03/04/2013 06:02 pm ET Updated May 04, 2013

Give Progressive Middle Schools a Chance

School choice has been a positive development in public education in New York, but sometimes the city's Department of Education makes the wrong choice.

This is the case in a fierce education battle in East Harlem, where a community of parents is fighting for their school's expansion. They have been shut out by DOE and their petition drive is a fantastic example of educational democracy in action.

I recently visited Central Park East I and CPE II and was incredibly impressed with the two principals, the quality of the teachers and the general upbeat mood of the children, in an otherwise antiquated, dreary and crowded public school building.

CPE I and II are Progessive schools founded more than 35 years ago by famed educator Deborah Meier. Progressive schools are a great alternative to traditional public schools; they emphasize learning, creativity and curiosity more than memorization and testing. They welcome parental involvement and parents in the classroom regularly, rather than just for parent-teacher conferences and school play nights.

CPE has been clamoring for a few years to expand their elementary school to include a new middle school and merely needs the space to do it. They have put together proposals and educational plans and the DOE office in charge of new schools told them that if space becomes available they were likely to be able to expand.

Well, space did become available but the DOE decided to give it to a new, untested charter school.


The parents of East Harlem have few good options for public middle schools and a CPE progressive middle school would be the answer to many of their prayers.

I have been the beneficiary of a wonderful progressive middle school on the Upper West Side that my daughter attends. The Center School, a visionary middle school run by dynamic Principal Elaine Schwartz and staffed by dynamic and dedicated teachers, is an educational oasis in a desert of mediocre public school options.

Why should I benefit on the Upper West Side, but mothers like Meibell Contreras, Debbie Meyer (no relation to founder) and Marie Winfield have to fight for a good progressive education for their children?

Because they are not as politically connected as the folks starting the new charter school building or because the DOE is rushing to hit the charter school cap before the mayor's term ends in late 2013?

This is not sound education policy and does a disservice to the parents and children of East Harlem. And that is why a petition with a thousand signatures is circulating online to push the DOE to change its mind.

I have seen the wonders of progressive education in my own children's experiences and first-hand at CPE I and II in my recent visit and in the testimonials of numerous parents I have spoken with.

As an education activist and a candidate for mayor, I lend my voice to these voiceless parents in urging New York's DOE to let the parents of East Harlem have a tested and well thought through progressive middle school.

Our children can't wait.

Tom Allon, who helped create two successful public high schools in New York City, is a candidate for mayor in 2013.


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