one on one

In interview, Eva Moskowitz addresses backfill and test prep critiques

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Eva Moskowitz at a parent rally in Albany in 2015

After staying behind the scenes for months as a statewide debate over education and charter schools heated up, Eva Moskowitz waded into the fray on Tuesday.

In a lengthy interview on the Brian Lehrer Show, her first since 2011, the Success Academy charter-network founder defended the authenticity of her schools’ lofty test scores, distanced herself from a recent political campaign that has matched the teachers union’s might, and gave her most extensive public comments yet on the “backfill” debate that has divided the charter sector.

Moskowitz also offered a measured take on the role her 32-school network should in play in the larger school system. An expansion to 100 or 200 top-quality schools was possible, but “unknowable,” she said, though she has previously set a goal of getting to 100 schools in the next decade.

“We need lots of different solutions and I think Success has one potential solution to offer,” Moskowitz said. The entire interview can be heard here.

The comments came one day after her top ally in state government, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, indicated that increasing the charter school cap was no longer an immediate priority as state budget negotiations enter their final days. Raising the cap to allow more charter schools to open in the city would enable Success to continue expanding in New York City and has been a top priority for charter school advocates.

Moskowitz didn’t talk about that in the interview, and she also deferred to the advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools, which organizes rallies for Success parents, when asked about recent political fights that’s been waged in recent months. The former city council member, who has expressed interest in running for mayor in the past, also didn’t give a direct answer when asked whether she had ruled out a run.

“I am focused on schools right now and that’s the only thing I am focused on,” she said. “It takes all of the energy I have, other than of course motherhood and my family.”

She did respond to many of the most common criticisms of Success Academy. She denied that her schools focus on test preparation, she said, emphasizing the 13 weeks of training that principals and teachers get every year and on efforts to “design an entire school around creative thinking.” (Chalkbeat has chronicled Success’ extensive test-prep strategies in the past.)

She also defended the network’s commitment to serving high-needs students, while noting that traditional district schools also sometimes move students with the most severe learning needs to other settings, like District 75 programs.

Success schools are among the most sought-after charter schools in the city. The network said Monday that it had received more than 19,000 applications for 2,688 open seats this fall. When ranked by performance on state tests, its schools also rank highly — in the top 1 percent of all schools in the state in math and the top 3 percent in English.

That metric has come under increasing scrutiny, including from other charter-school leaders, because 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.

Moskowitz described backfill as a “long, complicated debate,” and noted that Success schools now accepts 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.

The interview included an unusually critical line of questioning for Moskowitz, whose influence in public education has grown rapidly in recent years. Her schools will serve over 11,500 students next year, more than any other charter network, and she has been a driving force behind a larger political movement, to reform the city’s public school system.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede