Before Success Academy Principal Candido Brown’s “Got to Go” list became a rallying cry for charter-school critics, and before his tearful apology, Brown was coming to grips with his own experience in public education.
“I am the product of a failing school,” Brown told Chalkbeat earlier this year.
At the time, Brown was just a few months into his tenure as principal of Success Academy Fort Greene. He had been charged with turning around a school that had quickly churned through two previous leaders.
Aboard a school bus after a charter-school rally in Albany last winter, Brown talked about how he went from a tough upbringing in Baltimore to the New Jersey suburbs and back to Baltimore.
He also brushed aside criticisms about strict discipline often leveled at charter schools and dismissed the idea that Success encouraged unruly students to leave — something he admitted to doing in a recent New York Times story. He bases his demanding “no-excuses” approach, he said then, on the best teachers he had growing up.
The interview, which has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity, offers a window into the thinking of a school leader who later found himself at the center of a debate about how charter schools work.
On his early years in Baltimore’s public school system
Brown: I attended schools in Baltimore where we didn’t get homework. I was afraid to go to school. I didn’t do anything all day. I didn’t learn to read until later in my academic career.
My mom was also a drug addict. I was taken care of by my sister, faked many days of sickness because I hated school. I didn’t want to go. I was afraid that I would be picked on or beat up.
At the time, you’re not able to process your reality because you don’t have anything to compare it to. Reality didn’t smack me in the face until I actually left Baltimore and went to New Jersey to live with my grandmother. And for four years, I was a part of a system and a family where I was well cared for every day.”
On his experience in New Jersey, starting in third grade
I learned a lot there. I learned that there was a world bigger than what I had experienced in Baltimore and I wanted more of it.
When I moved back to Baltimore for seventh grade, I went to a subpar middle school and was placed in a gifted class. So I went from Baltimore to New Jersey, got placed in remedial classes, then I go from New Jersey to Baltimore and get placed in gifted classes. That just shows you the unbalanced educational system we have.
What he still resents
I received my first ‘F’ in college. A professor sent me an email, invited me to his office, and told me that I had been allowed to get to college, a good college, and not told that my writing sucked.
And it was during that time that I went into a really dark place about how adults had failed me, about how adults had not been honest with me, about where and how I really performed as a student.
The origins of his ‘no-excuses’ approach, later in his schooling …
The person you’re talking to today is a product of individuals who were no-excuses and didn’t allow me to settle for anything. I’m a product of teachers telling me, ‘No, you are not speaking in complete sentences. That does not fly here. Start again. Say it again.’ I’m a product of teachers ripping up paper and telling me to rewrite the assignment.
…. and how he tries to recreate that experience as a teacher and principal
So many of our children are going to school and are experiencing things that our parents never even find out about. I was a recipient of that. My work today is to ensure that none of that ever happens on my watch, to ensure that my children come to a school that’s safe, that’s rigorous, that’s warm, that’s engaging, that’s fun.
What it’s like to work for Success
I worked in many places, but Success is a different place because it’s a hard place to work. And it’s a hard place to work because we are so demanding. We truly want to professionalize what it means to be a teacher.
I don’t believe I was mentally prepared for what I was about to experience. Many new teachers that I’ve had made the job look very easy. And it’s not an easy job. And we train and we support teachers to do good work and to do it well. I’m glad that I’m able to train my teachers to do it well, but I was not prepared.
The notion that Success Academy counsels out challenging students
It’s bogus. I don’t think about it. It doesn’t make sense to me. I know the good and noble work that I’m doing. I know the good and noble work that my teachers are doing. I know the incredible amounts of time and energy and heart and passion we put into the work. Those are distractions for me.
What he expects of families, and what he tries to offer them
If you come and you get a spot in the lottery, you’re going to work. Every high-performing, no-excuses charter school, you gotta work. You do.
The reason we have so many charter schools is because someone else is failing. The reason we have a Starbucks is because probably a mom and pop coffee shop failed somewhere along the way, or didn’t exist. We just need a better product. We are now the better product. We are delivering a service where parents don’t have to pay for it.
You walk into my school, and if you were to not know about the movement, and not know that charter schools are public schools, you would think that we’re private. The way that I operate my schools, my public charter school, is like a private school.
I give parents the quality customer service that they deserve. When you come into my main office, we ask you, ‘How are you doing? Would you like some water? Would you like some coffee? Who are you here to see? Are you here for an appointment? Are you here to see Mr. Brown?’ That’s quality.
His work at Fort Greene Success
I wanted to ensure my children were learning. But before the learning happened I had to create the conditions for learning. So I had to ensure that protocols, processes, and procedures and routines were in place. And many of those routines were not.
Routines are just how to move from rug to desk, transitions, how to transition in the hallways. Schedules and timing. All of those conditions had to be completely codified before the real learning could happen.