maintaining the spotlight

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

PHOTO: Success Academy
A "Slam the Exam" rally for Success Academy students

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.

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