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The second coming of Eva Moskowitz

The Times today has a new profile of Eva Moskowitz, the politician-turned-school operator who is at the helm of the four Harlem Success Academy charter schools. I say new because this is actually the second full-length profile of Moskowitz the Times has run. (The first is here.)

Why pay so much attention to this charter school operator, amid the sea of them? I’ll give two reasons.

First, Eva Moskowitz is not just trying to improve public schools by creating better ones in Harlem. She is testing a theory of politics. Three years ago, after becoming a living legend in her tenure as head of the City Council education committee, holding drama-filled hearings that took on the mayor as strongly as the teachers union, Moskowitz tried to take her political career to the next level by running for Manhattan borough president. She lost in 2005 to Scott Stringer, a defeat that was in no small part thanks to the enemies she made as a tough committee head.

But Moskowitz did not jump out of the limelight. In fact, the opposite: she still declares her intention to run for mayor one day. Whether she really will run for mayor, she is trying to prove a point: that it doesn’t matter that she infuriated the teachers union and other labor groups. Moskowitz’s arguement is that school improvement efforts, done well, can build a natural constituency all their own.

If she succeeds, she will shake up what is permitted in the politics of running schools. As the Times story points out, so far she is making impressive inroads. She has built a parent group to advocate for policies that help charter schools and has held events that attract impressive audiences and, increasingly, elected officials, too. I even once was standing with Moskowitz at a cocktail party when a young woman walked up to us bashfully. Extending her hand to Moskowitz, she explained that she was a “big fan”: she had written her undergraduate thesis on Moskowitz’s challenges to work contracts.

The second reason to pay attention to Moskowitz is that, if she succeeds, her political playbook wouldn’t be the only thing being replicated. People would also be eyeing her schools.

The New York Times story, by Elissa Gootman, is fascinating as a portrait of the day-to-day of Moskowitz’s second coming. We learn that, although she has recently been a strong public ally of Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein, privately she is still the tough, demanding woman who will challenge anyone she doesn’t think is doing their job correctly: Gootman excerpts some cross e-mail messages she has sent to school officials. We also learn that her son, Culver, is one of a tiny number of white students at one of Moskowitz’s charter schools, Harlem Success 3.

But it also paints a picture of how Moskowitz’s schools are actually run. Moskowitz says her curriculum is a mix of, on one hand, the liberal Bank Street ethic — there are dress-up corners in the kindergarten rooms — and, on the other, the drill-and-kill of programs like Success for All, which she uses for literacy. And she has not been afraid to fire staff; in the first year, an assistant principal and two teachers were let go.

Finally, she appears to ask as much of parents as she has of elected officials, making requirements that a traditional public school would have a hard time pulling off:

She demands a lot from Harlem Success parents: They must read their children six books a week, year round, and attend multiple school events, from soccer tournaments to Family Reading Nights. If children are repeatedly late, the parents must join them to do penance at Saturday Academy.

Nefertiti Washington, 28, whose son is a kindergartner, said some parents walked out of a springtime information session when Ms. Moskowitz made her expectations clear by saying, “If you know you cannot commit to all that we ask of you this year, this is not the place for you.”

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.