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A Success principal’s case for closing school and going to Albany

Success Academy Harlem Central Principal Andrew Malone is invoking the Civil Rights Movement in rallying parents to fight for their school’s the continued right to operate in public space.

In a nearly-1,000 word letter to parents sent this morning, Malone writes that “our school has become the political target” of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, which last week cancelled space-sharing plans for two new Success Academy charter schools and for Harlem Central to continue expanding into seventh and eighth grades. He sent the letter out this morning, a day before thousands of charter school supporters, many of which will come from Success schools, travel to Albany for a high-profile rally for more support from the state legislature.

“I believe that the only way to advance is to leverage great teaching as a form of political action, and to, at the same time, leverage political action as a defense of great teaching,” Malone writes. “We need both kinds of Freedom Rides.”

The letter was also sent as Success schools face criticism from local lawmakers around CEO Eva Moskowitz’s decision to close schools for the advocacy day, which she has done before, most recently for a citywide rally in October. City Council Education Committee Chair Daniel Dromm has called a hearing to probe the practice.

A full copy of Malone’s letter is below:

To my Harlem Central family:

One September afternoon in eighth grade, I hauled my oversized backpack to the public library to begin a research project that would end up changing my life. I was studying the 1961 Freedom Rides. As I read about the Rides – a series of nonviolent protests in which hundreds of Americans rode integrated buses through the segregated South – I became completely engrossed. For the next nine months, I trekked from library to library, searching for Greyhound buses in photographs, articles, and films. I saw vehicles engulfed in flames; I read about hostile crowds waiting at terminals; I watched police handcuff riders and escort them to jail. I was shocked, and felt shamefully naïve. I was a sheltered, suburban child, and none of this history fit into my rosy understanding of the world. But along with shock came inspiration. I promised myself that I would dedicate my life to fighting injustice; that I, too, would be a Freedom Rider.

That adolescent vow proved powerful. Where other childhood dreams (astronaut, Supreme Court Justice, “the next Tom Hanks”) fell to the wayside, my commitment to social justice stayed strong. But it also stayed fairly abstract, until I began teaching acting workshops in Boston public schools during college. These schools were terrible. They were nothing like the schools I had known growing up. The disparity really haunted me, and I began to see education inequality as a civil rights issue. Over the next four years, I would come to believe that education inequality was the civil rights issue of our time. Building great schools and classrooms for every child in America – this was our Freedom Ride. So after graduation, I set out to teach.

Since then, I have been lucky enough to seek justice through pedagogy. Working hard to become a better teacher, and then to become a better school leader; this was the nature of the fight. I felt so fortunate that I could pursue justice by debating the best way to teach a poem, the best way to tackle equivalent fractions. By moving kids and teachers to compelling educational outcomes; by creating proof points of academic success in neighborhoods that had for decades been plagued by academic failure; by providing concrete opportunities to kids and families without the economic means to choose their schools and zip codes; by doing all of that through outstanding instruction; that was the nature of my Freedom Ride.

Thursday has changed all of that. Our school has become a political target despite our incredible academic achievements. Our scholars are 100 percent minority, 80 percent low-income. They attend schools in a neighborhood where district schools are failing, posting an average pass rate of five percent last year. Five percent. Yet, our scholars perform as well or better than Westchester and Scarsdale. In 2012, our scholars ranked number one in Manhattan for academic achievement. In 2013, they ranked number one in the state in mathematics. But Thursday, our mayor announced his intent to shut us down.

And so, the nature of the Freedom Ride has changed. It’s not enough, apparently, to build Harlem’s top-performing middle school. Pedagogic advocacy – achieving change through great teaching and learning – is sadly, and unjustly, not enough.

It is impossible to comprehend. It is 2014. Fifty years have passed since LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Yet the Mayor of New York City is trying to shut down a high-performing school serving low-income students. A Mayor who purports to advocate for low-income families. The hypocrisy is baffling and infuriating.

But of course, the hardest part of this all, is that it is happening to us. It is Laminu and Serea, Vakaba and Amanda, Kwame and Kayla, Jayden and Tiayna, Sharron and Staci. Our actors, artists, dancers, basketball players, computer scientists, chess prodigies. Our community, which we have worked so tirelessly to build, which is full of so much concrete success among so much genuine love.

This, for me, is a very hard reality to accept. In the face of large scale injustice – the lack of logic, the blatant hypocrisy, the backwards history – we are the ones who see the impact on the faces and names of real kids and families we know and love. It’s just terrible.

How do we move forward?

I believe that the only way to advance is to leverage great teaching as a form of political action, and to, at the same time, leverage political action as a defense of great teaching. We need both kinds of Freedom Rides.

We must be incredible educators and advocates at the same time. Our teaching has to motivate our advocacy while our advocacy inspires our teaching. In the end, it boils down to the same message we offered the scholars: Be inspired.

In the face of Thursday’s announcement, we cannot help broken hearts. But we cannot permit broken resolve. When we overcome this, we will stand proud as the school that forced New York and the United States of America to put children before politics.

I have always believed that there is a moral arc to the universe. And I believe that Harlem Central has been put to this test because our community is strong enough to survive it. We have the talent, the commitment, and most importantly, the love, to overcome this. We are the ones with the power to propel the moral arc forward.

Take a moment to embrace what stands ahead of us. Heed the call to be incredible teachers and incredible advocates as we lead a new Freedom Ride toward the right side of history.

We will get there.

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