Cinderella education story waits for fairy-tale ending

New Yorkers are often accused of making inflated claims about the importance of their city. But when they call the Big Apple the birthplace of school choice, they're not too far off the mark. The experience of School District 4 here in the 1970s clearly sowed the early seeds of the choice movement and provided impetus for the nation's first charter-school legislation in Minnesota.

But while the District 4 story has important lessons to offer about the power of choice, it also serves as a cautionary tale, illustrating some of the difficulties involved in sustaining widespread, systemic reform.

The first part of the story reads like a Cinderella tale. In the early 1970s, it would have been hard to find a more troubled set of schools than those in District 4. In 1973, the district - which lies in East Harlem, one of the city's toughest and poorest neighborhoods - was at the absolute bottom of the academic barrel, ranked 32nd of the city's 32 school districts, with only 15 percent of students reading at grade level.

Then came school choice. Starting in 1974, a group of community leaders, concerned parents, and educational innovators moved to create 23 small alternative junior highs. Magnet schools - which typically serve only a small percentage of a district -were also popular at the time, but the District 4 experiment moved beyond that concept. By 1982, every sixth-grader in the district was required to choose among the alternative programs. Unlike many magnet schools, each junior high program was small -about 250 students. Most were designed around themes such as performing arts, environmental science, and marine biology. A number of alternative elementary schools were created as well.

By 1981, average test scores for District 4 students had soared to 15th in the city for reading and 21st for math, with 50 percent of students in the district reading at grade level. The number of kids from the district gaining admission to the city's most competitive public high schools jumped from 10 in 1973 to more than 300 a year by the mid-1980s.

Educators from across the country took notice. The concept of empowering parents, teachers, and communities by opening the door to innovation and offering school choice met with an enthusiastic response in many quarters. A visit made by District 4 officials to Minneapolis in 1988 is credited with sparking interest in choice in that state.

Yet there has been no fairy-tale ending for District 4. The much heralded "miracle" there has proved hard to sustain. By 1992, only 38 percent of the district's students were reading at grade level and District 4 now ranks 20th out of 32.

Some see the district's struggles as a pointed lesson that school reform requires a deep commitment, and cannot function as a quick fix. What blindsided District 4 was a loss of vision, says Seymour Fliegel, formerly the district's director of alternative programs and today president of the Center for Educational Innovation in New York. The original leaders were replaced by others "who didn't buy into the vision," he says, although he points out the district is making gains again today.

Sustaining positive change is always a challenge, says Paul Nachtigal, president of the Annenberg Rural Challenge in Granby, Colo. In the early 1970s, Mr. Nachtigal did a study for the Ford Foundation of schools affected by reform efforts in the 1960s. He discovered that initial gains generally faded with the passage of time, as teachers and administrators who were initially inspired by reform slid back toward old ways.

"We weren't very smart then" about sustaining change, he says. "I hope we're smarter today."

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