Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

School Choice in East Harlem

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

School Choice in East Harlem

Article excerpt

THE school-choice debate has only recently caught the public's attention. Yet an unassuming district in New York City has been offering its students a choice of schools for more than a decade.

By telling the story of East Harlem's District Four in "Miracle in East Harlem: The Fight for Choice in Public Education," Seymour Fliegel sheds light on the heated national discussion of public-school choice. Fliegel, who wrote the book with James MacGuire, served as an administrator in District Four for more than a decade.

The American tradition of assigning students to the closest neighborhood school has deep roots, and many parents and educators cannot imagine changing it. But District Four dared to try something new and succeeded in creating a national model.

Although the writing is rough and Fliegel often seems to be straining to pat himself on the back for his role in District Four's success, the book focuses on a worthy subject. And sometimes the folksy approach yields a compelling anecdote.

Take, for example, Fliegel's explanation of what school choice is all about: "The idea of choice is simple," he writes. "I live in Queens today, but when I want to get a haircut I still get in the car and drive back to the Bronx where I grew up. I pay six dollars in tolls to exercise this choice - but getting a haircut is serious business to me. How much more serious business is the freedom to choose a child's school!"

To understand the "miracle" of East Harlem, it is important to know that District Four is larger than many entire school systems: It has 15,000 students, 800 teachers, and 50 schools.

In 1974, District Four was the worst of the city's 32 school districts. Only 16 percent of the students were reading at their grade level. By 1987, the district had moved into 15th place, and 63 percent of students were reading at their appropriate level. …

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