Sending an S.O.S from a Small School in Harlem

As the season of high-stakes testing got underway, winter’s chill unabated, a petition began to circulate, a flower of democracy.   “Save Central Park East 1 Elementary School!” it read.

The school, founded in 1974, is the brainchild of Deborah Meier, beloved writer, teacher, principal, and education activist—one of several created in East Harlem, with the blessing of Anthony Alvarado, a forward-thinking superintendent of District 4 in New York City. A guiding light of the small-schools movement, she snagged a MacArthur “genius” award for her vision.

For parents in New York City, Central Park East 1 has been a beacon of progressive, child-centered practice, now under siege in the nation’s public schools in an age of standards-based accountability and high-stakes assessment. The school has also been a haven for educators, many of whom have gone on to found their own nutritious nests for young children.

Most importantly, 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, a cult classic, or, what one critic called “A fiery manifesto…for the salvation of public education.”   She warned us long ago about the dire consequences of the education policies that prevail today.

According to the petition, (see, below), Central Park East 1’s principal, Monika Garg, and District 4 superintendent, Alexandra Estrella, have disregarded “longstanding democratic policies and practices” of the community, launching investigations of tenured teachers, and subjecting young children to interviews without their parents’ permission.

Estrella is the former principal of Esperanza (“hope,” in español) Preparatory Academy, one of 97 schools investigated and flagged for cheating by the NYC Department of Education in 2011 during the annual period of high-stakes standardized testing. She left in the fall of 2013, a year after monitors cited the school for the violation of giving students additional time for the exams.   Apparently, the school had seen a marked decrease in test scores.

The letter will be sent to Estrella, as well as Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers; Mayor Bill de Blasio, NYC schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña; Laura Feijoo, a senior superintendent in the NYC department of education; and Yuet Chu, director of Manhattan’s Field Support Center.

When I last checked the petition, online at change.org, the number of those who had signed on was edging up toward 2,000.

The comments from the CPE1 community—from as far away as Australia—tell the story.  Here’s one of the latest, from a former teacher, a member of the faculty for more than a decade:

…It is by far the most unique, magical school that I have ever witnessed. The depth of understanding of children’s developmental needs, the emphasis placed on social/emotional learning, and the deep intellectual work that teachers and children engage in has not been matched in any other school I have seen. I am signing because this work needs to be protected. At a time when the value of play, children’s choice and voice, and curriculum that has, as Eleanor Duckworth puts it, DEPTH and BREADTH, is being undermined by test prep, skill and drill, and the narrowing of curriculum to facts that children forget once the test is over, this kind of education has become even more crucial to sustain, strengthen, and share.

Here’s the document. Hope you’ll join this critical exercise in democracy:

Central Park East 1 is an elementary school in East Harlem with a forty-year history of progressive, child-centered education.  During recent years of endless education reforms, the school has grappled with how to balance its commitment to equity and progressive pedagogy with increasingly politicized demands for data and high-stakes testing. Its opt-out rate last year was 81%. In a city of all too many segregated schools, Central Park East 1 is uniquely integrated and diverse.

Over the last nine months, Principal Monika Garg and Superintendent Alexandra Estrella have ignored the outreach and concerns of large groups of parents and the School Leadership Team (SLT), disregarded longstanding democratic policies and practices of our community, launched investigations of tenured teachers, and subjected young children to interviews by the principal and an unknown man–believed to be Deputy Superintendent Thomas McBryde and/or an officer from from the city’s special investigations unit.

These interviews of children were conducted without notifying parents and without a rationale for their necessity. No precautions were taken to ensure children’s psychological and emotional safety.  These actions, some of the most egregious in a very long list, reveal a disturbing pattern of administrative mistreatment of our community.

It is for the above reasons that we request that Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña take the following actions:

  1. Remove the current school leader, Ms. Monika Garg, from her post;
  2. Provide external oversight, transparency, and authentic community engagement in a process to hire a new principal (referred to as the C-30), including a temporary interim acting school leader if necessary; and
  3. Establish a separate district to better support the unique needs of progressive schools.

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5 comments to Sending an S.O.S from a Small School in Harlem

  • Concerned Parent

    The separate progressive school district is interesting. What other schools would want to join this school in that?
    Many parents at CPEI think there school is the only TRUE progressive school and the others (CPEII, Manhattan school for children) are watered down versions- nothing like CPEI.

    • kk

      Brooklyn New School, for sure. If it were to include more than elementary, Consortium Schools. BUT merely establishing a separate district isn’t enough–as the experience of CPE 1shows, such a district would need to be headed by a progressive educator. Otherwise, it just becomes a network for surveillance and suppression.

  • Louisa Cruz-Scosta

    Please ACT NOW…this is an emergency…every moment is a wasted opportunity. SAVE CPE I.
    Establish a C30 process ASAP.

  • Louisa Cruz-Acosta

    Please ACT NOW to preserve a tradition that is vital to this community.

  • Anonymous Leader

    Greetings,

    This article caught my attention. I use to work in D4 and was removed by my principal upon Estrella’s request. I was bullied to the point that I had to take a leave. I suggest that D4 parents get together and work on removing this superintendent before she is able to become tenured.

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