New York small schools face threat

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In New York City, small schools have been riding a roller coaster for more than 25 years. At the moment, they’re bracing for a fall.The movement began in 1974, when then-teacher Deborah Meier and a group of progressive educators founded Central Park East Elementary School in East Harlem. Size was the cornerstone behind Meier’s idea to bring the rigors of private school education to students in impoverished communities.

Small, autonomous schools, according to Meier, are familiar and safe for students, accountable to parents and teacher, flexible to change and free to experiment. “In schools, big doesn’t work no matter how one slices the data,” she writes in her book, The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem.

It worked. Students at Central Park East flourished in the more intimate setting, and the school was widely praised as the new model for urban education. Since then, the Central Park East success story has inspired a number of teachers and community leaders in New York and elsewhere to start small schools of their own. Five years ago, the New York school officials formally endorsed small schools as a focal point of reform. Since then, reform groups have opened 125 small schools, bringing the total to 150; together, they serve 5 percent of New York’s 1.1 million students.

Despite many success stories and increasing popularity, New York’s small schools face an uncertain future. Last fall, new school officials drafted a report recommending that more central controls be imposed on small schools to hold them more accountable.

Specifically, their report recommended that licensed principals, not teachers, run small schools, and that new small schools get approval from central office as well as their community school board. Most threatening to small schools were suggestions that elementary schools enroll at least 400 students, middle schools at least 600, and high schools at least 800.

Chancellor Rudy Crew backed off the minimum enrollments, voicing his support for small schools. However, in February, half of the system’s small high schools were ordered to add students immediately. “He wants big small schools,” quips one New York City small-school advocate.

The directive was aimed at accommodating late enrollees, not permanently enlarging the schools, says board spokesman J.D. LaRock. “We have a large system. We have to accommodate all students.”

Much like their counterparts in Chicago, small schools in New York are under increasing pressure to raise test scores. Yet as progressive educators, many small-school leaders shun tests as a measure of student progress. “For many years, we said tests aren’t important,” says Bruce Kanze, director of Central Park East II. “Our goal is to look at as broad a picture of the child as we can. Tests only gauge a narrow range of abilities.” Student involvement and ability to solve problems is more important to Kanze.

But Kanze is also realistic. In March, the New York Times reported that the reading scores at Central Park East II are among the lowest of the city’s small schools. In 1997, fewer than 35 percent of CPE II students were reading at or above national norms. Kanze knows such news could scare off parents. In a note to his staff, he proposes sending parents a written response. “We need to talk about what we’re going to do to get every child as ready as we can for the upcoming tests,” he says.

Not surprisingly, Crew’s mixed signals have raised hackles among small-school advocates. A small-schools conference in March attracted hundreds of supporters from New York and elsewhere to Bank Street College of Education. In a session on elementary small schools, teachers and administrators discussed the fallout of the School Board’s shift. “You’re not part of a learning community when you’re in a top-down system,” argued Lucy Matos, who is director of Ella Baker Elementary. “You’re not a stakeholder.”

Matos knows what it means to be a stakeholder. As a new teacher, she was recruited by Meier to join the Central Park East staff when the school opened in the mid-1970s; eventually she became its lead teacher. In the fall of 1996, Matos took charge of opening Ella Baker, one of six small schools housed in what was once Julia Richmond High School in Midtown Manhattan. Now in its second year, Ella Baker enrolls 146 pre-K to 2nd-grade students; it plans to grow to 300 students in pre-K through 8th grade.

Matos meets three times a week with the school’s eight teachers. On Mondays, the staff covers curriculum issues or staff development. On Wednesdays, they handle business matters. Breakfast meetings on Fridays are a chance for teachers to exchange ideas.

“People say schools have to be good for kids,” Matos observes. “I say schools have to be good for all of us. This is my learning environment, too.”

Crossroads, a middle school in West Harlem, is another example of the continuing challenge small schools face even in their birthplace.

Director Ann Wiener rode her bike through the neighborhoods to find space for the school. A school custodian tipped her to a vacant fifth floor the school now occupies. When Crossroads opened, students and staff had to navigate large plastic buckets arranged to catch water dripping from the roof. A nearby church adopted the school, joining students and teachers in lobbying the board for repair money and then bird-dogging the work.

Wiener says they persevered by focusing on their goal. “This age is a crossroads in kids’ lives,” says Wiener. “It’s a time when either they connect with education or they disconnect.”