CPE 1 and the Agonizing Death of Progressive Education

The ongoing fight over the future of Central Park East 1 elementary school is not something that we in the charter sector should ignore. The history of CPE 1 is a critical part of the longer, ongoing struggle for increased autonomy in public schools, and the lessons learned in its birth back in the 1970’s were carried by educational visionaries to the Itasca meeting in 1988 which led to the first charter law in Minnesota.

One of those visionaries was Sy Fliegel, the president of CEI-PEA whose book, Miracle in East Harlem, should be required reading for everyone who cares about the history of public education in NYC. The book is a moving testament to the power of autonomy and the perseverance of people like Chancellor Anthony Alvarado and Debbie Meier, the founding principal of CPE 1, who forced change in a stodgy educational bureaucracy (sound familiar?) and led an educational renaissance in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

C3S staff had visited CPE 1 several times a few years ago in our search for public progressive school models. And we found the atmosphere charming and infectious – very much like what we experience at some of our great independent charter schools.

Sadly, CPE 1, once a beacon of progressive, child-centered education, now finds itself on a forced march back to district conformity.

I’ve been wanting to write about this ever since the NYTimes broke the story in May, but schools are complicated places, school stories have many sides and Debbie Meier herself was silent on the subject until yesterday when Susan Ochshorn published Debbie’s written response on her early education blog.

This is a big deal for those of us who care about child-centered, progressive public education and who simultaneously believe that a charter is an appropriate means by which we can make such education happen. These were, in fact, the dreams that many of us brought to the enterprise of standing up a charter school. But those dreams often clashed with the harsh reality of producing measurable (and immediate) outcomes. And in an age of hyper-accountability, obsession over outcomes can lay waste to some very fine dreams. So goes CPE 1.

Now Debbie Meier, as many of you know, is not a big fan of charter schools, though she is a whole lot more nuanced about their existence than her blogging buddy, Ms. Ravitch. In fact, Debbie has had some great up and back posts with Joe Nathan, another visionary charter champion from the Itasca meeting days. Unlike Ms. Ravitch, however, Debbie does understand the power of choice, which is very clear from her letter.

But, oh how I wish she would have championed a “charter conversion” at CPE 1 and wonder if now, given the sad truth that the DoE giveth and the DoE taketh away, she realizes that taking that last step towards real autonomy might have sealed the school’s legacy.

Very few chancellors are risk-takers like Anthony Alvarado, and the tendency of all large school districts is to inevitably force all schools into a regression to the norm. In the case of CPE 1 the regression process took 40 years –- so I suppose we should at least celebrate what happened during the time the school was master of its own destiny.

And then we should continue to take a harder look at what autonomy could and should mean for all public schools. After all, that was the point of the NYS Charter School Act of 1998, was it not?

By the way, charter schools are public schools and C3S supports all public education. That’s not just a tag line here. We mean it.

Steve Zimmerman, Co-director of C3S

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