Across the United States, urban high schools have been the most resistant to school reforms. Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS) in New York City is a dramatic exception. By "reinventing" secondary school culture, CPESS has been able to offer public school students--many from low-income and African American and Latino families--in grades 7 through 12 the intellectually rigorous and creative education normally associated with elite private schools.
At CPESS, the structure--the size, curriculum, and daily schedule--of secondary school is altered. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, secondary schools have been characterized by large populations, highly differentiated curricula, time organized into relatively short periods of instruction, and teachers organized into departments by academic subject. At CPESS, classes are small and the day is organized into two-hour periods, allowing teachers and students enough time to engage in concentrated work in specific areas. Students study two main subject groups--mathematics and science, and social studies and the humanities.
By establishing high standards and clear expectations of its students, CPESS offers them the same opportunities for post-secondary education as students from more-advantaged backgrounds. At CPESS, student performance is regularly assessed through a process in which students explain their work and hear it critiqued. To graduate, they must present seven academic projects in specified subjects and defend them before committees of students, teachers, and other adults, much as a Ph.D. candidate defends a thesis.
The effectiveness of a small, personal and undifferentiated school organization with an emphasis on academic performance is clearly evident. CPESS has no selection criteria, test, or interview; yet, for the school years 1990-91 and 1991-92, 95 percent and 90 percent of graduates, respectively, went on to college. In the same years, approximately 64 percent of graduates (all students, not just minority students) nationally went to college.
CPESS is part of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a network of schools with the mission of creating and sustaining "equitable, intellectually vibrant, personalized schools." CPESS is a leader of this reform movement and is used as a model by other local and national reform efforts. It is presently spearheading an initiative to create 12 similar schools in Manhattan and the Bronx, offering its intellectually rigorous, performance-based schooling to a greater number of students who traditionally have been overlooked.