When it came time to pick a Harlem middle school for her daughter, Eula Guest did her research. She inquired with friends, principals and PTA presidents, and talked to students inside art studios and auditoriums. “I got down to the nitty-gritty,” she said. “I asked about everything.”
Eventually, she chose Frederick Douglass Academy II, a middle and high school with a robotics class, a college-readiness program and lots of tutoring for students in need of extra support. The latest grade reported in the city’s guidebook said the middle school had earned an “A.”
It did not say that more recently, it had earned a “C,” and the year that Ms. Guest’s daughter, Shassee, applied for admission, it was stumbling its way to an “F.” Last year, a few months after Shassee entered sixth grade, the Education Department announced it wanted to close the academy’s middle school, citing, among other things, low standardized test scores.
“They tell you, be an active partner in your child’s education, be active about choosing a school,” said Ms. Guest, who owns a video marketing firm with her husband.
“You abide by the rules, and then they try to change the rules. I was in shock.”
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has made school choice a foundation of his education agenda, and since he took office in 2002, the city opened more than 500 new schools; closed, or is in the process of closing, more than 100 ailing ones; and created an environment in which more than 130 charter schools could flourish. No neighborhood has been as transformed by that agenda as Harlem.
When classes resume on Thursday, many of its students will be showing up in schools that did not exist a decade ago. The idea, one that became a model for school reform nationwide, was to let parents shop for schools the same way they would for housing or a cellphone plan, and that eventually, the competition would lift all boats.
But in interviews in recent weeks, Harlem parents described two drastically different public school experiences, expressing frustration that, among other things, there were still a limited number of high-quality choices and that many schools continued to underperform.
Those fortunate enough to get their sons or daughters into one of the high-performing schools said, for the most part, that they were thrilled with the quality of the teaching and extracurricular programs. Some of the parents who grew up in the neighborhood said that until a few years ago, they would never have imagined such options even existing.