maintaining the spotlight

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

PHOTO: Success Academy
Some 2,300 Success Academy students attended a "Slam the Exam" rally before last year's state English tests. The network goes to great lengths to make sure students are ready for the exams.

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.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.