Next stop: college

Success Academy graduates 16 students at its inaugural commencement

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Success Academy on Thursday graduated its first high school class of 16 students.

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.

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. 

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a high school equivalency diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for, is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-18 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes, and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”