Profiles In Education:
Seymour Fliegel: President, CEI-PEA
Seymour Fliegel believes in public education. A native New Yorker and graduate of New York City schools, Fliegel spent his career advocating for public education. President of the non-profit Center for Educational Innovation-Public Education Association, Fliegel maintains that the “poorest of children deserve a meaningful, quality education.”
CEI-PEA works directly with schools to improve education. Services range from small-scale professional development workshops to wide range innovations—restructuring schools into smaller schools. Fliegel shared his insights about education and described the history and mission of CEI-PEA with Education Update. “We listen. We ask what they need and we deliver,” said Fliegel. For example, the staff, composed of former educators and administrators, serves as consultants to schools, providing advice on budgeting, scheduling, discipline, grouping and more.
The merger of the two groups in 2000 combined talents to better serve New York communities and school districts. PEA, first established in 1895, pioneered the first school in New York City jails, campaigned for the first school hot lunch program, enlisted community volunteers to assist in schools, and in 1956, addressed the inferior schooling and segregation of minority children. PEA conducted studies about the advantages of small schools, sponsored conferences on restructuring existing schools, and published an annual parent guide to middle and high schools to assist parents in selecting schools.
As one of the early founders of CEI, Fliegel advocated for the city’s first school choice program. After receiving national recognition at the White House, the group partnered with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, held conferences about school reform abroad, and created small schools and charter schools throughout the city. In 1997, CEI founded the School Leadership Academy to develop and train in-service principals and in 1998, CEI developed the city’s first charter resource school in New York State.
Fliegel grew up in the Bronx, attended City College, served in the Korean War (in Europe), earned a Master’s degree in Education, and completed the course work for a doctorate before beginning his teaching career as a fifth and sixth grade teacher at City College Demonstration School. From there, he rose to superintendent, spending years in some of the city’s worst schools in East Harlem. “The advantage to being at the bottom was, there was no place to go but up. We could afford to be risk takers,” he said.
CEI started with three schools in East Harlem. They accepted the worst students—those in trouble, those failing, those needing a change—and made sure they graduated high school. “These were the kids most high schools were throwing out. We turned them around,” said Fliegel. By 1982, CEI had created 42 small schools in 20 buildings and East Harlem ranked 15th in the city.
While Fliegel hesitated to attribute CEI’s success in the inner city to any particular formula, saying it makes schools too passive in the reform process, he enumerated what CEI-PEA’s believes works. He emphasized the importance of recognizing different learning styles, that there’s neither a “best” school nor the best way to learn. “Good schools,” he said, “have good leadership” and a clearly defined vision of where it wants to be. Schools need to be accountable and have ownership of policies, including staff selection. Expectations must be high and all people must be treated professionally. Finally, small school size is the key to success, he said. “Smaller schools are better for students and teachers. Why? The small school creates a sense of community.”
In addition to developing charter schools, refiguring existing schools, mentoring principals and providing professional development, CEI-PEA has launched Project Boost, (Building Options and Opportunities for Students) to provide enrichment activities to increase admission to the select high schools and has partnered with the American Museum of Natural History to introduce students to astrophysics. Funded through foundation and corporate grants, CEI-PEA also sponsors forums about public education, maintains a parent hotline and website, and publishes a quarterly newsletter, CEI-PEA Alert.
Fliegel posted this quote outside his office when he was a superintendent: “I taught that but the children didn’t learn it.” His response: “Nothing is taught unless something is learned. Teaching and learning can’t be separated.”
Despite the success of CEI-PEA, Fliegel worries about public education not just in New York City but also in the nation. “We must continually ask, how do we really close the gap between children of the poor and the rest of society, and between minority and non-minority populations? Given the right opportunity, minority kids can do well. We can educate the children of the poor. That's what we'reall about."#