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.

Assessing assessments

New York legislators overhaul teacher evaluations, removing mandatory link to state test

PHOTO: Chalkbeat file photo
A New York City principal takes notes on her computer during classroom observation for new teacher evaluations.

State lawmakers easily passed a bill Wednesday that scraps the use of state tests when evaluating New York teachers, but even supportive lawmakers raised concerns about potential loopholes that could subject students to more high-stakes testing.

The union-backed bill is a reversal of a 2015 deal Gov. Andrew Cuomo reached with lawmakers, which tied teacher evaluations to performance on state testing, seen by many as a political move not rooted in education policy. Strong backlash over that deal led many families to opt out of state tests, and eventually led to a state moratorium on using certain state assessments for teacher evaluations.

The bill allows local districts and their teachers unions to decide what kind of assessments should be used to evaluate teachers and requires State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to decide on a “menu” of alternative assessments for local districts.

The proposal, which now goes to Cuomo’s office for approval, jumps ahead of work the Board of Regents is attempting. Before the session started, the Board of Regents planned to extend the state-assessment moratorium by one year and created work groups to hash out the best policies for assessments and evaluations. Sen. Shelley Mayer, a Westchester Democrat and chair of the Senate education committee, said Wednesday she recognizes the Regents’ work, but “as legislators, we are doing what we are charged to do in making necessary changes in state law.”

“Since 2015, when these provisions were initially adopted, parents, teachers, and the legislature have — in a bipartisan way — have all recognized a flaw in this law,” Mayer said.

In a statement, Speaker of the Assembly Carl Heastie called the bill’s changes “common sense reforms” that will help teachers “prioritize the needs of their students.”

State Department of Education officials will “work to implement the new law” and will “continue to engage stakeholders in the process,” Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state education department said in an email.

The bill is not likely to have a drastic effect on New York City schools, since the district already chooses from a menu of local measures to evaluate teachers. United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew, who praised the legislation dismissed concerns about the bill leading to more testing, at least in New York City, because of how it already uses alternative local options.

“You should be active in making sure your school district is using performance indicators that are not tests, if you believe in that,” Mulgrew said.

Despite the bill’s passage — unanimously in the Senate — even supporters expressed concerns about allowing local districts to select their methods for evaluating teachers. What if another type of standardized test shows up on the “menu” that the state commissioner creates? Or, what if local districts decide they want to use more standardized tests?

“There are serious concerns that this bill will actually double the amount of testing (one tests for student achievement, the other teachers), while making it harder to compare across districts,” said Nathaniel Styer, a spokesman for teacher group Educators for Excellence, in a tweet.

When a similar question was raised on the Assembly floor, bill sponsor Assemblyman Michael Benedetto doubted the chances that local districts would agree to more testing.

Wary lawmakers also raised concerns about the bill not going far enough to decouple state assessments from teacher evaluations, formally called Annual Professional Performance Reviews or APPR.

The New York State Allies for Public Education, a coalition of parents and teachers who oppose standardized testing, believes that this law would subject students to more tests, a view shared by Sen. Robert Jackson, a Harlem Democrat. Jackson and Queens Democrat Sen. Jessica Ramos both voted to support the bill nonetheless, but cautioned that it “does not go far enough” to eliminate the use of assessments completely.

“We have an opportunity to take a couple more weeks before budget season  begins in earnest to really workshop these ideas,” Jackson said. “With so much riding on reforming APPR, we owe it to students, teachers, parents, and other  advocates to get this one right.”

measuring up

Gateway is only Memphis charter school flagged as low-achieving on district scorecard. How did your school do?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman/Chalkbeat
Gateway University is already at risk of closure after a Shelby County Schools investigation found a slew of misconduct at the high school.

Most Memphis schools improved in academic achievement and student growth in the second edition of Shelby County Schools “scorecard.”

About two-thirds of 186 district and charter schools improved their score on the district’s tool that helps parents examine school-level data and compare it with other Memphis-area schools in Tennessee’s largest district.

The district grades each school on a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 being the most favorable. The tool relies on state data on test scores, academic growth, graduation rates, ACT scores, and other factors like attendance and suspension rates. But the district’s scorecard differs from the state’s report card in that it only compares Memphis-area schools with each other. The state compares the district’s schools with others across Tennessee.

The scorecard is also the district’s main measurement of charter schools, which are managed by nonprofits using public funds. Only one charter school, Gateway University, fell below a 2, the district’s threshold for charter schools to remain in good standing. The school scored 1.64.

None of the high school’s students performed on grade level in math on the state’s test TNReady. Less than 2 percent scored proficient in English, making it the worst performing of 54 charter schools in the district.

Gateway University, now in its second year, is already under investigation for a slew of accusations including awarding students grades for a nonexistent class, hiring an employee who did not clear a background check, and having an inactive governing board. Shelby County Schools administrators have recommended the school board close the charter school. The board will likely hold a hearing Tuesday afternoon and vote that evening.

Last year, the district flagged seven low-performing charter schools at risk of closure, but all have improved academics and other measures enough this year to escape the district’s watchlist.

However, the state uses a different yardstick and has placed four of those charter school on its list of lowest performing schools. The school board delayed a vote in October to close those schools and has not released a new date for a decision. (The other three schools either closed, converted to a different governing model, or are still in operation.)

Even if those charter schools didn’t improve, the district could not have used last year’s state test scores as a factor in closing them. A series of technical failures of the online test led state lawmakers to ban use of the scores in judging schools.

To view individual school report cards, search here.