Junior High Choice in Harlem. EDUCATION: THE OPEN-ENROLLMENT ISSUE. How giving students the chance to choose improved the quality of one New York school

THE junior high students at Harbor School for Performing Arts look regular enough, as they throng the halls between classes, wearing sneakers, jeans, athletic jackets. But there's something different about them. Their faces are animated and purposeful. There's no trace of the sullenness one might expect to find in pupils attending an inner-city school surrounded by poverty and drugs. Perhaps that's because these students have chosen to be here.

East Harlem's District 4 gives junior high students 20 alternative and traditional schools from which to choose. Each has a different focus.

The district's innovations have made it one of the most discussed, an example of choice that works. In recent months, says assistant superintendent John Falco, school personnel from the cities of Denver, Seattle, Chicago, Detroit, and Minneapolis, and the states of California, Indiana, and Florida, have come to pick up some tips on similar ventures.

There's been a remarkable turnaround here: With 75 percent of its students falling under the poverty line, District 4 is ranked 15th out of 32 New York City districts, making it competitive with some of the wealthier districts, says Mr. Falco. And 67 percent of the students are reading at or above grade level.

It's come a long way since 1974, when only 15 to 20 percent of the students were reading at grade level and the school district ranked last.

``It was desperation,'' says Falco, a serious man with a trim beard. ``The system was demoralized. There was nowhere to go but up.'' Anthony Alvarado, then superintendent of District 4, asked teachers for ideas on how to turn things around. They suggested schools of choice.

``We must attribute [the rise in test scores] to the development of programs within the district,'' says Falco, interrupting himself to greet students by name as he strides down the hall. ``What you had were teachers who were asked to come forward with ideas on how to develop ... quality kinds of programs, where we would be meeting the needs of individual kids in the community.''

Here's how it works: Every sixth-grader gets a booklet describing the choices. The schools specialize in such areas as performing arts, computers, science, secretarial skills, or careers. There are also traditional junior high schools. The director of each school explains the themes of these schools. Teachers help students choose an appropriate one. Parents help fill out applications listing six choices. ``About 60 percent are placed in their first choice, 30 percent in their second choice, 5 percent in third choice,'' Falco says.

Madeline Burren, a voice teacher who has taught for 25 years, says the point of having the schools oriented around specific skills is to develop whatever abilities students have.

``To get in here, you have to sing for me, right? So you might be not doing well at all in reading and math in elementary school, but if you have a wonderful voice ... that's the objective. We'll take you because we feel if you're doing something well, we can teach you to do other things well.''

Monique DeJean, an acting student, could have gone to the junior high school across the street from her house, but she chose Harbor. A teacher in her elementary school had started a drama club and held tryouts for ``The Wiz.''

``I thought I'd go for the gold, you know, try out for the main part,'' she says. ``It so happens I got the part.'' That developed an interest in acting and led her to Harbor.

Others were drawn by Harbor's atmosphere. Jamiel Hussain, who commutes here from the Bronx, says of his former school, ``You had to watch every move you made or you weren't secure, you weren't among friends. When I came here everything was different. The Harbor School is such a nice place, the people get along very well there. And the education is much better here. You get a whole new look on school,'' he says. THERE'S a different look to the teachers here, too. They're involved, excited. In Mark Glasser's math class, hands are shooting up. Mr. Glasser, in a pale orange sweat shirt, is a dynamo, as fast on his feet as a boxer, firing out questions and scrawling fractions on the board. Reporters are frequent visitors here, and the students hardly notice when one enters. Glasser doesn't give them a chance. ``OK, what's lowest terms here? Kimball? Yes, 4/50.''

The smaller setting may make teaching more enjoyable here. Five small schools (one on each floor, two in the basement) now share a school building that once housed 1,800 students and 140 teachers. ``See this building?'' says Falco, gesturing at the long, sweeping hallway. ``I was a principal here. With a school that big, you don't know your teachers' strengths and weaknesses. Here the teachers find niches where they can [develop] their talents, abilities, experiences. Whatever their vision, we have a place for them in this district. We found that teachers with vast experience, who were totally demoralized and ready to retire because of burnout, have been rejuvenated.''

One of these is Phil Levine, who has taught here 22 years. About five years ago he was burned out, so he took a sabbatical. Afterward, he came back to teach math in the Key School, a school for academically disadvantaged students that is set up in the basement.

``I was absolutely revitalized,'' he says of his switch to Key School. ``A whole different person. The year off helped. But I like the small class size. And the kids turn around tremendously. I see about 45 out of 90 kids, and of that I see a turnaround in probably 30. Kids that are lost and have no direction, when they leave us they know where they're going. They have goals set.''

There are other innovations as well. Like a Parents' Center that helps with problems in housing, social services, parenting, and health problems. Any District 4 parent is welcome.

Falco says that the choice system forces the schools to aim high. ``If you don't keep up, you're not going to attract the student population. And if you're not going to do that, you're out of business.'' He says that he's had to close two schools that weren't making the grade.

Students, teachers, and administrators all used the same phrase when talking about the school. It's family, they said. So much so that the students have to be specifically prepared for high school's being different. What Others Say

As we move ahead with public-school choice plans, we must not view them as a substitute for rethinking what goes on in the inside of schools, how students are treated, how teachers function. -Albert Shanker, president, American

Federation of Teachers

The jury is already in on this one. Choice will be a critical element in education reform for years to come. Indeed, it may prove to be the linchpin in our common effort to ensure that all Americans ... have access to quality education. -Lauro Cavazos, US secretary of education

Expanding choice is not an excuse for abandoning those schools performing below standards. -Bill Honig, California superintendent

of public instruction

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