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.

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. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.