An Interview With Deborah Meier on the Small-Schools Movement

Deborah Meier is considered the founder of the modern small-schools movement. She founded the Central Park East Schools, the first of the teacher-led small schools, in East Harlem in 1974.
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Deborah Meier is considered the founder of the modern small-schools movement. She is a veteran educator (I know. That's considered a negative these days). Deb taught for many years in inner-city schools in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York. She founded the Central Park East Schools, the first of the teacher-led small schools, in East Harlem in 1974. After leading CPE, she became the founding principal of the Mission Hill School in Boston. She is a distinguished author and lecturer. Among her many books is The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem, which became must reading for us small schools activists in the '90s. Deb is currently active in the Coalition of Essential Schools and FairTest. She participates in an ongoing "blog debate" with colleague Diane Ravitch on their shared Bridging Differences blog at Education Week. A life-long social-justice activist, she is still fighting the good fight at the age of 80.

We celebrated her birthday with Deb here at the Small Schools Workshop, so I took the opportunity to ask her a few questions:

MK: How has your vision of small schools and school reform changed since the founding of Central Park East 37 years ago?

DM: Actually I didn't have a big vision. I just wanted to teach somewhere where we could treat ourselves, kids and parents the way we wanted to be treated and treat others. It wasn't a preference for small in itself, but a logistical idea -- a condition that would permit us to build community with each other. Another factor was that the district superintendent Tony Alvarado wanted to create a whole series of neighborhood alternative small schools.

MK: You had a bigger vision also.

DM: Not really, just a belief in the importance of kids being part of a community that included grown-ups -- parents and teachers. A community where kids could see the complexity of democracy, and fall in love with it. I still believe it's the answer.

MK: So how did it all begin?

DM: At that time, I jumped at the offer to open a school because there were and are a lot of classroom teachers like me who are teaching in compromised ways, wishing, "If only I could do what I really know is right." Those first few years we all thought of each other as having the same mindset, but in reality, each of us was looking for a one-room schoolhouse in which we could be our own boss. Even a community of teachers bosses each other. Nobody in our school wanted to take over. None wanted to stop teaching. I was in the classroom. Originally, we weren't changing existing schools. All of our designs involved starting from scratch. I selected the initial core of colleagues for Central Park East, picking people I wanted as colleagues in creating a truly different kind of school.

MK: But among today's small schools, only a few have a democratic leadership model. Among the others, some were started by teachers but now are very top-down, not very democratic at all. Many of the small charter schools are run by private management companies where teachers have less power than they did in traditional schools. So what has changed?

DM: Some of our good ideas and their language has been adopted and misused -- words and concepts that embody democracy, trust between adults and children, words and terms that represent a school that is an interesting place to work. All those things I wanted in a small school could also be reinterpreted to promote fear, distrust, division into racial niches--the exact opposite of the ends that we sought. I'm embarrassed about the people who have been touting small schools in the last 10 years. The people who are breaking up the big high schools in New York -- which I was all for -- are now using it to privatize public schools and not to create more democratic communities. It is painful to watch. Today, the word autonomy means frightened principals who now have more power over their frightened teachers, which can't help but lead to frightened kids and families. Those at the top now have more power to intimidate."Reform" does not now mean increasing the power of parents or kids or teachers.

MK: When you started Central Park East, your teachers were in the union.

DM: Yes, the District 4 union rep was somewhat hostile to Alvarado and his plans, but the citywide union was very supportive, because all the small schools gave teachers a lot more power and were allies for the union. That's still true. When in the early 1990s we tried to develop a big plan for spreading this idea in New York City (a plan to create a large zone of small schools, encompassing some 50,000 students), the union stuck with us in this fight. The governor, the commissioner, etc., all pulled out but the union stuck with it. Everybody else jumped ship.

MK: Tonight, as you turn 80, you're giving a talk in Chicago on what keeps you going. What drives you now?

DM: I think what propels me is mostly my amazement about how far good schools can go to do something extraordinary for kids and their families (and how harmful bad schools can be). It's not a miracle cure, as long as there is poverty. All over the country I bump into our graduates. I'm still stunned by how much our small community was able to do for kids and their families and their possibilities.

MK: How do you see the future?

DM: The immediate road ahead looks very difficult, challenging. I'm absolutely convinced that people eventually rise up. If we can keep good schools around to remind them what is possible when they rise up again, we'll be fine.

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