On Monday, 28 educators gathered in the Bronx, for one of the hottest tickets in town, a tour of a Success Academy school. I was supposed to be there, having received an email notifying me that I was among the lucky few who had been selected to join the tour at Success Academy Bronx 1 and that there was “an EXTENSIVE waiting list” of those who had not been chosen.
I checked the subway map for the school’s address on Morris Avenue, got out my metro card and loaded my recorder with fresh triple-A batteries. In short, I was all dressed up.
And then, suddenly, I had nowhere to go. Three days after securing my golden ticket, Success Academy disinvited me.
Luckily, I knew at least one other person who had gotten on the tour, and she agreed to give me a thorough briefing. More on her report below.
Now, there was a rich irony to both the invitation and disinvitation. When I had received the surprise Success acceptance, I had with great reluctance, and some embarrassment, cancelled an invitation to visit another charter school—one that I had long been looking forward to visiting.
Even, as I crafted an email asking to postpone my other visit, I felt my beloved late mother wagging her finger at me: “Andrea,” she would have said, her thick Hungarian accent placing the emphasis on the first syllable, “Dat is sooo rood.”
I would have tried to explain to Mom that I could not turn down an invitation to Success Academy, in large part because it is at the center of many of the most important debates about charter schools and education reform. Its political clout has made the chain the advance guard for those who wish to dismantle traditional public schools and their unions and replace them with a competitive marketplace of publicly funded, independently run and lightly regulated institutions. Indeed, where it has co-located in existing public-school buildings—Bronx 1 shares the Morris Avenue building with several public schools—there are constant complaints of the Success Academy schools grabbing prime real estate to the detriment of the children in traditional public schools.
Success Academy is known for producing high test scores. But it also has long battled accusations of creaming the most desirable students and families, an argument that gained traction recently when one of a Success Academy principal admitted to keeping a “got to go” list of students he wanted to cut from the rolls. While Eva Moskowitz, Success’s combative founder, insists that the got-to-go list was an anomaly, the practice of charter-school “creaming” has been pretty well established by even pro-charter researchers and advocates; see here and here. And then there are the legions of unhappy former Success teachers and parents whose travails are well documented on Diane Ravitch’s blog.
I am not “anti- charter”; I have written positively about KIPP here, and even my more critical stories, here and here, have referenced the charters that distinguish themselves by making an effort to integrate, to offer varied educational experiences for their students and/or to include teacher voice. But I have written little about Success Academy itself. And, as I complete work on my new book on education reform, I continue to wrestle with what the role of charter schools should be in improving American schools.
I felt that it was time to heed those pro-charter advocates, ranging from one of Success Academy’s chief financial backers to Jonathan Alter, the columnist (and my former classmate), who have long encouraged me to visit.
So, I was dismayed when, on December 4, three days after my original acceptance arrived, Jaclyn Leffel, the director of New York City Collaborates, which was helping to organize the tour, rescinded my invitation. “In reviewing our guest list, I did see that you are currently not leading a NYC public school. This workshop is specifically designed for people in elementary school education. Unfortunately this event is only available to principals at this time. Thanks so much for your interest!” wrote Ms. Leffel.
The only problem was that to register for the event, you had to include your title and affiliation, which in my case is the Bloomberg Chair of Business Journalism at Baruch College/CUNY. It was crystal clear from my affiliation that I was not a New York City principal. Moreover, I knew that not everyone on the tour was a current principal.
So I responded to Leffel, pointing out these discrepancies, and asked that she reconsider. She responded that she would not. I followed up with a request that she include me in another tour. Again, she responded cordially to let me know that another tour would be organized in February, but has not yet responded to my request for more information about the date and location.
All this is especially puzzling since New York Collaborates is an organization that seeks to “encourage public conversation and on-the-ground partnerships between district and charter schools.” (emphasis added by me.) Nor is this the first tour organized by New York Collaborates; previous tours also have included non-principals.
Clearly, the “public conversation” at Bronx 1 was not intended to include anyone who might be the least bit critical of the charter sector. Incidentally, New York Collaborates is “spearheaded” by the New York City Charter School Center and New York City Department of Education, and receives funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Nor was there much partnering between district and charter schools at the Bronx 1 tour. All but one of the educators on the tour was from the charter sector. Via email, I asked Ms. Leffel about this and she responded: “We had a 50/50 signup.”
If half the registrants were from public-school, this of course raises the question: Why was the guest list for this collaborative opportunity so heavily stacked in favor of charter schools?
This is a shame, because public schools would have a lot to learn from the Success Academy tour. “Overall, I was really impressed,” said my source, an experienced, long-time educator with inside knowledge of both public- and charter-schools. The school had “extraordinarily strong systems and structures” and, most surprisingly, “few work sheets” and “strong student voice.”
What follows is a recounting of the Success Tour, mostly via my anonymous educator source.
It all began with instructions, emailed to all accepted participants, including me, before the tour and before my invitation was rescinded.
We were to read The Camel Dances, a one-page fable, and “come having jotted down a main idea.” Participants were also expected to prepare “short responses to the following questions:
1. What does the camel do to achieve her dream of becoming a ballet dancer?
2. How does the audience react when the Camel’s dance is over?
In keeping with Success’s penchant for secrecy though, the one-page fable, which is produced by PBS and is widely available on the internet here and here, came with instructions: “Do not Duplicate. For internal use only.”
The day began with a light breakfast at 7:15 a.m. and visits to Kindergarten and first-to-third grade classrooms. Class sizes are large—28 to 31 students in each classroom. The students are virtually all black or brown; the vast majority of the teachers are white.
Every classroom has two teachers—a “lead teacher” and an associate in training, the team constituting a kind of “apprenticeship model.” Significantly, the principal focuses almost exclusively on instruction and is in each classroom almost every day; a business manager handles virtually all non-instructional business.
Of the assistant teachers, my source says: “The ones I observed doing small groups knew exactly what they were doing.”
She also noted: “There was no time wasted. There was a sense of urgency you don’t see in all schools.”
Every classroom also was “well provisioned” with a rich array of art supplies and books—though the books and curricula of many traditional public schools are “more reflective” of the racial backgrounds of students. Classrooms all had smart boards. The principal, Elizabeth Vandlik explained that Success Academy schools get extra funding for their first three years; thereafter, they have to live “within the parameters of student funding.”
The school, which is over six years old, boasts a large, and again, well-stocked “blocks” room with some “interesting constructions in a corner.” There were also baskets of figures—people and animals–on top of the blocks. However, it was unclear how much time the kindergarteners spend playing in that room; during the tour, there was a group doing academic work in the blocks room.
Indeed, the kindergarteners, on this morning, were focusing on phonics. In contrast to traditional public-school kindergarten classrooms, which would typically have an array of play centers–a kitchen here, water and sand stations there, perhaps an area with computers. “I didn’t see that at all,” said my source.
The playground, which Bronx 1 shares with at least three other public schools that serve mostly middle- and upper-school students, has no equipment designed for elementary school children.
But the school does seem to do a lot with “project-based” learning. For example, the second grade class does a unit on bridges, which includes building bridges, field trips to bridges and writing about bridges.
Bronx 1 offers science and a “special”, such as art, every day, which allows the grade-room teachers to have two preps a day. Dismissal is at 3:30 p.m., except on Wednesdays when students go home at 12:30 p.m., giving the faculty an afternoon for professional development and meetings. There is no Saturday school. And homework is confined to spelling and math facts, and a half-hour of reading every night, which parents are required to keep track of via a reading log.
For teachers, the official day begins at 7:15 a.m., but many are there at 6:30 a.m. when the building opens. The faculty go home at 5:00 p.m., but typically take work home with them. Despite the grueling hours, the principal, Elizabeth Vandlik, claims she lost no teachers last year.
The school backfills in the first grade, when students leave following Kindergarten. The large class sizes suggest that the school has had relatively little attrition after kindergarten. However, there was evidence that the demographics of the student body are not the same as those of most inner-city public schools.
The visit included a stop at two ICT (integrated co-teaching) classes, which combine regular students with those who have disabilities and so-called IEPs (Individual Education Plans.) “In most ICT classes you can identify at least a few kids that have IEPs, either because of their behavior or the way they respond or don’t respond,” explained my source. “You may see some looking out the window. Their response time is usually longer.”
But, in the Success Academy ICT class there were none of those behaviors, she added, suggesting that the disabilities of the students with ICT’s were relatively mild. This conforms with an analysis of the demographic disparities among public- and charter-school students that I did about a year ago, using New York City Department of Education data. The analysis, which focused on schools in East Harlem, where close to a quarter of all children attend charter schools, found that traditional public schools had two-to-three times the number of children with disabilities and higher economic need than neighboring schools.
During the course of the tour, one of the participants asked about discipline problems. Vandlik, the principal, said: “We do have them” and referenced a child who was “weighted with bear.”
Overall, the classrooms my source visited were noticeably devoid of “fidgets.” Students sat straight and tracked the teachers with their eyes. They answered questions in full sentences with sentence starters, such as “I would like to support so-and-so’s argument” or “I disagree with so-and-so.” And if they failed to do so, they were gently prompted to rephrase their answers.
The school uniforms were also all in perfect order, down to the dark socks for boys and brown shoes. Boys all wore orange polo shirts. The girls all wore plaid skirts. Even the teachers, most of them white and female, all wore skirts.
There was no discernable curricular focus on “civics” or grit.
Of course, the class tours were very short—five minutes per class (see class schedule below). Also, the tours took place at the start of the school day when children are most likely to be alert.
After an hour of class visits, the visitors attended the first-grade’s “shared-text planning meeting,” which focused on the teaching of The Camel Dances, the text distributed to the tour participants last week. The meeting came with a detailed, almost minute-by-minute agenda, for what would be discussed. (See illustration) The grade-level review was Exhibit A for what my source saw as the school’s strong structures.
This particular meeting was designed to figure out what questions the teachers would ask the children and “strategically, how they would get kids to share their thinking about their responses” to the story. The teachers sought to “anticipate” the responses of the students, including where they might have problems. To check their conclusions, the teachers regularly bring students into their meetings to try out an idea and to see how they will react. This approach struck my source as both creative and as one she hasn’t seen tried at other schools.
One key goal of this grade-level meeting is to promote “flexibility in thinking.” That goal was born out of a realization, following the grade’s most recent assessment, that students’ answers were too scripted, that their answers were “getting to be formulaic,” answering questions in a certain way with just two details.
Another goal was to focus on reading comprehension and thinking, but not on context. In response to a question about context, the principal acknowledged that kids might not have the kind of background knowledge they need for a story about a dancing camel, but noted: “We believe that it serves them better to work with the text and not spend a lot of time on context.”
The Camel Dances is about a camel who is so determined to become a ballerina she practices every day. Yet, she is not, ultimately, successful by conventional standards. As a member of the audience says, following one of the camel’s performances: “You are lumpy and humpy. You are baggy and bumpy… You are not, and never will be a dancer!”
It is also an advanced text—replete with multi-syllable, and even foreign, words like “pirouettes”, “releves” and “aarabesques.” So, the teachers read to the students, while the kids follow along with their own texts. Two things struck my source: First, that the goals of the reading assignment were to focus exclusively on the text, not on context. Second, the depth and detail of the planning meeting.
My source also noted that the text itself has a highly ambiguous message. The moral of the story is: Satisfaction will come to those who please themselves.
Explained Vandlik: “We say, if you work hard, you will succeed. This camel doesn’t. One reason we chose it, is we want to raise this with kids, this ambiguity, and have them consider it.”
Most conventional public schools, notes my source, would pick a far-less ambiguous fable, such as The Tortoise and The Hare.
Success Academy conducts assessments every six weeks. But they are not multiple choice. And, the school claims they do no test prep at all. “Giving tests all the time is a waste of instructional time,” said Vandlik. “We see ourselves as aligned with the progressive school movement.”
Progressive educators would no doubt recoil at the school’s focus on behavioral conformity and the lack of diversity among Success Academy children. However, my source clearly thought there was merit in many of the school’s approaches to teaching.
How should this brief glimpse of a Success Academy school influence our understanding of the role of charters within the framework of a traditional public school system? Bronx 1 clearly has an instructional approach and a culture from which other schools could learn. Yet, it is also clear that the style and expectations of the school, of both kids and parents, will not work for every child or family—or even, perhaps, a preponderance of inner-city children. Nor is it clear whether the model is scalable in terms of funding and pedagogy.
This leaves us with the central question for those who would replace a significant portion of public schools with charter schools that neither pro-charter advocates nor policy makers have yet to answer: What is the tipping point at which the charter sector gets so large that it turns nearby public schools into dumping schools for the most troubled children? What is the cost to those children, and to society, of essentially writing off the bottom 20 to 30 percent of poor children?
And, more important, is there a way to return to the original conception of charter schools—as islands of experimentation that might nurture real collaboration with, and improvement among, traditional public schools?
Let’s accept that Bronx 1 is a model school, and not a Potemkin tour. Neither Success Academy nor such highly selective tours begin to meet the promise, and obligation, of publicly funded charters–especially such large, powerful and well-funded charters as Success Academy–to serve as collaborative laboratories for public-school improvement.