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.”