The issue of who should control NYC’s public schools, like the poor, apparently will always be with us. These days, or at least since Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral reign, that control centers on how many years the city’s mayor will be allowed to play K-12 education’s top dog: one year or more? The answer to that question currently resides exclusively in the partisan clutches of Republicans who control the New York State Senate. They don’t like to miss an opportunity to stick it to the current occupant of Gracie Mansion, grudgingly doling out one year of mayoral control at a time to Bill de Blasio.
I was reminded about this historical debate about and the important political stakes involved in that nearly half century old struggle when I read the April 7, 2017 article in the New York Times entitled “Anger Over Principal Prompts Parents to Occupy East Harlem School Overnight.” The article indicates that parents at Central Park East 1 elementary school in East Harlem were upset by the actions of the school’s principal, Monika Garg, who they accused of “destroying the culture of the school.” That culture was one of openness and responsiveness to the needs of students and communities. The angry parents occupied the school’s auditorium overnight and vowed that they would stay until the principal resigned.
This parental action calls to mind another key moment in the battle for better schools in New York City: the People’s Board of Education, which emerged after a group of school parents refused to leave a NYC Board of Education meeting in Brooklyn early in December 1966 and took over the BOE meeting room to conduct their own hearings on what was wrong with the New York city public schools. That sit-in helped launch the control control movement that came to prominence a year later.
Central Park East (CPE) was founded in 1974 by legendary progressive educator Deborah Meier in the aftermath of the community control struggles of the 1960s and featured new pedagogical forms and active parental involvement in the operation of the school. The success of CPE over several decades encouraged the expansion of the original school, which was spun-off into several others, including CPE 1 and a CPE high school. The Times reporter aptly noted that the conflict at Central Park East 1 “has raised questions about who should control a school. . . .” Principal Garg seemed entirely unmoved by the parents’ actions and the parents chose to vacate the auditorium the next night after their one-day occupation. The final words in the article belong to Deborah Meier, now a senior scholar at NYU. Indicating that she considered the situation at CEP 1 “tragic and [that she] did not understand why Ms. Garg had not been replaced,” Meier concluded that “It’s beyond me that they would let children live in a school that is going through this for two years.” History repeating itself, first as tragedy. . . .
Stephen Brier is a Professor of Urban Education at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.