As you stroll around Harlem's Central Park East Secondary School, poking into classrooms, you begin to sense that something is different here. It's not the decor, which is a typically bland gray-green. And it's not the student body, which is predominantly black and hispanic, as you'd expect. What's unusual is the absence of the kind of structure most associate with schooling: the teacher front and center lecturing 20 to 30 attentive (or more likely squirmy) youngsters. For the most part, you see small clusters of students working together on one task or another, and teachers moving about the classroom, observing, commenting, answering questions -- and sometimes turning them back at the student: ``Now you tell me.''
All of this is by careful design, a design that emanates to a significant degree from Brown University, 150 miles to the north in Providence, R.I. That's where the Coalition of Essential Schools, directed by education professor Theodore R. Sizer, is headquartered. Central Park East and ten other schools scattered around the United States form the heart of an experiment coordinated by Dr. Sizer and intended to test the ability of American schools to execute an about-face: a sharp turn away from unwieldy student-teacher ratios, rigid curricula, and pro forma graduations.
Those are three of the many problems highlighted by Sizer in his 1984 book, ``Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School.'' From that study he developed nine principles of school reform that undergird the coalition's efforts (see sidebar). These principles include such things as ``intellectual focus'' -- zeroing in on the honing of thinking skills. The key here is how well material is grasped, not how much is covered.
The participating schools -- which are located from Texas eastward, with a concentration in the Northeast -- had been moving toward these principles even before the coalition was formed, emphasizes Sizer. ``We found each other,'' he says, and now ``each school is evolving a program appropriate to its own setting.''
Central Park East offers a good illustration of how that ``finding each other'' comes about. Until a couple of years ago, principal Deborah Meier had devoted her career to the elementary grades. ``I wasn't too hot about adolescents, especially in packs,'' she admits with a smile. But she was very concerned that many of the youngsters leaving her elementary school were going on to a deadening four years in high school. She wanted a chance to change that.
Mrs. Meier knew of Ted Sizer's ideas and suggested to her district superintendent that the well-known educator just might be willing to back her proposal for a new secondary school, grades 7 through 12. Sizer, it turned out, was more than happy to second the motion. Coalition building in mind, he'd been poised for such calls for collaboration.
The new secondary school, occupying the third floor of a building that also houses an elementary school, was launched this past fall, with an enrollment of 82 seventh graders. Plans call for an additional grade to be added in each of the coming five years, culminating in an enrollment of around 500.
At present, Meier heads a faculty of five full-time teachers, all of whom are here by choice, having sought out the kind of pioneering experience this school provides. Neil Jaffe, a science teacher, spent 18 years at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. That school attracts some of the city's top young scholars, but ``I had a feeling of dissatisfaction,'' says Mr. Jaffe. ``There was no opportunity to innovate in terms of the structure of education,'' he explains. Here, working as a team with the school's other teachers, he has that opportunity almost daily.
Each teacher is encouraged to think in terms of the other material being taught in the school. Thus, Martha Meeh's humanities class gets a little applied math, as it attempts to understand the process of mapmaking undertaken by explorers Lewis and Clark in the early 1800s, and Jaffe's lesson on meteorology is preceded by the first few lines from Chaucer's ``Canterbury Tales'': ``Whan that Aprille with his schowres swoote/ The drought of Marche hath perced to the roote. . . .''
``I couldn't have done that at Bronx Science,'' laughs Jaffe. He says he likes the flexibility and close teamwork at Central Park East, which compels teachers to think like generalists, instead of specialists.
All the coalition schools devise ways of reducing the ratio of students to teachers -- both for more personalized instruction and to free up time for faculty members to think and plan. Here at Central Park East, explains Meier, the school day is split between humanities and science/math, an arrangement that gives each teacher a fair amount of planning time. A weekly community service stint for students (Wednesday mornings) helps in that regard, too, as well as providing valuable practical experience for the youngsters.
The Coalition of Essential Schools embraces both huge inner-city schools -- in Baltimore and Houston, for instance -- and small-town ones. Some apply the coalition principles only within a portion of their programs, creating a ``school within a school.'' Others apply them schoolwide. Brand-new schools, like Central Park East, are a rarity.
Sizer's staff periodically travels around to the coalition schools, and the principals and teachers occasionally gather at Brown to pool ideas.
``It's exciting,'' says Deborah Meier. She terms her own project in Harlem ``relatively unexplored territory -- whether you can provide a thoughtful, serious education in a completely heterogeneous, public school setting.''
One of the best things about Sizer's coalition, she adds, is its realistic time frame. No one is thinking in terms of ``overnight innovation.'' Each school and school district is asked to commit itself to the program for a number of years.
As the coalition's founder puts it, restructuring education is a ``very complicated'' undertaking. ``It should take time -- a long time,'' he says. Common principles of Essential Schools The Coalition of Essential Schools shares nine ``common principles'' developed by Theodore Sizer and his colleagues at Brown University. Briefly: An intellectual focus. The school should focus on helping adolescents to learn to use their minds well. Simple goals. The school's goals should be simple: that each student master a limited number of essential skills and areas of knowledge. Universal goals. The school's goals should apply to all students, while the means to these goals will vary as those students themselves vary. Personalization. Teaching and learning should be personalized to the maximum feasible extent. Student-as-worker. The governing practical metaphor of the school should be student-as-worker, rather than the more familiar metaphor of teacher-as-deliverer-of-instructional-services. Diploma by exhibition. The diploma should be awarded upon a successful final demonstration of mastery for graduation -- an ``exhibition.'' . . . As the diploma is awarded when earned, the school's program proceeds with no strict age grading and no system of ``credits earned'' by ``time spent.'' Attitude. The tone of the school should explicitly . . . stress values of unanxious expectation (``I won't threaten you but I expect much of you''), of trust (until abused), and of decency (the values of fairness, generosity, and tolerance). . . . Parents should be treated as essential collaborators. Staff. The principal and teachers should perceive themselves as generalists first . . . and specialists second (experts in but one particular discipline). Budget. Administrative and budget targets should include . . . substantial time for collective planning by teachers, competitive salaries for staff, and a per pupil cost not to exceed that at traditonal schools by more than 10 percent. Coalition of Essential Schools, Box 1938, Brown University, Providence, R.I. 02912.