Deborah Meier’s Stand on Central Park East I: A Crucible for Progressive Education

In 1974, a small elementary school blossomed in East Harlem. The seeds were planted by Deborah Meier, renowned thinker, teacher, principal, education activist, and recipient of a McArthur “genius” award. Blessed by Anthony Alvarado, a forward-thinking superintendent in New York City, Central Park East I became a beacon of progressive, child-centered practice.

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The school embodies Meier’s vision. “Democracy demands we acknowledge everyone’s inalienable capacity to be an inventor, dreamer, and theorist—to count in the larger scheme of things,” she wrote in The Power of Their Ideas.  She warned us long ago about the dire consequences of ignoring this dictate. Play, described by Meier as “self-initiated cognitive activity,” is at the heart of Central Park East I’s form of progressivism.

Over the decades, CPE I, as the school is known, became a haven for early childhood educators, a number of whom have gone on to found their own progressive public schools.  But with the enactment of No Child Left Behind, the school entered turbulent waters, its leadership faltering.

Today, under standards-based accountability and assessment, the kind of public education that Meier championed in New York City and Boston’s Mission Hill School, is under siege.  CPE I has morphed into a battleground for democracy, pitting parents and teachers against Monika Garg, a principal whose curriculum vitae does not include early childhood education, much less pedagogy driven by progressive philosophy.

Garg assumed her position last summer as interim acting principal. The CPE I School Leadership Team, accustomed to collaborative decision making, had no input in this decision. She had previously worked at Pan American International High School in Corona, Queens, under Minerva Zanca, the subject of a federal suit against the New York City Department of Education. Among the complaints was race-based harassment of black teachers.

Upon her arrival, Garg promptly hired four teachers—a sizable number for the school’s small staff—all of whom had limited experience with progressive practice. Professional development to get them up the learning curve was not forthcoming. By last fall, anxiety among CPE I’s parents and teachers was mounting. A request for a town hall meeting with Garg and the district’s superintendent for elementary and middle schools, Alexandra Estrella, went unheeded.

Garg rejected parents’ request to consider a diversity initiative program promoted by New York City chancellor, Carmen Fariña.  In February, in her newsletter to parents, she set forth the idea that progressive education is harmful to children of color. A group of tenured teachers weighed in, expressing concerns to the community about Garg’s leadership, decision-making and the ultimate direction of Central Park East I.

Before the arrival of spring, and the high-stakes testing season, multiple investigations of CPE I teachers were launched.  Garg, a deputy superintendent and investigators from the NYC Department of Education conducted interviews with children as young as seven without a guidance counselor. Parents were in the dark about this process.

In April an S.O.S. arrived from this beleaguered school in Harlem, in the form of a petition at change.org.  As CPE I’s community scattered for the summer, deeply apprehensive, Meier, who had been working quietly behind the scenes, closely observing the deteriorating situation, went public. Below, is her letter.

Dear friends,

I am not infrequently asked about the situation at Central Park East I that has recently made the news. Which side am I on, I’m asked.

I’m unequivocally on the side of those who wisely have concluded that the current principal must move on. She cannot do the job required. Bringing in someone to help her where she is weak is not a solution, but merely a postponing of the inevitable drift into more “standardized” practice and a more hierarchical school structure.

What is needed is an interim solution that helps pull the school together, allows for the hiring of new staff, sets the tone, and continues to improve the practices and approach that has marked CPE I’s 43-year history. These include:

  • staff governance;
  • choice for families and staff;
  • substantial teacher autonomy to develop curriculum;
  • no admissions requirements based on academic or social “fitness”;
  • dedication to serving predominantly low-income students of color;
  • and the belief that a good, open, progressive school should be able to serve all children together without separating them by tracking in any form, including social or racial indicator.

CPE I’s form of progressivism has been, on the spectrum, perhaps more inclined to emphasize “play”— self-initiated cognitive activity— which often includes physical movement, as well as choice, sustained periods for uninterrupted work, peer collaboration, and demonstration versus standardized testing. Work and play share common purposes and are, in fact, hard to distinguish. Play is at the heart of serious intellectual work, and observation provides teachers with the best means of support for further growth which rests, in professional jargon, on something called “self-agency.”

CPE I was dedicated to the task of creating a democratic community of citizens with different roles, one in which students play the role of citizens-to-be in some areas and equal citizens in others. Substantial time was set aside for children and their families to meet with their teachers, and open access to classrooms by family members.

The school was also based on a commitment by the staff to meet together several hours a week, mostly during the day, as well as before and after the school year. Also included was a planning meeting for the full-time professional staff in mid-winter. The idea was that if the faculty were to be responsible for the school’s work, they needed time to effectively play such a role—on matters great and small.

For thirty-two years this process worked—serving largely District 4 families, plus a very small number of District 5 and others. We had a commitment not to seek a waiting list! When we had more applicants than spaces, the district agreed to start other schools that worked together with us and had a single application process; thus we created CPE II and River East. The teacher-directors (and later principals) of these schools were almost always former teachers in the same or similar schools.

We were just three out of what became a district of 50 small schools during that same period, all with far more autonomy than generally found in urban public schools—including the neighborhood schools (only one was closed due to low enrollment in the district) and the new schools of choice.

A few years after we opened, the district asked us to add white students to qualify for federal integration funds, and to increase enrollment. We liked the idea, and set a kind of informal quota so that we’d still serve predominantly low-income minority students.

When Jane Andrias left as principal in the early 2000s, no one on the staff was prepared to take the job. Over the next ten years, CPE I had five different principals, only one of whom had a professional background in any form of progressive education. During this period, the school was largely held together by the commitment of its staff and the activism of its devoted families. It often faltered in terms of cohesion, shared time, and support for new teachers.

In some ways, while classrooms continued to attract positive attention from parents, university educators and scholars, it lacked what a lead-teacher/principal could do best. Still, CPE I remained the school I happily sent colleagues to visit—including those from Mission Hill, which I started in Boston.

But last fall, it was clear that the newly appointed principal had no background knowledge in, or experience with, elementary, early childhood and/or progressive education, much less support of the tradition of collective decision-making, and the belief that all children—not just the privileged—were well-served by our kind of pedagogy. We had data that proved it had worked for more than 30 years. Why, all of a sudden, was this kind of school not sustainable?

Rather than wait to critique, the principal almost immediately began to make changes in the way the school had practiced open, progressive education. Many decisions were made without consulting staff on matters that have always been the purview of faculty and parents. It was clear, by word and action, that the principal believed that she was the boss, the first and final authority. She saw the kind of play in which CPE I’s students always engaged as frivolous. The flexibility that the school practiced around rules and regulations was henceforth taboo. (We had followed our former superintendent’s advice to practice “creative compliance.”)

Above all, she made clear that “some” children—i.e., black and low-income children, those whom we had historically served—needed a very different kind of education than the school was accustomed to providing.

For reasons mostly out of CPE I’s control—the changed demographics of east and central Harlem through gentrification, and disengagement from district four during the Bloomberg reorganization—the school’s demographics gradually changed during the past decade. Low-income children were now in the minority, although racial integration prevailed in a city of deep segregation. If one includes bi-racial families as students of color, CPE I has remained about 60 percent black, brown, and bi-racial and 40 percent white and Asian. (More than 60 percent of families of color have signed the petition asking for the removal of the current principal.)

To rectify the loss of low-income children, the elected parent representatives made efforts to apply for Carmen Fariña’s diversity initiative. The new principal was uninterested. Unsurprisingly, the latest lottery-based preK cohort will be almost entirely white children from the district.

All our early dreams seemed unachievable as I saw our mission continually undermined by misinformation or open disagreement. CPE I had lasted through many district superintendents and more city-wide regimens for a very long time. I tended to despair as I learned more about the situation. Committed parents and staff kept pestering me, and I realized I could not avoid my responsibility to them. I had to take a stand.

We need to find a solution that is fair to the latest principal—who might well be fine in a different setting with which she is more in tune—and to those parents who agree with her. We also must provide the majority of the community with leadership that will restore the CPE I we put so much of our hearts into. We need to embrace the spirit of democracy that CPE I was intended to demonstrate, but which requires an unusual collegial form of leadership.

That’s where I stand.

Deborah Meier
Founding teacher-director of Central Park East

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4 comments to Deborah Meier’s Stand on Central Park East I: A Crucible for Progressive Education

  • Maureenplevin

    The whole child philosophy is replicated every day in public Montessori schools

  • erika elliott

    Thank you for speaking out and supporting us. Your voice is among the most powerful and respected ally we have and any hope of change with out your visible support has not yielded any results . Hopefully we can see some change soon. Another beloved teacher has decided not to return. These are desperate times for a school that has fostered a love of learning and community for many generations of children and families. Again Thank you for starting this school and supporting us now.

  • Kaliris Salas

    This year has been a rough one at CPE, but as parents we stand tall with Debbie Meier against the destruction of this magical place for children and our East Harlem community.
    Thank you, to both of you, for making our voice stronger.

  • Stefanie Horton

    “Garg rejected parents’ request to consider a diversity initiative program promoted by New York City chancellor, Carmen Fariña. In February, in her newsletter to parents, she set forth the idea that progressive education is harmful to children of color.”
    WHAT?!?!?!?!?!?!?!
    I grew up in these schools…in the progressive approach. So did my brothers. And we’re more than just fine. I am a progressive early childhood educator for goodness sake!
    I cannot stand ignorance…
    Thank you Debbie for everything you have done for progressive education, people of color in NYC and for now stepping up to drop some truth bombs! I pray CPE I gets back on track and if there is any thing more I can do from here in the Philippines, I am more than happy to help!

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