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.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.