A New School for the East Side

For many New York City parents, it’s become a fact of life: If you want your children to get a decent education, you send them to private school–if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford the tuition. Or you may just abandon city life altogether and move to the suburbs. This intolerable situation–in which middle-class families are punished if they choose to stay in the city–is the stuff of many Mayoral campaigns and agonized Op-Ed pieces by education experts. But it took a group of parents on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to come up with a pragmatic, simple and brilliant solution. Thanks to their efforts over the past two years, the Board of Education has announced that it will create a new neighborhood high school on East 76th Street, in a former Sotheby’s warehouse, with a planned opening in the fall of 2002.

Nothing will benefit New York’s 1.1 million public-school students more than reengaging the middle and upper-middle class in the public-education process. The revival of the concept of the neighborhood high school, which fosters local pride and parental involvement, will bring relief to New Yorkers who feel utterly detached from the current, sprawling system.

Some of those parents who backed the new Upper East Side school are acting a bit like–dare we say it?–spoiled children, complaining that, because of the size of the building, the school can serve only 700 students. Surely that’s a great start, and a cause for celebration, not frustration. A more pressing concern is whether the Board of Ed will agree to modify its admissions guidelines, which require that high schools take only 16 percent of their incoming students from the top tier of those who apply, with 16 percent taken from the bottom tier and the rest from the middle. If the guidelines are not updated, most of the children whose families live in the neighborhood would be shut out, since a great number of them would likely be in that top tier. Schools Chancellor Harold Levy, who has shown admirable creativity in supporting the school, must use his influence to see that the guidelines are relaxed. There is no sense in creating a new high school unless it is treated as an innovation, not just another building.

Another bright spot in the public-education landscape is the news that financier Carl Icahn is funding the Icahn Charter School, a new elementary school in the Morrisania section of the South Bronx. He has put up about $3 million, and will spend about $1 million for the first year of operations. Predictably, the teachers’ union–that stalwart defender of the stagnant status quo–was opposed to the project. But classes are scheduled to start in September. As one who did quite well for himself in business, Mr. Icahn is turning his success into something larger. As he recently told The Observer about the charter school, “Most of these places start on a shoestring budget, so they are almost doomed to failure. But we can put up the money.”

Albany Keeps Puffing

State Senators have disgracefully departed Albany without passing a bill that would have tightened the state’s anti-smoking regulations. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be news, but Republicans in the Senate–often the opponents of government regulation–gave serious attention to the proposal before heading home. But for the intervention of Governor George Pataki, who expressed concerns about the impact on the restaurant industry, the bill might have passed. That thought alone suggests that the State Senate is getting with the times.

The Senators’ instincts are correct. Non-smokers rightfully demand that they not be exposed to the poisonous habits of nicotine addicts. Studies show that secondhand smoke affects the health of non-smokers. Other states and localities, including New York City, have cracked down on smoking without hurting restaurant business. The State Assembly, controlled by Democrats, passed its own version of the bill, but it had no support in the Senate.

A consensus is building on behalf of those smart enough to have avoided or given up the deadly tobacco habit. State Senators know they can’t hide behind free-market rhetoric, not when non-smokers have facts, science and public sympathy on their side. Republicans now know that their future employment prospects depend, to some extent, on their willingness to protect the health of non-smokers. Next year, when the Legislature and the Governor are up for reelection, perhaps everybody will agree that nobody has a right to blow poison in the direction of an innocent bystander. Elections have a way of concentrating the mind on such issues.

A Poet in New York

Often, the newspaper headline and the sound bite are what pass for poetry in New York, a city populated by some of the nation’s greatest poets but with precious little time to appreciate them. But New York does periodically thrust one of its poets up on the national stage. Last week the Librarian of Congress, after consulting with prominent poets and critics , named Billy Collins, a 60-year-old professor of English at Lehman College at the City University of the Bronx, as the country’s next poet laureate, joining the ranks of Robert Frost, Maxine Kumin, Robert Penn Warren, Joseph Brodsky and others who have served since the position was created in 1937. The current poet laureate, Stanley Kunitz, is also a New Yorker.

In October Mr. Collins will assume his duties, with an office in the Library of Congress and as much of a podium as any poet could hope for in an age when poetry is all too often misunderstood as something irrelevant to daily life. Mr. Collins, an Irish-American who was born in the city and raised in Queens, is also writer-in-residence at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville. His books of poetry sell extremely well; John Updike described his verse as “consistently startling.” As a teacher for 30 years, Mr. Collins told The New York Times that he had come to describe himself as a “lifter of chalk in the Bronx.” As he heads to Washington, Mr. Collins carries with him the congratulations of those New Yorkers who still believe that poetry matters.