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An Achievement First school.

An Achievement First school.

Doug McCurry to step down as co-CEO of Achievement First charter network

Doug McCurry, the co-CEO of the Achievement First charter school network, will step down at the end of this school year.

McCurry helped lead the network and the New Haven school that spawned it for 20 years, a period that saw Achievement First became one of the most visible examples of the “no excuses” charter school model. Today, Achievement First has 37 schools across New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, largely serving students of color from low-income families.

“The thought of leaving the organization I love deeply is, of course, difficult, but it feels like the right time for me,” McCurry said in an email to staff. He said he did not have another job lined up and he is considering a number of options.

McCurry told Chalkbeat he’s proud of the schools’ academic success and the ways the network has worked to spread its ideas, including by creating an open-source curriculum and launching a “charter accelerator” to help smaller networks grow.

“I think we’ve done some pretty exceptional work at scale, at over 14,000 kids, having student performance that rivals some of the top suburban districts in the country,” he said.

The news, first reported by the New Haven Independent, comes at something of an inflection point for the network. Achievement First has won plaudits for its high test scores and remains in demand among parents, but it also promised major changes after the principal of Achievement First Amistad High School in New Haven shoved a student. The principal resigned — under threat of termination, according to an email he subsequently sent board members — after a video of the incident was published by the Independent.

“The last 3 weeks have been the hardest weeks we’ve ever had leading our network,” McCurry and co-CEO Dacia Toll wrote in an email to staff at the time. “What happened at AF Amistad High School is a failure of our leadership.” (McCurry said the incident didn’t have anything to do with his decision to leave.)

Toll, who will become the network’s sole CEO, said then that the network was already planning substantial changes to its culture. In the months since, the network defined its core values as including “lead for racial equity” and “choose joy.”

That is part of an ongoing evolution for schools that have at some point referred to themselves as “no excuses” schools — a contested term that usually refers to high expectations, strict discipline, and an extended school day. That strategy has proven successful in boosting student achievement. For instance, in New York City, less than half of students scored proficient on the most recent round of state exams, while in many Achievement First schools, over two-thirds of students met that bar.

Critics argue that approach emphasizes control over black and Hispanic students and fails to prepare them for long-term success.

McCurry says he wouldn’t describe Achievement First as a “no excuses” network — in part because the phrase is perceived pejoratively. Still, he said, “I don’t think that strict should be a bad word. The best teachers I had growing up were the ones who had the highest demands for me.” McCurry noted that he sends his own two children to Achievement First schools.

Critics, he said, sometimes hold their schools to an unfair standard. “It’s comparing us to an ideal versus comparing us to other schools,” he said. “My experience has been when I go to other schools — not all, but many — the environments may be unsafe or the classroom might not really, truly believe that kids can learn.”

He also said that, unlike some charters, Achievement First has worked to make the schools accessible to all comers — including trying to keep attrition low and by replacing many students who do leave. (The networks say that it only 3.5% of it students left in the middle of last school year, and it replaced about half that many with new entrants.)

But he acknowledged the need — and existing efforts — to make changes, including focusing on ensuring that students have a positive experience at school.

“While we still care deeply about achievement, I’m proud that we have set our sights on a definition of student success and student experience that goes well beyond any of these assessments,” McCurry said in his departure note.

Achievement First recently rolled out a new school model known as Greenfield, which emphasizes student self-direction, extended projects, and online learning.

The network emphasizes college preparation and has recently made efforts to match students to colleges where they are more likely to graduate. Its New York schools also launched a small scholarship program to help its graduates afford colleges with higher graduation rates.

McCurry said he’s considering several career paths after he leaves Achievement First next June. One possibility includes focusing on getting kids through college. McCurry said he’s proud of the share of the network’s students who complete college — 55% of its high school graduates, he said — but that there is more work to be done.

“There are too many kids … who accumulate debt but do not accumulate a degree,” he said. “That’s the space where we need to figure out how to do better.”

In the meantime, Achievement First is continuing its efforts to grow. In Providence, Rhode Island — where a recent report offered a damning portrayal of the city’s school district — Achievement First leaders are hoping to add a third elementary school, though have run into resistance from the city’s mayor.

In New York, Achievement First leaders have discussed shifting their growth to Queens, according to recent board minutes. A board meeting tomorrow will feature a “growth and expansion discussion.”

In June, the network also severed its ties to Jonathan Sackler, a former board member and donor whose family has come under intense scrutiny for its company’s alleged role in fueling the opioid epidemic. Achievement First said that it would no longer take donations from any of the Sacklers, and that the funding hole would be filled by other board members.

Correction: A previous version of this story indicated that the principal of Achievement First Amistad was fired; in fact, he resigned.