Wednesday, March 23, 2011

When will we start talking to charter school parents?

by M.A.B.

Through my work with GEM and our efforts to counter the movement to privatize education in New York City, I have come across a common theme when my fellow activists talk about parents who choose charter schools for their children. While we challenge the existence and necessity of these schools, we often say that we understand why parents send their children to charter schools. While I of course respect charter schools parents and I do not want to draw a line in the sand—I think some revision of this position is necessary. The argument often made by charter school supporters is that parents choose charter schools because they are dissatisfied with their neighborhood public schools. They allege that our public schools are failing and that charter schools provide a better alternative to families.

I worry that by simply saying we understand why these parents choose charter schools that we are also, in a way, condemning our public schools. By saying we understand, I fear we stop ourselves from actually dialoguing with these families. When we say we understand, I believe we are sending the wrong message.

I argue that we need to change our position to this: “We understand why parents think they need to send their children to charter schools.” Let me explain…

Since September, five of my Kindergarten parents have approached me asking if they should send their children to charter schools. They showed me numerous mailings they received in the mail and appeared quite confused. Many thought they were required to fill out the paperwork, but didn’t have a true interest in sending their child elsewhere. One parent actually had a letter that claimed her child had been accepted to a charter school, yet she had never heard of it, much less applied for admission.

Parents across the city are being bombarded with similar advertisements, while the media continues to condemn and criticize our under-resourced public schools. The message many parents receive is oversimplified—“public schools are failing and you should get out while you can!” The reality is that many of our public schools—particularly those that serve low-income and high-poverty communities—are not receiving the support or resources they need to be successful. It isn’t that they are failing—it’s that they serve the most difficult populations and are expected to deal with the challenges of poverty all on their own. Rather than actually addressing the causes of poverty, our mayor and other corporate education reformers are creating a system that encourages people to ignore and avoid societal realities. They have vilified the schools that serve the highest needs students and are encouraging parents to enroll in privately managed charter schools.

When parents opt for charter schools, I often wonder what has actually transpired to lead them to that point. There are those who have actively sought out charters schools, but I wonder how many others are enrolling their children simply because they have been overwhelmed by the million dollar advertising and messaging machines at work.  

While I know that many of our public schools need more support, resources and attention, and that the system needs a serious overhaul, most of the charter schools in New York City are not actually providing children with an education they deserve. Instead, they have been able to market the perception that they are doing what is best for children. 

I recently discovered that Success Academies (Eva Moskowitz’s charter chain that currently operates five charters in Manhattan and two in the Bronx) was going to try to edge its way into District 14 where I live. A few months ago a woman approached me on the subway platform. She asked if I would sign a petition to help a new public school open in district 14. I was curious, so asked to see the petition.

The Success Academy logo was right at the top. I handed her back the clipboard and attempted to explain why I could not sign. I crossed my fingers that their plan to invade my neighborhood would fail. A public hearing was recently held in an attempt to co-locate an 8th Success Academy here. Within days of the hearing announcement, bus stops lining Graham Avenue (one of the neighborhood's busiest streets) were outfitted with large, colorful Success Academies’ advertisements. A beaming child’s face was surrounded with the words, “Next Stop, College.” Next, the subway station was home to these ads and finally Success Academy flyers hung on every doorknob in District 14. Many of these ads began with the phrase, “Better schools are coming to your community.”

As a resident of District 14, I know of a great number of high-performing public schools and I would be proud to send a child of mine to one of the public schools near my house. Moskowitz’s declaration that our district is in need of her schools in order to improve is misleading at best. A large part of her marketing campaign is selling the message that the schools we already have are not good enough. While Success Academies likely spends the most on its advertising (sending out 15,000 applications for only 400 seats), other charter operators use the same deceptive and divisive tactics.

When exploring the Success Academies website I came across a section titled, “Why choose Success Academies?” It listed many of the claims I have seen on their advertisements:

• We hire only the best teachers.
• Our public elementary schools have proven track record of success.
• Our schools are joyful and promote a love of learning.

 When we look closely at what actually goes on inside the doors of Success Academies, it is quite apparent that they are not, in fact, providing their students with the kind of education they claim.

The best teachers?

Success Academy schools hire mostly young, novice teachers and show a high rate of teacher turnover. My partner works at a public school that has the misfortune of co-locating with a Harlem Success Academy. HSA’s teaching staff struggles no differently than any other teaching staff that is predominately made up of rookies. They struggle to maintain focused connections with so many children simultaneously and find it challenging to keep order in their classrooms and hallway. Like many new teachers grappling with how to lead a group of children, some HSA teachers rely on threats and give out checks (their version of demerits) when dealing with discipline. Parents are routinely called in to either supervise their own children or take them home early from school. It is not easy or simple work guiding a group of young children during a long school day. It requires great skill—skill that is not a taught in school, learned over the summer or developed in just a year. Mastering the art of teaching takes commitment, dedication, humility and most of all, experience. Success Academy teachers are much more ordinary than Eva Moskowitz wants us to believe.

 A track record of success?

While Success Academy students do often score well on standardized tests, this is not a true measure of success. Success Academies have a track record of counseling out students who have behavioral or academic difficulty. When examining their enrollment data one sees stark drops as students get older. Large groups start in kindergarten (usually around 80 to 100 students), but by 3rd, 4th and 5th grade these numbers are between 30 and 60 students. My public school experiences some degree of attrition, but we never see enrollment fluctuate to this degree. Public schools that share space with the Success Academies schools frequently report former Success Academy students enrolling in their schools. Often these students were asked to leave or the parents withdrew them out of frustration with the school's punitive practices. In The test scores gains that the schools tout are less significant when one considers how many students the schools failed to educate along the way.

Success Academy schools also seem to equate success with a test score. Instead of teaching their students to be thoughtful, self-motivated learners, they are teaching their students how to recall information at the most basic level. Instead of teaching their students to be independent learners, their students are completely dependent upon their teachers. Both the New York Times and New York Magazine have published articles about the structure of the day at Harlem Success Academies. The routines are so regimented that students are actually timed while using the bathroom and putting away their coats and bags. What will happen to these children when someone isn’t threatening them with a check or holding a timer in front of their heads? Children need to be taught to control, manage and be in charge of themselves.

A successful school would also be a place with a low turnover rate for teachers. Low turnover rates are a good indication of a stable school environment. Success Academies schools have higher turnover rates than all of the public schools with whom they share space. At Harlem Success Academy 1, 50% of the teachers left after the 2008-2009 school year. Not only do teachers turnover quickly, but principals do as well.  Moskowitz routinely removes and replaces her schools’ administrators, often in the midst of the school year.

Joyful schools?

Success Academies teachers tend use very controlling and authoritarian measures with students. “Checks” are dolled out by the minute as punishment.  When students are not meeting expectations, the teachers yell out “that’s a check!” What does this empty attempt at discipline teach students? It certainly doesn’t seem to send the message that school is a joyful place.  

Students seem to be kept in check with fear and intimidation. And it doesn’t stop there. Parents of Success Academies’ students are required to sign very detailed contracts. Moskowitz has a harsh approach when it comes to working with families, “Our school is like a marriage, and if you don’t come through with your promises, we will have to divorce.” What about marriage vows that say, "Through sickness and health, for richer and poorer ‘til death do us part?" Do we want schools that can “divorce” our children and parents, or ones that are faithful and do their best to educate and provide for our children and families, no matter what?

When students are late or come to a Success Academy school unprepared, Saturday detention is often the consequence—for both parent and child. Parents are also required to attend various functions to promote the school. Recently, I attended a Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) meeting where a motion regarding Success Academies was on the agenda. Moskowitz bused in hundreds of parents and students to testify and cheer at the hearing. Instead of asking her parents to speak about their experiences, they were given detailed scripts and told what to think and what to say.

The motion on the PEP agenda proposed co-locating yet another Success Academy school in an existing and fully functioning public school building. Moskowitz has never opened one of her charter schools in her own building. Rather, she works her way into public school buildings and little by little takes space away from the school that is there. She overtly recruits their public school students and takes their classroom space—all the while claiming that her schools are revolutionizing education. But what message is she sending to her students? Isn’t she teaching them to take what they want without regard to the feelings or rights of others?

Success Academies is just one of many charter school networks operating in New York City. While charter schools currently serve fewer than 5% of our city's children, they garner substantially more support than our deserving public schools. These schools are not the reform our city and our country so desperately need. Rather, they are a distraction. Instead of investing in the reforms proven to impact student learning (class size reduction and maintaining an experienced teaching force), our mayor and President are promoting charter schools as the cure-all.  Until parents begin to understand the realities of what is going on in these schools and the inaccuracies of their advertising, this ineffective model of education reform will continue.

Starting the dialogue?

At the PEP meeting I attended, I was sitting near some Harlem Success Academy families. One parent seemed quite annoyed by our comments and began to question our position asking us, “Why are you so angry?!” Two of my fellow GEM activists responded and were able to start a dialogue. They explained the reality of co-location and the devastation it has had on our public schools that have been forced to share space with a Success Academy school. The parent was quite shocked. Our perspective was completely new to him and by the end, he seemed to appreciate our struggle. While he certainly did not storm over to Eva Moskowitz and demand change or threaten to remove his child, I could tell that when we left him, the wheels were churning in his head. He had more questions.

When I had been standing in line to get into the meeting, I was next to a group of Harlem Success Academy parents/teachers. I desperately wanted to engage with them, but I hesitated. What if they got upset? What if they thought I was disrespectful and wrote me off? Instead of asking these “what ifs,” I should have just tried to start a conversation.

This past week I attended an informational session for Brooklyn Success Academy and attempted to dialogue with the parents there. I found that the majority of the parents in attendance were there simply because they had received multiple mailings advertising the event--they were not necessarily interested in leaving their public schools, nor did they have a true understanding of what a charter school was. The Success Academy spokesperson called their charter school a "public school," and presented a compelling (albeit inaccurate) case for why parents should enter their lottery. While I know many of the parents there will likely enter the lottery for this school, I did have some promising and fruitful conversations. If we do not begin to engage with parents in this way, then they will be left with only the destructive and disingenuous messages they receive through advertisements and the media.  We need to bring people the truth, even if it is done one conversation at a time.

M.A.B. has been a New York City public school Kindergarten teacher for 5 years. Previous to this she worked in a charter school and a Montessori Preschool. She has been involved with the Grassroots Education Movement for the past 2 years.  


Anonymous said...

One at a time is how almost all change takes place. Your suggestion that dialogue, rather than blurted-out slogans, can make a difference is so important and so overlooked in this era of polemic-filled media bites. It takes courage to protest, to picket, to chant slogans and to make a big public impression. But you are to be commended for the courage required to face individuals one-on-one and believe that the purity of your purpose will be conveyed if you try to have a convesation. Another great example of what public school teachers are doing to make things better!

Lisa Donlan said...

Thank you MAB for putting up this compelling and beautifully written piece!
Many of us are out there talking to parents one at a time about these and the other so called "reforms' that are destroying our public schools.

You are right- parents in charters for the most part have no idea that a charter is an education corporation, privately managed by billionaire boards that follow their own rules, laws and accountability measures.

They do not know they as parents have no rights or protections, little to no access to vital information, and nowhere in Charterland to go for support.

Instead, they have followed the glossy ads and mailings to the promise of "private school for free" which is something like McDonalds claiming to be Le Bernadin for a few bucks.

Private schools may do their own form of recruiting and selecting, but the comparison stops there.

Private schools do NOT teach to the tests- they don't have high stakes testing; private schools cater to parents as valued customers and not as cannon fodder in space and ideological wars; private schools would never survive if they treated kids and families with the same level of disrespect as the charter schools do.

PT Barnum knew you can fool some of the people some of the time- and sadly those people are signing up for charters, the latest education reform snake oil.

Thanks for getting this important warning out to all of us!

Robert D. Skeels * rdsathene said...

Cogent and compassionate, this piece is probably one of the best I've read in terms of starting a very necessary dialog.

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful article. Yes, many of us are speaking to parents individually. I spoke with several of my Pre-K parents who received notices in the mail from Eva and other charter schools. They were angry that these schools had the nerve to buy mailing lists with their childrens' names. When my school had a charter co-locating for about four years, we (my husband and other teachers) also spoke to parents about how the school was run - like bootcamp. Many of those parents thought things were fine. Their children didn't complain about the discipline tactics and they had a great music program that took their children to many places, including Washington DC. The parents had no direct involvement in the school for the most part. It wasn't until they moved to a new building that many parents saw the real problems going on and called the school and press on them. We have to provide the steady voices and give parents the facts about what theses charters and their owners are doing to our public school system and encourage them to help fight for strong public schools supported by our city and state funds.

Anonymous said...

I teach at a charter in Harlem. When my students enter 5th grade, I test their reading levels. They range from first to third grade with very little exception.

That's what charters mean when they say that public schools are failing. They are literally failing at the task of teaching kids how to read.

Do you really expect that parents who have the opportunity to have their students learn to read shouldn't take it based on your political grounds?

Anonymous said...

Charter schools are, in fact, open enrollment public schools.

MAB does not address the serious failings of many NYC district schools where parents are forced to send their kids. Both SCN and district schools in NYC often serve high-needs students. The difference is that SCN manages to get through to their students, teaching them fundamental skills like reading, when many district schools fail. There are real differences in the student learning outcomes between these schools. Same kids, different results. It’s patently dangerous to gloss over the fact that there are many public elementary schools in New York City that do not successfully teach students how to read!

Moskowitz has never claimed that tests are the end-all-be-all (although students at her schools scored highest in the city). In fact, her schools use one of the most progressive math programs available in order to avoid teaching their students to the NY state standards, which are insufficient for college preparation.

The only point I would agree with is that, hopefully, Success Charter Network is actively working to counteract student attrition, and I agree that they should be pressed on the matter.

Anonymous said...

What's revealing about Harlem Success is that when New York State recalibrated the state test cut scores, nearly every school's scores dropped dramatically. Harlem Success' scores didn't -- they stayed high. That fact, at the very least, implies to me that they aren't teaching to the test or "drilling and killing" -- rather, they're going above and beyond the state standards.

I've visited Harlem Success, and I would send my own children there in a heartbeat. The students are lucky to have teachers who are incredibly self-reflective and have high standards for both teaching and learning.

When I visited, I was also struck by how incredibly joyful the school was -- I saw children genuinely enjoying learning, thrilled to be scholars.

We need to move beyond labels in public education, and celebrate ALL schools -- district, charter, parochial, private -- that are doing an exceptional job at educating our children.

Anonymous said...

Seems very disrespectful to parents to assume they don't know their own child's needs, don't understand the quality of the schools their child attends, and can't see past the advertising and slogans of those debating education issues. The real issue is parent empowerment, which doesn't exist if they have no choices and have to accept whatever school their child is zoned for. Many parents are satisfied with the education their district school provides, but many are not, and you cannot assume its because they are gullible that they choose charter schools. They don't just sign up because of slick brochures: they talk to other parents and tour the schools and like the longer school days, uniforms, etc. that charters offer.

Anonymous said...

Herding them into buses from Harlem and dragging them to Brooklyn Tech to suit the political needs of Moskwowitz is respectful? How is the education of their children served in this manner? I watched the bus captains in action. Quite a show.

How can charter schools be open enrollment when there is a lottery?

What about teacher turnover rates?

And why is there such student attrition of HSA is joyful and parents are happy?

High attrition of students and teachers = unhappy parents and children.

As to those 1st-3rd grade test scores out of public schools - Redact the names and send those results. I would place a bet there are on 1st- 3rd grade scores in that batch - don't you know about Bloomberg's social promotion policy?

And by the way - aren't these the guys who run the public schools for 10 years that you are attacking? Eva's buddies?

Anonymous said...

I was shocked to learn of such high attrition rates at Success Academies.

So I looked it up. Where exactly do you get your facts, M.A.B.?? Your numbers look nothing at all like the numbers supplied by the DoE. While I couldn't find as much data as I would have liked, it seems like you are being extremely misleading and basically lying to your readers.

Take a look at this data I got to through a link from the DoE.
In 2006 (the first year of the school) there were 83 students enrolled at the K grade level in HSA1. In 2007 80 remained and in 2008 79 remained. In 2006 there were 73 1st graders taken in, in 2007 73 remained, and in 2008 that number dropped to 62. In 2007 there were 123 K-level students, and in 2008 that number actually increased to 127.

So where is the attrition??? It seems like you just looked at the most recent numbers showing that Success Academies are now taking more students than they used to and twisted the data to make it seem like there's 50% attrition when it's closer to 5%, which is well within the normal bounds for any school.


And yes, charter schools are in fact open enrollment public schools. There is a lottery only because would otherwise be heavily oversubscribed. One can imagine the exact same process being used at any other public school that is oversubscribed.

In fact, charter schools are moreso open enrollment public schools than the city's numerous magnet schools that are highly selective in their admissions process and sap the best students from the system...the very charge that is so often leveled at charter schools.

M.A.B. said...

So many things I want to respond to, but I'll start with the last anonymous comment.

I was not misleading readers with my information. The DOE website, until recently, was posting up-to-date enrollment figure for all schools under the title "CPE school demographics and accountabiliy snapshot." This can be found on nearly every public school's page. Until a couple of weeks ago, this was also part of every charter school page. I compiled the data I used on HSA from these snapshots. There was talk recently that some press sources might actually try to investigate and write about the attrition evident in the snapshots. I think it is likely not coincidence that these stats have been removed. You refer to the stats only from HSA 1 and that document you cite is from the state. It still shows some attrition and I am not sure you are accurate in your claim that they not take more students than before in the early grades. Between grades 2 and 3, your statistics still show a drop from 73 to 62 students. Please take a look at similar attrition figures from other charter schools:

In regards to your comment that charters are "open=enrollment," I have to ask what your definition of that term is? In my book, it means that a school takes students throughout the year, does not have a lottery and serves all students, regardless of special education needs or English language ability. My public school accepts students throughout the year. At the Success Academy information session I attended, they stressed that they do not accept students mid-year--they only take students who have been selected by lottery. Our children should not have to enter a lottery to go to school. Public education is a right.

Anonymous said...

I agree with MAB.

I think a lot of parents are scared off from public schools because of all the sensationalized coverage in tabloids and on Fox News.

I know that a previous poster suggested that it isn't fair to suggest that parents don't know what's best for their children, but I think school choice turns parents into consumers, and I doubt anyone would argue that, when you look around, you don't see lots of people making bad choices as consumers. I think that many parents ARE drawn to the glossy, newness of these schools, as well as the promise of some sort of unique specialization or focus....

Unfortunately, I also think there some parents who like the fact that charters serve a more selective group of kids because, whether they will admit it or not, they don't want their kids going to school with "those" other kids.

M.A.B. said...

Thanks to the last anonymous poster. The current structure of school choice does turn our parents into consumers. And, to the anonymous poster who claimed I was being "disrespectful," I'd ask you to read my piece again. My goal was not to approach parents with any sort of disrespect. However, in my experience, many parents are misinformed about charter schools. There are parents who sign for lotteries due to recommendations from friends or because they have visited these schools. But, the point is, that charter schools (especially Success Academy schools) are not honest with their advertising or their claims of success--therefore many people do not have a full understanding of what is going on. Charter schools tell parents that they are public schools, when in fact, they are "education corporations," according to state law.

Anonymous said...

I taught at a charter middle school in Harlem and it was a total disaster. There was a 60% teacher turnover rate, with several teachers leaving in the middle of the year because the discipline problems and poor administration were too much to bear. Although grades k-5 functioned fairly well, grades 6-8 were places where academic rigor was extremely low if teaching was even going on at all.

Many of the requirements for the school to stay open meant that they could never fail students and that their students had to get into quality high schools. Students had it figured out that no matter how poorly they behaved or how little they did academically, someone would always be pulling for them to get into a boarding school somewhere. To sum up, my experience at my former charter school was that its instability led to an environment that turned its students into poorly educated, violent, bratty children.

Anonymous said...

Here is a HS school that invaded and helped destroy a once glorious public JHS. Many neighborhood parents sent their children here because they saw this as a refuge from schools they did not see as "good" or they did not want their children traveling into Manhattan. The charter owner set up shop in the building eventually with THREE schools, all similar. Recently, they moved into a beautiful new building...and can't pay the rent. Maybe if the charter CEO wasn't so greedy for money this would not have happened. And what of the neighborhood children who go there? What will become of THEM?

Cut /paste the link:

In Williamsburg, real estate troubles follow declining enrollment | GothamSchools

Anonymous said...

again...just because a school has 100 kids in 1st grade and only 20 kids in 12th grade does not mean that there was 80% attrition. It could mean any number of things, most likely that the school took only a small number of children for the later grades as they figure out the optimal system for running a new school (high school as opposed to middle school or middle school as opposed to elementary).

So again, I must reiterate the misleading nature of the numbers that you have presented. Your argument is based on extremely faulty logic at best.

Anonymous said...

I am a former Brooklyn Success Academy parent. I can assure you that the attrition is quite high. We left midyear with 3 other students. There are 4 others who plan to leave at the end of the year. This particular first grade class started out with 26 children. Down to 22 mid year and when June comes it will be down to 18. These numbers and accurate and TRUE but you will never see any of this on reports because as soon as students leave they get replaced. SA bumps up kindergarten students to first grade and then brings in new kindergarten kids to fill in at the lower grades.

ed notes online said...

Thanks for reporting. Keep us posted on developments. When it is safe let us know the school. Also why people are leaving.

Anonymous said...

This is strikingly condescending and even racist. Do you really think parents are unable to assess whether a school is working for their kids??? I'm reminded of my friend, an immigrant from Mexico who barely spoke English. Her kindergarten aged son was put into a bilingual classroom and was not learning English - She was very upset about this - she wanted him in an English immersion classroom but the school told her she couldn't switch him. I had to explain to her that she can INSIST that her kid is put in an English classroom. This is an example of a public school (in the Bronx) actively working against a parents' interest, and even deceiving her about her options. But she was absolutely able to understand that the situation wasn't working for her son - even though she didn't speak English and only had a HS degree.