School Choice in East Harlem

THE school-choice debate has only recently caught the public's attention. Yet an unassuming district in New York City has been offering its students a choice of schools for more than a decade.

By telling the story of East Harlem's District Four in ``Miracle in East Harlem: The Fight for Choice in Public Education,'' Seymour Fliegel sheds light on the heated national discussion of public-school choice. Fliegel, who wrote the book with James MacGuire, served as an administrator in District Four for more than a decade.

The American tradition of assigning students to the closest neighborhood school has deep roots, and many parents and educators cannot imagine changing it. But District Four dared to try something new and succeeded in creating a national model.

Although the writing is rough and Fliegel often seems to be straining to pat himself on the back for his role in District Four's success, the book focuses on a worthy subject. And sometimes the folksy approach yields a compelling anecdote.

Take, for example, Fliegel's explanation of what school choice is all about: ``The idea of choice is simple,'' he writes. ``I live in Queens today, but when I want to get a haircut I still get in the car and drive back to the Bronx where I grew up. I pay six dollars in tolls to exercise this choice - but getting a haircut is serious business to me. How much more serious business is the freedom to choose a child's school!''

To understand the ``miracle'' of East Harlem, it is important to know that District Four is larger than many entire school systems: It has 15,000 students, 800 teachers, and 50 schools.

In 1974, District Four was the worst of the city's 32 school districts. Only 16 percent of the students were reading at their grade level. By 1987, the district had moved into 15th place, and 63 percent of students were reading at their appropriate level.

``Ironically, it was the severity of the situation that provided us with the opportunity to spark a revolution in public education,'' Fliegel writes. Pure neglect from the central bureaucracy allowed East Harlem's alternative schools to blossom and multiply.

The East Harlem experiment was based on a desire to create schools that worked. But doing this required what Fliegel calls ``creative noncompliance'' - bending rules that stifled creativity and flexibility.

The first three alternative schools opened in 1974. Each school had its own theme, and the teachers and students had all chosen to be there.

In 1982, a district-wide choice system was established for all junior high school students. By then, there were 26 alternative schools and 20 traditional schools in 20 buildings. Putting more than one school in a building allowed smaller, unique schools to be created across the district and made it easier to shut down schools that failed to attract enough students.

Fliegel recognizes that choice is not a panacea. ``Choice is not an end in itself but a means toward achieving quality education for all our children,'' he writes.

Much of the book focuses on the battle to keep District Four's alternative schools alive. The central Board of Education and the local teachers' union opposed East Harlem's efforts for years. Some of this detail gets tedious. But there are many lessons for those interested in promoting public-school choice in other parts of the country.

National recognition came more easily for East Harlem's schools than did local acceptance. But in a final vindication for Fliegel and the other pioneers in East Harlem, school choice is being implemented for all New York City schools this fall.

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