Small solutions to big problems

September 16, 1996|By George F. Will

NEW YORK -- Driving along the edge of East Harlem, Seymour Fliegel points to a public school building, says, ''There's an interesting story,'' and tells it.

In 1934, an Italian-American politician named LaGuardia gave an elite academic high school to what was then an Italian-American neighborhood. For years it excelled, and not just for Italian-Americans, as a graduate named Pat Moynihan can attest. But time passed, East Harlem changed, and by 1982 the graduation rate was 7 percent and attendance averaged 44 percent. But the school was the state basketball champion, so there was resistance to Mr. Fliegel's proposal that the building be given to the school-district educators who specialize in creating alternative schools.

Resistance was overcome and three schools sprouted in the building -- an elementary school, a math-science junior high and the Manhattan Center for Science and Math, which four years later graduated every member of its first class, all of whom went to college.

What is the secret of such success? Mr. Fliegel is a former teacher and superintendent now associated with the Center for Educational Innovation at the nation's most fecund think tank, the Manhattan Institute. He says there is no secret. Just give a school autonomy in exchange for accountability and allow it to have a single vision embraced by pupils, parents and teachers.

Which brings us to Mr. Fliegel's destination, an 11-story building on 106th Street, where the sparkling top three floors are the home of the Young Women's Leadership School. It opened two weeks ago to its first class, 50 seventh-graders, mostly black and Hispanic, immaculate in the uniforms they unanimously choose to wear.

Naturally the New York Civil Liberties Union and the National Organization of Women object to the city allowing a single-sex public school. Why have these organizations worked themselves into a swivet? ''That's what they do,'' is the scientific explanation of a laconic, young female science teacher at the Young Women's school, fresh from Berkeley.

Call that the Oscar Hammerstein explanation: Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly and the likes of NOW gotta litigate. Their organizational DNA dictates a damn-the-evidence, full-ideological-speed-ahead objection to single-sex institutions. (The theory is that they discriminate based on sex.) Never mind the abundantly demonstrated fact that many young girls are less reticent and more apt to flourish academically in a single-sex setting than in the hormonal hurricane of a coeducational high school.

Get this. About 91,000 of the more than one million pupils in this city's 1,095 public schools do not even have desks. Classes are being held in locker rooms. And what makes the civil-liberties fetishists furious? A few parents and their daughters can exercise the freedom to choose a girls' school.

Various little flowers like that are sprouting through cracks in the concrete -- cracks, that is, in the bureaucratic slabs of public education. Mr. Fliegel and his fellow innovators have planted 52 imaginative schools in 20 buildings in East Harlem. And last week Mayor Giuliani endorsed acceptance of an offer made five years ago by this city's Roman Catholic Archdiocese: Catholic schools will educate 1,000 public-school students who are in the bottom 5 percent of their classes.

Redundant proof

Because civil-liberties groups object that any mechanism for using public funds for this would be unconstitutional ''establishment'' of religion, private funding may have to be found. If so, it will be, and the outcome will be (redundant) proof that public schools as traditionally configured and tenaciously defended by traditionalists are not producing the best possible results.

The 50 fortunate girls walking the pink hallways of their new school are a little platoon illustrating a large event -- the end of an era of public policy. The assumption was that there can be national and material solutions to society's big problems, that the national government can supply what poor people need, which supposedly is a materially improved social environment.

The premise of people like Mr. Fliegel is that many big problems begin with a scarcity of inner resources in little people, which can be cured only by bite-size programs. Glenn Loury, a black professor at Boston University who writes well about such things, titled his latest book ''One By One from the Inside Out.'' That is the slogan of today's real reformers. It could be the motto of the Young Women's Leadership School.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/16/96

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