has a huge backlog of work to do to shore up specialized instruction, which got lost in the special education reform under the previous regime. We desperately need educators of students with disabilities who can provide intensive and individualized instruction in reading and math and who have the knowledge and skills to work with students with challenging behaviors. The proposed contract frees up time each week for teachers and paraprofessionals to receive this critical training.

Regarding curriculum, the fourth C, Chancellor Fariña has endorsed the Common Core Learning Standards, although recent reports suggest that she is revisiting the Common Core-aligned curricula many schools are using, from Pearson’s Ready Gen to the state’s Engage NY. As she and her staff dive into this task, I call upon her to have conversations with educators of students with disabilities in community schools and in District 75 about their experiences. I trust one of the issues she will address is the failure of most of the published curricula aligned with the Common Core to address foundational skills, particularly in reading.

I’m going to skip the final C for the moment and go directly to the E, which stands for efficiency. The chancellor wants to remove redundancies. Let’s start with the paperwork and computer work that have buried special education teachers, related service providers and assessment professionals. Think of all the additional time that could be made available for collaboration, professional development and communication with students and families if the crushing burden of unnecessary computer work and paperwork were lifted from our special education staff.

The proposed contract addresses this issue head-on for teachers and related service providers by creating a central paperwork committee tasked with reviewing systemwide paperwork issues (paper and electronic) and establishing standards for reducing and eliminating unnecessary paperwork. District committees will address paperwork issues at the school level. Members will now have the right to file grievances for violations of the systemwide standards. We’ve been documenting the excessive paperwork and computer work in special education for years, so we’re ready to go when the new committees meet.

Now for that final C: celebration. “I want you to love your job again.” This was the chancellor’s response to Speech Chapter Leader Mindy Karten Bornemann after she revealed that the documentation demands of SESIS and the new framework for delivering and documenting speech services, called the speech standards of practice, were sucking all the pleasure from her work.

Chancellor Fariña wants teachers to rediscover the joy of their profession. That’s a tall order for educators of students with disabilities, given the legacy of the Bloomberg years. But I know our new chancellor means it, and she is moving in the right direction.

Opinion