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Miracle in East Harlem

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on the ground

Miracle in East Harlem

Promoting Choice in Education

“What impressed me most when I first met some of the trustees of the Manhattan Institute was how focused they were on the bottom line: what works best for kids. I guess that comes from the fact that most of them are in finance. They are numbers guys. They didn’t want to hear any bs. They didn’t care about our politics. They just wanted to learn about our success in East Harlem, whether it could be replicated on a broader scale, and how that could be accomplished.”

So recalls Sy Fliegel, former deputy superintendent of East Harlem’s Community School District 4 and the founder and president of the Center for Educational Innovation. When Fliegel and his gang of fellow “education revolutionaries” started working in District 4 in the 1970s, it was, by many parameters, the worst school district in New York City. Only 16 percent of the students read at grade level. Truancy was rife. They set out to transform the failing schools of that poor district through the creation of small, innovative, community-based schools. A decade later, 63 percent of the students were reading at grade level, and parents from other parts of the city were enrolling their children in its schools.

“The miracle in East Harlem” started to receive national media attention: a MacArthur “genius grant” was awarded to one of the district’s principals for her work; and Sy Fliegel and the superintendent of District 4, Carlos Medina, were invited to the White House by President Reagan. Larry Mone, then director of research at the Manhattan Institute, had read about the amazing transformation that was taking place in East Harlem and invited Fliegel and his colleagues to speak at an Institute forum on education. Fliegel and his team so impressed the crowd with their message of public school choice and individual school empowerment that they were asked back for a private meeting with the MI trustees to discuss whether there might be some way that the Manhattan Institute could help to broaden their impact.

“I remember walking into the room, and sitting there were 15 or 20 of the most powerful people in New York. It was a bit intimidating for a schoolteacher from Queens,” Fliegel recalls. “At one point in the meeting, Peter Flanigan asked me, ‘Can you change the New York City school system?’ I told him, ‘Me, no—but with the people sitting around this table, perhaps we might have a shot.’ ” A few days later, Fliegel received a call from Dick Gilder, then the Manhattan Institute’s chairman: “Gilder asked me, ‘How would you like to be a senior fellow?’ I had no idea what a senior fellow did, but I said yes anyway.”

In the summer of 1989, the Manhattan Institute board—led by Dick Gilder and Peter Flanigan—put up the money to bring Sy Fliegel on as a senior fellow and launch the Center for Educational Innovation at the Manhattan Institute, a type of hands-on think tank that would work to create a number of exceptional public schools across the city, using the same strategies and techniques that had been successful in District 4. To help him in this task, Fliegel gathered together an extraordinary group of talented teachers and former superintendents—his “gang,” as he called them: Colman Genn, John Falco, Reggie Landeau, Harvey Newman, Carlos Medina, Steve Kahn, and Bill Covalito, among others.

“What impressed me most when I first met some of the trustees of the Manhattan Institute was how focused they were on the bottom line: what works best for kids. I guess that comes from the fact that most of them are in finance. They didn’t want to hear any bs. They didn’t care about our politics. They just wanted to learn about our success in East Harlem, whether it could be replicated on a broader scale, and how that could be accomplished.”

Around the same time, Fliegel, with the help of MI senior fellow James MacGuire, began working on a book that would tell the story of the transformation of District 4. Published in 1993, The Miracle of East Harlem: The Fight for Choice in Public Education details how Fliegel and his team built a network of small, tightly knit schools, each with a focused curriculum, that engaged the parents and the community and that allowed families to choose the schools where their children could learn most effectively. The book also discusses Fliegel’s theory of “creative noncompliance” with teachers’-union work rules and the bureaucratic red tape that often got in the way of student achievement—a theory that frequently placed Fliegel and his colleagues in the line of fire of the old Board of Education. Most of all, the book shows how real educational transformation can be achieved, one school at a time—and it became the bible for many education reformers who followed in Fliegel’s footsteps.

Throughout the 1990s, the Center for Educational Innovation (CEI), as part of the Manhattan Institute, started many successful alternative public schools—schools that still exist today and are among the city’s top-performing.

Frederick Douglass Academy
Founded in 1991 by renowned educator Lorraine Monroe, the Frederick Douglass Academy is a highly effective public middle school and high school that is considered to be the best college preparatory school in Harlem. The school has been featured in many news articles and television programs (including 60 Minutes) for its amazing results—and Frederick Douglass now has five sister schools scattered throughout New York City.

Beginning with Children School
Founded in 1992 by Carol and Joe Reich as an alternative public school, Beginning with Children was the first school of its kind to use a lottery system to admit students and thus helped pave the way for charter schools in New York. The K–8 school is housed in Pfizer’s original headquarters in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and offers a well-rounded academic curriculum complemented by a rich menu of creative and interactive learning opportunities. In 2000, Beginning with Children worked with local parents in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, to launch the Community Partnership Charter School. In 2001, the original Beginning with Children School also converted to charter status. In 2012, it opened a third charter school in Brooklyn.

Wildcat Academy
Founded in 1992 by Amalia Betanzos, president of the Wildcat Service Corporation, Wildcat is a high school that serves a difficult population: kids who have dropped out, or been kicked out, of other schools. The school runs on a unique schedule, from 9 AM to 5 PM every weekday, year-round. Students divide their time between taking classes and participating in the internships that prepare them for the world of work. Wildcat is now a charter school with two locations: Battery Park in Manhattan; and Hunts Point in the Bronx.

The Manhattan School for Children
Founded in 1994 by Susan Rappaport, the Manhattan School for Children is a K–8 school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and is known for its outstanding academic track record as well as for its ability to successfully integrate special-needs and disabled children into general education classes. The school opened the city’s first rooftop greenhouse environmental-science laboratory, which provides students with hands-on, innovative science education using sustainable urban agriculture.

Young Women’s Leadership School
Founded in 1996 with the support of Ann and Andrew Tisch, the Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem was the first single-sex public school to open in the United States in over 30 years. For ten consecutive years, this middle school and high school saw every senior graduate and be accepted to college with a significant financial-aid package. The original East Harlem school is now part of a network of five high-performing all-girls’ schools in New York and Philadelphia, serving more than 1,800 students.

These are just some of the extraordinary alternative public schools that CEI helped create in the 1990s. It was greatly aided in this effort by a $25 million Annenberg Challenge grant that was awarded to a New York educational consortium that included CEI. The basic tenet of CEI’s philosophy—one that continues to this day—is that schools need to be the center of change. As Fliegel put it: “Systemic change is great in theory; but change happens one great school, one great principal, one great teacher at a time.” The schools that CEI helped establish and support are small schools that foster the sense of community that noted sociologist and education reformer James Coleman singled out many years ago as the key difference between public and private schools; every teacher knows every student by name, and character education and good habits of mind and behavior are taught, as well as facts and figures.

The success of CEI’s schools—small, alternative public schools that were given some freedom to innovate—paved the way for the charter school movement in New York. As former New York City schools chancellor Frank Macchiarola put it, “CEI’s work presaged the whole charter movement in New York. Without CEI it is doubtful that charters would have come to New York the way they did or that New York’s charters would be as strong as they are today.” CEI’s role in bringing charters to New York was more than just inspirational: when Governor George Pataki first proposed the idea of charters, he sent his advisors to CEI to ask for advice on how to craft a solid, effective charter school law.

CEI and the Manhattan Institute played a critical role in the ensuing battle to get the charter law passed, over the objections of the teachers’-union-dominated state legislature. MI scholars wrote numerous articles highlighting the effectiveness of charters in other states and exposing several “poison pills” that the teachers’ unions were seeking to sneak into the legislation. Ultimately, the charter school law was passed (in late 1998, in exchange for a legislative pay raise), and CEI set out to create some of the first charter schools in New York City. An early charter that CEI helped to launch is the now-famous KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Academy, which became the nation’s largest and most successful charter network.

After having established a highly successful KIPP Academy in Houston, one of KIPP’s founders, David Levin, was homesick for his native New York and reached out to Sy Fliegel for help. “I met with Dave,” Fliegel recalls, “and I liked his no-excuses approach. He was just the kind of energetic, innovative, idealistic, young person whom we looked for at CEI. So I made a couple of calls and got him a couple of classrooms in the South Bronx. The rest is history.”

The tipping point for KIPP occurred when 60 Minutes broadcast a heartwarming piece profiling the schools in Houston and New York. Politicians and superintendents across the country began to reach out to Levin and KIPP’s cofounder, Mike Feinberg, asking them to open KIPP schools in their cities. Fortunately, Don and Doris Fisher, founders of the Gap clothing-store chain, saw the 60 Minutes piece and decided to help bankroll KIPP’s expansion. Today, 16209 KIPP schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia enroll more than 60,000 students. These “KIPPsters” far surpass district and citywide performance, and more than 82 percent go on to college.

By the late 1990s, CEI was working in dozens of schools, was raising significant private philanthropic dollars, and had begun to build its own board of trustees, led by the indefatigable Judy and Howard Berkowitz. It was at this time that the Manhattan Institute began to think about spinning off CEI as its own separate organization. As Fliegel puts it, “the Manhattan Institute created CEI, they nurtured us in the early years, and, like a good parent, they kicked us out of the house when we were strong enough to be on our own.”

The Manhattan Institute and CEI formally separated in 2000. A few years later, CEI merged with the venerable Public Education Association. Over the past decade, the Manhattan Institute and CEI have continued to work together to fight for meaningful reform of the New York City schools. Under the Bloomberg administration, many of the ideas that CEI put into practice years ago—creating small, theme-based schools, empowering principals and giving them a degree of autonomy over budgets and staffing in exchange for new levels of accountability, fostering a new generation of highly qualified and motivated teachers—have been implemented systemwide. “We used to be considered renegades. We worked from outside the system. But Joel Klein brought us into the tent,” says Fliegel, referring to the former NYC schools chancellor.

Today, CEI is one of New York City schools’ partnership support organizations—or PSOs—providing customized educational support for 207 schools within the New York City Department of Education. It is the largest PSO in the city and has the highest record of achievement. It received four large federal grants to create a pilot performance-pay program among a select group of New York City charter schools. And it has helped 31 charters in New York and New Jersey implement human capital-management systems that provide professional growth to teachers and school leaders.

The Manhattan Institute and CEI continue to enjoy a strong working relationship, too. The Institute intellectually supports the work of CEI by publishing articles and organizing conferences and events that help make reform a reality. For example, when the New York State legislature was debating whether to raise the cap on charter schools, the Manhattan Institute stepped in with numerous articles and op-eds that made the case for lifting the cap. The Institute also conducted an empirical study that showed that students in traditional public schools are not harmed by charters, as some detractors claim, but actually benefit somewhat from the increased competition that charters bring.

The Manhattan Institute is proud to have played a direct role in the promising reforms that have begun to take root in New York City’s schools. Of course, the fight to ensure that all students—in New York and elsewhere—receive a quality education is far from over, and the Institute continues to pursue an aggressive reform agenda. Choice and competition, quality teachers, quality standards and assessments, quality curricula: all are essential to improving American education in the twenty-first century. When it comes to education reform, the Institute’s philosophy can be summed up as “all of the above.” The Manhattan Institute will continue to lead the reform movement by taking a hard look at all reform approaches and measuring them by one simple standard: what works best for kids.

  1. September 1970

    Sy Fliegal, former deputy superintendent of East Harlem’s Community School District 4, transforms failing schools in District 4 into thriving, small, community-based schools.

  2. March 1989

    The Manhattan Institute (MI) employs Sy Fliegal as a senior fellow and launches the Center for Educational Innovation (CEI), a hands-on think tank that uses the successful strategies developed in District 4 to create exceptional new public schools.

  3. June 1993

    Fliegal and MI senior fellow James Macguire write a book "The Miracle of East Harlem: The Fight for Choice in Public Education". The book show how education reform can be achieved one school at a time.

  4. September 1996

    CEI starts many successful small, alternative public schools. The schools include Frederick Douglass Academy, Beginning with Children School, Wildcat Academy, The Manhattan School for Children, and Young Women’s Leadership School.

  5. October 1998

    CEI advises Governor Pataki on how to craft an effective charter school law.

  6. October 1998

    The charter school law passes, and CEI helps establish new charter schools in New York. One of these charter schools is the now-famous KIPP Academy, which is the nation’s largest and most successful charter network.

  7. September 2000

    CEI and MI separate but continue to work together to fight for reform in NewYork City’s schools. MI supports the work of CEI by publishing articles, organizing conferences, and conducting studies that shed light on the benefits of charter schools.



Policy & Research:

Carolyn Gorman
Project Manager

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