DISTRICT 2 NEW YORK CITY
Fourth grade teacher Emily Jarrell works with a student at PS 126 in New York City.
The reform carried out by Anthony Alvarado in New York City’s District
2, starting in 1987, has been hailed by educational experts as a pioneering effort
at district-wide reform and a watershed in the two-decade effort to improve America’s
schools. Until that time, reform had been carried out school-by-school, but reformers
such as Alvarado worried that the pace of change was too slow for students and
the nation. “Tony Alvarado was a turning point,” asserts Lauren Resnick,
Director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Learning. “The
District 2 experiment was a turning point. It showed what could be done with serious,
With a district of 22,000 students, half living in poverty and one out of
ten an immigrant, Alvarado had to lift the achievement levels of his district’s
poorest performing students in order to improve his district’s overall
performance. He was confronted with a difficult cultural mix that ranged from
the wealthy upper east side of Manhattan to poor, densely populated neighborhoods
of lower Manhattan in Chinatown, Hell’s Kitchen, Little Italy, Greenwich
Village, and Tribeca.
Through a single-minded focus on radically improving the quality of instruction
in his schools, Alvarado made change occur. He cut central staff and invested
in teacher training. Searching for the best educational practices worldwide,
the district leadership brought in literacy experts from New Zealand and Australia,
the two English-speaking nations with the world’s highest literacy rates.
They were hired to coach District 2 teachers. Alvarado also held principals accountable
as instructional leaders, not building managers. He expected them to play a key
role in educational improvement, working side-by-side with teachers. To drive
home his point, Alvarado and his two deputies visited each school several times
a year to evaluate its progress and give the principal feedback to spur further
improvement. When principals didn’t deliver, he fired 20 of them.
Surprisingly, the local teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers,
did not try to block Alvarado’s drive to improve teaching, but rather endorsed
it. The union knew Alvarado’s long track record in Manhattan’s public
schools and understood that improving instruction was not a violation of the
union contract. Since his years as a teacher, Alvarado had built rapport with
the union; they knew his decisions were being made for sound educational reasons.
So when veteran teachers balked at the new expectations put on them, the union
backed Alvarado – even enabling him to move teachers out of his district.
Alvarado boosted District 2’s student achievement up from 10th to 2nd
among the 32 school districts. While his successors maintained his momentum,
District 2 has since dissolved and become part of the massive citywide school
system under Joel Klein with 1.2 million students in 1,356 schools. As Klein
pushes reform throughout the city, he has borrowed heavily from Alvarado’s
strategies and has promoted several of Alvarado’s former principals to
serve as instructional superintendents for a number of the city’s ten new
regions. His deputy chancellor is also a graduate of Alvarado’s District
New York City Department of Education
52 Chambers Street
New York, NY 10007
Some Research Articles and Evaluations
“Investing in Teacher Learning: Staff Development and Instructional Improvement
in Community District 2, New York City,” (1997), by Richard F. Elmore with
the assistance of Deanna Burney, Prepared for the National Commission on Teaching
and America’s Future.
District 2 in New York City used professional development as the
core strategy for school improvement. This paper describes and analyzes District
2’s use of staff development to change instruction system wide. While District
2’s professional development activities may be similar to what other districts
do, the authors explain that what is distinct about District 2 is the way their
professional development models are organized, conceptually and managerially.
http://www.iadb.org (PDF - Adobe Reader Required)
“Developing Principals as Instructional Leaders,” (1999), by Elaine
Fink and Lauren Resnick, Learning Research and Development Center.
This report describes how principals serve as instructional leaders
and not just building managers in New York City’s District 2. It is examines
how the “culture of learning” among principals is developed and sustained,
while at the same time maintaining a strong sense of accountability for student
“Toward Closing the Gap in Literacy Achievement,” (1999) by Mary
Kay Stein, Michael Harwell and Laura D’Amico, Learning and Research and
This study looks at literacy achievement across all elementary schools
in New York City’s District 2. It then examines literacy improvement at
the 13 low performing schools that were part of the district’s Focused
Literacy Network. These schools received a more intense version of the support
available to all schools in the district. Overall results showed improvement
among all elementary schools in literacy, with greater improvement at schools
in the Focused Literacy Network.
“Case Study: The Jacob Riis School (PS 126),” (1997), by D. Burney
and S. Nelson-Le Gall, Learning Research and Development Center.
This is a case study of PS 126, an elementary school in New York
City’s District 2 that was featured in the PBS documentary, Making Schools
Work. The study was conducted in 1997 when not quite half of the students were
at or above grade level in reading and math.
http://www.lrdc.pitt.edu (PDF - Adobe Reader Required)