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Embattled Principal Says Progressive School Needs More Structure

By Amy Zimmer | April 18, 2016 8:40am
 Families from Central Park East I and II parents in 2013 at a hearing where they were calling on the DOE to expand into a middle school.
Families from Central Park East I and II parents in 2013 at a hearing where they were calling on the DOE to expand into a middle school.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

MANHATTAN — The embattled principal of a legendary progressive public elementary school defended her actions since taking over — saying she's had to make changes in order to remedy the school's failure to live up to its own standards, according to a note sent to parents last week.

Principal Monika Garg, whose nine-month tenure at the helm of at East Harlem’s Central Park East I has divided its community and sparked more than 2,000 signatures on a petition for her ouster, pulled few punches in the newsletter to parents, a copy of which was shared with DNAinfo New York.

"I thought I was coming into a school that was happy, had curriculum, where ALL students were learning and leaving here knowing what a 5th grader should know, a place where instruction was individualized to each child’s specific needs,” Garg wrote in the April 11 note. "[But] the school year began rocky and this vision I had of CPE1 was not being lived in the present ... I asked myself, how can a place that is portrayed as happy as Disneyworld be so different when seeing it in action?"

Though Garg did not respond when DNAinfo first reported the tensions at the institution, in her newsletters she said children at the 200-student school on Madison Avenue and East 106th Street were falling behind because of the lack of focused curriculum.

The school, founded four decades ago by renowned educator Deborah Meier, is considered a trailblazer for its progressive philosophy. It focuses on inquiry-based, child-centered learning — as opposed to a more “traditional” one that emphasizes test prep and standardized curricula.

And it's committed to diversity — with one of the most diverse student bodies in the city school system — though tensions are running high at the school with parents raising money to fund a workshop last week on race issues.

“The school did not have a clear, comprehensively integrated written curriculum as many other progressive schools do,” Garg wrote. “I observed some students’ needs were being met, but not all. There was a divide between the new and the old."

The school’s test results, however, far outpace citywide averages, especially along racial lines, scores show.

Last year, approximately 80 percent of black and white students were proficient on state tests in English, while roughly 25 percent of Hispanic students were. In math, more than 70 percent of white students were proficient, about 48 percent of Hispanic students were and 40 percent of black students were, according to data on the website Save CPE I.

That compares to English scores citywide, where, on average, 51 percent white students were proficient, 20 percent Hispanic students were and 19 percent black students were, according to DOE data. For math, roughly 57 percent of white students were proficient as were 24 percent Hispanic students and 19 percent black students.

Only a small number of students at CPE I took the state tests last year, since the school is a hub for the opt-out movement, with roughly 80 percent of its students sitting out last year's tests, according to parents. Some of these parents suspect Garg — who has no background in progressive education — may have been tapped by school administrators to clamp down on the school's opt-out rate.

Garg also addressed parent anger over what they called interrogation sessions with their children in her office, which they say she conducted without notifying parents or seeking their permission.

Education Department officials confirmed last week that Garg had been interviewing students after one of the school's teachers was accused of corporal punishment against a student.

While the DOE would not comment on the circumstances, citing the ongoing investigation, parents said the alleged incident occurred in early March. The teacher was reassigned on March 14, parents said.

Garg acknowledged in her letter that children were being questioned as part of an "investigation" and said it was intended to ensure student safety.

“I recognize that investigations are difficult for all parties involved and for the larger community, but they are in place to protect children and teachers,” Garg wrote.

"It is through these conversations that I am able to put systems into place to make sure all parents are aware of what is happening in the future. I am only human, and I need your feedback in order to do things better," she added.

But parents say Garg has continued to refuse to discuss what happened in her office with their children and has continued to conduct interviews as recently as last week.

Many parents added that they only learned of the process from their children — long after kids were questioned.

Despite the number of critics, parents have come forward to defend Garg and echoed her calls for more structure at CPE 1. They say they're not surprised that Garg's stance has ruffled feathers at the school, where they say teachers have been running the show for too long.

"The principal is holding teachers accountable," said a mother of a third-grader, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. She criticized the school for taking kids on too many field trips to zoos and museums, where she felt they weren't learning enough.  

"The kids have to at least learn. I shouldn’t have to supplement at home," the mom said. "But I do. I'm  supplementing math and English and writing." 

Other parents said they too felt they needed to provide extra help, and added that while extra tutoring might not be a burden for more affluent families, it's a hardship for lower-income families.

The turmoil at the school has rocked the progressive community, including founder Debbie Meier.

“I fear for the school’s future, and it breaks my heart," Meier wrote in an email to DNAinfo, "But there is no easy solution.”

Central Park East 1 Principal’s Notes