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Success Academy seeks in-house ethnographer to study its schools

Students and faculty at Success Academy Harlem 5 in 2014.
Students and faculty at Success Academy Harlem 5 in 2014.
Geoff Decker

The Success Academy charter school network employs scores of teachers and administrators, but now it hopes to add a very different worker to its ranks: ethnographer.

Ethnographers are social scientists who study groups by personally observing their practices, often using interviews and surveys as tools. Success’ in-house researcher would conduct such “ethnographic fieldwork” across the network’s 32 schools and their offices, and help other staffers write “narrative assessments” of schools, according to a description on the network’s employment website.

“We want to expand the scope and quality of our data collection to focus on the lived experience within our schools,” the description reads, adding that the position would help the network focus on “questions we’ve never thought to ask.”

With about 9,400 students across the city in kindergarten through ninth grade, the Success network rivals the size of some cities’ entire public-school districts, and has a budget to match. Its mix of public and private funding helps it afford an expansive data team: Six network-wide analysts crunching the numbers in addition to a data-focused staff member in each of its 32 schools. But the potential new hire indicates that Success, known for its focus on student achievement data, wants to pull in more qualitative information about what is happening inside its classrooms.

If Success adds an ethnographer to its staff, it could become the first charter school network in the nation to do so, according to Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

“Success is definitely at the cutting edge on this,” Rees said in an email. “We have not heard of any others doing this work!”

The Success ethnographer’s findings will be used internally for different purposes, such as to predict how students will perform in school over time and to help teachers improve, a school official said.

“Success has an ethos of constantly trying to improve and this comes out of that,” said Success spokeswoman Ann Powell. “We do a lot of innovative things that other networks don’t do.”

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