maintaining the spotlight

Success Academy: A guide to the city’s largest, most controversial charter-school network

PHOTO: Success Academy
A "Slam the Exam" rally for Success Academy students

There has been an ongoing fascination with Success Academy and its founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz as the city’s largest and most polarizing charter school network continues to grow in size and in scope.

The release of a detailed New York Times report that gives an inside look at Success Academy charter schools and the methods used to achieve its unusually high test results is just the latest in years of accounts framing the network of 32 schools in the New York City education landscape.

While serving mostly low-income, black and Hispanic students, Success has proven to be a “testing dynamo.” The charter network’s devotion to test preparation, teacher accountability and enforcing strict rules for student behavior has in part led to results that far outpace citywide averages on state exams. But the strategies have also garnered attention for causing high rates of student suspensions and teacher turnover, and skepticism from education advocates that the network is serving its fair share of high-needs students.

Citywide, 29 percent of students passed the state reading tests last year and 35 percent passed the math tests. At Success Academy schools, 64 percent of students passed the reading tests and 94 percent passed the math tests, according to the Times.

Those results have drawn considerable parent interest, with the network touting a record number of applicants for Monday’s admissions lottery. More than 22,000 children vied for just over 2,300 seats — a 50 percent application increase from last year, network officials said.

However, the controversial methods to reach such high test scores take a toll on teachers and students by creating high-stakes environments that are often competitive and stressful. Student scores on weekly assessments are on display in the hallways of some schools and daily emails are circulated throughout the entire network that rank teachers by name based on the percentage of his or her students who passed that morning’s practice tests.

Here’s what you should know about recent reporting on the charter school network and its leader:

Setting high standards for test scores, and holding students and teachers accountable

Success schools invest an extraordinary amount of time and resources into preparing students for the state exams, which start this year on April 14, Chalkbeat has reported.

Success students commonly encounter tasks modeled off those on state tests as early as the fall, are taking full practice tests by winter break, answer daily questions by March and test preparation dominates the school day in the weeks weeks leading up to the exams.

As students take multiple practice tests per day and undergo Saturday prep sessions, the network goes to great lengths to keep students happy with prizes and rewards for high scores. But the Times also reported that several former staff members recalled students wetting themselves during both practice and actual test settings.

“Two former staff members who worked at Success Academy Harlem West, a middle school, in the 2013-14 school year, said that they recalled having to go to the supply closet to get extra underwear and sweatpants, which were always on hand, for students who had wet themselves,” according to the Times.

Failure to hold on to novice teachers

In 2013-14, three Success schools had more than half of their teachers from the previous year not return to their respective schools. But Success officials said the network’s overall attrition rate is 17 percent (compared to 6 percent at district schools), because teachers often move from one Success school to another or get non-teaching positions, according to the Times.

“For teachers, who are not unionized and usually just out of college, 11-hour days are the norm, and each one is under constant monitoring, by principals who make frequent visits, and by databases that record quiz scores,” the Times reported.

The ‘long, complicated’ backfill debate

Success Academy has historically stopped accepting new students after early elementary grades. District schools and many other charter schools “backfill” seats that open after students leave the school, allowing them to serve more students who might be needier or be further behind their peers.

The backfill debate has long divided the charter sector, as critics have charged that schools that do not backfill are not serving their share of high-needs students. Some schools, seeking to fulfill a larger mission and bolster their finances, fill those spots by calling students off of their waiting lists. Other schools — including Success Academy — focus on teaching the students who remain, avoiding a potential drop in test scores and the social and academic disruption of adding new students.

In a lengthy interview on the Brian Lehrer Show in March, Moskowitz described backfill as a “long, complicated debate,” and noted that Success schools now accept new students through fourth grade. If they backfilled older grades, she said, the incoming students’ lower relative academic preparation would adversely affect the schools’ other students.

“We have an obligation to the parents in middle and high school, and the kids in middle and high school, that until the district schools are able to do a better job, it’s not really fair for the seventh-grader or high school student to have to be educated with a child who’s reading at a second- or third-grade level,” Moskowitz said.

Suspending students to maintain learning environments

Strict discipline has long been a cornerstone of the charter-school movement, and supporters argue that those policies have led to better academic outcomes for a majority of their students. According to a Chalkbeat analysis, New York City charter schools suspended students at almost three times the rate of traditional public schools during the 2011-12 school year.

Success Academy’s nine schools in 2011-12 suspended 17 percent of their students at least once.

“Many families are flocking to charter schools, and one reason is that they believe in stricter discipline,” Moskowitz told Chalkbeat. “Having some kids miss a day of instruction here and there for a suspension is far outweighed by the benefits of learning in an orderly environment all of the other days, as our academic results prove.”

Moskowitz has been very vocal about her beliefs that students learn best in environments that maintain strict discipline policies, and recently mocked the city’s revised discipline code that promotes restorative justice practices.

According to the Times, Success Academy Harlem 1 suspended 23 percent of the school’s nearly 900 students for at least one day in 2012-13, the last year for which the state has data. Meanwhile, P.S. 149, which shares a building with the Success school, suspended 3 percent of its students during the same time period.

Sharing space, making compromises

A 2014 law requires the city to provide new charter schools with free space inside the city’s own buildings or public funding to cover rent in a private facility. The legislation included in last year’s state budget was a rebuke from lawmakers of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s criticism of charter schools during the mayoral campaign and his early months in office.

The law created even more tension between de Blasio and Moskowitz last year, but in a move that offered a clearer look at the network’s plans for collaborating with the de Blasio administration, Success later abandoned plans to open four schools in the upcoming school year. After negotiations with the city, Success was offered public space for 10 schools opening or expanding in 2016. While the network is still continuing to add grades at existing schools, the changes mean Success, in an unprecedented slowdown, will not open any new schools in 2015.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?