How East Harlem hatched a model for public school choice
Hailed as a "miracle," a "reinvention," and even an "educational revolution," Community School District Four in East Harlem, New York City introduced a vision of public school choice almost three decades ago that transformed a district and provided an exemplary model for school districts nationally.
Encompassing one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, District Four serves a population of 14,000 elementary and middle school students, primarily Black and Latino. For decades, the District struggled with patterns of student failure and dissatisfaction from parents, students, and teachers alike.
In 1973, District Four ranked dead last among New York City’s 32 community school districts. Yet in just eight years, the District jumped ahead of 17 other city districts in students’ reading achievement, from 32nd to 15th. The percentage of students reading at grade level also rose dramatically, from 15 percent in 1974 to 62 percent in 1988.
What lies behind this drastic jump in student accomplishment is not an unexplainable miracle. It is a story of how a District carefully and equitably extended public school choices to teachers, principals, and all families in the District and, in turn, gave new energy, enthusiasm, and hope to a system that had been noted for its failure.
New schools, new approaches
In the mid-1970s, when this turnaround took shape, District Four leaders began allowing educators and administrators the professional leeway to establish distinct and small schools with individualized philosophies and allowing parents and children to enroll in the schools based on choice rather than neighborhood lines.
Quickly, new schools with specific approaches were started in the District. Deborah Meier, now a well-known school reformer, started an elementary school with an "open classroom" approach. One junior high school focused on the performing arts. Another school was designed to extend the primary school approach through the middle grades.
These schools marked a departure from bureaucratic micromanagement to a system that embraced a philosophy that different children learn in different ways, different teachers teach in different ways, and all should be able to teach and learn in a supportive environment.
Principals at these schools were given the ability to handpick their teachers. The need for a cohesive vision among staff members trumped seniority and other policies that typically directed which teachers would teach at a school.
The schools were open to all families in District Four, regardless of where they lived.
Making school choice equitable
By 1982, the District faced new challenges. Former Director of District Four’s Office of Alternative Schools Seymour Fliegel recalls in Miracle in East Harlem, his book about District Four, "As the popularity of the schools swelled, so did the competition to get in, and this posed new problems. We had to devise a new system that allocated kids to schools in an equitable manner."
In this new system, every student in District Four was required to choose a junior high instead of being automatically assigned to one; neighborhood boundaries for junior high schools no longer existed.
In the first year, 60 percent of students were given their first choice. Where there were more applicants than slots, the majority of the area’s schools used lotteries — not stringent admission criteria — and several were aimed specifically at low-performing children.
Students and families were supported in making educated decisions about middle school options with the help of knowledgeable sixth grade teachers, information booklets, and comprehensive school fairs. Some principals and teachers visited homes to encourage families to learn more about their schools. Many schools required students and parents to visit before a child could enroll.
"In District Four, the process by which students move from elementary to junior high school is an important part of the student’s education, an opportunity to teach lessons about decision-making," Fliegel wrote in Miracle in East Harlem.
According to District Four insiders, the triumph of the school choice plan was the active commitment that each student and family were compelled to make to their school. The mechanism of choice invested students more deeply into a school than if they had been simply assigned to it.
The system of universal choice was attentive to equity issues — it was designed to avoid having winners and losers.
Mandatory choice today
The system of mandatory districtwide school choice in District 4 continues today.
In 1992, citing the success of District Four, New York City opened a variety of schools to students regardless of zoning.
Ultimately, however, all of New York City has not seen overwhelming change. Universal, informed choice as Fliegel and the creators of the District Four model describe it does not effectively exist throughout the city.
Even the monumental gains of District Four seem to have peaked. And the choice debate in the city has mostly come to concentrate on vouchers and other private options instead of public school choice, mirroring national trends.
Yet, the lasting impact of the transformation of District Four has been the introduction of choice into the arena of public education, according to Fliegel.
Moreover, the changes in District Four and the schools of choice are a demonstration that when used as a catalyst to inspire teachers and families to create and believe in new options for all students, choice for all in the public school system can generate significant results.