Point/Counterpoint: Message From a Charter School: Thrive or Transfer

In 2008, when Katherine Sprowal’s son, Matthew, was selected in a lottery to attend the Harlem Success Academy 3 charter school, she was thrilled. “I felt like we were getting the best private school, and we didn’t have to pay for it,” she recalled.
And so, when Eva S. Moskowitz, the former city councilwoman who operates seven Success charter schools in Harlem and the Bronx, asked Ms. Sprowal to be in a promotional video, she was happy to be included.
Matthew is bright but can be disruptive and easily distracted. It was not a natural fit for the Success charters, which are known for discipline and long school days. From Day 1 of kindergarten, Ms. Sprowal said, he was punished for acting out.
“They kept him after school to practice walking in the hallway,” she said.
Several times, she was called to pick him up early, she said, and in his third week he was suspended three days for bothering other children.

Eva Moskowitz responds, via Whitney Tilson:

The facts clearly show that Success Academies’ educators are incredibly committed to serving children with special needs, we serve a high percentage, and do not push out children who don’t “thrive.” The Success Academies’ special education population is equal to the citywide average of 12.5%. Our ELL population is 9.6%, and when you factor in children who we have successfully taught English (and are no longer ELL), we clearly educate the same children. As Winerip points out, our student attrition rate is significantly lower than our co-located schools and the citywide average.
As the paper trail examined by Winerip clearly indicates, no one pressured Ms. Sprowal to leave the school. Her son did not have an IEP until 3 years after he left the school. When the family left the school in 2008, Ms. Sprowal wrote effusive emails about how happy she was with how the school handled her situation. Three years later, after coaching from the United Federation of Teachers, his mother is now unhappy. The UFT spent five years hovering over our schools to find hordes of students who were unfairly “pushed” out, and the best they could find was a single story with a happy ending.
Most educators would agree that children are different and don’t all excel in the same settings. That’s why having choices is so important. Different schools are different in their approaches. Some are strict, some less strict, some have bigger class sizes, some smaller etc.. It is our obligation to advise a parent that there might be a better setting for their child.
Our schools are a work in progress, every day we try to do better for the largest number of children. While I don’t believe that the school mishandled the situation, we are always working to improve how we serve children with all types of needs. For next year, we have added a 12:1:1 program at two of our schools and a Director of Special Education at the network-level who comes from the city’s District 75.
What is most troubling about several of Winerip’s recent columns is the suggestion that low-performing schools can’t be expected to do any better. Winerip recently wrote that it wasn’t Jamaica High School’s fault that only 38% of its kids graduate with regents diplomas, because it gets more of the tough-to-serve kids (2% more homeless children, 6% more children with special needs). What school could possibly do better under those circumstances?
The theme is repeated in this story. 33% of 4th graders passed the state ELA test at PS 75, but public schools like PS 75 get more tough-to-serve children. (PS 75 does not, but schools like it do, he argues) When schools like ours have 86% of 4th graders passing the same test, it must be because we don’t have the same kids, because schools can’t possibly be expected to do that well.
Winerip also makes the argument that schools like PS 75 care about children and thus have low test scores while schools like Harlem Success Academy don’t care about children and thus have high test scores.
Those are both false arguments that we must dispel if we’re to improve the quality of public education. Schools with tough-to-serve children can do better and it’s possible to care about children AND want them to perform well on tests.
At Success Academies, we want children to achieve at high levels AND we care deeply about their social and emotional development. We aim to create schools that are nurturing, joyful, and compelling AND that prepare children to excel in whatever their chosen field. I tell our principals, our true measure of success is whether children race through the door each morning and are disappointed to leave each day because school is just that compelling. Do we also want our children to score well on tests? Yes. High performance and joy are not mutually exclusive.
Eva Moskowitz
CEO and Founder