Future of Schools

A Success principal’s case for closing school and going to Albany

Success Academy Harlem Central Principal Andrew Malone is invoking the Civil Rights Movement in rallying parents to fight for their school’s the continued right to operate in public space.

In a nearly-1,000 word letter to parents sent this morning, Malone writes that “our school has become the political target” of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, which last week cancelled space-sharing plans for two new Success Academy charter schools and for Harlem Central to continue expanding into seventh and eighth grades. He sent the letter out this morning, a day before thousands of charter school supporters, many of which will come from Success schools, travel to Albany for a high-profile rally for more support from the state legislature.

“I believe that the only way to advance is to leverage great teaching as a form of political action, and to, at the same time, leverage political action as a defense of great teaching,” Malone writes. “We need both kinds of Freedom Rides.”

The letter was also sent as Success schools face criticism from local lawmakers around CEO Eva Moskowitz’s decision to close schools for the advocacy day, which she has done before, most recently for a citywide rally in October. City Council Education Committee Chair Daniel Dromm has called a hearing to probe the practice.

A full copy of Malone’s letter is below:

To my Harlem Central family: 

One September afternoon in eighth grade, I hauled my oversized backpack to the public library to begin a research project that would end up changing my life. I was studying the 1961 Freedom Rides. As I read about the Rides – a series of nonviolent protests in which hundreds of Americans rode integrated buses through the segregated South – I became completely engrossed. For the next nine months, I trekked from library to library, searching for Greyhound buses in photographs, articles, and films. I saw vehicles engulfed in flames; I read about hostile crowds waiting at terminals; I watched police handcuff riders and escort them to jail. I was shocked, and felt shamefully naïve. I was a sheltered, suburban child, and none of this history fit into my rosy understanding of the world. But along with shock came inspiration. I promised myself that I would dedicate my life to fighting injustice; that I, too, would be a Freedom Rider.

That adolescent vow proved powerful. Where other childhood dreams (astronaut, Supreme Court Justice, “the next Tom Hanks”) fell to the wayside, my commitment to social justice stayed strong. But it also stayed fairly abstract, until I began teaching acting workshops in Boston public schools during college. These schools were terrible. They were nothing like the schools I had known growing up. The disparity really haunted me, and I began to see education inequality as a civil rights issue. Over the next four years, I would come to believe that education inequality was the civil rights issue of our time. Building great schools and classrooms for every child in America – this was our Freedom Ride. So after graduation, I set out to teach.

Since then, I have been lucky enough to seek justice through pedagogy. Working hard to become a better teacher, and then to become a better school leader; this was the nature of the fight. I felt so fortunate that I could pursue justice by debating the best way to teach a poem, the best way to tackle equivalent fractions. By moving kids and teachers to compelling educational outcomes; by creating proof points of academic success in neighborhoods that had for decades been plagued by academic failure; by providing concrete opportunities to kids and families without the economic means to choose their schools and zip codes; by doing all of that through outstanding instruction; that was the nature of my Freedom Ride.

Thursday has changed all of that. Our school has become a political target despite our incredible academic achievements. Our scholars are 100 percent minority, 80 percent low-income. They attend schools in a neighborhood where district schools are failing, posting an average pass rate of five percent last year. Five percent. Yet, our scholars perform as well or better than Westchester and Scarsdale. In 2012, our scholars ranked number one in Manhattan for academic achievement. In 2013, they ranked number one in the state in mathematics. But Thursday, our mayor announced his intent to shut us down.

And so, the nature of the Freedom Ride has changed. It’s not enough, apparently, to build Harlem’s top-performing middle school. Pedagogic advocacy – achieving change through great teaching and learning – is sadly, and unjustly, not enough.

It is impossible to comprehend. It is 2014. Fifty years have passed since LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Yet the Mayor of New York City is trying to shut down a high-performing school serving low-income students. A Mayor who purports to advocate for low-income families. The hypocrisy is baffling and infuriating.

But of course, the hardest part of this all, is that it is happening to us. It is Laminu and Serea, Vakaba and Amanda, Kwame and Kayla, Jayden and Tiayna, Sharron and Staci. Our actors, artists, dancers, basketball players, computer scientists, chess prodigies. Our community, which we have worked so tirelessly to build, which is full of so much concrete success among so much genuine love.

This, for me, is a very hard reality to accept. In the face of large scale injustice – the lack of logic, the blatant hypocrisy, the backwards history – we are the ones who see the impact on the faces and names of real kids and families we know and love. It’s just terrible.

How do we move forward?

I believe that the only way to advance is to leverage great teaching as a form of political action, and to, at the same time, leverage political action as a defense of great teaching. We need both kinds of Freedom Rides.

We must be incredible educators and advocates at the same time. Our teaching has to motivate our advocacy while our advocacy inspires our teaching. In the end, it boils down to the same message we offered the scholars: Be inspired.

In the face of Thursday’s announcement, we cannot help broken hearts. But we cannot permit broken resolve. When we overcome this, we will stand proud as the school that forced New York and the United States of America to put children before politics.

I have always believed that there is a moral arc to the universe. And I believe that Harlem Central has been put to this test because our community is strong enough to survive it. We have the talent, the commitment, and most importantly, the love, to overcome this. We are the ones with the power to propel the moral arc forward.

Take a moment to embrace what stands ahead of us. Heed the call to be incredible teachers and incredible advocates as we lead a new Freedom Ride toward the right side of history.

We will get there.



How I Lead

Meditation and Mindfulness: How a Harlem principal solves conflict in her community

Dawn DeCosta, the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Dawn DeCosta, Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School’s principal of seven years, never pictured herself leading a school. Originally a fine arts major and art teacher, she was inspired to be a community leader when she took a summer leadership course at Columbia University’s Teacher College. The program helped her widen her impact to outside the classroom by teaching her how to find personal self awareness and mindfulness. For the past four years she has taught the students, teachers, and parents in her school’s community how to solve conflict constructively through the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER program — a social-emotional learning program that brings together many of the tools that she learned at Columbia. While describing these new practices and techniques, DeCosta reflected on the specific impact they have had on her community.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What is the Yale RULER program?

It’s more of a process, not a script or curriculum. An approach that has these four anchors: the mood meter, the charter, the meta-moment, and the blueprint. We use the mood meter to describe feelings, because a lot of times we’ll just hear “I feel happy” or “I feel sad.” You want them to be able to better pinpoint how they feel, and the mood meter is a square with these quadrants that are different colors and show how much energy a student has at a given moment and how pleasant they’re feeling. The charter is an agreement to the class. It replaces “don’t hit, don’t kick” with “how do we want to feel, what are we going to do to feel that way, what will we do if we have a conflict.” The meta-moment are six steps on how to deal with a stressful situation, and the blueprint is a plan to serve a longer-term conflict between two people- to solve an ongoing conflict that we need a plan for, that’s not just in the moment. We integrate all four components throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year.

What changes did you make to it to make it work for your community, and what are the specific strategies you use?

We do it with teachers, students, staff, and supplement it with a culturally relevant approach. We have 100 percent black and brown children, so this means using culturally relevant texts, since we want students learning about leaders and artists who look like them. We want them to see models of excellence in themselves and see success too in themselves in order to combat some of the negative images they see in the media or even in their neighborhoods. This is a beautiful place but there’s also a lot going on in terms of poverty and violence, which have an impact on their lives, how they feel, how they live, how they see things. We’ve incorporated meditation, mindfulness, brain breaks, yoga, and arts into our curriculum. We’ve put all the different pieces together to tap into what makes kids want to go to school and makes them love to be here. We want to use these in every grade, so that we give students a common language and kids can move from one grade to the next easily. Student ownership is a big piece, because what happens when the teachers aren’t there? Do you know how to use this in less structured environments, at home with your siblings at home?

How do you make sure vulnerable students are getting emotional support and give time for that reflection and self growth but also provide a rigorous education that meets your school’s standards?

The work that we are doing is ensuring that the kids have academic improvement and success. Because they feel cared for and comfortable, ultimately students feel successful, and when you feel successful you will apply yourself more. Right now, learning is rigorous. It’s not what it was 10 years ago. So we ask kids to think very deeply to be critical thinkers. The text that they have to read is more rigorous, ones that require problem solving (and) for kids to think for themselves. And so that by itself is taxing. And that kind of work can be really stressful. A lot of the work we’ve done is around test anxiety. We want kids to know that this is just a piece of information, you need to know where you’re doing well, where you’re struggling so that they can address areas of challenge with a little more positivity. But we see the effects of it in our academic performance.

How have you measured the success of the program?

When I first became principal it wasn’t like we were having emergencies necessarily, but we were putting out a lot of fires. Kids were just coming in with issues, getting into fights, things like that. We also wanted to bring in more of the parents, because there were some that we wanted to be more engaged. We have seen an increase in test scores, but I use personal growth stories as my data–that’s how I know that this works. When I have those success stories, when I see students that really needed it, use it and feel a change, that is the data. We didn’t actually see real, big changes until last year, when we were three years into using this new style of learning. There’s always work to be done, it’s an ongoing thing.

In your own words, what is emotional intelligence and why is it important to have?

To me, it means that you are aware of what you may be feeling at a certain moment and of how your feelings impact interactions with others. It’s about how self aware you are, how are you thinking about what you’re going to say or do before you do it, and about how you show compassion for others who are also thinking and feeling just like you. It’s about how you listen to others, how you see and recognize what others are giving you, and how you support others. We’ve been told that all we can do is control ourselves, and that we’re not responsible for other people. But I think through emotional intelligence, we are responsible for how we make people feel.

In what ways do you help take this learning outside of the classroom?

We send home activities for students to do with their families, for over vacation. It will be like, “check in with your family members on their moods for the week and on how everybody is feeling this week,” or “what was one time when you and your parents had a conflict and what did you do well or not do well.” We keep finding the means to engage the parents at home with it by having them come in and do stress relief workshops. I have students ask, “Can I have a mood meter for my mom? I think it will help her because she feels really stressed.” So that home/school piece is a really important part of what makes everything successful. We’re all supporting the kids, we’re raising them together.

In what other ways, do you help the parents learn as well, and what does that look like?

We trained a group of parent leaders in RULER, who helped us train other parents. Parents like hearing from other parents, so we wanted to make sure that it was presented to them as something they could relate to. I think that sometimes as educators we are guilty of using a lot of acronyms and indigestible words when we’re talking to families, and what we’ve decided to do is breaking it down to talking about how do they deal with stress. Kind of how we brought it to the parents is that we brought to the kids strategies on how to deal with stress. We did some yoga with them, breathing techniques, and then we just started talking to them about what kinds of emotion they go through in a day. They talk about getting kids ready, making trains, dealing with family members, and really getting out what they were dealing with as parents–all that stuff that nobody really asked them about before. Honestly, they were the most receptive group. I think talking to each other, in a place where we’re all supporting each other, creates that space that we need.

Describe a specific instance or an anecdote that you think is reflective of the changes that have happened since you have implemented these new practices. How did you see the impact?

A boy came to us in the second grade, and he had been on a safety transfer, which means that he had been in a situation that may not be safe for a child. They’re either in violent conflict with others, or they’re being bullied, or something’s happening where they need to be removed from where they are. At first we had a lot of emotional difficulties and poor relationships with his teachers, and even though he was only six or seven he had been suspended several times. His family had also shut down from the school connection because since they were constantly hearing negative information. The principal basically said “Look, there’s nothing you can do with him. It’s just too much, he’s violent, he bites, it’s just too much.” But he came to the school, and just through engaging him through some of the new practices he was able to self regulate. It impacted his focus and changed his ability to relate to others. The changes didn’t make him perfect or change who he is, but it gave him some tools to be successful and work with others. Once he had love and compassion and felt accepted in our community, all of those behaviors just disappeared. His family became more supportive and trusting and he graduated last year.

Regents retreat

Regents use annual retreat to take stock of changes in testing, charter schools and more

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York State’s top education policymakers took a whirlwind tour Monday of their own accomplishments this year, kicking off a two-day retreat full of presentations and updates.

The briefings, conducted by top education department officials, served as a distillation of some top policy goals among the Board of Regents: rolling back graduation requirements, creating new graduation pathways, cutting back on state testing, and even rethinking how the board evaluates the charter schools it oversees.

Monday’s discussions largely tread on familiar territory, but here are three of the key issues they discussed.


New York State continues to be a hotbed of controversy surrounding testing, with roughly one in five students opting out of the 3-8 math and reading exams in recent years (the number is far smaller in New York City).

In response to concerns about the length of the exams, the Regents reduced the number of testing days for each exam from three to two — a change that went into effect this year. Education officials touted those changes Monday while stressing that they have gone out of their way to involve educators in the process of crafting exam questions.

“One of the things I believe is a major adjustment in New York is the extent to which teachers across New York are involved,” state education MaryEllen Elia told the board, noting that 75 percent of the test questions are released to the public. “We have to constantly be asking ourselves what can we do better.”

Still, some Regents continued to express concerns about the exams, including whether they are fair to English learners, and whether the tests themselves help perpetuate disparities.

“What research is used about what’s developmentally appropriate?” Regent Judith Johnson asked. “Is it possible to have a test question that is culturally neutral?”

Charter schools

The Regents are currently discussing changes to the way they evaluate the charter schools they oversee, including taking a deeper look at suspension rates compared to traditional district schools, and tracking why students leave.

“There are charter chains that might have 25 percent of the students when they first started and they’re claiming great growth,” Regent Kathleen Cashin said during Monday’s discussion, adding that questions about why students leave shouldn’t be “buried.”

The discussion highlights a tension in the board’s discussion of the publicly funded, privately managed schools. On the one hand, board members are often quite critical — worrying some within the charter sector. But on the other hand, they have still approved large batches of new charters, including at their most recent meeting.

And the debate will continue in the fall: The Regents are expected to consider a proposal for changing the way charter schools are evaluated at their September meeting.

Students with disabilities

The board also heard from state officials about efforts to improve access to programs for students with disabilities, including those in preschool.

As Chalkbeat has previously reported, there is a shortage of seats for preschool special education students — with students often languishing at home without education services, a problem that advocates say has only gotten worse. Part of the issue, officials say, is they don’t have a way of quickly tracking supply and demand for those programs, which are often provided by private organizations.

Instead, state officials rely on phone calls and informal surveys, which can make it difficult for officials to quickly respond to shortages. Now, state officials are in the process of implementing a new data system for tracking students and open seats.

“We need to move from our current reactive system,” Christopher Suriano, an assistant commissioner of special education told the board. “We have to start reacting proactively to make sure we have capacity.”

Grab bag

  • The Regents spent some time talking about how to measure “civic readiness” which will be a component of how schools are judged under the state’s ESSA plan.
  • New data released by state officials shows that at least 500 students with disabilities graduated this year as part of a new policy that lets superintendents review their performance in lieu of passing all of the Regents exams. Though officials cautioned that the data are preliminary, and the number is likely to increase, that’s up from 315 students during the previous year.