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Success Academy does ‘screen’ its students. It’s not in the way you might think.

Students participate in science class at Success Academy Harlem 1.
Students participate in science class at Success Academy Harlem 1.
Monica Disare/Chalkbeat

Robert Pondiscio unpacks the attention, praise, and controversy surrounding the rapidly growing charter school network. Pondiscio shadowed teachers and students at Success’s Bronx 1 Elementary School for an entire year; in the excerpt below, he describes a mandatory pre-enrollment meeting for families who won seats in the school’s lottery. There, Shea Reeder, who led a nearby Success school, explained what the school would expect of families so parents could decide if Success was right for their child:

At six o’clock precisely, Shea Reeder, the principal of Bronx 4, Success Academy’s newest school in the borough, rises from her seat in the front row of the auditorium. Eschewing a microphone and speaking from the pit in front of the stage, she introduces herself as a seven-year veteran of Success Academy. She’s been a teacher, an assistant principal, a dean, “and then they finally were crazy enough to give me my own school,” she quips.

With two children at Success — one in middle school, one in elementary — it wasn’t so long ago that she was sitting in this meeting not as a principal but as a parent. “When I came to visit, I said, ‘Listen, I need to work for this organization. I believe in what you stand for. I believe in what you’re doing for kids,’” she says. “That’s how much I believe in Success Academy.”

What comes next is more of a warning than a welcome. Echoing the language students hear daily in their classroom, Reeder tells the parents that she has a “thinking job” for them this evening. “Keep this question in mind during this entire presentation,” she says. “Is Success Academy the right fit for me and my child?”

Most schools would ask parents to consider only if the school is right for their child, not the parent. But Reeder’s question is neither accidental nor ill considered.

At the start of the assembly, parents might be wondering whether their kids can handle the school. By the end, many are surely left wondering if they can handle the demands Success Academy places on parents, its logistical challenges, and how well they will mesh with the culture and environment of its schools.

“Although you’re going to hear a lot of great and amazing things about us, there are some things you may say, ‘Mmm, doesn’t work for me,’” she warns. “And that’s fine too. Success Academy is not for everyone.” She hits the word “not” emphatically. Nor is she freelancing or going off-message: As she speaks, a network-designed PowerPoint is projected on a screen above the stage behind her. The words “Is SA right for you?” loom over her.

“We want to make sure you are making an informed decision about coming to our schools. Because we expect that you accept us 100%,” she continues. Parents cannot say that they like the curriculum but not the way Success Academy manages its classrooms. “It’s not Burger King. You can’t have it your way.” Some parents chuckle, but Reeder’s not joking. The first bullet point says, “We love and support your kids like they are our own!” The next says, “Our school design is everything — it’s all or nothing. Nothing is optional!”

Reeder adds, “Eva likes to say this is a marriage. We are partnering up and raising this child together. We expect that you guys are on board with everything we’re doing.” I have come to recognize this mix of straight talk and tough love, equal parts harassment and encouragement, aspiration and unsparing demands for compliance, as the signature feature of Success Academy’s culture.

When she stops her monologue to play a promotional video about Success Academy’s curriculum and teaching methods, I watch the parents instead of the screen. My eye settles on a mother who is beaming and nodding her head animatedly. The video ends, and Reeder ticks off the features of Success Academy’s elementary school routines. Reading logs. Six books a week. Hands-on science daily. Art, chess, dance, and music — not as extracurriculars but as part of the curriculum — outdoor recess every day that it’s not raining. High expectations, even for special education students.

“We don’t lower the bar for anyone,” she insists. “We have the same expectations for them as we do for all of our students.” If parents are unsure of their ability to work with their children, Success will help. “We have math nights. We have literacy nights. We have lots of family events so you can come learn how to support your child,” she explains.

Success Academy issues cell phones to every teacher and requires them to respond to any phone call or text from a parent within 24 hours, but it’s a two-way street. “If we call you, we expect you to return that call within 24 hours,” she says. “That’s really important.” Since there are no parent-teacher conferences, “we meet whenever we wanna meet,” Reeder explains. “If you say as a parent, ‘I’m noticing something at home’” — Reeder pantomimes speaking into a phone — “‘Teacher, hello. Can we meet tomorrow? Great.’ We have meetings starting at seven o’clock in the morning. Whatever it takes for your child to succeed.”

Inevitably, the other half of Success Academy’s dual mission comes up. “Before I came to SA, I never even thought about advocacy,” Reeder says, but now “it makes total sense.” Bronx 4, Reeder’s campus in the Soundview neighborhood of the Bronx, “would not be in existence unless there were parents who came before us who marched,” she says. “And that’s a part of your role too. Some of you are probably sitting there saying, ‘Listen, I don’t have time for that. I gotta work.’ You gotta have time for it. Right? Because if you want your child to succeed and go through Success, we need that support.”

Then, almost as an afterthought, Reeder mentions transportation. Success Academy does not offer buses. For some parents, the logistics of getting a child to and from school present an even bigger challenge than complying with culture demands, reading logs, and homework. Every Wednesday, children are dismissed at 12:30 so that staff can attend their professional development sessions.

“That’s something else you gotta keep in mind,” Reeder adds. “‘Will I be able to pick up my child on time? Will I be able to have somebody to support me with that?’ School lets out at 3:45 but every Wednesday is “12:30 no matter what.” She hits “12” and “30” hard, hammering the point home. “And we do not have after-school, so you guys have to figure that out.”

The meeting lasts just under an hour, but it opens a portal into the model and culture that explains in no small part the network’s consistent results across its schools. Suddenly it all makes sense: The common criticism leveled at Moskowitz and her schools is that they cherry-pick students, attracting bright children and shedding the poorly behaved and hardest to teach. This misses the mark entirely. Success Academy is cherry-picking parents. Parents who are not put off by uniforms, homework, reading logs, and constant demands on their time, but who view those things as evidence that here, at last, is a school that has its act together.

Adapted from How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice by Robert Pondiscio, copyright (c) 2019. Published by Avery, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.

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