Next stop: college

Success Academy graduates 16 students at its inaugural commencement

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Success Academy was an experiment that began 12 years ago, developed into New York City’s largest charter school network, and on Thursday, it graduated its first high school class.

To mark the occasion hundreds of proud parents and family members, educators, and fellow Success Academy students gathered at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center to watch just 16 high school seniors collect their diplomas. All of the graduates are college-bound.

In the coming years, the controversial charter network’s critics and supporters alike will be watching the inaugural class to see whether Success’s famously demanding approach has prepared its students to thrive in college and beyond.

The tiny graduating class also raises questions about how the network will implement its expansion plans, while losing so many students along the way: Success Academy does not admit students after fourth grade, saying those who have attended other elementary schools wouldn’t be ready for the school’s rigorous approach.

The commencement, though, was all about celebrating the very students who helped launch Success in Harlem, back in 2006. Eva Moskowitz, the network’s polarizing founder, cried Thursday while recalling that first day, admitting, “I frankly did not know what I was doing.”

“But I had a vision for an excellent school,” she said. “We have done this all together.”

Amid commencement exercises, Moskowitz took to Twitter to thank Success parents for “entrusting us with your children,” and post a photo of one of the graduates in his cap and gown.

The graduates will fan across the country this fall, attending schools such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Emory University, Boston College, SUNY Cortland, and the University of Southern California.

While Success has more than proved it can push some of the city’s most vulnerable students to excel on state tests, how those same students will perform in college remains an unanswered question. And as the charter movement matures, more educators measure success not merely by test scores or high school graduation statistics, but by how many of their graduates complete college and land jobs.

The national charter network KIPP has been among the leaders when it comes to supporting students through their college careers, with regular check-ins and advising.That network has run a high school here since 2009. This year, 94 percent of the school’s graduating class are college-bound.

KIPP says 38 percent of their graduates complete a college degree. That is just a few percentage points above the national average. But it is far more impressive when you consider that KIPP targets the students from the poorest households, only 10 percent of whom earn degrees nationally.

Belinda Nealy, whose daughter Briannie Bratcher graduated Thursday, recalled many evenings at the library, helping with challenging school assignments, and how once, when Bratcher was in first grade, she asked to be taken to the emergency room because “she was exhausted.” But Bratcher loved the school, and Nealy said it has prepared her daughter well for what’s next: She’s headed to Bard College to study psychology.  

“Most of the people who pulled out said it was too hard, but I thought my daughter was worth it,” Nealy said. “I would do it all over again.”

Success Academy serves more than 15,000 students in 46 New York City schools. Moskowitz has said she wants to grow to 10 high schools, part of a push to serve 50,000 students during the next decade. The network currently runs one high school: Success Academy High School of the Liberal Arts in midtown Manhattan. (A ninth grade class of a separate Success high school was located in the same building. The schools will merge in the fall.)

This graduating class started off with 73 students when the network launched, according to the Wall Street Journal. Critics have said that Success pushes out students who are the toughest to serve, such as those with behavioral challenges — something the network adamantly denies.

For those parents who did stay at Success through high school, it is hard to overstate their admiration for what the schools have done for their children.

Keisha Rush tried another high school for her son, Elyjah Pellew, but he only lasted two weeks there. She worried about his safety and wondered why he never had homework. Rush sent him back to Success, where he had gone to school since the first grade. There, her son felt challenged and Rush trusted in Moskowitz’s leadership.

“From the start, Eva stood up for what she was going to do,” Rush said. “There was no need to leave.”

Correction: This story erroneously reported KIPP’s New York City high school seniors have already graduated this year. Their graduation is June 22. Also, this story has been updated to reflect that Success Academy ran a separate high school in the same building as its Manhattan school.

Mapping a Turnaround

This is what the State Board of Education hopes to order Adams 14 to do

PHOTO: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14 School District on April 17, 2018.

In Colorado’s first-ever attempt to give away management of a school district, state officials Thursday provided a preview of what the final order requiring Adams 14 to give up district management could include.

The State Board of Education is expected to approve its final directives to the district later this month.

Thursday, after expressing a lack of trust in district officials who pleaded their case, the state board asked the Attorney General’s office for advice and help in drafting a final order detailing how the district is to cede authority, and in what areas.

Colorado has never ordered an external organization to take over full management of an entire district.

Among details discussed Thursday, Adams 14 will be required to hire an external manager for at least four years. The district will have 90 days to finalize a contract with an external manager. If it doesn’t, or if the contract doesn’t meet the state’s guidelines, the state may pull the district’s accreditation, which would trigger dissolution of Adams 14.

State board chair Angelika Schroeder said no one wants to have to resort to that measure.

But districts should know, the state board does have “a few more tools in our toolbox,” she said.

In addition, if they get legal clearance, state board members would like to explicitly require the district:

  • To give up hiring and firing authority, at least for at-will employees who are administrators, but not teachers, to the external manager.
    When State Board member Steve Durham questioned the Adams 14 school board President Connie Quintana about this point on Wednesday, she made it clear she was not interested in giving up this authority.
  • To give up instructional, curricular, and teacher training decisions to the external manager.
  • To allow the new external manager to decide if there is value in continuing the existing work with nonprofit Beyond Textbooks.
    District officials have proposed they continue this work and are expanding Beyond Textbooks resources to more schools this year. The state review panel also suggested keeping the Beyond Textbooks partnership, mostly to give teachers continuity instead of switching strategies again.
  • To require Adams 14 to seek an outside manager that uses research-based strategies and has experience working in that role and with similar students.
  • To task the external manager with helping the district improve community engagement.
  • To be more open about their progress.
    The state board wants to be able to keep track of how things are going. State board member Rebecca McClellan said she would like the state board and the department’s progress monitor to be able to do unannounced site visits. Board member Jane Goff asked for brief weekly reports.
  • To allow the external manager to decide if the high school requires additional management or other support.
  • To allow state education officials, and/or the state board, to review the final contract between the district and its selected manager, to review for compliance with the final order.

Facing the potential for losing near total control over his district, Superintendent Javier Abrego Thursday afternoon thanked the state board for “honoring our request.”

The district had accepted the recommendation of external management and brought forward its own proposal — but with the district retaining more authority.

Asked about the ways in which the state board went above and beyond the district’s proposal, such as giving the outside manager the authority to hire and fire administrative staff, Abrego did not seem concerned.

“That has not been determined yet,” he said. “That will all be negotiated.”

The state board asked that the final order include clear instructions about next steps if the district failed to comply with the state’s order.

Changing fortune

Late votes deliver a narrow win for Jeffco school bond measure

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Voters in Jefferson County narrowly approved a $567 million bond request that will allow the school district to improve its buildings.

Jeffco Measure 5B, the bond request, initially appeared to have failed, even as voters supported Measure 5A, a $33 million mill levy override, a type of local property tax increase, by a comfortable margin. But as late votes continued to be counted between Election Day and today, the gap narrowed — and then the tally flipped.

With all ballots counted — including overseas and military ballots and ballots from voters who had to resolve signature problems — the bond measure had 50.3 percent of the vote and a comfortable 1,500 vote margin.

In 2016, Jeffco voters turned down both a mill levy override and a bond request. Current Superintendent Jason Glass, who was hired after the ballot failure, made efforts in the last year to engage community members who don’t have children in the district on the importance of school funding. This year’s bond request was even larger than the $535 million ask that voters rejected two years ago.

“We are incredibly thankful to our voters and the entire Jeffco community for supporting our schools,” Glass said in a statement. “The 5A and 5B funding will dramatically impact the learning environment for all of our students. Starting this year, we will be able to better serve our students, who in turn will better serve our communities and the world.”

The money will be used to add new classrooms and equip them, improve security at school buildings, and add career and technical education facilities.