COLUMN ONE : E. Harlem Makes Its 'Choice' : Innovative inner-city schools win wide praise. But critics charge they aren't the whole answer.


East Harlem is inner-city America: where crack sells in rubble-caked lots, guns sound in the night, public housing darkens under graffiti, abandoned tenements rot on decrepit streets and tattered men just hang around.

"You don't walk around here at night," said Allister Whitman, who supervises the speech programs in East Harlem's public schools. "If you walk around 109th Street," said Leslie Moore, director of a junior high school on that street, "you will see lines forming for crack. Parents are slowly dying of AIDS."

Yet, here is where the Bush Administration has embraced the public schools as a model for the rest of the country. The Administration looks on East Harlem as the shining example of the educational reform known as "choice"--a tradition-shattering grant of authority to parents to select public schools for their children.

On close inspection, however, East Harlem appears to be a flawed model. Although the schools have instilled a new exuberance and spirit of learning, the claims about the impact of choice on educational achievement may be overblown.

East Harlem school officials, in a boast frequently echoed by the Bush Administration, say that reading scores have improved sharply in the last 15 years. They do not say what the statistics also show: that the improvements in reading scores seem to result from other factors--a citywide improvement in reading levels, for example, and a switch to a different standardized test--that have nothing to do with choice. Nor is there any evidence that choice has dented the dropout and illiteracy rates of the school district in any way.

For all that, the elementary and junior high schools of East Harlem are in fact a cluster of oases in the inner city of New York. A near-wondrous pride has infused the schools since the district started 15 years ago to institute a series of reforms, including giving parents some choice as to the school their children will attend.

"This is the best school in the world," shouted a youngster to a visitor the other day in front of Junior High School 45 on First Avenue. The spirit is determined and infectious.

President Bush, frequently citing East Harlem, has called choice "perhaps the single most promising" idea for reforming education in America. Education Secretary Lauro F. Cavazos, once lukewarm about the idea, now proclaims that "choice is the cornerstone of educational change."

The Bush Administration, opening a nationwide campaign to sell choice, held a two-day conference in East Harlem in mid-October that turned into an emotional celebration of the neighborhood's schools. The Administration has already held a second regional conference in Minneapolis, and it plans additional sessions this month in Charlotte, N.C., Denver and Richmond, Calif.--all areas where schools allow choice.

None of the other school districts has had as much experience with choice as East Harlem. Nor has any offered quantified documentation of its educational results.

In the most extensive experiment, the state of Minnesota allowed all students beginning this school year to transfer to any school in the state so long as the move did not upset the racial balance of schools under court desegregation orders. So far, 3,500 students--0.5% of all children in Minnesota's public education system--have chosen to transfer.

Richmond, which has conducted California's most extensive experiment, has encouraged parents since 1987 to choose schools best suited to their children. To attract children this school year, Richmond transformed 48 of its 50 schools into specialty schools concentrating on such fields as international affairs or classical studies.

For some years, Los Angeles and other California school districts have also provided "magnet schools" designed to attract students citywide into an ethnic mix--a kind of precursor of choice.

Conservatives favor choice because, apart from not costing any money, it seems to apply the rules of free markets to public education. Thomas Sobol, who as New York state education commissioner is skeptical about the concept, says the conferences on choice "have the air of revival meetings."

In a passionate plea at the East Harlem conference, Republican Gov. Thomas Kean of New Jersey likened traditional American school systems to the meager goods on the shelves of groceries in the Soviet Union. After describing his glimpses of dispiriting shops on a recent Soviet visit, Kean asked: "How different is it from the way we run the most important government-run industry in this country?"

Choice's opponents are just as ideologically fervent. Barbara Dandridge, administrative assistant to the House Education and Labor Committee, accused the Education Department of "going around the country selling snake oil. Do we really want to subject our children to the dog-eat-dog atmosphere of the marketplace?"

Sobol warned: "We must not simply think that an open market alone will create quality--unless we believe that MTV and shopping malls are the highest quality that we can produce."

No American school district has practiced choice longer than East Harlem. And no one can accuse the officials, teachers and parents of East Harlem--a liberal bastion of the Democratic Party--of blinding themselves with their fervor for conservative philosophy.

The schools of District 4, as the East Harlem area is officially designated, were in a woeful, depressing state two decades ago. Leslie Moore, who came from Buffalo as an art teacher in 1968, recalled: "It was not uncommon to see chairs go out the window. It was not uncommon to refuse to turn your back on the children. It was not a safe environment. I was totally upset, frustrated and discouraged."

John Falco, now assistant superintendent of the district, said absenteeism was rampant, not only among students but teachers as well. "If we had 80% attendance by pupils on any day, we were ecstatic," he said. "We had a junior high school with 120 teachers. If we had as few as 20 absent on any given day, we were excited."

In the early 1970s, Moore and a few other teachers persuaded Anthony Alvarado, the young, dynamic superintendent of the district, to try a few new programs that might attract youngsters and infuse the system with some creativity and discipline. "We took risks," recalled Bernard Diamond, now principal of Public School 117, "because we had nowhere to go but up."

Alvarado started three alternative schools in the 1973-1974 school year: a performing arts school, a school for difficult students and what teachers call an "open education" school, where students work at their own individual pace in an environment that looks less structured than the traditional classroom.

Over the years, teachers were encouraged to propose different kinds of schools that might interest the district's torpid youngsters. Seymour Fliegel, who was deputy superintendent during much of this period, said: "Our message to teachers was: 'Come forth with your ideas. Tell us what your dreams are. We'll put you into business.' Well, they did."

The district also started "magnet" schools with specialized, high-quality programs that could attract bright students from all over the city. By 1982, district officials felt there were so many good junior high schools with so many different programs that parents could choose the one most suitable for their children.

Parents have much less choice about where to send their children to elementary school. There are five magnet elementary schools for bright children, but children not admitted to these schools are assigned to the closest of the 28 regular schools.

The East Harlem school board now runs 52 small elementary and junior high schools in 20 school buildings in the district, which extends from 96th Street to 125th Street on the east side of Central Park. All the schools are small, and the massive old junior high school buildings house as many as five separate schools.

Of the 14,000 students, 60% are Latino and 35% are black. Those living in East Harlem come from families with a median income of $8,300 a year, the lowest in Manhattan. More than one-third of the families are on welfare. There are 1,500 students who travel to East Harlem from outside the district to attend the magnet schools.

At the junior high school level, students choose from a menu of 19 schools, which include not only traditional schools but also an academy of environmental science, a maritime school, two schools with private college prep atmosphere, a college for human services, a school for health and biomedical studies, a technical school, two performing arts schools, a school for math and science, a school for science and humanities, a school for underachievers, a music school, a technical school for communication arts and computer science and a bilingual school with Spanish and English classes.

Not all students get their first choice. Several schools have more applicants than places and select students after interviews and examination. Elementary school teachers look for underachievers who have potential and push them to the Key School, a small junior high with a staff trained to help such children. The district has 1,000 other children--classified as "at risk"--who have fallen so far behind that they cannot attend regular classes but must be enrolled in what New York officials call "special education."

These innovations have set off giddy changes in the mood of District 4. Assistant Superintendent Falco says student attendance is now well over 90% and teacher morale is so high that teachers throughout the city are trying to transfer to East Harlem. The atmosphere is warm and vibrant.

Pride abounds. Sharabee Briscoe, a ninth-grader at the Key School for underachievers, brassily showed off her classrooms recently, tossing off glib judgments, mostly favorable, about her teachers. "I used to be failing, getting 60s," she said. "Then I came here. I got 75s, then 85s. Now I'm doing 90s."

Isidore Bernstein, the principal of Junior High School 45 on First Avenue, which houses a regular junior high school, the East Harlem Center for Health and Bio-Medical Studies, the Communications Arts Center, the East Harlem Maritime School and the Rafael Cordero Bilingual School, says some students are so happy to be in their school that they walk 20 blocks to reach it every morning.

"Twenty blocks isn't a big thing in terms of Abraham Lincoln," Bernstein says. "But when you walk across East Harlem, you walk across turfs. Five blocks is too much."

Parents in inner cities usually pay scant attention to schools. They are too busy trying to struggle for a living or too uninterested or too frightened of government and bureaucracy.

But choice has encouraged the parents of East Harlem to take extraordinary interest. They feel so possessive about the schools that they seem to hover over them, often helping out teachers as volunteer aides.

Education Secretary Cavazos discovered the intense interest of the parents rather unexpectedly one uncomfortable evening at the recent conference when parent after parent, some speaking English and some speaking Spanish, berated him and the federal government for refusing to give East Harlem a $1.4-million grant for magnet schools this year.

But, while the mood is easy to sense, the academic achievement is harder to document.

Every federal government publication describing the East Harlem schools cites a single dramatic statistic to prove the worth of choice. In 1974, only 15.3% of the students in District 4 could read at or above the norm for their grade level. In 1988, the proportion had quadrupled to 62.5%.

The figures, although true, are misleading. District 4 achieved its largest increases in reading in 1975 (13 percentage points), when the choice program was just barely getting under way, and in 1986 (9.5 percentage points), when New York City changed its reading test. All schools in New York achieved similar increases in reading level in those same years.

If reading levels are measured from 1981, the year before choice was officially inaugurated in East Harlem, the results are still favorable. In that year, 44.3% of the pupils of District 4 were reading at their grade level or better.

The 62.5% of 1988 represents substantial improvement. But the percentage of all students of New York City public schools who read at grade level or better increased from 50.8% in 1981 to 65% in 1988, a nearly equal increase. The somewhat better results achieved by District 4 could be accounted for by the large numbers of students--more than one out 10--who attend East Harlem magnet schools from outside the district.

Moreover, District 4 officials have no records about what happens to their students once they go on to high schools, which are run by the citywide board of education. They can offer no documentary evidence that they have reduced the dropout rate in East Harlem.

Scandal has tainted the district. Alvarado's record as superintendent was so impressive that New York named him chancellor of the entire city school system in 1983. A year later, however, he had to resign when accused of financial impropriety--mainly borrowing money from people working under him when he headed the schools in District 4.

Carlos Medina, Alvarado's successor as superintendent of District 4, was forced to resign last December when he and other officials were accused of using a school fund to pay for personal expenses.

Yet these scandals have evidently not diminished the ardor of parents for their "schools of choice" in District 4, a measure of the extraordinary popularity of the schools.

Principals and teachers have turned around a system that would have gnarled the spirit of even the brightest of youngsters. Choice may not be so responsible as the intimacy that the small schools have achieved and the soaring spirits that they have spawned among both students and teachers. Regardless, the reforms have encouraged the potential of students who might have been intimidated by the chaos of the old schools.

On a recent school day, Nelda Rios, director of the Rafael Cordero Bilingual School, hugged a young boy who came from the Dominican Republic a year ago and has now graduated to the highest English class. "We are here to serve people like Maximo," she said. "They are very bright, and we don't want children like him to fall by the way."

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