In the 1980s, an innovative set of reforms transformed the public schools of East Harlem. The secret Of success was giving teachers the opportunity to create schools of their own design and parents the freedom to choose among them. Now the schools on the Upper West Side have adopted the East Harlem model. Teachers are pouring their energies into creating new schools, and parents and students of the school district are greeting the reforms enthusiastically.

The bureaucratic pattern that characterizes American big-city schooling was established in the first decade of this century, inspired by the model of the factory, in response to the enormous influx of students during that decade of mass immigration. The pattern had its successes: It educated the greatest wave of immigrants in U.S. history to the levels and standards considered acceptable at the time.

But the model has been under attack for thirty years or more, and it may not survive much longer. The Chicago public schools have been radically reorganized, with the central bureaucracy sharply cut and a somewhat chaotic and overly complex system of local school management established. Vouchers are again political news: They almost made it to the state ballot in California, will be on the ballot in Colorado, and have been proposed nationally by a Republican President. Educational corporations are now running or will soon be running schools in Miami and in Baltimore. Minnesota allows students to cross district lines to attend the school of their choice, and Milwaukee subsidizes the escape of poor children to private schools. Chris Whittle has garnered enormous publicity and recruited prominent thinkers in the world of education—Chester Finn, John Chubb, Benno Schmidt—to help establish a profit-making nationwide network of schools based on a new model.

New York City harbors its own quiet revolution in the schools: Public-school choice, pioneered in East Harlem, has now spread to the Upper West Side and is making an impact elsewhere in the city as well. The key term under which the revolution markets itself is “choice,” but that term scarcely encompasses the range of changes that brought radical improvement to the schools of East Harlem’s District 4, one of the poorest, most distressed, most problem-ridden sections of the city. The transformation is now serving as a model for the West Side’s District 3, in an area with more middle-class residents and more social advantages than impoverished District 4. It is typical for models of change to move from more favored schools and districts to less favored ones. Here the direction has been reversed, as light streams upward from a place one might think was desperately in need of help from outside. The District 4 story has been told many times, and a full account of what was accomplished there will be available in a few months, when Sy Fliegel, a major engineer of the change, publishes his book Miracle in Ea.4t Harlem, coauthored by James MacGuire.

District 4 is one of the 32 community districts established in 1969 in the wake of devastating conflicts and strikes over the control of schools and the appointment of principals and teachers. The establishment of these districts was a step toward decentralizing the New York City schools and giving parents greater power in the school system. The community school districts have responsibility for elementary, middle, and junior high schools; the central Board of Education retained control over high schools and overall responsibility for the whole huge system.

The conflicts that led to this reform were spurred by the enormous demographic shift in school population that had begun in the 1940s. The number of white students in city schools had declined, while the black and Puerto Rican student population had increased. One of the objectives of decentralization was to transfer power from white school administrators to black and Hispanic administrators. In this respect it has been successful: The number of black and Hispanic administrators and principals has increased greatly, and there are now hotly contested elections for Community School Boards. It is true that few bother to vote in these elections, but the Community School Boards do have the power to select personnel, including a district superintendent, from among the qualified candidates. There have been scandals involving some school boards, but many districts operate smoothly, with minimal conflict and with long-term superintendents.

In District 4, beginning in the mid-1970s, an energetic and open-minded superintendent, Anthony Alvarado, provided an umbrella for reform. If teachers were frustrated and came to Alvarado with an idea for a new kind of school, he would tell them to try it. In 1976 he hired Sy Fliegel, who had been connected with a number of innovative and successful schools, as director of alternative schools. In this position, Fliegel fostered the establishment of a good number of new schools, to add to those that were already in the district. Central Park East, an alternative school that had been established before Fliegel’s arrival by Debbie Meier, achieved early national recognition—as she did too, when she got a MacArthur “genius” grant. Many other innovative schools were subsequently established.

For the most part, the alternative schools were established at the middle school (grades 5 through 8) or junior high (grades 7 through 9) level, where, to the minds of many teachers, the problems of public education are most acute. These alternative schools began with a few teachers, an idea—”vision,” if you will—and a bit of space in an existing school building. They recruited from among the students completing elementary school. Contrary to the usual practice of assigning students to schools “zoned” on the basis of residence, the student entering middle school now had the alternative of going to a distinctive school—perhaps one that emphasized science or the arts; or that tried a different approach to education, more or less progressive; or that focused on students with special problems or talents. The enterprising teachers who began these schools received support from the District Office: classroom space, the right to recruit a few like-minded teachers, and perhaps some money (though very little was available beyond what formulas dictated). The organizers of these schools, in short, got a license to try out their educational ideas in East Harlem and to recruit students for their new schools.

But it was not simply a matter of letting the market decide: The new schools were monitored by the Office of Alternative Schools, which was prepared to close schools as well as encourage new ones. The ultimate test was not only popularity, but whether these schools succeeded in producing academic achievement. Indeed, a number of alternative schools in East Harlem were considered academic failures and were closed.

Within a few years the number of alternative schools burgeoned, and all zoned middle and junior high schools in District 4 were eliminated. After elementary school, every East Harlem student and his parents were confronted with the need to choose a school. All the problems involved with this process were faced and overcome: getting information to parents and students about the available alternatives, finding a place for every student (because the alternative schools also had the right to choose whom to admit), and defining the organizational position of the alternative school and its director in a system in which the norm was a building designed for a thousand students and run by one principal. In time, the district’s innovative practices were applied to high schools as well: Colman Genn established a new high school for science and mathematics in the grand old building of the former Benjamin Franklin High School on the East River Drive. Debbie Meier’s progressive school grew to include three elementary schools and one high school. New York City’s Board of Education, although it controlled the high school division directly, accepted the new high schools, which were under the control of District 4. In fact, they have since become the model for a program to create many small high schools in New York City.

District 4’s alternative schools even attracted students from outside East Harlem. Their educational success was so impressive that hundreds of parents were willing to send their children to school in a neighborhood marked by abandoned buildings, stripped automobiles, and open-air drug markets. The district also attracted lively and innovative teachers who saw the opportunity to do interesting things.

Because of District 4’s success, Superintendent Anthony Alvarado moved up to become chancellor of the New York City schools. (He served only briefly because of a scandal about his personal finances, and is now again a district superintendent.) His replacement in District 4, Carlos Medina, maintained and expanded the alternative school program.

In the end, of course, school reforms—whatever the enthusiasm they arouse among teachers, students, and visitors—must be measured by what they produce: How well do the children do in academic subjects and in the contest for the advantages that permit access to better education and eventually to better jobs? In this respect, District 4 has done very well. It had been one of the worst of the city’s districts in reading and math scores in 1973. Despite all the handicaps presented by its neighborhood and the poverty from which most of its children came, the district rose by the late 1980s to a position in which its students did about as well as the children of New York City generally. By other measures, such as the number of children placed in New York City’s selective high schools on the basis of competitive entrance tests, it did much better than the average district. The two high schools developed by the district have had college admission rates in the 90 percent range. While in recent years there have been problems connected with transitions in leadership and a sustained attack on District 4 by the budget authorities of the central board, it continues to maintain its gains.

“Choice” was the term selected to describe the character of the revolution in East Harlem, but parental choice was only part of the story. Indeed, the story begins with educational innovations, rather than choice, which was entailed only because the innovators had to find students on whom to try their ideas. A key characteristic of the innovations was that they came from the teachers, not from top administrators. Alvarado and Fliegel had no great reform scheme for East Harlem. Rather, they made the explosion of new schools possible by enabling teachers to start up their new ideas in short order: no long planning periods, no extended grant proposals, no elaborate out side evaluations. They realized that the desire to innovate, the enthusiasm for the new, can wither rapidly if one must maneuver through a gauntlet of requirements and procedures.

Another crucial feature of the East Harlem Story was that these were all small schools, very often starting with one grade, a few dozen students, and a few teachers. They never grew beyond a few hundred students and a dozen or so teachers. Perhaps this was as crucial as choice, and as radical an innovation in a system where a Junior high school may run up to 2,300 students, with twenty classes in each grade.

But choice was crucial, too: the power of teachers to choose what kind of school they thought would work best, the power to interview and select students, and the power of parents and students to choose a school with a distinctive program. It is the power to choose on both sides that makes a community, that evokes energy from teachers that the rules of rigid bureaucracy constrain, that inspires commitment from parents and indeed from students. This is my interpretation of the remarkable success of District 4, and of the significance of choice within the complex of innovations that made a successful inner-city school district.

District 4’s success won it national recognition and made it a model for other districts in New York City. The first Community School District to adopt the District 4 model in full is District 3, across Central Park to the west. District 3 includes the Upper West Side, which is much more socially and ethnically diverse than East Harlem. District 3’s school population, however, is rather less white and middle-class than one might expect: In February 1992, the ethnic census showed that District 3 was 39 percent Hispanic, 48 percent black, and 11 percent non-Hispanic white. District 4 was 60 percent Hispanic and 37 percent black. More of the Hispanic children in District 3 than in District 4 are recent immigrants, and more are Dominican and fewer Puerto Rican.

The two districts have student populations which are similar in many ways. Both have some 14,000 students in their elementary, middle, and junior high schools. Their attendance rates are similar. Somewhat fewer District 3 students are eligible for free lunch (77 percent against 83 percent in District 4). The Limited English Proficiency rate, which legally defines children eligible for bilingual education, is about the same: 12 percent in District 3 and 10 percent in District 4. There are somewhat more minority teachers in District 3 than District 4 (48 against 43 percent), about the same teacher turnover rate (24 and 23 percent—higher than the city average of 14 percent), similar average teacher salaries ($40,000 for District 3, $41,000 for District 4), and the same median number of years teaching experience (12).

District 3 already had some alternative schools when its superintendent, Anton Klein, decided to explore the possibility of transforming all its middle and junior high schools into alternative and mini-schools along the model of District 4. (Mini-schools are under the authority of the principal and part of his program; alternative schools, while in his building, are independent.) The existing alternative schools were in the southern, more middle-class, and whiter part of the district, and they undoubtedly reflected the interest of West Side parents in getting a better education for their children than the conventional junior high schools provided. When Klein became superintendent in 1986, he noted that parents in District 3 were sending their children into East Harlem to take advantage of District 4’s alternative schools. Thus, one motivation for introducing change was to keep the children in District 3. Another was the disastrous circumstances of Harlem’s Wadleigh Junior High School, which had fallen on evil days. It had once been a selective school for girls. One can get a glimpse of its former grandeur from Sara Lawrence Lightfoot’s biography of her mother, Balm in Gilead, which describes how a bright Southern girl in the 1930s went to Harlem to live with her aunts only for the opportunity to go to the superior Wadleigh. The grand red brick and limestone school, with its elaborate architectural details, reflected a more ambitious time in New York City’s educational history. But it had deteriorated to the point where it was physically in terrible shape and the junior high school it housed was educationally in worse shape.

Klein recruited John Elwell, who had taught in District 4 and founded two alternative schools there, to come across the park, work on the problem of Wadleigh, and become District 3’s director of alternative schools. Klein also recruited Bill Colavito, who had likewise taught and directed an alternative school in District 4, to come to District 3 as principal of an intermediate school—with the clear mission of transforming it into a complex of mini-schools and alternative schools. In 1990 Klein asked the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Educational Innovation, which employs several of District 4’s pioneers, to propose a plan for transforming the middle and junior high schools into a system of alternative and mini-schools. That plan, based on the work of the District 3 Schools of Choice Task Force and prepared by Raymond Domanico, Sy Fliegel, and Mary Anne Raywid, was approved by the Community School Board. It goes into full operation in the 1992-93 school year. The year 1991-92 was devoted to engineering the shift: educating parents, placing students, and starting the new schools.

In June 1992, I visited five of the old and new alternative and mini-schools and spoke with their directors, as well as with John Elwell; Elizabeth Sostre, coordinator of parent information services; and Bill Colavito, whose Intermediate School 44 now houses six mini-schools and two alternative schools. I saw the physical settings of the alternative and mini-schools, the students working in them, and the facilities available. Though visiting schools hardly prepares one for any definitive evaluation—that will come in a few years when the schools have established track records—I could not help but be impressed by the enthusiasm of the directors and teachers, the purposeful busyness of the students, and the energy and optimism of the district administrators who are engineering this change.

The reorganization of Wadleigh into three alternative schools was a key test in developing the new choice program for District 3. Elwell organized a series of meetings involving teachers, community leaders, and consultants. They developed a plan to close Wadleigh, get it into the school system’s capital budget for a complete rebuilding, and set up task forces to plan three new schools, each with a different theme, to replace the old Wadleigh. Colgate-Palmolive contributed $150,000 toward the undertaking.

Setting up a new school is not a simple task. It involves endless meetings of teachers, parents, and administrators. It requires recruiting and interviewing students and explaining one’s approach to their parents. Why are teachers willing to work so hard when they get paid no more than those who simply fulfill their formal responsibilities, leave at three o’clock, and take the summer off? I posed this question to Susan Winston, director of the School for Writing and Publishing at Wadleigh. Because she has autonomy and power, she answered. That power, it was clear, was the power to provide an education she believed in: She really had no other power.

One essential step in establishing the choice program was the publication of a directory of the new schools for parents. It describes the various schools that are available and lays out the process for selecting one. Descriptions of schools are printed in Spanish and English on facing pages, and forms are provided for parents to select their top three choices.

The Community District 3 Middle School Directory is a fascinating document. It lists 25 different schools, many of which had already existed, but some of which were newly launched. Most of the schools require applicants to be interviewed. The interview, one gathers, is informational on both sides. Very few of the schools can be considered highly selective, but students select themselves in or out on the basis of the information provided and the interview. Some students simply won’t go for a math/science school, and other will say “no thanks” when they learn they must take Latin, a requirement at the Columbus Academy. All the schools list “admission requirements,” but not of the formal sort one might expect. To be admitted to the Math/Science Academy, for example, one must display a “commitment to the school’s philosophy, that hard work and high standards of academic achievement are necessary for success.” The Satellite School for the Performing Arts requires students to “demonstrate a love of music and a desire to participate in musical activities and organizations
such as an orchestra.” The Lincoln Academy for the Sciences looks for “an interest in the sciences and the maturity to take advantage of the programs and options available.” Some schools have elaborate processes for gauging applicants’ commitment. At the Crossroads Academy, “parents must accompany their children for an interview to acquaint themselves with the school. Students are required to spend a morning at the school.” What is striking is how often the bottom line in the description is that “selection is made by the director and assistant director after consultation with the teachers.”

All this is very different from what we expect of public schools in the sixth grade, and it certainly raises some questions: What about discrimination, what about appeals, what about arbitrary injustice? But it is the effort to deal with such issues formalistically, mechanically, and bureaucratically that contributes to the ruin of public education. In District 3, the director of alternative schools trusts his school directors and the teachers, and they are more effective and committed as a result. When one speaks with them, it is clear that one of their main objectives in selecting students is diversity: ethnic diversity most significantly, but also diversity in capacity. There is no tracking within the alternative schools, though in principle it is possible because some have sixty students or so in each grade. But they are small schools, in which every student is known to the director and teachers, and in such schools, what need is there for formal tracking?

The publication of the school directory was only one step in the process of educating parents about the new options available for their children. “Educational Option Fairs” were held, at which teachers and directors of the alternative schools were available to explain the character of their program and answer questions from parents and students. The attendance was impressive—school district officials say that 1,500 parents and teachers attended the fairs. (The number of students who had to be accommodated in the alternative and mini-schools was 2,200.) Teachers set up tables with information about their schools, and were actively engaged in marketing their programs and recruiting students. This is not entirely new in the New York City school system: With the rapid growth of options in the high school program, there are similar fairs to assist high school choices.

After all this, there is the hard reality of assignment: Some students and parents will be disappointed. Not every student can get his first choice, though the district estimates that 80 percent got their first or second choice. One of the chief questions raised about such choice programs is how one deals with such disappointments. But as one asks this question, one suddenly is checked by another: How different is this from what parents and students go through when applying to private schools? Why should one expect the process would involve more inequity and heartache in the public sector, or that parents and children there are less able to deal with disappointment?

Some schools, of course, are more popular than others. The Computer School, one of the oldest and best-established of the alternative schools, had sixty places for new students and three hundred applicants. Its announcement said there would be interviews, but the overworked teachers were able to interview only half the applicants. While I was visiting, Elizabeth Sostre told the school director that he would have to drop the interview requirement in the future because parents were disappointed when an interview was promised and couldn’t be scheduled. This, it strikes me, is the way things should work—through informal communication and common-sense decisions.

A school’s popularity is not solely the result of its real or perceived academic quality. Many parents will choose schools because they are close to home, and Upper West Side parents may be reluctant to send their children to Harlem. But academic quality did play a substantial role in parents’ decisions. The mini-schools of Joan of Arc Junior High School on West 93rd Street, for example, were undersubscribed, and an administrator told me this was for good academic reasons. As a result, Joan of Arc has decided to revert to the standard junior high school format. Problems of oversubscription are happier ones, but are not necessarily simpler to deal with. Because of the popularity of the Computer School, the director of alternative schools is trying to create another science-oriented school. The process of creating new schools to supplement successful ones and modifying (or closing) schools that are not attractive can be difficult, and there will certainly be conflicts and disappointments along the way.

One question that inevitably comes up when considering the experiments in Districts 3 and 4 is why students at such a tender age need distinctively varied schools. Shouldn’t essentials be predominant in the education of 11- and 12-year-olds? But these questions are misleading, for the new schools are not really that highly specialized. The Computer School does not spend all its time on computers, the Environmental School all its time on the environment. Rather, these are themes that are used to infuse what is in large measure a common curriculum, making it more appealing to the students. The lively School for Writing and Publishing (SWAP), for example, emphasizes writing, but students also publish and sell their work, in forms ranging from greeting cards to books. I was given a copy of a major production of SWAP, Open Minds, a 132-page illustrated paperbound book on the customs and characteristics of three New York City ethnic groups - Chinese-Americans, Jewish Americans, and Italian-Americans. It could certainly be faulted, but was impressive as the product of 12- and 13-year-olds.

A common pattern in the alternative and mini-schools is regular academic work in the morning, the special theme in the afternoon. In any case, the directors and teachers in the alternative schools must always be mindful that junior high schools in New York City must test their students in reading and math and that the students must take state Regents Competency Tests in various subjects. This means that whatever the distinctive twist of a school, much of its work is devoted to the standard curriculum. Moreover, school leaders know very well that their students will have be prepared to go on to high school. And if District 4 is the model, one way they will reckon their achievement is by how many of their students make it into selective high schools.

What about bilingual education, what about “special education” (education for what used to be called the handicapped, who, with the expanded definition of this condition, make up about one-seventh of all New York students)? The District 3 directory lists three bilingual programs. One is the Bilingual Computer School, which “requires fluency in Spanish,” a way of making a Spanish-speaking background a positive characteristic rather than a liability. A few of the schools seem distinctively designed for students eligible for special education, who are, of course, varied in the nature of the conditions that make them special.” One may be concerned about the isolation of bilingual and special-education students, but this is a common problem throughout the school system. Alternative schools do not seem to make it any worse.

What about racial separation? The northeast part of District 3, in Central Harlem east of Morningside Drive, is mostly black, and Wadleigh is in a black neighborhood. Its three successor alternative schools are also predominantly black. Indeed, one part of the design of the Wadleigh alternative schools is to reserve most of their places for neighborhood children. Superintendent Klein explains: “The Harlem community—that is, those active within it—said to us, ’You tell us you are establishing quality schools. Why didn’t you establish quality schools in Harlem, as well as the Upper West Side, earlier? If we are to have quality schools in Harlem now, we want to be able to go to them, and reserve them for ourselves.”’ Yet one can safely say that the shift to alternative schools and choice does not exacerbate the problem of racial separation, and may help modestly by giving students of all races the opportunity to attend schools outside their immediate neighborhood.

District 3 is bubbling as it moves into its new phase. Some improvement has already been noted as the district has established more alternative schools: A few years ago, District 3 was near the bottom of the 32 New York City school districts in reading and math scores. It has moved up to twentieth place. One cannot help but be impressed with the enormous efforts that are being poured into this enterprise by the teachers, alternative school directors, and district administrators; surprised at the enthusiasm the enterprise has evoked; and charmed by the multifarious and surprising activities in which the students are engaged. It is all very different from the huge New York public schools that I attended two or three generations back and about which, at that time, I had no complaint. But today the teachers are different, the students are different, and society’s needs and demands are different.

Educators have argued a great deal about choice, and as they have argued, choice has become more and more possible in the New York City public schools. Choices are being expanded throughout the city through the creation of new, small high schools and through a “New Visions” program in which teachers and administrators are being encouraged to propose new models for public schools. District 3 has now joined District 4 in transforming its middle and junior high schools into a full system of choice—one that encourages enterprise among teachers, creates new schools, and educates parents and students about a new approach to public education. I believe it can only be for the best, but we will have to follow the experience of the remodeled District 3 to see if this faith in the new model is justified.


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