Cathleen P. Black rounded the corner Wednesday on two weeks of whirlwind school visits to prepare for her new job as city schools chancellor, stopping in for 45 minutes at the high-performing Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Moving quickly through each of four classrooms, accompanied by a small entourage of school and city officials, she asked a group of students in uniforms about their dream colleges, listened in on an Advanced Placement biology lesson, and was serenaded in Chinese class by sixth graders singing a Mandarin welcome song.
Since starting her visits with Public School 109 in the South Bronx on Nov. 30, she has clapped to band performances and choruses, inquired about students’ career choices, listened to concerns about inadequate facilities and crowding, and praised art displays and school slogans like that of Medgar Evers (“Dedicated to Excellence”) that speak of high expectations.
There have been 13 visits in all, to schools selected by both Department of Education and local elected officials. While they have been strong schools, not all have been among the city’s strongest. There were four “A” schools, three “B” schools and six “C” schools, according to the city’s rating system. The borough she visited most often was Brooklyn, and three-quarters of her visits have been to elementary schools.
Ms. Black, who officially starts work Jan. 3, acknowledged that she had not yet seen any failing schools, but said she planned to go when her schedule allowed. “I’ve been to the South Bronx, and that’s about as realistic as you can get,” Ms. Black said, referring to her visit to P.S. 109, an “A”-ranked school where she read to first graders. And her lessons so far?
“Leadership starts at the top as it always does in any organization,” she said. “It is about the standards that the principal sets, and the team that he or she has around them, and the teachers and the parents, in the involved schools — that is what I have seen so far.”
Over all, she said, she has been very impressed: “I have kiddingly said we could eat lunch off the floors of every single school I have been to. I’ve been observing all the children’s artworks and writings that are posted on the walls, which makes this whole school come alive. I’ve seen innovation. I’ve seen creativity. I’ve been very, very, very excited about it.”
Medgar Evers, which serves a mostly poor, black population, has seen its graduation rate grow to 95 percent from 60 percent in the last 10 years, as it has crafted a math-and-science-focused curriculum for talented middle and high school students who apply for admission. There are 19 A.P. classes and Regents-level physics classes in the eighth grade, as well as a marching band and basketball and track teams. Last year, students were accepted to more than 100 colleges, including in the Ivy League.
But the school could be even better, administrators and students said, if it had a gymnasium and auditorium — it has neither. “We appreciate you have a difficult job, but keep us in your ear,” said Jasper Rodney, the parents’ association president.
‘We will give you as much support as we can,” Ms. Black replied.
Angella Smith, an assistant principal, said that she welcomed Ms. Black’s visit, but that its speed “doesn’t do us justice.”
“It’s hard to capture a school in a few minutes,” she said. “You really have to spend some more time with us. We really have transformed the school.”
The principal, Michael A. Wiltshire, said he did not have time to get into the details of his educational philosophy with Ms. Black, though he wanted to share a few things — like how important it was to focus on sports and the arts, as well as academics.
“It’s the holistic development, where we take into consideration the total child,” Dr. Wiltshire said. “That, I think, is what the city lacks.” He added that too much of what the city talked about seemed to be test preparation. “She needs to hear this more,” he said. “I think the focus is wrong.” But then he stopped himself.
“I’m not at that level as yet where I can advise the chancellor,” he said. “I’m only a little principal here in Crown Heights.”
Throughout the visit, Ms. Black was inquisitive, made eye contact and kept her comments short. Kept to a tight schedule, there was little room to improvise. But at one point, she used her own experiences as an executive at Hearst Magazines to relate.
After watching a short dance performance in Mandarin class, she applauded and paused to pose for the teacher’s digital camera. “I think it’s wonderful that you are studying Chinese at such a young age,” she told a class of about 20 sixth graders.
“Some of you may not know this, but I have been in magazine publishing, and we have a company in Shanghai and Beijing, and we publish seven magazines in China,” she said. “It’s been very exciting to see the growth in China. So maybe someday one of you will have a good job at a magazine in China. Good luck to you all, and keep studying.”