Q: Tell us a little about your background. What got you interested in education?
A. I grew up in Manhattan, between Washington Heights and Harlem. I’m a product of NYC Public Schools, graduating from Bronx High School of Science. After I graduated from Barnard College, I taught English as a second language (ESL) and Spanish language arts at a South Bronx high school. After a few years of teaching, I went on to the central Board of Education to work on the development of instructional programs for ESL students, and then to become an assistant superintendent—that was a very important time in my career, because it was during that time that I became involved in the creation of small schools, thanks to funding from the Gates Foundation. So, from 2003 to 2007, I worked with a team of 11 superintendents in the East Bronx who worked very hard to accelerate student achievement, build capacity in schools, and support the 53 new small schools I was a part of helping create.
All of that experience served me well, and in 2007 Chancellor Klein asked me to be one of the leaders of a new organization called a School Support Organization. So I went from being a regional superintendent to being a CEO, and I learned many lessons then because I started with no schools, no money and no staff.
In 2009, when I got the offer to work in a cross-functional way as Chief Achievement Officer for Special Ed and English Language Learners (ELL)—to focus on populations with special needs and to act on the recommendations of the Garth Harries Report—that was a special opportunity. It was a tough decision because our organization was doing well and our schools were progressing, but it was a good match for me and it was time to move on to another leadership role.
Q: How did you decide to take on something as complex, challenging, and sensitive as special education?
A. In the work I had done previously with the superintendents, I looked at why there was such a high number of students in the Bronx with IEPs (Individualized Educational Programs), and so many students who were at level one in ELA and in math, and why this seemed to be acceptable to those schools.
And so we worked very hard to focus attention on this special population, and concentrated on what happens every day in the classroom; we focused on how principals, and their teams, support teachers to differentiate instruction. What happened over time is that our schools began to improve and students with IEPs began, though their performance data, to show significant progress.
And I brought that knowledge with me, knowing that if improvement were possible in one part of the City, in a place with as many challenges as the East Bronx, then it was possible to build that capacity in the rest of the City. So, we presented and unveiled a plan earlier this month to do just that. And we are about to enter our first phase with 10 networks…the next part of our work is about start.
Basically, this plan will roll out over the next two years, beginning with roughly 200 schools in the fall. By the beginning of the school year in 2011, the overwhelming majority of children with disabilities will attend their zoned schools, like other children. Schools will have instructional flexibility to design programs to meet the needs of these students, and to create more collaboration with parents; and, we’ll hold schools more accountable for helping children meet long-term goals such as high school graduation, college, or employment.
Q: So now that this announcement has been made, how has your typical day changed?
A. I’m still trying to figure out if I’m sleeping more or less, and peacefully. It was a big deal to create an action plan that would be supported by DOE leaders, and it was a big deal to make the announcement. What we’ve seen from special education advocates and parents in the last seven months is more of a willingness to suspend disbelief, more of a willingness to partner with the DOE and to give the system a chance to do better. What I’ve learned in a much deeper way is that any event is of consequence to a family with a child with disabilities. And I just know that, as strategic as we need to be, we have the enemy of time and there is a generation of students in our schools now who need, and deserve, all the support.
Q: As a parent of two children, an 18 and a 21 year-old who have gone through the public school system, what advice do you have for parents—all parents, and particularly parents of students with disabilities? What steps should parents take to get more involved in their children’s school and education?
A. As a parent, I know my children very well, and I encourage parents to remain connected to their children’s teachers, principals, and school community at large, and to share valuable information about their children—the progress they see, and the progress they don’t see, and not only to wait for annual events like IEP or parent- teacher conferences. The school has a responsibility to reach out to parents and the parents have a responsibility to reach out to schools, whether it’s through parent conferences, whether it’s through new tools like ARIS Parent Link, or whether it’s through e-mail, and to really access supports for their children and to keep giving us information about their children. Stay involved.