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Kindergarten Applications Plummet at Once-Coveted School Amid Controversy

By Amy Zimmer | January 27, 2017 9:28am | Updated on January 30, 2017 8:58am
 Central Park East Mixed Chorus performed at Carter Burden Center for Aging on January 21, 2015.
Central Park East Mixed Chorus performed at Carter Burden Center for Aging on January 21, 2015.
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DNAinfo/Sybile Penhirin

MANHATTAN — East Harlem mom Kaliris Salas-Ramirez had to wait a month to get off the waitlist and score a spot just to tour Central Park East 1 when visiting elementary schools for her son two years ago.

This year, the school at Madison Avenue and East 106th Street had barely enough parents to fill the tours.

At a recent evening open house, “literally one parent showed up,” Salas-Ramirez, now co-chair of the parent association.

The small and diverse lottery-based school — considered the forerunner of progressive public schools in the city — garnered more kindergarten applicants per available seat than any other school in the city for the the 2015-2016 school year, according to Department of Education data.

Nearly 570 families listed the school as one of their 12 choices on their kindergarten application, vying for just 30 seats. That breaks down to about 19 applicants per seat.

But that was before Monika Garg took over as principal last September, touching off a revolt from long-time teachers and parents who claim she is not supporting the school’s progressive foundations of inquiry-based, child-centered learning.

This year, according to school insiders, roughly 280 families applied. That’s still a high number given the dearth of seats, but it’s half the number of families who applied in 2015.

“It really has been heartbreaking to see a school like CPE I that has such an incredible reputation and amazing teachers be destroyed in a year,” Salas-Ramirez said, noting that parents who did tour have expressed grave concern about the new leadership.

After the school community launched a petition last year to oust Garg, tensions are still high at the school.

Garg received poor marks on the DOE’s school survey for her first year at CPE 1, with a 45 percent approval rating. That compares to an average 95 percent across the city.

In five out of eight categories for “effective leadership,” no teachers rated her competent.

Parents say that more instructional support is needed for the 200-student school where 11 out of 17 teachers are new since last year.

A consultant came in September to observe, parents said, but there was no follow-up. Another consultant versed in progressive education arrived this month, after families pleaded with the DOE to send more help.

“There is structure with progressive education,” Salas-Ramirez  said.

“That’s why you need mentorship and leadership, teamwork and collaboration. You have to be so intentional in the work. You have to direct the conversation of these children in a way that get kids to have an ‘a-ha moment’ without you telling them what it is.”

The school, founded 41 years ago by legendary educator Deborah Meier with a distinct philosophy that favored collaboration with teachers and parents, has long been hailed as a model in the progressive education movement.

With its focus on social emotional development over a more test-centric approach, the school has drawn a lot of families — across East Harlem’s District 4, Harlem’s District 5 and the Upper West Side’s District 3 — who opt out of the state’s standardized English and math exams.  

Yet, while the number of students who sit for the test remains small, they typically outperform citywide averages — until last year.

The scores of the children who sat for the tests fell below the state average for the first time ever — and that was after Garg instituted a test prep program and teachers have been implementing a more “hybrid” traditional/progressive model, according to parents.

“It’s a school that is falling apart. It is chaotic, incoherent and rudderless,” said Kenya Dilday, parent association co-chair and the mom of a third grader.

“We feel that the many new teachers could well turn out to love and excel at CPE1’s particularly pedagogy.  But as of now, they are confused.”

Dilday fired off a letter to Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña complaining of various problems with the school's leadership, including a $100,000 grant application that the principal said she filled out through the Manhattan Borough President’s Office.

While all other schools that applied were awarded the grants, CPE 1 was not, Dilday said.

The Borough President’s office told parents it never received the application, and the principal told parents that she applied but couldn’t find the school’s name on the drop-down menu for the application, so she filed it under Central Park East High School.

This year, Dilday is taking over the responsibility of filing the application, she said.

“The parents are working so hard, the teachers are working so hard,” Dilday said. “It’s a sad place now, but maybe one day it will be happy again.”

Garg did not respond to a request for comment.

DOE officials said the superintendent was continuing to support the school, noting the progressive education consultant who was recently dispatched there.

“We are listening to the concerns of this school community and providing support to ensure we are meeting student and family needs,” DOE spokesman Will Mantel said.