So What, Now What? Ideas for Success Academy Reform & Charter School Oversight

Since I last wrote hundreds of people have come forward with anecdotes about their experiences at Success Academy, posting anonymously on an Instagram called Survivors of Success Academy. As the name suggests, there aren’t many happy tales. People are reporting everything from neglect of special education services to lies about access to school psychologists and mental health treatment in general, and even of a bulletin board displayed in the hallways of an SA school that depicted students hanging from trees. The petition that I posted previously has reached well over 2,000 signatures. We’ve graduated far beyond if serious reform is necessary at SA to what should the demands be, and how will they be administered in a transparent way?

In the spirit of the last post I will continue to try to keep a level head and be fair and balanced in my opinions. One of the things I learned as a professional at SA that has helped me in all facets of my life is the idea that if you’re going to present a problem, you better also be ready to present a plausible solution. I’d also like to fully admit that I would never presume to have many solutions, or even the right ones, so I encourage everyone to chip in their ideas to this conversation as well. 

The Big Ideas

  • Eva Moskowitz should resign. I detailed the reasons why here. I don’t believe that meaningful reform is possible with her as the CEO of the network.
  • If Ms. Moskowitz will not resign, at the very least her salary should be immediately reduced to at or below the salary of the NYC Chancellor of Education, and that money should be reallocated to the reform effort (more ideas on that below). Furthermore, no individual should be allowed to profit beyond the equivalent salary of an elected or appointed State official off of public money and for a job that is for the public good.
  • Success Academy should be barred from expanding their network of schools until certain metrics are met that prove that the reforms put in place are working. I have some ideas on this, including stabilizing teacher retention, reducing suspensions below a certain number (or, ideally, eradicating them entirely), full student access to mental health care, abolishing the practice of calling the police on families, fulfilling all special education requirements, full access to arts programs for students and diversity hiring quotas, to name a few. 
  • A council of Success Academy parents from across the city should be assembled as oversight for, and to work in concert with, the CEO and board of directors on network wide policies and procedures. SA is huge on parent choice. If parent choice is that important, then SA parents deserve a seat at the table. 
  • The Success Academy curriculum from grades K-12 should be overhauled and retooled with cultural diversity, sensitivity and inclusiveness as core values. 
  • Success Academy teachers should immediately be allowed to unionize and negotiate terms with the CEO and board of directors. So many issues that I experienced and have read about revolve around the fact that a) so many teachers at SA are inexperienced and impressionable and b) teachers and leaders who push back against harmful practices are often pushed out of the network in myriad ways. Allowing the staff to unionize would help to mitigate both of these problems on top of providing an avenue to hold the CEO and board of directors accountable for their policies and actions (or inactions).

Now, I understand that a huge reason people pursue State charters in general is to avoid oversight, but enough is enough. When it comes to violence committed against black and brown families and black and brown children in New York State, and across the country, there need to be clear regulations in place. The big ideas above are just the bare minimum that should take place in order for Success Academy to maintain its charter. That said, there are a few other ideas that could also be considered.

Some Other Thoughts

  • All schools should be limited in the amount of time they can dedicate to State test preparation and, in general, new and more wholistic measurements should be used to discern the validity of a school charter. I found the following excerpt from the list of “Objectives” in the NYS Charter Schools Act of 1998 very interesting:

          “Provide schools with a method to change from rule-based to performance-based accountability systems by holding the schools established under this article accountable for meeting measurable student achievement results” (pg. 3)

If State test results are the primary metric by which these schools are being measured, isn’t it kind of, you know, cheating to prepare for those exams, and teach not much else, for months before they are administered? Or to threaten students who don’t achieve certain marks with the possibility of being held back a year? Wouldn’t that affect the data? And, not for nothing, aren’t there other very important metrics by which “student achievement” could and should be measured? 

  • “No Nonsense Nurture” as a form of behavior management and discipline should be closely scrutinized and possibly abolished.
  • Clear and consistent guidelines for how and why students can be held back a grade should be defined, approved by the board of regents and published so parents can have a clear understanding of what those guidelines are and whether or not their school is abusing them.
  • Success Academy should be required to provide immediate proof that they are meeting all of the IEP mandates of every student in their network required by law, and should be barred from taking on new students until it can be proven. 
  • Senior Leaders should not receive bonuses based on the results of State testing or any other formal assessment.
  • All schools should offer access to the physical education, arts education and extra curricular education that SA promises to parents. Not just lip service and photo ops, but real access for every student who attends a Success Academy school.

While I have many more thoughts and ideas on this subject, I feel it would be more powerful to open up the floor. Reply in the comments with ways in which you believe Success Academy could be reformed. According to the NYS Charter Schools Act of 1998, “The board of regents and charter entity shall oversee each school approved by such entity, and may visit, examine into and inspect any charter school, including the records of such school, under its oversight. Oversight by a charter entity and the board of regents shall be sufficient to ensure that the charter school is in compliance with all applicable laws, regulations and charter provisions” (pg. 14). I will compile the entire list of ideas and proposals, along with the anecdotal evidence of malpractice at Success Academy, and send it to the board of regents with a plea to exercise their power of oversight. 

Ms. Moskowitz likes to argue that the, “network’s mission is fundamentally anti-racist” (Chalkbeat) and make claims like, “I imagined that if you could educate tens of thousands of students, mostly of color, especially well, they would get into the halls of power, and they would most effectively combat institutional racism”. Can you use the guise of educating students of color “especially well” as an excuse to not let them use the bathroom during a test? Or control what they can wear on their heads or how they can express themselves and their culture? Or to publicly humiliate them in their classrooms? Or to call the police on them and their families? Or to pay yourself nearly a million dollars a year? Or to ignore the segregation that exists within your own network? Can high test scores count if the practices used to achieve them are problematic at best and abusive at worst? Is getting into the halls of power worthwhile if you develop chronic anxiety and depression along the way? 

It’s amazing how old adages can so succinctly summarize a moment or a movement, and in this case, “actions speak louder than words” comes abruptly to mind. Enough empty platitudes. Public education in general needs tremendous reform. How can we move forward if the institutions charged with piloting the reforms meant to get us there are moving in the opposite direction? How can we assure that all children have access to a world class education if a certain segment of public schools lack accountability entirely?

I don’t doubt that Ms. Moskowitz, and the Success Academy board of directors, believe that what they are doing is right, but more than enough voices have risen up to prove that their vision is not the reality. If our students are asked to actively listen, remain engaged and be flexible in their thinking then the CEOs of charter networks should be expected to do the same.

Here are some ideas. Please take them.

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