Harlem’s School Choice


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 Hill–Brownsville, 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.

Parents loved what Cleary and her staff began referring to as “the new P.S.194.” “It changed tremendously,” says Ruby Bragg, a parent.

“You actually know what’s going on in the classroom,” Ta-Tanisha Rice, another PTA official, says. “It makes it easier to understand what to be helping your child with at home.”

Teachers say that word about the changes spread quickly in Harlem. Several families enrolled their children at P.S.194 in the middle of the year. A man who gave his name as Rabbi Adams said he was happy with the school after transferring his daughter from P.S.197 on Fifth Avenue. “It was better,” he said. “The kids wasn’t running through the hallways. They was disciplined.”

The feeling of being on the rise made it even more painful when, in December, DOE staffers approached P.S.194 parents on a somber mission. The Bloomberg administration had decided, just five months into Cleary’s tenure, to shut down Countee Cullen.

“We have no doubt that Principal Cleary is a strong principal. But the question is, are we going to get to the level where a school is high-performing with just a principal change?” explains John White, the department’s chief portfolio officer. “It was our assessment that a more significant intervention was required.”

Though White and other officials met with parent leaders individually to give them the news, parents were furious that they were asking them not whether to close P.S.194, but instead what kind of a new school they wanted in its place. Eventually, the city announced it would install a charter school, that, though it has yet to produce a year of test scores, has become hugely popular in Harlem. Parents of current P.S.194 students would have first preference in the school’s lottery. But no matter how many times somebody explained that it was their interests the city was looking out for, parents could not shake the feeling that they’d been duped.

Beyond Z

As P.S.194 parents were envisioning their school’s death, five blocks away, another school was being born.

Located on the third floor of P.S.123 in Harlem, Harlem Success Academy 2 is the second in a chain of charter schools launched by former City Council member Eva Moskowitz, who quit politics in 2005 (temporarily—she says she plans to run for mayor one day). Moskowitz had been the no-nonsense chair of the Council’s Education Committee, holding tough hearings on the problems posed by restrictive labor contracts and the importance of science education. The Harlem Success schools, she has promised, will not only educate poor children at a high level, but also offer creative pursuits like art, chess, and science.

On a recent visit to H.S.A.2, nicknamed “the Deuce” by its good-humored principal Jim Manly, the walls were so covered with children’s work that it was impossible to look anywhere and not see a burst of words, numbers, and colors. When a girl clad in the orange-and-blue Harlem Success uniform walked to the bathroom before lunch, she had a rich choice of things to look at: There were the colorful action heroes with photos of children’s faces for heads, the art projects made of colored Popsicle sticks, the books the kindergartners had written.

The girl chose to look at the ground, where teachers had pasted a strip of numbers, one on every other tile. She skipped from 61 to 66, then turned into the bathroom.

“We’re just trying to saturate them,” Moskowitz said, explaining the number line.

Knowledge saturation is an important principle at the school. Writing instruction begins in kindergarten, and every student has science class every day. Instead of the drill-and-kill that is popular at other city charter schools, where math is taught by having students memorize basic arithmetic facts, teachers at Harlem Success use a curriculum that forces students to understand the “why” as well as the “what” of math. “It’s not good enough to say the answer; you have to prove it,” a teacher was telling first-graders that day.

A lifelong educator, Jim Manly was a leader at a charter school in Teaneck, New Jersey, for seven years before returning to New York City, where his teaching career began. Unlike Cleary, he had an entire year to prepare before his school opened. He spent the year nestled at Harlem Success Academy 1, the first branch of the network, where he planned, hired a staff, and soaked in the burgeoning school culture. All Harlem Success schools draw inspiration from the Dr. Seuss book, On Beyond Zebra, beloved by Moskowitz for its urging that children think beyond the letter Z; the words “Beyond Z” are stamped on posters around the school.

Manly also benefited from the supports that Moskowitz and her central office staff have built to handle the non-education-related challenges of running a school, the kinds of things that the DOE handles for traditional public schools. The system’s strength was on display that day, when Moskowitz strolled into a kindergarten classroom and realized that lightbulbs had burst in one of the ceiling’s window fixtures. “I see a light is out here,” she said quietly, and then pulled her BlackBerry out of the holster that seems permanently attached to her belt. She composed an e-mail and typed, “Light is out in ms. althoff’s. Pl. fix. Thanks.”

Ten minutes later, the school’s operations manager, a 2007 college graduate named Alex MacMullan, ran into Moskowitz in the school’s main office and vowed to have the light changed by the end of the day.

Manly said the attentive operations support allows him to spend more of his time meeting with students and teachers. Harlem Success parents marvel that their principal can greet every single student by name at the door each morning. Manly also observes at least two teachers while they work every day, collecting ideas for how to help them improve.

“What Jim has created is as close to educational nirvana as I’ve ever seen,” Moskowitz said that day, sitting with Manly.

Letting that thought sink in, she paused and added, “I can’t believe we’re having to fight our way into doing these things.”

The Road Ahead

On the day of the hearing, some staff at P.S.194 said they didn’t like the fact that most charter schools’ teachers are not represented by unions. One even pleaded with the DOE to “save our jobs.”

But the loudest complaint among P.S.194 supporters has nothing to do with Harlem Success or the fact that its teachers aren’t represented by a union.

Cleary even declared her support for Moskowitz’s approach to school improvement. “I run it like a charter school,” she said of P.S.194. “Eva Moskowitz and I are no different in this regard: We believe in academic excellence, and we believe in choice.”

The problem, declared Morgan Curry, who lives across the street from P.S.194 and whose mother is a longtime employee there, was that, in its efforts to give families access to a better education, the Bloomberg administration had failed to consider a key constituency: the families themselves.

“It’s not what you’re doing, it’s how you’re doing it,” she said. “You do not come into our community and tell us what to do.”

For Rice, it’s about keeping what they have already built—the PTA that she is so dedicated to, the chess program, the book club—and giving it a chance to grow. “All schools need that opportunity to thrive, and I do not think that 194 has had that opportunity,” she said.

These complaints climaxed in a full-blown lawsuit filed last month by the teachers’ union and the NYCLU, along with parents who felt they hadn’t been properly consulted. Faced with charges that replacing zoned schools with charters represented an unlawful redrawing of district lines, the DOE last week backed off closing P.S.194 and the other schools—though only, officials said, to avoid “confusion” created by the lawsuit. Next fall, Harlem Success Academy 2 will either stay put or share space with P.S.194—which could still face closing in the future.

For her part, Cleary never gave up her hope of turning her school around from the inside. “Yes, a failing school should be closed, or you change the leadership,” she said at the hearing, addressing a line of city officials taking notes. “But you don’t know me, and you don’t know what we’ve been busy doing.”

“So let us find a solution,” she concluded, her voice shaking with tears, “and let us not hurt one another doing it.”

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