Harlem's School Choice

Parents and the city face off over whether to rescue a failing school—or replace it

The Harlem sky had already begun to darken and school had been over for a good two hours, when a line of serious-faced teachers marched into the principal's office at P.S.194 early last month. They plopped five long, rectangular cardboard boxes on a table. The boxes held hats printed with the words "Save Our School."

It was not the first time that someone had tried to save P.S.194, the elementary school on West 144th Street that has been beset by dwindling enrollment and pitiful grades in recent years.

But the latest drive to save P.S.194 was not over whether to save the school, but how to do it. One approach, favored by the people in the "Save Our School" hats, was to improve the school from the inside, preserving its name—Countee Cullen, for the Harlem Renaissance poet—its place in the school district, the unionization of its teachers, and its neighborhood school model of taking in any child in its assigned zone who signs up.

The other approach, supported by the city, was to shut down Countee Cullen and replace it with an entirely new model of public schooling: a charter school that receives public funds but does not operate under the Department of Education's purview.

The debate pit Harlem parents against parents, but also erupted into an all-out political drama featuring some of the most powerful groups in the city. The Bloomberg administration had thrown significant political capital behind the idea that struggling schools like Countee Cullen must be shut down, making a bet that charter schools are better fit to educate Harlem children than the schools operated by the mayor's own DOE. (Two other public elementary schools, another in Harlem and one in Ocean HillBrownsville, were also slated to be replaced by charter schools next year.)

Meanwhile, the politically powerful teachers' union and its high-profile president, Randi Weingarten, made the issue of keeping the traditional public schools open a cause célèbre. Working with the New York Civil Liberties Union, and supported by a raft of elected officials, the union filed a lawsuit calling the DOE's moves illegal.

The lawsuit ultimately led the department to back off the school-closing plan for the time being. But school officials stand behind the principle that the relatively new charter schools hold more promise.

The theatrical politics makes for dramatic headlines. But the people who will be affected the most are not the mayor or the union, but the children of Harlem. And what matters to them is not whether the charter schools win or not: It's what kind of school they can expect to go to next year.

A Phoenix, Rising From the Dust

P.S.194's decline accelerated in recent years. Over the past 10 years, the school lost almost 300 students. Over five years, it cycled through four principals, and every year, at least a third of its teachers would leave in search of a better place to teach. When the Bloomberg administration's DOE first handed out report card grades to schools two years ago, the school was one of 50 in the city to get an F.

But many parents and teachers felt last July that they got a breath of fresh air in the form of a new principal, Charyn Koppelson Cleary, a Bronx native with a kind face, long dreadlocks, and silver bangles on her wrists.

Cleary had spent the past six years as an assistant principal in the Bronx, where she learned firsthand how to change a school's culture. Now, a slew of parents, teachers, and administrators at the school attest to the fact that Cleary threw herself into the project of rehabilitating Countee Cullen. Before the school year began, staffers recall, she gathered her whole faculty, from the teachers to the security officer to the secretary, in what she called a "circle of change." Each person talked about what needed changing at the school. "The good news," Cleary told them, according to people who were there, "is that 94 or 95 percent of the stuff you guys are talking about, we can change."

In some ways, Cleary was constrained in her efforts. She could not hire a staff of her own, since the bulk of the teachers were inherited from the school's previous years. She could not ask the custodian to repaint the entire building, since his contract only permitted a certain percentage. But she did the best she could, asking for the neediest rooms to get fresh paint and finagling a handful of other educators she trusted onto the payroll.

The staff set off with high spirits; one faculty member called Countee Cullen a "phoenix, rising from the dust." Cleary taught teachers new ways to teach children to read. She showed them how to use the city data system, ARIS, to study their students' weak spots. She helped them get creative, too: One teacher filled out a grant application to give the children dance clothes. Another group started a recorder orchestra. After discovering that Countee Cullen had run a champion chess team years ago, Cleary ordered chess tables and started a club.

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