The Last Page

The Last Page

A couple of years ago I picked up my fifth-grade daughter from an after-school rehearsal for her East Harlem school’s chorus. The mother of two other children was late, and I agreed to wait with them until she arrived. I was a little put out until she showed up an hour later, with an infant and another child in tow, and I learned that they had traveled almost an hour and a half from their home in Bedford-Stuyvesant. I didn’t have to ask why they would endure such a grueling commute. The school is a good one. Founded by Deborah Meier in the early seventies, it is the prototype nationally for small, progressive public schools that aim to provide a well-rounded education and resist the hysteria around testing and tracking. We, too, chose to send our children out of our school district in order to be part of it.

I thought of that family’s desire for a decent education when I read two separate reports in the New York Times that illustrate the abandonment of the ideal of accessible public education. They were tales from one city but two worlds.

A block away from me, in the middle-class neighborhood close to Columbia University, the university plans to build a twelve-story elementary school-cum apartments for its faculty and staff. The area at 110th Street and Broadway is quite congested and none of the surrounding buildings rises twelve stories.

In a neighborhood that boasts three private elementary schools and at least two good public ones, why did Columbia need its own school? Well, it seems that you can’t get good help these days, and many potential faculty are reluctant to come to New York because of “high housing prices and the negative perception of the New York City schools,” as the Times put it. Why, public school advocates asked, hadn’t Columbia gone into partnership with a struggling local public school or started its own charter school? The university refused to comment, but it was clear that it wanted control over hiring and firing, curriculum, and, perhaps most important, who could get in. It wants a showcase school.

With its resources, Columbia could have a significant impact on the public schools around it. The university claimed that it was not abandoning the public schools, but it obviously had put the needs of its own community above those of the surrounding one.

Meanwhile, across town, at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue, near my daughters’ former elementary school, another story was unfolding. The Edison Corporation, the country’s largest for-profit school management company, plans to move its corporate headquarters from midtown to East Harlem. It wants to build a big office building cum showcase school.

Edison, the of the for-profit educational world, has not yet made any money from its ventures to save failing public schools. And its track record is mixed. But its investors are convinced that millions can be made on the lives of poor children unde...

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