problem solvers

From buying books to managing the lunchroom: Meet the behind-the-scenes teams that keep Success charters running

PHOTO: Monica Disare/Chalkbeat
Students participate in science class at Success Academy Harlem 1.

Success Academy — New York City’s largest and most controversial charter school network — is best known for its sky-high test scores. Critics chalk up the results to intense test preparation and strict discipline policies that they say force out challenging students, while supporters credit stellar teaching and exacting expectations.

But people within the schools also point to a less flashy but just as crucial secret to the network’s success: “operations” teams embedded in each of the network’s 46 schools that handle a mix of logistical matters — from ordering supplies to managing the lunchroom — and family support. When it comes to families, they help do whatever it takes to get students to class, whether that means getting subway passes for students traveling from homeless shelters or buying alarm clocks for students who are habitually late.

The mission of these behind-the-scenes teams is to attend to the myriad issues that arise inside a school on any given day — clogged toilets, upset parents, sick students — so that the educators and students can concentrate on teaching and learning.

“The way that I like to describe my job is I’m responsible for everything besides teaching kids,” said Ashlee Scott, who as the “business operations manager” leads the troubleshooting team at Success Academy Harlem 1. “We see it as like a customer-service situation.”

To an extent, part of the teams’ work echoes the philosophy behind “community schools,” which provide social and health services for students and their families on the premise that students can’t learn when they’re in distress. That approach has been championed by the city teachers union and their ally Mayor Bill de Blasio, two of Success CEO Eva Moskowitz’s frequent antagonists. But Success has put its own no-nonsense spin on the model, approaching the countless complications that arise from poverty as problems to be solved, like missing textbooks or broken computers — in line with the network’s philosophy that the hardships students endure outside of school should not excuse underachievement in the classroom.

“It’s holding kids accountable, holding yourself accountable, and giving them all the things that they need to be successful,” said Harlem 1 Principal Danique Day-Loving. “One of the things that they don’t need is to get off the hook.”

In each Success Academy school, teams of three to five staff members manage a range of logistical and administrative duties — time-consuming tasks that the principal and other administrators at most district schools often handle themselves. In addition to the school-based operations teams, Success schools also get support from the network, which provides curriculum, finds building space, and helps with hiring. (Some of Success’ work is bankrolled by private money — it expects to raise $43.5 million in private funds during the 2017 fiscal year to go towards opening new schools, according to a federal grant application — though officials say schools’ daily operations are financed with public funds.)

At Harlem 1, the five-person operations team answers phones, partners with the local police precinct around safety issues, makes sure snacks and lunch are served, oversees the nurses and custodians, and plans school events. They also communicate with students’ families, for instance, to figure out why a student has been showing up late or to mediate a disagreement between a parent and teacher. The school’s principal and instructional team also work closely with families, but the operation team’s support frees them up to focus on educational matters.

Whether it’s a logistical or a family issue, the team’s job is to troubleshoot.

For instance, when a Harlem 1 teacher noticed her library was running low on good books, Scott figured out which ones she needed and ordered them. When a fire destroyed a family’s apartment, Scott rounded up new uniforms and gift cards for the students.

When members of a family experience domestic violence, Scott’s team informs building staff who can and cannot enter the school. Recently, she helped a student transfer schools to make sure the abuser did not know where to find the student.

While it’s unclear exactly how this troubleshooting approach contributes to student learning, students at Harlem 1 do exceedingly well on the state exams. More than 90 percent of its students are black or Hispanic, 62 percent live in poverty, and 11 percent are homeless. Yet 80 percent passed the state English tests last year and 92 percent passed math, rates far above the city average and many wealthy school districts.

Success is not alone in attending to students’ out-of-school needs.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has made that a centerpiece of his education agenda. Under his administration, the city has infused over 200 community schools with a host of additional resources, including health clinics, extra social workers, and even washing machines. Each has a team devoted to boosting student attendance and a full-time director to coordinate the support services.

P.S. 154, a community school that sits a short distance from Success Academy Harlem 1, offers free dental screenings for students and English classes for their parents. P.S. 154’s community school director, Karoline Alexander, said her aim is to prevent student problems as much as respond to them. And yet, her expansive view of her role is very similar to Scott’s, the Success operations manager.

Her job, Alexander said, is to provide “everything kids need to be efficient besides going to school to learn to read and write.”

Despite the overlap between the work of Success’ operations teams and the city’s community schools, Success founder Eva Moskowitz has been critical of community-school proponents.

In her new memoir, she argues that advocates for that approach sometimes use children’s poverty as “an excuse for failing to teach them.” The idea that students can only learn in schools that address their health needs is “nonsense,” she says.

“While health care should undoubtedly be improved for poor children,” she writes, “inadequate health care isn’t a substantial factor in the failures of urban district schools.”

In fact, while many charter school operators — including Moskowitz — may not identify their schools as community schools, many nonetheless offer support services to students and their families, said James Merriman, CEO of New York City’s Charter School Center.

“I think that if you were to talk with folks who have been running [charter] schools, they’d say that this was part of their program from the very beginning,” he said.

“‘Sweating the small stuff’,” he added, referring to a common refrain in the charter sector, “didn’t just mean in schools. It meant working with families.”

Future of Schools

Ogden school staffer arrested after 12-year-old student is hurt

PHOTO: Chicago Public Building Commission

A 12-year-old student at William B. Ogden Elementary School on the Near North Side suffered a sprained wrist this week in a physical altercation with a school employee, according to the Chicago Police Department.

The employee, Marvin Allen, was arrested and charged with aggravated battery of a child. He has been removed from the school pending an investigation, according to an email to parents from Acting Principal Rebecca Bancroft and two other administrators.

Chicago Public Schools’ payroll records list Allen as a student special services advocate and full-time employee at the school. Student special services advocates are responsible for working with at-risk children and connecting them and their families with social services, according to district job descriptions.

An email to parents Thursday night from school leaders said an incident had occurred earlier this week “that resulted in a “physical student injury.”

“While limited in what I can share, the incident took place earlier this week between a student and staff member off school grounds after dismissal,” read the message. “The employee involved has been removed from school while a CPS investigation by the Law Department takes place.”

District spokeswoman Emily Bolton confirmed that the employee had been removed pending a district investigation.

“Student safety is the district’s top priority and we immediately removed the employee from his position upon learning of a deeply concerning altercation that took place off of school grounds,” Bolton said.

The exact circumstances behind the incident are still unclear.

The altercation happened Monday morning outside the school’s Jenner Campus, which used to be Jenner Elementary School before Ogden and Jenner merged last year. The Jenner campus serves grades 5-8.

At recent Local School Council meetings, Bancroft, the acting principal, acknowledged a “fractured community” at the school in the aftermath of the merger, which joined two different schools — Ogden, a diverse school with a large white population and many middle-class families, and Jenner, a predominately black school where most students come from low-income households. At the January meeting, parents complained of student disciplinary problems at the Jenner campus. Jenner parents have also expressed concerns about inclusiveness at the school.

The school has also experienced leadership turnover. One of the principals who helped engineer the merger died last March after an illness. And in November, the district placed Ogden Principal Michael Beyer on leave after he was accused of falsifying attendance records.

The incident also comes on the heels of a video released in early February that shows a school police officer using a taser on a female Marshall High School student.

On the hunt

Want a say in the next IPS superintendent? Here’s your chance.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat

Parents, teachers, and neighbors will have a chance to weigh in on what they hope to see in the next Indianapolis Public Schools superintendent and the future of the district at three community meetings in the coming weeks.

The meetings, which will be facilitated by Herd Strategies at three sites across the city, will gather feedback before the school board begins the search for a new superintendent. The school board is expected to select the next superintendent in May.

Board President Michael O’Connor said the meetings are designed to get input on what the public values in the next superintendent. But they will also play another role, allowing community members to reflect and give feedback on the district’s embrace of innovation schools, one of the most controversial strategies rolled out during former Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration.

“As we look for the next superintendent, it’s perfect for us to take input on that path that we’ve taken and then hear what [community members] think is working well and maybe what they think we could do better,” O’Connor said, noting that the administration and board are often criticized for failing to engage the public.

Innovation schools are run by outside charter or nonprofit managers, but they are still considered part of the district. Indianapolis Public Schools gets credit from the state for their test scores, enrollment, and other data. The model is lauded by charter school advocates across the country, and it helped Ferebee gain national prominence.

Ferebee left Indianapolis in January after he was tapped to lead the Washington, D.C., school system. Indianapolis Public Schools is being led by interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson, who was formerly the deputy superintendent and is seen as a leading candidate to fill the position permanently.

Here is information about the three scheduled community input sessions:

Feb. 27, Hawthorne Community Center, 1-3 p.m.

March 7, Arsenal Technical High School in the Anderson Auditorium, 6-8 p.m.

March 13, George Washington Carver Montessori School 87 in the gymnasium, 6-8 p.m.