Central Park East: High School With a Human Face

By Peggy Farber

Central Park East Secondary School is an alternative public school in New York City’s East Harlem that has replaced the business-as-usual curriculum of today’s high schools with an intimate, creative, course of study that gives teachers a chance to know and instruct their students as individuals. New York journalist Peggy Farber spent several days visiting the school and reports on what she saw.

A walk through the hall of Central Park East Secondary School has the remarkable effect of dispelling the glum impression left by the entrance to the building that houses it. Heading into the school for the first time a visitor might despair – what could the authorities have been thinking of when they put up this prison-like building 30 years ago? In a way, the contrast between the school’s inner exuberance and the Board of Education’s architecture speaks volumes about what makes Central Park East such a successful alternative in the New York City public school system.

Central Park East Secondary School is the latest addition to a tiny network of alternative schools started 15 years ago by a group of teachers backed by an innovative superintendent New York City is divided into 32 local school districts, each with its own local school board and superintendent – a legacy of the 1960’s black power movement and demands for community control of the schools. The central Board of Education is still a powerful force: it mandates the basic policies for the districts; it dispenses funds; and it has the right to supersede all local policy decisions. Nonetheless, the creation of local districts did permit one superintendent, Anthony Alvarado of District 4, to allow a group of teachers the freedom to start a school based on principles and curriculum of their own design.

“At their worst, the city’s schools were never bad in quite the way the public imagined,” Deborah Meier, a founder of the Central Park East schools and a recent winner of a MacArthur Foundation grant, wrote of teaching in New York’s inner-city in a recent issue of Dissent.

“They imagined schools disorderly and chaotic, filled with violence, knives flash­ing. Such things could be seen from time to time, but most of us taught in moderately orderly schools, with generally benign, even at times overly docile, though uninterested, children … Absence of respect for the people who made up the roster of school life – parents, kids, teachers, principals – was what was really driving us crazy.”

With that in mind, Meier, who now he’s the secondary school, and her colleagues came up with some basic rules: the school would be kept small; parents would be included in the  school community; teachers would be given autonomy in their classrooms and would play a central role in figuring out how to make Lhe school work. The secondary school, which will eventually run from 7th through 12th grades, started three years ago with a 7th grade and has been adding a grade a year. According to a 1987 report by David Bensman of Rutgers University, half the students come from families with annual incomes of $12,000 or less. Another quarter are from families whose incomes range from $12,000 to $20,000. 45% of the students are black and another 30% are Hispanic.

A Humanized School Structure

Monday mornings assistant director Herb Rosenfeld gathers a group of visitors – prospective parents, curious educators, a reporter or two, for a tour. Rosenfeld, who teaches math, explains the fundamentals: The school day is stripped down. Instead of eight or nine 40 minute periods a day, there are two two-hour academic blocks. In one, the humanities – literature, history, and the fine arts – are taught in a single curriculum. In the other, math and science are given an hour apiece. No.driver education, no industrial arts, no drafting, a foreign language (Spanish) only for those )Vho feel they need classes to pass a school proficiency exam or truly want to study spanish. “We believe high schools  try to do too much,” he says.

No class has more than 18 students, yet Central Park East gets the same funding that other high schools with classes of 30 or 40 get. This reduced class size is made possible by having a greater proportion of the staff be teachers of academic subjects, having administrators teach, and freeing teachers from non-teaching duties.

The reward is obvious. The average New York City public high school teacher sees 150 to 180 kids a day. Central Park East teachers work with 36 in the humanities, 72 in math and science.

The students are organized into “houses” of 70 to 80 kids and the teachers who teach them. Their entire day takes place in one of the “houses” (actually a half-floor of the school building).

The curriculum comes from the teachers, who seem to be talking constantly – over lunch, in weekly meetings, on staff-wide retreats – about their students, about what’s going on in their classrooms, about what students need to know. The students in this year’s 7th and 8th grades are studying the people of America. Instead of a textbook, they’re using a variety of sources their teachers have dug up. Their assignments require a lot of reading and a lot of independent work. In one house early this year kids read from a textbook about Native Americans, studied a reading, “How to Make a Glacier,” then wrote myths Indians might have used to explain the existence of glaciers.

Four times a week all students meet in groups of 12 or 15 for an hour in what’s called “Advisory.” Some class discussion and record-keeping is conducted, but the main point is to give each student and family a person in the school who knows the child fully. Each teacher has an advisory, and these students become his special charge. “The objective is for me to become the person who knows this kid best,” Rosenfeld says. “I keep track of where he is with his assignments. I speak to his family every third week or so. I phone them. We see ourselves as an extension of the family.”

A Student Perspective

Tamiko Maldonado, 12 years old, transferred to Central Park East from Junior High School 56 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the middle of this year at her mother’s urging. In an off-hand way, she underscores a child’s, even an adolescent’s, basic desire for a good learning environment. “There were 400 plus in the 7th grade. What really got me fed up was hearing two different teachers say all they were there for was to pick up a paycheck. I didn’t want to leave my friends but when I heard those remarks, that did it. I didn’t like the way the teachers taught. They told you to copy out of a book and that’s all. Every class had more than 30 kids. When you’d ask a teacher a question they were uptight.” 

Adults seemed unable to control the school and frustratingly arbitrary. “When you’d pass in the hall, boys would lift up your skirt. Right across the street they were selling drugs. In the school yard there were lots of guards but they didn’t notice what was going on. There was tons of fighting. If a teacher caught you in the hall without a pass, forget it. Even if it was an emergency. Once I had to go to the bathroom and a teacher stopped me just outside the bathroom door and sent me all the way back upstairs.”

When I asked Tamiko what she liked about Central Park East, her answer was immediate. “Teachers know how to teach. When you don’t understand something they explain it to you. They put it into words kids understand.”

She thought for a while when I asked her if she could sum up what most distinguishes Central Park East from her Conner school. “They treat me like I’m me. You don’t have to be anybody else.”

Teachers Work Together

Lunchtime on Mondays the six teachers of one house gather for a weekly meeting. Though there’s clearly a sense of affection in the room, they get down to business right away; they’ve got one hour. Everyone wants to hear from Neil Jaffee, a science teacher, how and when late assignments can be turned in so they can explain this to kids in their advisories, who seem to be confused. Ricky Harris, a humanities teacher, asks if everyone knows he’s set Monday nights aside for phone calls to parents of kids in his advisory. “Let me know if something comes up with one of my kids in one of your classes before Monday so I don’t miss a whole week.” Sue Susman, a humanities teacher, brings up a problem that takes up the rest of the hour – she wants feedback on how she’s handling discipline. There’ve been two incidents that morning – a student who swore at her, and two kids who disrupted a class discussion. The conversation that follows has the seriousness of parents talking about their kids. Jaffe reminds the group that kids this age (12 and 13) still aren’t able to see themselves as other people do, and suggests videotaping them. The conversation is supportive, relaxed and directed, and when Harris announces that it’s five minutes before ‘the kids will be back from lunch, the teachers, who seem restored by their. discussion, pack up and head back to their classrooms looking ready to go.

Later I had a chance to talk to the teachers who were at the meeting. I asked Harris to explain what seemed like an unnatural eagerness to get back to work. “It’s the difference between having five minutes to prepare to see 12 kids and five minutes to get ready for 35. I’ve been with 12 or 15 all morning and I’m going back to 12 as opposed to having seen 75 kids by lunch and looking forward to seeing another 75,” he said.

Before coming to Central Park East Harris worked at an academically strong middle school in Queens that has been cited by the Reagan administration for excellence. Describing his first visit to Central Park East, he said, “What impressed me most was the way people talked about their work. The conversation at lunch wasn’t complaints about kids. Instead it was, what’s wrong with this kid? What can we do about it?”

Harris also articulated an observation that had struck me when I first toured the school. “The kids – I’d Never seen students so involved in what they’re doing. When you teach 160 kids maybe 10 or 15 are really involved with what’s happening. Most are just trying to get away with things. But here, most are really working and maybe two of your 15 are goofing off.”

Bridget Bellettiere teaches math. Before coming to Central Park East she taught at a traditional public school in Chinatown. “I feel that real learning is occurring at this school. It isn’t the type of learning that comes through memorizing or rote. I get to know exactly what they know. I don’t see them for just 40 minutes. They can explain things to me.”

Will the learning that goes on in her classroom prepare them as well for standardized tests as a traditional approach? Not necessarily. Like other teachers I spoke to, Bellettiere has wrestled with the question of whether her students are getting enough facts to perform well on standardized tests, but she also questions whether tests accurately measure a student’s comprehension of mathematical concepts. “My concern is, can they reason? Are they learning what they need to know to be good thinkers the rest of their lives? Standardized math test tend to test vocabulary, and my kids might have some trouble with that. But look, in regular traditional school there’s n guarantee their needs will be met. I knQY the kids who will do well on standardized tests. And I know the others have to be approached differently.”

Sue Susman’s advisory includes Tamik Maldonado. I followed up on something Tamiko had mentioned, that when she first came home from school without textbooks her mother worried they’d made a mistake. Tamiko said her mother had been reassured by talking to Susman. What had Susma told her? “I called her as I do all new parents in my advisory within the first few days. She wondered if she’d made the right choice, if Tamiko was going to get enough work. Also, our assignments are somewhat vaguer than what they were used to. We don’t give kids nightly assignment sheets. I said we hadn’t found a textbook that had kids look at things the way we want them to, and that we put more responsibility on students. Generally, we give them a list of things due in a week. She became reassured very quickly when she saw the assignment Tamiko was bringing home. She liked the overall questions being posed by this year’s study (of immigration). The ‘idea composition’ helped.” (Every Friday, humanities students must talk to a parent or other adult about an issue from the week’ classes and then write a composition about it.)

The Senior Institute

In a little more than a year, the first students will complete tenth grade. Then they will enter the senior institute, a program being hammered out this year by staffer Haven Henderson in consultation with the faculty and with input from the families. Henderson’s plan calls for a major departure from the traditional 11th and 12th grade curriculum.

Students won’t be assigned to grade levels but instead will spend two years completing a set of challenging graduation requirements which will include a work­ study experience, a graduation portfolio, an in-depth research project, a post-graduation plan, as well as academic coursework. The main academic requirement will be a “great books” seminar offered on a local college campus and created jointly by Central Park East and scholars of African, Asian and Western thought.

Henderson explains that students will have to demonstrate their mastery of several academic subjects with essays and other kinds of exhibitions that will make up their portfolios. The post-graduation plan will be a highly individualized scheme wor;. out by the student, his family and the school, and might include preparing for a job hunt by writing a resume and practicing interviewing techniques, or visiting colleges, preparing for SAT’s and filling out college applications.

Respect and Intimacy

Deborah Meier says American high schools are the most anonymous institution ever invented, including factories, prisons and the army. “Kids rarely see the same kids every day. Teachers don’t know their students except as a number out of the 150 they see every day. Teachers don’t even know each other. They don’t have periods off together. There’s no assumption they have important things to meet about. And certainly there are no situations where teachers meet families. The only way kids get to know other kids is in ways the school doesn’t cooperate with, like talking in the bathrooms or hanging out outside.”

A project independent of Central Park East that’s taken educators into schools around New York draws strikingly simiar conclusions. For ten years the American Jewish Committee has conducted multi­ ethnic training sessions in  metropolitan area schools. The first thing Irving Levine and his colleagues do when they get into a school is talk separately to teachers and students and ask each group what bothers it most about the other. “It’s really striking to us. The answer always comes out the same way,” Levine says. “Teachers complain that students don’t have enough respect – for themselves, each other, for teachers. And students complain about a lack of intimacy. They say, ‘The teacher doesn’t know me, I’m just a number.’ They express an enormous need to relate to adults and for adults to tune into their problems.”

What strikes the visitor most about Central Park East is how simple the solution seems when you see it in action. Humanize schools, make them places where children feel known and valued, where teachers feel responsible and autonomous, and you’ll gel a place where a mood of respect touches everyone and where learning of a deeply personal and rigorous nature can flourish. 

Peggy Farber is a journalist who lives in New York City.