At Success Academy Harlem 5, students were under a microscope on Thursday — though that wasn’t out of the ordinary for its elementary schoolers.
In most of the school’s classrooms, clipboard-toting assistants make sure students stay on task. Standing off to the side as students work, they praise and critique at a near-constant clip.
“Put the text flat on your lap,” one assistant told a student in a reading class on Thursday, taking notes. “That’s a check.”
The practice, known as “narrating,” is one of the many ways that the Success Academy school works to keep students focused during the school day. The meticulous attention paid to the details of student and teachers’ behavior — alternately credited with the network’s high test scores and derided as too regimented — was on display for 20 principals and administrators who attended a tour and training session hosted by Success, the city’s largest charter school network.
Some were from district schools, and the public invitation was seen as a gesture toward greater collaboration from Success and also as a chance to score some political points. Success schools have a history of clashing with district schools with which they share city-owned buildings, and Mayor Bill de Blasio and his allies have criticized charter schools for not serving their fair share of high-need students. City officials have repeatedly said that charter schools need to open their doors and do more to share best practices.
“Keeping in mind that charter schools’ original purpose was to share innovative practices, we also need them to come to the table and tell us what they’re doing,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said this week.
But most of the morning in Harlem felt comfortably distant from the political maelstrom that can seem permanently attached to Success Academy and its founder Eva Moskowitz, who has waged a public battle with de Blasio over his ambivalence over charter schools.
School leaders from 41 charter schools and 22 district schools signed up to visit one of two Success schools that were part of the tours, a spokesperson said. They came from the city’s other large charter networks, like Uncommon, KIPP and Achievement First, and from as far away as Albany. The group even included the principal of a district school that shares space with a Success Academy in the Bronx.
“We get along,” said the principal, who despite her friendly relationship with Success asked that her name not be used. “But it’s good to come and see if somebody is doing [something] different.”
Michaela Daniel, a top education policy adviser to Deputy Mayor Richard Buery and who formerly served as director of operations of an Uncommon charter school, also attended.
The visitors probed all aspects of the growing elementary school,where 97 percent of 165 third- and fourth- graders earned a proficient score in on the state math exams and 68 percent earned a proficient English score last year, when city averages were 34 percent in math and 29 percent in English. Of last year’s test-takers, 92 students were third-graders and 73 were in fourth grade.
In focus was Success’ feedback-obsessed culture, in which someone was frequently assisting the assistants. On Thursday morning, assistant principal Lavinia Mackall stepped in to tell the rookie teacher taking notes in the reading class that he was narrating a bit too loudly.
“I noticed that he was speaking in a tone that was almost as loud as the instruction that was going on,” Mackall recalled after.
During a guided reading portion of another English class, Principal Khari Shabazz interrupted and asked a teacher to repeat her instructions to make her directive more “kid-centered” before the class turned to work.
She had initially begun by saying, “‘When I am reading, I am going to be thinking about,’” Shabazz said. “So I told her just to rephrase and make sure that they are part of that conversation.”
What made that kind of interaction possible without disrupting the lesson, Shabazz and teachers said, was the school’s rigid structure. Classes are meticulously planned, and teachers huddle beforehand to consider how students might get stuck.
The real-time feedback caught the visitors’ attention.
“I usually sit back and let the teacher go through the lesson and then we conversate after,” said Lynn Staton, who has served as the principal of P.S. 36 in southeastern Queens for nine years. “But I do see the value of standing next to the teacher and moving along with them.”
Also on display was the school’s approach to discipline, something for which Success schools have been criticized. If a student tallies up enough checks on the assistant teacher’s clipboard, he or she must spend time away from the class. One student, who a teacher said had refused to complete a worksheet, was told to remain seated at his desk in the back of the classroom as his peers moved to a work on a rug at the front of the room.
Most of the school leaders said they were impressed with the back and forth between Shabazz, Mackall, and their teachers, though others questioned whether the students they saw were overly restrained. Several requested access to the school’s schedule and curriculum in order to apply some parts of the Success model to their own schools.
Shabazz ended the morning session with a statement that underscored what stokes the interest in, and controversy around, Success Academy’s schools. Asked about his school’s test scores, Shabazz quickly pointed out that his students outperformed their peers down the hall.
“No disrespect,” Shabazz said, “but just to give you a sense of the school that I share space with, I don’t think more than 3 percent of those kids passed.”
In fact, 4 percent of P.S. 123’s students earned proficient scores in math, and 8 percent earned proficient English scores last year. But to Shabazz, the details were less important than the gap between the two schools’ performance.
“I think it’s important to think about when you talk about what is really possible,” he said.