Teacher Wins $335,000 ‘Genius’ Award

June 24, 1987 2 min read

A teacher who helped develop an innovative public-school program in New York City was named last week as one of the 32 “outstandingly talented and promising individuals’’ to receive fellowships this year from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Deborah Meier, director of Central Park East Secondary School in East Harlem, is the first precollegiate educator to be selected for the honor, which has come to be known popularly as the “genius’’ award.

She will receive $335,000 over the next five years from the Chicago-based foundation, which makes no stipulations on how the money must be used.

The MacArthur Fellowships, first offered in 1981, are selected through a system of anonymous nominators paid by the foundation to submit the names of preeminent individuals in various fields of endeavor. The generous five-year stipend is meant to free the recipients from financial concerns that might hinder their creativity.

In announcing this year’s awards, the foundation singled out Ms. Meier’s work in establishing an alternative public elementary school, which is now part of a nationwide coalition of schools trying to put into practice the educational theories of Theodore R. Sizer, chairman of the department of education at Brown University.

Ms. Meier has said that “schooling should not consist just of covering the curriculum in 45-minute blocks, but of tackling the difficult task of understanding the subject matter.’'

The goal of the school, she said, is to teach students “the love of learning’’ and “how to use their minds well.’'

In 1985, after having helped set up two other alternative elementary schools, Ms. Meier became the director of Central Park East, a predominantly minority school with 150 students in grades 7 and 8. Plans call for the school to eventually be expanded to include 500 students from grade 7 through high school.

This year, the MacArthur Foundation awarded grants of from $150,000 to $375,000, based on the recipient’s age.

Other recipients included the literary and social critic Irving Howe, editor of Dissent magazine; Muriel Sutherland Snowden, co-founder of the self-help organization Freedom House, which has involved itself with several educational issues, including school desegregation; and William Julius Wilson, chairman of the University of Chicago’s sociology department and a researcher cited for his work on race relations and the black underclass.

The 56-year-old Ms. Meier said last week that she had not determined how she would use the award.

“People have asked me whether I would quit teaching,’' she said. “I think that’s a funny question. I do what I do because I enjoy it, not because I’d rather be a researcher.’'

“The question is how to use the award so what we’re doing here can become more effective,’' she said.--K.G.

A version of this article appeared in the August 04, 1987 edition of Education Week as Teacher Wins $335,000 ‘Genius’ Award