Success Academy 2: The Founder
November 16, 2018
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Eva Moskowitz is the founder and CEO of Success Academy, the highest performing and most controversial charter school network in New York City, and the subject of this season of StartUp. To understand Success, you have to understand Eva.
So on this episode, we go back to the beginning, looking at what got Eva interested in education in the first place, seeing the battles she fought on her way to starting Success, and watching as she opens her first schools. She cut her teeth serving on the New York City Council as chair of its Education Committee. In 2003 she did the unthinkable for a Democratic politician: she challenged the teachers’ union. The war that ensued would include protests outside her schools, parents opposing Success at local hearings, and a newly elected mayor trying to shut her down. Eva’s instinct to fight has helped keep Success Academy growing, but it has also made her a lot of enemies.
Peter Leonard mixed the episode.
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LISA: If you want to understand Success Academy, the charter school network we’re following this season, you have to understand the driving force behind it: its founder and CEO, Eva Moskowitz. So we paid a visit to the people who have known her the longest … her parents.
ANITA: Are we being recorded?
LISA: Anita and Marty Moskowitz live in a two bedroom apartment near Columbia University, not far from the home where Eva grew up. They’re in their 80s, both retired professors, and, looking through family pictures, you can tell that education was always taken very seriously in the Moskowitz household.
ANITA: Well it’s her preschool graduation.
LISA: So she’s four?
ANITA: Four-and-a-half? The photo shows her wearing a cap-and-gown. Laughs They had a real graduation ceremony, and there she is.
LISA: You can catch other, early signs of the sort of person Eva would become -- the things she would place value in.
Like with this one story Marty told us … a story which, quick warning, contains one four-letter word. It happened when Eva was in elementary school. She didn’t really get along with her teacher. And, one day, Eva arrived late to class.
MARTIN: The teacher had given out music, so Eva said, ‘Well I’d like the music.’ And she said, ‘Well we don’t have any left.’ And then some other kid came in even later and she gave that other kid a copy of the music. Eva was very very angry at that and I… I’m not going to tell you what all happened there.
LISA: Why, what happened?
ANITA: Well, Marty did something bad.
LISA: You have to finish the story.
MARTIN: Well I...
ANITA: Okay I’ll tell you. So Marty wrote a note...
LISA: The way Anita and Marty remember it… he wrote a note for Eva to keep to herself, a note to give her some comfort whenever she feeling frustrated with her teacher. And the note, it didn’t say the type of thing you’d expect a dad to write for his elementary school daughter.
ANITA: And said, “Dear Ms. Rubin, fuck you. Martin Moskowitz.”
LISA: So the note was never intended for the teacher, it was a way for you and Eva to vent anger.
ANITA: Exactly and Eva knew that.
MARTIN: But that’s not the way it played out.
LISA: The next day at school, Eva went up to her teacher.
MARTIN: She said, “I have a note for you from my father.”
ANITA: Which of course she knew was the wrong thing to do. And so Marty was called into the principal’s office and the principal said, ‘Mr. Moskowitz a fellow educator, I’m surprised at you.’ And Marty apologized to the principal, to the teacher. It was a bad thing.
MARTIN: But anyway She couldn’t forbear to not give the teacher this note.
LISA: Welcome to StartUp, I’m LC.
Feeling wronged, and fighting back-- we’ll see this over and over again with Eva Moskowitz. And because of that, that four letter word you just heard, it’ll reappear.
Last week on the show, we went inside Success Academy. It’s the highest performing and most controversial charter school network in New York. And we got a glimpse of what Success is doing differently.
Today, Success’ founder, Eva Moskowitz. She’s a lightning rod in New York City politics and the world of public education. Many people want her to fail because she’s become a fierce charter school advocate in a very liberal town. But also because she’s handed a lot of fuck you notes to a lot of people. Those notes have been an essential part of building Success Academy. But, as we’ll see, when you hand someone a fuck you note, it doesn’t end there.
Eva was raised in a family of public school believers. But she also experienced, first hand, how segregated New York City’s schools were. It was during her junior year of high school when she started to question the way the public school system was designed. She was volunteering with a group that helped Cambodian refugees resettle in the city. She'd found an apartment for one family but then had trouble finding their children a good school.
EVA: I was walking around Brooklyn, and all the schools that were good they weren’t zoned for, and all the schools that were bad, they were zoned for. I didn’t even know what a zone was. People would construct a zone to keep people out? I thought public education was equal and for all.
LISA: It was a basic and awful reality that Eva was discovering: where you live determines how good your school is… meaning if you’re poor, you only really have access to bad schools.
This unfairness in the school system stayed with her, through college and a short academic career. Then, in the 90s she got involved in local politics; she made education a main issue and won a seat on the New York City Council.
LISA: At the time, the city’s school system was among the most segregated in the country. The majority of the city’s one million public school students... weren’t reading or doing math at grade level. Only half were on track to graduate from high school on time. The picture was much better in the more affluent and whiter parts of the city.
Soon after joining the city council, Eva became chair of the council’s education committee. To improve the city's schools, she decided she first needed to understand what was actually happening in them. So she started inspecting them, one-by-one. She’d quiz the teachers, interrogate the principals, track down the custodians.
EVA: I thought that I could visit all New York City schools.
LISA: This is typical Eva -- ambitious, exhaustive, obsessive. At the time there were around 1200 schools in New York City.
EVA: I only got, and it killed me, I only got to 300 of them.
LISA: Eva was trying to understand big issues like graduation rates and math proficiency... but she started getting calls from constituents about more basic concerns.
EVA: ‘Council member Moskowitz, you’ve gotta come to our school. The toilet isn't working.’ So I started going around to all these schools. ‘Let me see. It can't be. We have custodians. We have a capital budget of billions of dollars.’ It just seemed so far-fetched. But sure enough there was not a single case where they were wrong.
LISA: Eva examined bathrooms in a few dozen schools. Today, whenever I see Eva at work, she is always dressed up in stilettos and bright, fitted dresses. When I picture her back in her city council days, leaning over toilet after toilet, giving each a test flush, this is how I picture her.
Eva estimated that as many as a third of the bathrooms in the system were broken. She told the Department of Education what she’d found. They came back to her with a plan.
EVA: They presented their whole toilet-fixing plan. And of course they want it to happen over five years and you say, ‘No no no, this can't happen over five years. This is actually an urgent schooling matter.’ It's very challenging having 500 kids and they can't use the bathroom.
LISA: The Department of Education fast-tracked the toilet plan. A few months later, they called Eva to tell her it was done -- the toilets were fixed. Eva didn’t buy it. She wanted to hold them accountable, and so she drafted fuck you note number one.
EVA: Because I don’t trust them, I would go back to the schools that I had visited, and I remember calling the head of facilities -- I was in Chinatown I’ll never forgot this -- and saying ‘This toilet problem is not solved.’ She said ‘Eva I'm telling you it's solved’ and I said I'm calling her mind you from the bathroom. I said, ‘well, what about PS dadadadada?’ She said let me look at my list. She looks really she said Eva that was finished three months ago. I said, ‘I'm standing here, the toilets do not work.’ You know, I'm sure she got off the phone and said, ‘oh my God, this woman's crazy, you know, she's going to the schools personally?’ It, you know, probably wasn't the best use of my time because I probably moved the needle 1%. And I spent hours and hours and my staff did and we tried every way to Sunday to get working toilets for kids.
LISA: A former facilities employee said the broken toilet problem wasn't as widespread as Eva describes -- and that she was often calling for enhancements, like a new flushing handle, rather than fixes.
Either way, this does make Eva seem crazy. She’s attacking the toilets with all of her might … visiting bathrooms, haranguing bureaucrats, and then revisiting bathrooms. But maybe you need that level of craziness to change a crazy system. She was about to test that theory on a much bigger level.
LISA: As Eva was touring the 300 New York City public school buildings, she started seeing things other than the broken toilets -- signs she thought pointed to larger problems in the school system.
EVA: I’d go and look at the lunchroom and it was food fights, and there was utter chaos. And there was one aide. And I would say, ‘Where are the adults?’ And they would say, ‘Oh, don’t you know, the teachers’ union contract prohibits teachers from doing lunch duty?’
LISA: The teachers’ union contract … a document that protects the interests of teachers in traditional public schools. She asked her staff to get a copy of the teachers contract, expecting something that was maybe 20 pages. But instead, it was 300 pages in length.
EVA: It was this giant document, I thought, ‘No wonder nothing works. This is madness.’
LISA: The contract was packed with rules that seemed to control every minute of the school day. And Eva saw a lot of things she believed were not in the best interest of kids. For example, that rule that kept teachers out of lunchrooms -- that was in it. And there were rules that promoted teachers based on seniority, regardless of whether they were actually good instructors.
Dan Weisberg was head of labor policy for New York City’s education department at the time, and currently serves on Success Academy’s leadership council. He says that those seniority rules meant teachers who’d been in the system a while could claim an open job at a school, without the principal having any say in it.
DAN: A principal could have somebody walk into their office on the first day of school and say, ‘Mr. or Ms. Jones, I'm here to claim your third grade teaching position. You've never met me. You didn't get to interview me. You have no idea who I am, what my qualifications are, whether I believe in your vision. But by the contract, I claim this position.’ That was it.
LISA: There were also rules on tenure. Dan says the contract basically insured teachers a job for life, if they met expectations through their first three years. That’s because the process for firing a bad teacher was long and complicated. As a result, something else would happen -- something that people called the dance of the lemons.
DAN: The dance of the lemons, where teachers who everybody in the system knew were not good would get bounced around. I know I can’t fire him or her, but i’ll convince her to transfer to a different school, and then the next principal would convince her to transfer to a different school, and they’d get bounced around the system for years and years. Those teachers were winding up predominantly in low-income communities. So the kids who most desperately needed great teachers were least likely to get ‘em.
LISA: Dan believes this is one of the main reasons schools in poor neighborhoods stay bad. Union officials disagree: they say these schools stay bad because they’re underfunded, and teacher turnover in them is actually really high. And there are all these systemic factors -- like poverty and racism -- working against these kids.
But as Eva studied the 300 page contract, she became convinced that one of the biggest reasons New York City public schools were failing, that kids were not achieving at the levels they should or could be, was that the entire system was set up to protect the adults ... not the kids.
EVA: So there were all these things that principals knew, teachers knew, it was common knowledge. But it was not common knowledge to editorial boards, to journalists, to the general public, certainly not to parents.
LISA: So Eva decided to make it common knowledge. She wanted to expose a system she thought was broken, failing at its core mission: educating children. And so, as chair of the city council’s education committee, she put together a series of high profile public hearings to reveal exactly what was in these union contracts. These hearings were her fuck you note number 2.
LISA: The hearings would make a name for Eva. She’d been fascinated by the Watergate and Iran-Contra hearings when she was younger -- those were her models. Now was her chance to grill school officials about the union contracts -- in front of city councilors, journalists, and the general public. She thought if she could get people worked up over things like the dance of the lemons, that would bring pressure to change the contracts, to build more accountability into the system.
But, this meant taking on the teacher’s union -- one of the most powerful forces in New York City politics … a huge donor to the Democratic party, with hundreds of thousands of members ready to mobilize quickly.
In the days leading up to the hearings, Eva felt under attack -- getting barraged by calls insisting that she cancel the hearings.
Mark Goldey was a lawyer on Eva’s staff; he was the main person helping her prepare for the hearings.
MARK: There was just a lot of pressure and a lot of tension in the office. And it was not a surprise, but you can know a tidal wave is coming and maybe that makes it a little better when it lands, but you’re still soaking wet and swimming against the tide. And that’s certainly what was happening.
LISA: Eva had asked several people to testify at the hearings … school principals, officials at the Department of Education, union representatives. Witnesses started cancelling on her. One principal asked for her voice to be disguised in a taped testimony.
EVA: You know my witnesses were intimidated. They got threats. I felt like I was in a Godfather movie, and I had never been in a Godfather movie before.
LISA: Eva went forward with the hearings anyway. They started on November 12, 2003.
MARK: It was in City Hall. You walk up the steps. The building has enough presence that it makes you feel like you’re going somewhere that matters. The council chamber looks kind of like a beautiful old theater. There were so many people you could not get in the door. And the place was jammed to the rafters, completely full. The hallway was overflowing.
LISA: Eva sat at the front of the room, flanked by her city council colleagues. She presided over the hearing.
EVA: Obviously I’m not blind to the controversy that has ensued as a result of holding these hearings.
LISA: The hearings lasted five days. They discussed union rules on who paints classrooms, what custodians were allowed to fix in schools, and how a school’s maintenance budget was set. The climax came when Eva took up the 300-page teachers contract. Randi Weingarten, the head of the UFT -- New York City’s teachers union -- fired back.
RANDI: If the contract really delivered the nirvana for teachers that some think it does, why aren't teachers knocking down our doors to get in? And if teaching under this contract is such a cushy job why do one in four new teachers leave within a year and 40 percent leave within three years.
LISA: In the extended back-and-forth that followed Randi’s statement, she and Eva found little common ground.
RANDI: You clearly do not believe that seniority or experience...
EVA: No, Randi, Randi, no. We’re... I'm not going to have you tell me what I believe and don't believe because we don't know each other well enough for you to ascribe views to me.
LISA: At some point during the hearing, Eva tried to nail Randi down on the part of the contract that allowed teachers to show up at a school on the first day of class and claim a job. It’s called a transfer plan.
EVA: Given the latter of the contract is it the case or is it not the case that a principal could have to accept a candidate site unseen. Is that correct or incorrect?
RANDI: Again, and I don’t mean to be a pest, but there is no UFT transfer plan. There is a plan that was negotiated starting in the mid-50s between the department of education and the UFT…
EVA: Could you answer my question? Is it the case that a principal under any circumstance could have to take a candidate without ever having interviewed them. Yes or no?
EVA: Thank you.
LISA: In the end … Eva got the media attention that she wanted. Newspapers including the New York Times devoted a lot of space to the hearings. Eva had accomplished her goal of putting the problems she found in the contracts before the public.
LISA: But actually moving the dial on them turned out to be far more difficult. When it came time to renegotiate the teachers contract, the union brought intense pressure, and the contract didn’t change nearly as much as Eva would have liked. The whole experience left her feeling pretty disillusioned.
EVA: The team I was on... the Democratic team is the team that cares about the little guy, that cares about the most vulnerable children. And instead I got shot at. I was like whoa this is different... I thought I was fighting for justice and educational access only to be told don't say anything bad about public education. That's not Eva how we do things in the Democratic Party. I mean my whole political narrative got upended.
LISA: Even today, that defeat continues to haunt her.
EVA: It still saddens me that we’ve made so little progress. And so many children are trapped in schools that don’t work on the most fundamental level. And that just makes me very sad.
LISA: Eva’s tangle with the union wasn’t over yet. They’d soon hand her another major defeat, that’s after the break.
LISA: Welcome back to StartUp.
Eva’s first major clash with the teacher’s union, the hearings in City Hall on the teacher’s contract, raised her profile in New York City. And Eva took advantage of that. She was ambitious and wanted to have a bigger impact on the city. So two years later, she decided to run for higher office... the Manhattan borough president seat.
LISA: Her campaign literature highlighted how dogged she’d been solving constituent complaints. Her tagline was “Don’t get mad; get Eva.” But her hearings had created an enemy in the teachers union, and they came out in force. Jenny Sedlis worked on Eva’s campaign.
JENNY: We would be on street corners campaigning and teachers would just shout at us from a corner. They were able to put flyers in every kid's backpack in the borough. And the reason we found that out was because Eva’s own child got a flyer in his backpack comparing his mother to Cruella DeVille. So we learned cross the union at your peril. Eva had to be taken out. That was the union's perspective.
LISA: Leo Casey was a high school teacher in New York City and a union member at the time. He now runs the research arm of a national teachers union. He says that Eva’s hearings felt like an attack on teachers … and their right to bargain collectively.
LEO: You had to fight teachers off from coming to do phone calls and walk precincts to ensure her defeat. There was no choice but to oppose her in that election.
LISA: Then the New York Times dealt her campaign a serious blow. Its editorial board endorsed her opponent, describing Eva as “smart and driven,” but “abrasive.” Eva was devastated. She lost the election by 9 percentage points . And now, she was out of a job.
She felt that all her hard work … her relentless pursuit of the broken toilets … her hearings on the union contracts … it had all been for nothing.
And then Eva got a call that would change the course of her life -- one that would give her an entirely different platform to transform public education. It came from two Wall Street investors who had followed her education work on the City Council.
JOEL: I believe Eva is as close to Superwoman as I’m ever going to meet.
JOHN: There was no one else who was a visionary like Eva and I'll probably never meet anyone like that again.
LISA: Joel Greenblatt and John Petry run hedge funds. And they’re part of a group of Democrats that started donating to education reform efforts around this time, and were active in trying to shape national policy.
They’d backed a few one-off efforts at New York schools. But they knew, a one off wasn't going to really change the public education landscape. Plus, they're business guys, so they were looking for something that was replicable, something that could scale.
JOEL: John and I think of business models and so our thought was let's create some kind of model, iterate and expand.
LISA: So they filed an application to start a charter school.
LISA: Their charter school would be nonprofit. It would still run on public money… but it wouldn’t have to follow the same rules as a traditional public school. The founders would get to decide their own curriculum, class size, how long the school day and year would be. Their teachers wouldn’t be part of a union; so they could hire and fire who they wanted to. They would have all this freedom … as long as they showed a certain level of student performance, as measured by standardized test scores.
Joel and John offered Eva the chance to lead their charter school. But they weren’t the only ones who wanted Eva’s expertise. The head of the Department of Education, a guy named Joel Klein, had also offered Eva a position. Even though she’d been a thorn in his side, she’d earned his respect, and he’d asked her to run a new teacher training program. So Eva could stick with the public education system she's spent years advocating for or abandon it altogether.
She choose the second option... to abandon it. She joined Joel and John to lead what they’d call Harlem Success Charter School --- sending the New York City Public school establishment --- one which she'd struggled to make change in --- fuck you note number 3.
LISA: Now, instead of examining the problems of an entire school system, she was actually in charge of building a school from scratch. She was on her own, and she had eight months to make it happen.
LISA: Her school, Harlem Success, would start with a kindergarten and first grade. One of its first needs? Families that would take the risk on a brand new school that had never educated a single child. Eva started flyering on street corners, knocking on doors in public housing complexes, making the rounds. Natasha Shannon, whose daughter ended up enrolling in the first year of the school, told our producer Heather Rogers about hearing Eva’s pitch.
NATASHA: Miss Moskowitz visited the Head Start program the day care that my daughter was attending and pitched the idea of a school that she was starting with no building and no teachers nothing at the time just said, “I have this vision--Your children will graduate college.”
HEATHER: But did she like have a plan like this is how we're finding teachers. This is how we're finding space. Did she tell you about that stuff?
NATASHA: No no no not at all actually. But you were taking a chance with that her vision was better than my reality. Her vision was better than the failing schools of the neighborhood.
HEATHER: What did it what was that like to hear that when your child was 4 years old?
NATASHA: To hear someone say that not only do I believe that your child is capable but I'm going to help them to get there meant everything.
LISA: Getting kids on track to finish college was one of Success’ key goals. In fact the school called its inaugural first graders the Class of 2022-- the year they’d graduate from college, not high school. Around that college promise, they envisioned a curriculum with rigorous math, science starting in kindergarten, a school day extended to fit in extracurriculars like music and chess, and parents reading to their kids every night. These were lofty goals.
Success, like other charters, was free and open to any student who applied. It had more applications than it could accommodate its first year, so the 165 kindergarten and first grade students that Success welcomed on its first day were chosen through a random lottery.
Leading up to that first day, Stacey Gershkovich, a founding teacher, remembers spending a lot of time working on bulletin boards, and skits welcoming the students … but in all of that, they’d forgotten some basic schooling things.
STACEY: The night before school started I remember sitting down with my co- teacher and saying, ‘Ok well what are we going to teach tomorrow? Like what happens at 715. 7:30, and 7:45?’ And then we didn’t have any time to talk. And so then at 5:00 p.m. we would go back upstairs and say, ‘OK well what are we going to do tomorrow?’
LISA: It quickly became apparent that, across the school, people were making it up as they went along… including Eva.
STACEY: Even well into the first year, I thought she had way more planned and experience and knowledge than she did. I don't think I knew how much she was just kind of doing... As she says, building the plane as we flew it.
EVA: The first six or seven months, it was not a great school.
LISA: It turns out that actually running a school was a lot trickier than critiquing a school system. She faced a stream of small and large crises that needed fixing before she could even start to think about what kids should be learning. Just like when, as a city councilor, she set out to improve literacy and math proficiency in schools and ended up fixing toilets.
LISA: In the first week of the new school, Eva sent John and Joel an email outlining a few of the crises she’d run into. Among the problems she outlined: bad teachers, crying teachers, students threatening teachers, parents threatening the school, spotty electricity, and milk that was frozen solid. Another problem early on?
EVA: My god there are bugs.
LISA: Bugs. Lice, bedbugs, weevils in school snacks…
EVA: And I guess I should have been ready for it but when it’s all raining down upon you, it’s not like you have three weeks in between bugs, they are coming, and parents are very upset.
LISA: While all these unforeseen crises were crawling around outside the classroom, there were causes for alarm in the classroom too. Three weeks into school, Eva was stunned to walk into a math lesson and discover that they had only gotten up to the number seven.
EVA: Most of them knew the number seven. You don’t spend three weeks on the number seven. And I gathered the teachers and I said, ‘You know doesn’t this seem idiotic?’ And they said yes! And I said, ‘Well why didn’t you tell me? You should have told me three weeks ago?’ And their response was, ‘We didn’t know we could do something about it, and what are we going to do about it?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do about it but we’re not going to stick with the number seven’.
LISA: The absurdity of it taking three weeks to get to seven -- a rate of about one number learned every two days -- made it clear to Eva that the curriculum they’d chosen to use just didn’t match her ambitions. She knew kids could do more. So they took a pretty radical step -- one fit for a startup school: they scrapped most of the curriculum, pulled from other resources, and wrote their own. So, on top of everything else they were juggling, teachers now had to start over and rebuild their lesson plans from the ground up.
As a small startup, Success was nimble and could make changes like this at lightning speed compared to traditional public schools. And for people with experience in traditional public schools, there was another thing that felt different: this was a school with resources. Paola Zalkind had spent a couple years teaching in a public school before she came to Success.
PAOLA: You could have this beautiful classroom with the books you needed to teach, and nothing was broken, and it was clean, and there was always toilet paper and paper towels and soap, and snack every day, that you didn’t buy for the children. And to this day I have no idea how the financing of all of this worked. I don’t think I want to know.
LISA: Here is how the financing worked. Each year, Success got money from the government for every student they educated. The more kids they were able to draw into their school, and away from other schools, the more money they got. They also got a couple million dollars from Joel and John, to cover startup costs and to get the school through its first year. By their third year, if everything went right, the school should be breaking even on public money… and not need any more from people like Joel and John.
So Success could move fast, they had money, and they were different in another important way: they thought a lot of schools lowered their expectations for poor kids, for black and Latino kids. Eva refused to do that. Jim Manly was an early leader at Success. He had taught for several years before coming to work for Eva, and like many of his white, middle-class colleagues, he made certain assumptions about what disadvantaged students could handle.
JIM: I would often say, ‘Well that test is too challenging’ or ‘I’m not sure we should be rushing them to read this book’. And she would just look at me and say, ‘Well, do your kids read those books?’ And then she’d say, ‘well, let’s read those books.’ There was uh talk about what we were going to do for Halloween. And a lot of the teachers said, well we shouldn’t celebrate halloween the kids bring in fake weapons and put masks on, maybe we should just have a harvest festival. And Eva just turned to me and she said, ‘Are your kids dressing up for halloween in their school?’ And I said absolutely yeah my son will be a superhero and my daughter will be a princess or whatever. And she said ‘Exactly right, kids love dressing up in costumes, they love halloween, and so let’s have a halloween parade.” And I really appreciated that. Kids are just amazingly flexible human beings and if you give them the right supports in the right environment, the sky's the limit. And Eva definitely changed my thinking in terms of the work that students could take on.
LISA: That first year, Eva kept retooling and recalibrating, and pushing her teachers to expect more from their kids. And, little by little, it started to pay off. Michele Caracappa, a first grade teacher, was working with her students on early literacy skills.
MICHELLE: We’re teaching kids the basics of decoding, and eight weeks into the program, they could all read these decodable books, ...and we’re like ‘oh my god nobody could read?’ and the parents were so excited, ‘my baby can read!’ the kids are so excited everyone’s carrying these little paper books everywhere.
LISA: As a city councilor, Eva had attacked problem after problem, from toilets to tenure, with a high-expectations, fuck-you-note relentlessness. But she made incremental progress. Now, she had built an education lab where she could direct that same energy at constantly testing and improving how much kids could learn. And, not surprisingly, she wasn’t satisfied with just one lab.
At the end of Success’ first year, she invited the press into the school. Elizabeth Green was there; she’s an education reporter who has followed Success since that first year. And she was stunned when she heard what Eva announced.
ELIZABETH: She was serving 165 students, but she had already decided that she was going to open 40 schools in a decade. That was crazy. All in New York City; all in New York city. Something that nobody had done--start a new school system from scratch and she was just on this one block of Harlem like, ‘I’m going to take over the whole city, like, it’s all going to be mine!’ Like, what?!
LISA: The desire to build an entire network of schools … to grow at this unprecedented rate … came in part from the overwhelming demand Success had seen when it opened. And, if Eva was going to make even a tiny dent in the systemic inequality that got her focused on education in the first place, she was going to have to build a lot more schools.
Eva also saw her school as being a proof-point that poor kids could achieve at the same level as rich kids, if given the right supports.
EVA: to prove that it's possible and it's not miraculous to have great schooling. And my thought was that if you had 40, at some point, the cynics would have to say, ‘Well the idealists are right.’ And the cynics would have to say uncle.
LISA: But making that case to the cynics? That was not going to be easy. The same fuck-you-note approach that was energizing Eva’s charter school crusade, would also start to throw up major roadblocks.
PROTESTORS: Eva Moskowitz must go.
LISA: That’s after this break.
LISA: Welcome back to SU. In the fall of 2008, two years after her first school had opened, Eva launched three new schools. It was the first step in Success’ 40-school expansion plan. 3600 students applied for the 600 spots at the new schools. Success took this as a clear sign that families were desperate for schools like the ones they were building.
But not everyone was eager for Eva to open more schools.
PROTEST: Eva Moskowitz must go. Eva Moskowitz must go.
LISA: People started picketing outside of these new Success schools. The protestors included union members, who opposed Eva and the non union jobs she was creating. There were also people from the neighborhood, who didn’t like the idea of charter schools coming in. The fight got even more intense, more emotional ... because of something called colocation.
LISA: Colocation is when multiple schools share space inside the same public school building. In Success’ case, that meant putting charter schools and traditional schools, Eva Moskowitz and the unions, side by side in the same building … sharing the cafeteria, gym, auditorium, and stairwells.
Success’ plan to open 40 schools in 10 years was built on the financial assumption that they could open these schools in existing public school buildings… buildings that were underutilized where student enrollment had declined. And it would save Success millions of dollars they would otherwise have to spend on renting space or building new buildings.
Of course, what on paper looked like unused space was in practice often rooms that the existing schools had found uses for -- informal meeting or counseling spaces; rooms for art, or science labs. And for resource-starved public schools, shiny new charter schools pushing them out of those spaces seemed like salt in the wound.
LISA: These issues came to a head at public hearings, where the Department of Education would hear out people’s views on Success’ new school openings -- before signing off on the colocation. In a hearing on Success’ second school, Success Academy Harlem 2, opponents and supporters filed into a school auditorium to weigh in. A woman takes the microphone.
HEARING: Let me say to Ms. Eva Markowitz, Ms Markowitz as I said to you before, folks in Harlem will not let you disrespect them.
LISA: This particular hearing was captured in a documentary film called “The Lottery”. The people in the audience are divided -- some are wearing Success Academy hats; others have on teacher union hats. Sanayi Canton lives in Harlem, and heads a local parent group that advises the city on public school policy. She says underpinning this tension between the opponents and Success … was the issue of race. Eva Moskowitz and most of Success’ staff are white. The majority of students in Harlem are black and brown.
SANAYI: We want people that look like us teaching our kids. We're not saying that all the people have to look like us but there should be a decent amount of people that look like the children you’re serving and that understand their culture. How many of those teachers that you have in those schools actually know the community.
LISA: A lot of charter schools had been moving into Harlem during this time, and to some, they felt like an attack on older public schools -- institutions that had a long history in the community.
HEARING: If you mean well, then you would not come into our community, and try to divide its neighbors. The PS 194 is here and we will not, I repeat we will not give up this fight. Build your own buildings.
LISA: For Eva, though, the issue seemed simple.
EVA: The educational needs are so so profoundly great, why are we having this discussion? Shouldn’t it be that, if there’s space, if the quality of the school is good, why wouldn’t that be a no-brainer?
LISA: To help make her case at this hearing, Eva used a tactic from her old political days. She mobilized her constituents -- Success Academy parents.
EVA: We had 500 parents who you know, ‘I live in the Martin Luther King houses here are my children 5 and 7. Why would you prevent me from going to the school?’
HEARING: She’s our Obama ok? She brought change to our kids, ok? My 13-year-old just got put in the 8th grade and my five-year-old is teaching her to read. We’re not trying to say your kids can’t come here, we’re not trying to say we don’t want your kids. We’re trying to say tell them to come talk to her, see what she’s doing bring it to your school and work together as a team.
LISA: Jim Manly, who’d discussed the halloween celebration with Eva, was principal at the school being debated. He says the meeting was intense and emotional. And even though Success faced a lot of blowback...there was one moment that also reminded him why he believed in their work.
JIM: A dad walked up with his daughter. And you know he actually lifted her up and he said, ‘Mr. Manly who is this?’ And I said her name. I wasn't sure what he was doing and then he proceeded to say, ‘I was in New York City public schools for 12 13 years. And’ sorry I get choked up but he's like, ‘no one ever knew my name. And you know this school knows my daughter and they care.’ And you know I just was it was just incredibly powerful just to hear some folks’ experiences with with public schools and what they hadn't gotten and their allegiance to what we were trying to do.
LISA: Success didn’t get space at this particular school. The Department of Education backtracked on the colocation, because of the opposition, and because of a lawsuit from the teacher’s union and the New York Civil Liberties Union. Success eventually found space in another school.
Opponents have continued to fight most of the new schools Success Academy has opened. And Eva has regularly turned Success into a political mobilizing operation -- which has helped them win a lot of those fights. Within five years, they would have 21 schools across Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx.
The thing that helped fuel that growth despite all the opposition that proved Success was onto something was the charter school network's test scores. Of their very first batch of students to take statewide standardized tests, 95% passed English and 100% passed Math. Those scores were significantly higher than the city-wide average.
ELIZABETH: Test scores are everything for a charter school leader.
LISA: Elizabeth Green was the reporter who’d covered the press conference at Success during its first year. She’s also the founder of Chalkbeat, an education news site.
ELIZABETH: They are the key to the money, ie donors. They are the key to staying open. They were the keys to the students. So test scores are everything. Laugh.
LISA: Soon, other charter school leaders were calling Success to ask how they were doing so well on their tests.
DOUG: Eva, your test scores were awesome. Can we come and figure out what you did?
LISA: Success’ incredible test scores have themselves been a sort of fuck you note from Eva -- One that she hands to the New York City public school establishment year after year.
The note basically says fuck all your excuses for why black and brown kids can’t achieve at the same level as white kids... here’s proof they can.
Next time on StartUp, we try to figure out how Success gets its scores. We go inside its test-taking machine, and see the crazy lengths the school goes to get those results.
LISA: StartUp is hosted by me, Lisa Chow. This episode was produced by Bruce Wallace, Molly Messick, Heather Rogers, and Sindhu Gnanasambandan. Editing by Sara Sarasohn and Emanuele Berry, with help from Mathilde Urfalino, Laura Morris, Kareem Maddox, Peter Bresnan, Erin Kelly, and Rob Szypko. The audio of the 2003 Education Committee hearings came from New York Public Radio Archives.
Special thanks to Madeleine Sackler who directed the documentary film “The Lottery,” and Rachel McCormick.
Our theme song is by Mark Philips. Build Buildings wrote and performed our special ad music. For full music credits, visit our website, GimletMedia.com/startup. Peter Leonard mixed the episode.
To subscribe to StartUp, go to Apple Podcasts, or whichever app you like to use. And while you’re there leave a review! Find out more about the show at GimletMedia.com. You can follow us on Twitter @podcaststartup. Thanks for listening, and before I forget, we’re taking Thanksgiving off. So we’ll see you in two weeks!
CORRECTION: We misstated Success Academy's passing rates the first year its students took the state tests, and how their scores compared to the city average. Ninety-five percent passed English and 100 percent passed math, and those scores were significantly higher than the citywide average, not double.
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