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New Principal Ruining Legendary Progressive Public School, Parents Say

By Amy Zimmer | April 13, 2016 7:39pm
 Central Park East Mixed Chorus performed at Carter Burden Center for Aging/Leonard Covello Senior Program on Jan.  21, 2015.
Central Park East Mixed Chorus performed at Carter Burden Center for Aging/Leonard Covello Senior Program on Jan. 21, 2015.
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DNAinfo/Sybile Penhirin

MANHATTAN — East Harlem’s Central Park East I (CPE I) has long been considered a model of a progressive public elementary school, emulated by educators across the city and beyond.

The school, founded 41 years ago by legendary educator Deborah Meier with a distinct philosophy that favored collaboration with teachers and parents, small classes and inquiry-based, child-centered learning, is hailed as one of the most diverse schools in the city

Of Central Park East 1’s student body, 29 percent of students are Hispanic, 28 percent are white, 20 percent are black, 9 percent are Asian and 14 percent are “other” (usually multi-racial) — far more diverse than the average school, according to DOE data.

Now, however, the school’s community is revolting against its new principal, Monika Garg, who critics say has been steadily eroding the school's core values since taking the helm nine months ago.

Nearly 1,800 people have signed a petition calling for her ouster since it was posted on Friday — including roughly 60 percent of the current families attending the school on Madison Avenue, near East 106th Street. 

“I've been frankly dumbfounded at the lack of communication from our new principal, as well as the seeming disrespect she has given to the teachers and staff, folks who have been doing incredible work for years,” CPE I parent Brad Farwell wrote on the petition. “The school has a great reputation and until this year, it seemed like it had great morale, strong teacher and parent involvement, and a real sense of community.”

Instead, Farwell wrote, the principal’s management style was “tearing the school apart.”

Garg has no background in progressive education, parents said, claiming that she’s created “unbearable” working conditions for their beloved teachers and inappropriately called their students into her office for interrogations.

After teachers wrote an open letter in February to the community about their concerns, parents say Garg called their children into the principal’s office without parents' knowledge or consent, and grilled them on events that happened years ago.

Garg has refused to answer parents’ questions about what transpired in these meetings, they said.

Moreover, parents have been disappointed that the principal has not seemed to embrace and foster the school’s diverse student body.

Parents at the school had hoped to preserve the diversity and asked the principal to consider an enrollment initiative that takes into account applicants’ socioeconomic status, similar to enrollment policies now being piloted at seven schools across the city.

Garg, however, rejected that plan, she told parents in a December newsletter.

Two months later, she wrote to parents that the idea of progressive education was harmful to children of color, and on other occasions, according to parents, has said the school needed to adopt more “traditional” practices to serve children of color.

“I too waited, for months and months, for Ms. Garg to become familiar with our school, its philosophy, its teachers, its families, its successes, and its challenges. It soon became clear, often shockingly so, that she was neither becoming familiar with nor intending to educate herself in either progressive education or the history and promises of CPE 1,” parent Julie Crawford wrote on the petition, calling the principal “divisive” and “dishonest,” and saying she subjected children to “inappropriate interviews.”  

Kenya Dilday, who has a second-grader at the school, said she was also upset that the principal has not given more thought about preserving the diversity of the teaching staff — which was one of the reasons Dilday chose the school.

She recently filled four teaching vacancies, two of which had been occupied by Latino educators, with all white teachers, Dilday said. “The beauty of the school is the diverse staff and diverse student body that really is integrated,” said Dilday, whose daughter is bi-racial, black and white. “It’s sad for me to see the staff becoming less diverse.”

Garg joined the school in summer 2015, as an interim principal after the previous principal stepped down. Parents say that allowed the Superintendent of District 4, Alexandra Estrella, to skirt a search-and-review process for a new principal that would have involved input from the school community.

Garg was previously an assistant principal at Elmhurst’s Pan-American International High School where her principal was fired amid allegations of racism and harassment of teachers.

Department of Education officials said they and representatives from the superintendent's office have been visiting the school trying to help with the situation.

“We are listening to the concerns of this school community, and providing additional support to meet their needs," DOE spokesman Will Mantell said.