Central Park East I
Manhattan NY 10029
Exploration and discovery-based approach
Friction between principal, staff and parents
Walk into Central Park East I, and you'll see collages and cardboard sculptures in the hallway, smell corn muffins baking, and hear kids chatting animatedly. For some, this flagship progressive school has too many field trips and not enough math drills; for others, it is a delight and refugea staunch rebel taking a stand for discovery and play in a bland, standardized testing world. No matter which side you're on, this tiny school has a critical place in the New York City public school system.
Central Park East was founded in 1974 by Deborah Meier, a visionary teacher, whose work has had a profound effect on education in New York City and the nation. Her belief that schools should be small, humane, democratic places where children learn how to learn and how to think for themselves helped spark a revival of progressive education in the city and the nation.
It's hard to imagine how revolutionary Central Park East and its two sister schools, Central Park East II and River East, were when they first openedand how much influence they've had on education in the past four decades.
At a time when other schools had desks in rows, Central Park East had tables and sofas. At a time when other schools tracked children into classes for "smart" and "dumb" kids, Central Park East put kids of different abilities and even different ages into the same class (kindergarten and 1st, 2nd and 3rd, and 4th and 5th grades, are combined).
Instead of accepting racial segregation as a given, Central Park East has always sought, celebrated and attracted an integrated student body.
Even today, Central Park East represents progressive education in its purest form. Children put together vast cities from wooden blocks and build covered wagons or puppet theaters with hammers and saws. They sing, dance reels, and make sculptures of the human body complete with internal organs.
Teachers say much of what is taught here can't be measured by multiple-choice tests and most families opt out of state tests as a crude measure of child development. What this community values is the ability to work with others, the ability to find the answers to questions of interest and the ability to delve into projects in detail over a long period of time. "Work time" is central to the CPE wayan open-ended period of time during which children pursue creative projects of interest to them culminating in a fantastic museum showing off what kids can do filled with volcanoes and buildings and dioramas.
The criticism of the CPE schools over the yearsand of progressive education in generalhas been that too many children fail to master basic skills such as the multiplication tables, dates in history, spelling and punctuation. Over the decades the school has clashed with new waves of standards or City Education Department mandates and new principals who want more focus on skills, more tests to measure progress, and more uniformity between classes.
Monika Garg, formerly an assistant principal at Pan American International School in Queens, was named principal in 2015 and her first year was embroiled in conflict.
Where some see CPE as a standard-bearer for progressive education, Garg saw a school entrenched in bad habits. Early in her first year, a few parents shared anecdotes about children not knowing fractions or grammar in middle school. In turn, Garg asked her teachers to consider curriculum, more assessments and a checklist of skills that could follow a child from grade to grade. "If you're in a fish bowl," she saidvisited by educators from as far away as Denmark"how do you say [that] you need help or don't do this well?"
Garg made a series of steps that suggested she found progressive education itself suspect and the reaction from the community was swift; teachers spoke to parents, parents took sides, and before the end of her first year, a petition calling for her removal had been signed by over 65 percent of the community including the school's founder Deborah Meier. "My mistake here is I've hit of a lot of 'That's not the CPE way,'" Garg said.
The conflict between Garg and the staff still rages, and it's too soon to say how the story will end. Time will tell if Garg's initiatives will strengthen the school or undermine what's still terrific about "the CPE way."
SPECIAL EDUCATION: The school is so small that resources are limited. After the reading and math coaches retired, Garg said she couldn't justify "leaning on a specialist" in the budget. There is some after-school help for about a dozen kids and we saw some one-on-one tutoring in classrooms.
ADMISSIONS: Families are encouraged to take a school tour and must fill out an application. Students are selected through a lottery.(Lydie Raschka, May 2016)