A decade after watching Carlos Pimentel graduate from Seward Park High School on the Lower East Side, I spotted his lanky form on a subway platform. We had stayed in contact in the intervening years, and I knew he had graduated from college and earned a law degree.
Now, Carlos reached into his wallet and extracted his business card; he was an entertainment lawyer. As we waited for the train, he explained that he had just come back from a week volunteering at a camp for children very much like his own younger self, a Dominican immigrant wrestling with the temptations of crack, guns and gangs.
Riding downtown on the Broadway local, we reminisced about Carlos's classmates, whom I had gotten to know while researching a book about Seward Park. Angel Fuster, the son of a welfare mother, had earned his own law degree at New York University. Wilfredo Ayala, back then too ashamed to show me his scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, was teaching in an alternative school. Aracelis Collado, who had resisted a marriage proposal to attend college, was a social worker. See Wai Mui, who arrived in America at age 12 essentially illiterate, interpreted for Chinese speakers in Brooklyn courts.
More than sentimentality brings these young men and women to mind now. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew are engaged in a battle over whether the Mayor should take control of the Board of Education and whether public money should be used for school vouchers. Mr. Crew is rightly incensed that the Mayor initially declared war on the system by calling it "dysfunctional" and so "plain terrible" that "the whole system should be blown up."
Carlos and his classmates, these products of a putatively failed system, prove that the public schools need a far more sophisticated approach to solving their problems.
Setting a charge and lighting a fuse won't help.
Fixing the system would certainly be simpler if it was an undifferentiated disaster. Precisely because public schools in Chicago and Detroit were such catastrophes there existed the political and civic will to put the mayors in charge of education. And it comes as no surprise that Florida, with its legacy of segregated schools and paltry funds for public education, decided this week to invest in vouchers as a panacea.
But in New York, contrary to received wisdom, public education often succeeds -- and not just at Stuyvesant High School or at P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side. Newtown High School in Queens -- an institution swollen to nearly twice its capacity, with children from 125 countries speaking 43 languages -- sends some 85 percent of its graduates on to college.
That such stirring accomplishment coexists with the educational "dead zones," many in African-American and Puerto Rican neighborhoods, reflects the true dilemma: How does the city close the gap between the portion of the school system that exceeds expectations and the portion that sentences its children to educational failure?
Thousands of New Yorkers share the Mayor's frustration with bureaucracy and his impatience with the pace of reform. The recent payroll-padding scandal in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, offers a depressing reminder of how corrupt corners of the system remain. And the Mayor has fought well and successfully to increase public financing for the schools.
For all that, however, Mr. Giuliani persists in undermining a chancellor who could be his greatest ally, thus further destabilizing the system. Troubled as the schools are, they already hold the keys to their own renewal. New York's school leaders need to learn how to replicate the system's achievements, whether they be progressive mini-schools or back-to-basics academies styled on the Catholic school model. And existing programs, like vouchers for public schools financed from private sources, can exert useful pressure on the worst schools to improve and compete.
Rhetoric aside, the solutions, as well as the problems, lie close to home.