On April 14th, I attended a District 14 Community Education Council meeting where Eva Moskowitz, the CEO of the Success Academy Charter School Network, was supposed do a small presentation about her plans to open three more Brooklyn Success Academies. She was also expected to field questions from the public. I have written about charter schools and this particular charter chain on more than one occasion, but I continue to be shocked by its approach and steadfast commitment to shirking the truth. For those who don't know, Success Academies is a network of charter schools in New York City. There are currently seven Success Academies open and all are co-located inside public school buildings. Moskowitz's schools have a track record of under-serving the neediest students and counseling out students who have significant academic and behavioral needs. In addition, Moskowitz's schools have received preferential treatment from the Department of Education and she has been allowed to open school after school despite mounting public opposition. (http://articles.nydailynews.com/2010-02-25/local/27057283_1_e-mails-charter-space-in-school-buildings)
There are many who believe that Eva Moskowitz’s schools represent the kind of change we need in education, and this is certainly the message Moskowitz spends millions to market. However, the reality is far different. At this CEC meeting I witnessed two Success Academy staff members avoid answering community member's questions and make numerous false statements—all in the hopes of preserving their image.
Before the CEC meeting began, we received word that Moskowitz would not actually be present at the meeting—she would instead be sending a couple of her marketing staff members to field questions and give her presentation. The meeting began with a small crowd seated in the auditorium of I.S. 71. After a rousing performance by the P.S. 257 marching band and a few CEC announcements, the microphone was given to a Success Academies employee, Nicole Foster. As she took the microphone, parents, teachers and principals in the crowd held up large signs expressing their opposition to Success Academy schools coming in to District 14. Before Foster even began speaking, the CEC president brought forth some concerns about the way in which this meeting was scheduled and pointed out some glaring errors on the part of the Success Academies staff. Right from the start, it was clear that this was going to be a tough crowd for the two, young Success Academies staff members.
Ms. Foster began by thanking us all for being there and stressed how excited Success Academies was to be coming to District 14. They were, she claimed, attending this meeting in order to start a "respectful dialogue" with the community. Yet, she did not address Moskowitz's absence. How important is dialogue with the community to your organization if your own CEO doesn't show up to meet the community? She talked briefly about her background, the Success Academies philosophy and their plans to open more charter schools in District 14. Next, she called upon two Harlem Success Academy parents to speak to the audience. They told brief stories about why they believed so strongly in their school. The two parents certainly seemed excited about their schools; however, they didn't refer to anything very specific about why their schools were so extraordinary. It seemed an odd move bringing in these parents. If there was, in fact, such a high demand for these Success Academies (as their staff members claimed), why bring parents in from Harlem to convince us?
Soon after the parents finished their presentations, the crowd had a chance to ask some powerful and critical questions. Throughout this back and forth, the Success Academies employees tried to make nice and appear gracious and respectful, but they were challenged by the community's questions and struggled to communicate anything more than half-truths.
One of the first questions was about why Success Academies felt any need to come to District 14. Foster responded that there was "demand" for their charter school. When asked to explain this demand, Jenny Sedlis (Director of External Affairs) joined her colleague at the front. She claimed there was a demand because 1,400 families had entered the lottery for the 168 spots available at their school slated to open in District 14. When probed further and asked repeatedly how many of these applicants were actually from District 14, Sedlis became flustered and said that all the applicants were from "Brooklyn." Success Academies is claiming a false demand for their schools. It is not accurate to say that there is a demand in District 14 for this school, if the applicants do not actually live in the district. Success Academies choose District 14; the district did not choose them.
There are some serious questions, too, as to how Success Academies got parents to enter their Brooklyn lottery. A special education teacher from PS 147 testified that during his school’s parent-teacher conferences, a man stood outside handing out Success Academy advertisements to the PS 147 parents. When questioned, the man admitted he was being paid ten dollars an hour to solicit parents for Success Academies. The PS 147 teacher challenged the consistent Success Academies line about parent choice: "When advertisements are given in the face of people, when they put them in front of them, without dialogue beforehand…that is not choice! That is ‘this is what you should do.’” He shared how parents at his school came in asking, “Should we be worried about our school?”
Foster’s response was evasive at best. She spoke lightheartedly about how their network has reached out to the community and daycare centers in the past. She failed to address any of the teacher’s concerns, but instead kept referring to how Success Academies is trying to engage, now, in a dialogue with the community. (Let’s not forget that the lottery for their school closed on April 1st. Seems like it might be a little late to be starting this dialogue.) While Foster put on a smile to respond to this public school educator, the outright disrespect her organization showed towards PS 147 (and so many other public schools where they do the same kind of soliciting after/before school) cannot be denied. While his school is in the midst of doing something positive and productive--conducting meetings between teachers and families--Success Academies shows up to tell these parents they should consider another school, creating confusion and sowing seeds of doubt.
Another educator from PS 147 challenged the Success Academies model. He spoke of high teacher turnover rates in their schools, and cited a case in which one Harlem Success Academy went through four principals in just five years. He asked Ms. Foster, “How can your school be a replicable model?” as they so often proclaim. He spoke also of their contradictory statements about testing and test prep. While they claim not to be a "test-prep" factory, their teachers don orange t-shirts with the words, “Slammin’ Exam Teacher!” Furthermore, the PS 147 teacher alleged, the schools’ CEO, Ms. Moskowitz, has openly advocated for rewarding teachers monetarily for high student test scores.
When Ms. Foster took back the microphone she began again with her previous tactic, to sound nice, but communicate little substance or truth. She made general statements about the Success Academies philosophy—“The tests are not our end-all…but they are our moral obligation. We have to ensure our students do well on these exams…So, we try to get the students excited about the tests.” While Foster seemed to be communicating the message the Success Academies schools are not unilaterally focused on testing and test-prep, a former HSA teacher tells a different story: "There is a one word focus at any HSA school: testing." (Anonymous comment left: http://ednotesonline.blogspot.com/2011/04/harlembrooklyn-success-academy-video.html)
Foster's response to teacher turnover was even more misleading. She said that many of the teachers at Success Academies don’t leave, they simply move on to other positions within the network. She didn’t exactly specify what jobs these teachers took up, aside from mentioning a few school leaders who were former teachers. Surely the 50% turnover rate at Harlem Success Academy 1 (see for yourself on the State’s Accountability and Overview Report) is not due entirely to teachers becoming principals. Some teachers likely do move up, but what happened to the rest of them?
Throughout the evening, Foster and Sedlis continued to use three phrases repetitiously: “partnership, respectful dialogue and parent choice.” An educator from Harlem, whose public school has been forced to share space with a Harlem Success Academy, spoke strongly about how these empty phrases are tossed around by Success Academy employees. He spoke of how Moskowitz brought parents into his school for a co-location hearing and how they aggressively called his school, “a failure.” There was no basis for this accusation--Moskowitz had been pining for this school building and used this public hearing as an opportunity to attack and overwhelm this public school. (See http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=ZGVmYXVsdGRvbWFpbnxueWRuZG9jc3xneDoyMjFlOTliYmVlNjUxMmIw&pli=1 for access to the emails between Moskowitz and Klein. See pages 47 to 50.)
He spoke also of the numerous injustices his school and students have been subject too since the co-location began. Each year, Harlem Success Academy has taken more and more space away from his public school. Kindergarten, first and second grade students at his public school have been forced into classrooms in a sub-level basement—all to make room for Harlem Success Academy. Foster attempted to respond, explaining that in each co-location there is a team of people who work together within the building to divide space equally and fairly. The Harlem educator responded and shared how his school community consistently and opening opposed the move to basement classrooms, and how, in the end, they were not allowed to be a part of this decision. They were told to move their classes into the basement. Foster continued to stress how her schools work in partnership with their public school neighbors. It is easy to say you partner with a community or a school, but to actually do it requires a degree of honesty and consideration Success Academies have not shown themselves to possess. Partnership requires a give and take; Success Academies only know how to take.
As the evening continued, a consistent pattern revealed itself. The community raised concerns. Then, Sedlis and Foster deflected and attempted to minimize what the community brought forth. The most glaring untruths came later in the evening. Someone from the audience mentioned her concern that Success Academies fail to enroll equitable numbers of students with special needs and English language learners. Nicole Foster actually said that the new District 14 Success Academy school will have 25% English Language Learners. She then went on to say that Success Academies enroll more special education students and more ELL’s than the public schools with whom they share space. Her statements could not be further from the truth.
Let’s look first at English Language Learner enrollment. New York State complies information on all schools and creates an “Accountability and Overview Report” for most schools in the city. The 2008-2009 reports can be found online. See the chart below to see the enrollment of English Language Learners at three Success Academies and their co-located neighbors.
For some reason, “Accountability and Overview Reports” do not yet exist for the other Success Academies schools. Most likely, this is due to their youth—some have only been open a year or two. However, the public schools they share space with enroll significant numbers of ELL students.
English Language Learners in other Public Schools co-located with Success Academies
P.S. 241, co-located with HSA 4
P.S. 123, co-located with HSA 5
P.S. 30 Wilton, co-located with Bronx Success 1
P.S. 146 Edward Collins, co-located with Bronx Success 2
Foster also claimed that her schools enroll higher numbers of special education students, but the numbers just don’t add up. On the Department of Education website (schools.nyc.gov) you can view all kinds of statistics for each public school in our city. Statistics for charter schools are not as easily accessed. In the beginning of February, I came across a new link with enrollment data on each school’s page. It was titled, “CEP School Demographics and Accountability Snapshot, 2010-2011.” This was, at the time, a snapshot available for all schools—public and charter. I recorded the data for the Success Academy schools, as well as the public schools that have been forced to share their space with this charter chain. Within a couple of weeks, this link was removed from all of the charter school web pages, however it is still available on public school pages. (It is listed near the bottom of each school's “Statistics” page.) The data used in the graphs below comes from these snapshots. If the Success Academies schools would like to provide updated and detailed enrollment information, I would love to see it.
The first graph shows the percentage of students enrolled in special education classes, both Collaborative Team Teaching (CTT) and self-contained classes.
While it is undoubtedly clear that our public schools serve more students in need of special services, the differences are even more glaring if you examine the number of students in self-contained classes alone. Students who need self-contained classes typically have the highest needs.
The Success Academies Network is not interested in serving high-needs students and have counseled out many students when they felt overwhelmed by their needs. Go into any of the schools co-located with a Success Academy and you will find former Success Academy students—students who “won” the lottery, but were then asked to leave. Success Academies seem to have adopted an attitude now shared by many charter schools—it is accepted practice to exclude students instead of giving them the support they need to succeed. (The NY Post just ran an article about these exclusionary practices, "Charters Nix 23% of kids: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/charters_nix_of_kids_jXEEhJtQx9eQiGUiD3vInN)
The job of a public school is to work with all of the students who enroll, regardless of their strengths, weaknesses, needs or shortcomings. When a student presents with a need, it is up to the school to help meet that need. Although they receive substantial public funds, charter schools are not public schools and easily avoid doing the true and hard work of educating our neediest children.
As the CEC meeting ended around 8:15 pm, two tired and weary Success Academies employees exited I.S. 71. I wondered, how they do it every day? How do they work for an organization that, in the name of educational equity, creates division, tension and inequality in our communities? Moskowitz invests extraordinary resources in the presentation and preservation of her organization's image. But as one community member said at the end of his testimony, "Imagine if that money went to kids!"
In advertising and marketing, truth is usually obscured or manipulated in an attempt to convince people (consumers) of something--to buy a product, to take a trip, to take a drug, to buy a kind of food, to go to a school. McDonald's spends millions of dollars every year marketing and promoting its food. It fills its advertisements with images of seemingly healthy people stuffing their faces with unbelievably unhealthy food. It slaps up joyous slogans and avoids including the information about their food's damaging nutritional content that might dissuade people from buying it. McDonald's advertising campaigns are not focused on sharing any truths. Rather, they hide the truth in the name of increasing profit. The Success Academies Charter School Network is guilty of similar practices. Moskowitz wants us to believe what her organization says and ignore what it does. But if we ignore what is happening, our children are the ones who will pay the price. They deserve honesty and integrity, not lies and deceit. What is it going to take for more people, especially parents, to see through the empty slogans of Success Academies?