Known for Choice, New York’s District 4 Offers a Complex Tale for Urban Reformers

By William Snider — November 01, 1989 13 min read

New York City--The U.S. Education Department’s selection of Community School District 4 as the host of its first regional meeting on choice was only the latest in a long series of honors and accolades the New York City district has received.

Touted as a model for urban-education reform in numerous national, state, and local reports, District 4 has achieved remarkable results with students drawn mostly from a neighborhood as drug-ridden and poverty-stricken as any in the city.

Last month’s choice meeting in East Harlem cemented District 4 at the center of the Bush Administration’s efforts to persuade educators and policymakers to adopt paren6tal choice as the “cornerstone” of a restructured system of public education.

“You have made dramatic improvements in your educational programs through choice,” Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos told the community last month. “You have demonstrated that it can work. Let us work with you to carry that message across the nation.”

But to say that parental choice is the foundation of District 4’s success oversimplifies, and perhaps misrepresents, the district’s innovative reform efforts, according to several current and former district administrators.

“I get worried when I see people jumping onto the choice bandwagon without understanding what else is involved,” said Carlos Medina, superintendent of District 4 for six years before being suspended without pay last December.

For instance, Mr. Medina said, his suspension is a reflection of another of the district’s important reform strategies: “creative noncompliance.”

Some local critics, meanwhile, say the district’s national acclaim is not merited. They say the school system offers a wealth of opportunities for its most gifted students, but consigns the students who need the most help to the weakest schools.

District 4 has assumed a central role in the national debate over parental choice because it is one of the few places that choice proponents can point to when arguing that the concept can benefit low-income and minority children.

Almost 80 percent of the district’s 14,000 students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, and more than 95 percent are minorities, with Hispanics constituting the majority of its enrollment.

The most oft-cited statistic used to back up the district’s achievement claims is the fact that the average reading scores of District 4 students have climbed over the past 17 years from last place among the city’s 32 community districts to the middle range.

In 1972, only 15 percent of the district’s students were reading at or above grade level; by the mid-1980’s, the proportion of students achieving at that level had risen to almost 64 percent. Using newer norms, however, the percentage of students reading at or above grade level was 38 percent in 1988 and 48 percent this year.

Critics have questioned the statistics, arguing that the scores of some 1,500 students who travel to attend East Harlem schools from other parts of the city have inflated the test-score increases.

District 4 administrators say their own analysis has found that incoming students have little impact on the district’s average test scores, but admit that independent researchers have never examined the scores.

“We’re looking for someone to conduct a validation study,” said John Falco, coordinator of the district’s alternative programs. “Our experience tells us that we can be pretty certain that we’re right, but we need to have the empirical data.”

“Without an outside evaluation, you can’t give a sense of the impact of these programs on the kids who actually live in the neighborhood,’' said Yvette Geary, the United Federation of Teachers representative in District 4.

Seymour Fliegel, former deputy superintendent of District 4, said the number of parents who choose to send their children into one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods to attend school is itself a testament to the high quality of the district’s programs.

“If you offer quality, people will send their kids to the strangest places,” he said.

District 4 officials--both past and present--acknowledge that parental choice is far from the only factor responsible for their district’s turnaround.

They point out, for example, that the two district schools with the highest reading scores are traditional elementary schools where students are assigned based on their residence.

“We’ve never said that choice is a panacea,” Mr. Fliegel said. “It is important in our district because it creates a sense of ownership among parents and students.”

Some observers credit the district’s success to the fact that most of its schools, including all junior high schools, enroll no more than 300 students, and that many are far smaller. The small schools, they say, create a personalized learning environment.

“Choice without smaller schools doesn’t mean anything,” Mr. Medina said.

Added Ms. Geary: “Instead of choice, I would say that size is probably what keeps them going. The schools really do have a philosophy, and, in many, teachers do get involved in decisionmaking.”

District 4 officials also point out that most of its successful alternative schools have benefited from extra funding, including millions of dollars from the federal Magnet Schools Assistance Grants program and its predecessor, the Emergency School Aid Act.

The extra funding enabled school officials to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes, and it helped provide materials and equipment to develop the thematic programs offered in many of the district’s schools.

Indeed, district officials are quick to discount one of the major thrusts behind the Bush Administration’s advocacy of choice: that it will drive schools to improve without a major infusion of new money.

“We’re not advocates of choice without funding,” Mr. Medina said.

The fact that District 4’s success is attributed primarily to parental choice is a development that began during the Reagan Administration, when conservative proponents of vouchers adopted the district as one of the few available examples of a voucher-like system.

District 4 officials welcomed the conservatives with open arms, despite their own liberal bent, largely because they needed champions at a time when state and local officials were branding them as outlaws for their unorthodox methods.

“From our perspective, it’s what protected us,” Mr. Fliegel said. ''If we didn’t have that kind of support, we would have been kicked around a lot more.”

“People think we’re being used by the conservatives,” Mr. Medina said. “We’ve always tried to leverage the attention to get more services for our kids.”

At one point during the 1980’s, he said, District 4 received more federal funding per student than any other school district in the nation.

“Our liberal friends didn’t do a thing for us,” Mr. Fleigel added.

Meanwhile, one leading opponent of choice, Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, the California Democrat who is chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, is irked that the Bush Administration touts District 4 in its choice initiative.

“I think District 4 is doing some good things, but it’s not necessarily choice,” said Mr. Hawkins, who visited the district early last month.

“They’re doing a number of things,” he said. “It’s very hard to say which it is that has been the cause of improvement.”

“People sometimes ask me, what did you do to get elected to public office?” he added. “Well, I’ve done so many things trying to get elected, I can’t tell you whether it was the billboards, whether it was the personal contact, or what.”

District 4 was created in 1969 when the New York legislature approved the decentralized system that split the governance of the city’s elementary and middle schools among 32 community school boards.

The reform law gave the central board oversight responsibilities over the community districts, but restricted the board’s direct control to the district’s high schools and special-education programs.

In 1971, a slate of minority candidates won a majority of seats on District 4’s nine-member board, and hired Anthony J. Alvarado as the district’s superintendent.

Mr. Alvarado is credited with creating the district’s first three alternative schools in 1974.

The alternative schools were given space in existing schools but were freed from the supervision of the school’s principal, operating instead under the control of a new hybrid, “teacher/director.”

“Our problem was that we had principals who couldn’t lead, and we couldn’t get rid of them, so we had to find some way to circumvent them,” Mr. Fleigel said.

Until recently, most of the district’s alternative schools have remained under the direction of teacher/directors who could not be paid more than regular classroom teachers because they did not fit the central board’s definition of administrators. Some of the teacher/directors have since taken the required courses and become assistant principals, as district officials have sought to “regularize” their innovations.

The earliest alternative schools were administered in a top-down fashion. “We needed strong direction from the center because we didn’t have things to work with in the schools,” Mr. Medina said. “We had to deal with the lack of leadership in the schools and burned-out staffs.”

The number of alternative schools in the district grew steadily throughout the 1970’s as other teachers sought the freedom to develop their ideas.

All of the schools started small, typically with only a few classes in one grade. The most popular schools were duplicated, to prevent them from exceeding the enrollment levels considered ideal by district officials.

By the early 1980’s, when nearly all of the district’s junior high schools housed alternative programs, district officials implemented the choice system that requires all prospective junior-high students to select their schools.

“We didn’t set out to create a choice system,” Mr. Fliegel said. “It was really an organic kind of process--we were never certain what the next step would be.”

Currently, the district housesel15lsome 50 schools in its 20 buildings, though the central board does not officially recognize the subdivided schools for funding purposes.

Over the past decade and a half, the central administration has had a “love-hate” relationship with District 4.

“The district has had a history of worthwhile innovations and perennial overspending problems,” said Robert F. Wagner Jr., president of the central board of education.

“What always struck me when I went up there was the sense of excitement in the schools,” he added.

Although the district has stood out because of the unusual pace of its improvements, Mr. Wagner said, it was not the only community district to do so. Equally dramatic improvements were seen in Community School District 13 under the effective-schools approach favored by J. Jerome Harris, who has since taken over as superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools.

And currently, District 4 is the subject of several investigations by the central board’s inspector general and the Manhattan district attorney, Mr. Wagner said.

The early findings of one of those investigations prompted Richard R. Green, the late schools chancellor, to force the District 4 board to suspend Mr. Medina without pay pending the resolution of charges that he mismanaged the district.

Mr. Medina has maintained that the charges are all related to violations of the central office’s “standard operating procedure” that were necessary to operate an effective school district.

The maverick style of the district’s previous leaders, including Mr. Medina, has led to charges that the district’s alternative schools have benefitted at the expense of its remaining schools.

Some community residents have welcomed changes made by a new leadership team that has assumed control of the district in Mr. Medina’s absence.

Sylvia Valezquez, a community activist, said, “For the first time, we have someone in charge who is honest and fair and equal. [Shirley Walker, the district’s acting interim superintendent,] wants programs to be equal for all the children.”

Mr. Medina and his supporters admit that he and Mr. Alvarado “protected” the alternative schools, partly by holding them accountable for results, rather than for following allowed procedures.

“They never asked us what we were planning to do,” said Deborah Meier, who has won a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship and national recognition for the three alternative programs she started in the district. “We were told that, ‘if it makes sense, and you’re willing to be held responsible for it, just do it.”’

“Each of our schools is based on a different idea, which means we need a district office that thinks of our unique needs and goes the extra mile for us,” said Ms. Meier, currently principal of Central Park East Secondary School.

The uft’s district representative, Ms. Geary, agreed: “If they didn’t have a superintendent who is sensitive to the differences, the district would wither.”

Ms. Valezquez and several other community activists, as well as two teachers who work in one of the district’s alternative schools, said the district’s choice system has many flaws that are not acknowledged by its proponents.

Stephen del Vecchio, a children’s librarian who works in the neighborhood, said, “I certainly don’t think District 4 is the promised land on the basis of what I’ve seen.”

Most critics said that the district’s reputation has been built on the basis of a handful of successful alternative schools that enjoy preferential treatment and serve predominantly middle-class students.

“The whole system is skewed toward these schools,” charged an administrator in one of the district’s better schools.

Critics also disputed the district’s claims that less than 25 percent of the students at any school come from outside of the district, saying that some of the better-known schools draw more than half their students from more advantaged neighborhoods.

One of the major problems critics cited is the fact that all of the district’s alternative schools are permitted to screen applicants on the basis of tests scores, teacher comments, and face-to-face interviews.

As a result, critics said, most local students have virtually no chance of attending the district’s “elite” public schools, which accept only students with reading scores in the highest percentiles.

All the schools “want to get the good kids, the kids who are manageable,” said a teacher who declined to be identified because, he said, “District 4 is not known for protecting its whistleblowers.”

“The whole choice system is deliberately subverted by schools who want to choose the kids, instead of the kids choosing them,” he said.

The teacher, who serves as a recruiter for his school, said that relatively few parents become involved in the choice process, and that “only the most informed parents get their kids into the best schools.”

In most cases, he said, “If a kid says a particular school is good and wants to go, most parents will send them there. A charismatic teacher can go around and round up good kids based on their personal appeal, instead of the quality of the program. That’s not right. That’s not the way it should be.”

District officials defended allowing schools to select students, saying that it helps ensure a proper match between a student’s needs and abilities and their program placement.

Some school choices reflect “unrealistic goals set by youngsters or parents for youngsters,” said Mr. Falco, director of the district’s alternative programs. “If a student reading at the 13th percentile wants to attend a schools where most of the students are reading above the 75th percentile, could I in all good conscience place that child in that setting?”

Mr. Falco said that he or his assistant meets with the families of students who do not receive one of their first three choices and try to reach agreement on a new choice where space is available.

“Realistic choice is what is important,” he said.

The end result, the District 4 teacher charged, is that “the kids who are most at risk have almost no chance of getting into the preferred programs; they get sent to the weakest schools.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1989 edition of Education Week as Known for Choice, New York’s District 4 Offers a Complex Tale for Urban Reformers