2017-04-14 / School News

Legendary Progressive School Under Assault


Parents support UFT Chapter leader Marilyn Martinez at her hearing. Parents support UFT Chapter leader Marilyn Martinez at her hearing. When I was a young teacher dreaming about teaching in a child-centered progressive school (which I never got to do), the model school set up in East Harlem (District 4) in the mid-1970s by Debbie Meier, one of the gods of teaching in this country for 50 years, was a magnet for teachers and parents looking for alternative ways of working with kids that were far from the mainstream. Central Park East (CPE) became a nationwide model, offering elementary school children a private school model of education and making it available to parents who did not have the means to send their kids to elite schools. A major component of such education in Debbie’s vision was a non-segregated and diverse population that would be roughly one third black, Latino and white in a neighborhood where such an option was not available. Call it the one of the early concepts of choice within a public school system which is so pushed by the charter school lobby. Debbie won a McArthur Genius Award for her ground breaking work in New York and in Boston.

The CPE model was the furthest thing from today’s no excuses, test-driven, anti-union, rigid, corporate as opposed to student-driven charter factory floor concepts.

People from all over the nation came to study the practices in the school, which involved student choices in what they would learn, in addition to a wide degree of latitude for teachers; a democratically run school where major decisions on hiring and practices were decided jointly by teachers and administrators with a lot of parent input. Principals sometimes referred to themselves as “head teachers.” The closest model in Brooklyn is the Brooklyn New School in Park Slope.

The original CPE, now known as CPE1, was replicated into a CPE 2 and then a CPE middle and high school, though over the time the practices diverged in the different schools. CPE1 was the school that retained many of the original constructs, one of which is that testing is the least important aspect of a rich education in an elementary school especially since our youngest children grow at different rates intellectually and emotionally and branding kids based on test scores at such an early age is debilitating. Thus most parents who choose to send their kids – in fact, fight to send their kids – to the few progressive public schools there are have been opting out of taking tests once they became the measure of success and drowned out all the other factors of what makes for a good school and a good education.

In the past year and a half, CPE1 progressive education, the teaching staff and the majority of parents have come under attack by the Department of Education with the installation of a principal, Monika Garg, who has no experience in progressive education, was a high school administrator with little or no knowledge of how elementary schools work, but especially of how CPE1 has operated through its history. Garg has gone after experienced and tenured teachers which culminated in the recent removal of chapter leader Marilyn Martinez, which has galvanized an already active parent group that has been fighting back against Garg and the DOE. At Martinez’ hearings, between 50 and 100 parents showed up in support. Last week, after a massively attended School Leadership Team (SLT) meeting that attracted over a hundred people, including State Senator Bill Perkins and former City Councilman Robert Jackson, the parents read a statement calling on Garg to resign.

Garg read her own statement Garg refusing to resign saying that she answers only to her superiors, the Superintendent Alexander Estrella and Chancellor Farina. In our system the people running schools do not have to answer to the stakeholders – the parents, teachers, or the general community. Since the mayor was given control over the schools in this city in 2002, the arrogance of whoever is running the system, no matter what party, has only grown worse.

After the SLT meeting, parents at CPE1 were fed up enough to refuse to leave the auditorium and engaged in a sleep-in, not emerging until 9 a.m. the next morning. I was there to cover the story for my blog and The Wave, along with the NY Times, Wall St. Journal, WCBS, WNBC, The Daily News and other press.

I have been the only one embedded with the parents and teachers since I first met with them a year ago.

More next time on some of the whys, but if you can’t wait, see my coverage at ednotesonline.com.

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