The new leader of the nation's biggest public school system started her job Thursday with storm clouds brewing — the clouds that had a new city administration weighing whether to call a snow day for 1.1 million students. But Carmen Farina had a sunny smile for the middle schoolers she visited on her first day as schools chancellor.
Emphasizing that middle schools would be an early focus of her tenure, the former teacher and principal told students in a rather animated Bronx classroom that she likes it when learning makes some noise, used her Spanish and English to encourage pupils in a dual-language class and urged a room full of reporters not to stand on ceremony.
"The word 'chancellor' kind of gives me the shivers, so just call me Carmen," she said. "Cause everybody does."
Whatever the light moments, Farina made clear she was serious about taking on the perennial challenge of middle school education and following through on pledges new Mayor Bill de Blasio has made, such as making parents feel more included in the school system.
And Farina, who is returning from retirement to run the schools, started work on a day laden with decision-making about a looming storm and with a chemistry-class accident that injured two students, one seriously, at a Manhattan high school.
Farina was appointed Monday to one of the most closely watched posts in the city's government. During 12 years in office that ended Tuesday, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his schools chancellors boosted education spending while pursuing get-tough policies such as using student test scores to measure teacher effectiveness and closing schools deemed to be failing.
De Blasio has criticized his predecessor's school closings, reliance on standardized tests and practice of giving charter schools free space in public school buildings.
As Farina toured and praised the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology, also called Middle School 223, on Thursday, she said she planned to make middle schools an emphasis of her first year. Improving students' engagement in middle school, she said, increases their chances of progressing to and graduating from high school.
"I really believe that if we get middle school right, the rest is going to be a piece of cake," she said.
Middle school has long been considered a weak link in the public education system in New York and nationally. The Bloomberg administration's efforts to change that included opening dozens of new middle schools and providing after-school literacy tutoring.
Farina — a deputy chancellor during part of Bloomberg's tenure — sidestepped a question about how well her predecessors had handled the issue, saying her approach was to "not worry about what was done but just worry about what I'm going to do." That includes spotlighting effective principals and trying to spread their approaches, and "honoring adolescents," she said.
Rather than rolling eyes at adolescent behavior, "we've got to figure out what teenagers need and what they're all about, like hanging out," and how to provide them with suitable opportunities to do so, she said.
As she visited students working on writing in a small group in one classroom, their peers in another group at the other end of the room burst out with answers to their teacher's question.
"You hear the noise in the room? That's good," Farina said. "I only like schools where kids are talking and buzzing — only they're actually learning."
Associated Press writer Karen Matthews contributed to this report.