Success Academy 4: Growth
December 7, 2018
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Success Academy has grown quickly — in just 12 years, the network has gone from one school in Harlem to 47 schools across New York City. In order to do this, Success has had to hire many inexperienced teachers, and move them up the ranks quickly.
Amidst all this growth, there is a lot of pressure on the staff to continue performing at incredibly high levels. And Success has managed to keep crushing the state tests.
In episode 4 of the series, we examine how growth has changed Success for better, and for worse.
Thanks to our sponsor, Cole Haan. You can hear more of Lisa and other Gimlet hosts in conversation at ExtraordinariesOnTheMic.com, produced in partnership with Cole Haan.
Peter Leonard mixed the episode.
Thanks to our sponsor, Cole Haan. You can hear more of Lisa and other Gimlet hosts in conversation at ExtraordinariesOnTheMic.com, produced in partnership with Cole Haan.
Peter Leonard mixed the episode.
Our theme song is by Mark Philips.
Build Buildings wrote and performed our special ad music.
Additional music by Bobby Lord, Haley Shaw, Hot Moms Dot Gov, Marmoset, and Bluedot.
For a list of our sponsors and show related offer codes, go to gimlet.media/OurAdvertisers.
LISA: It was 2015, and Success Academy was growing incredibly fast nearly quadrupling in size in just four years, and in the middle of all this growth, they were continuing to crush the state tests. That year, 5 out of the 10 schools that scored highest in math across New York State were Success Academy schools. Things seemed to be going well for the school.
And then a damning document was leaked to the New York Times.
EVA: You guys ready?
LISA: The New York Times’s story was about a Success Academy elementary school principal who’d drawn up a list of 16 students he thought were behavior problems. He titled that list “got to go.”
CANDIDO: As an educator, I fell short of my commitment to all children and families at my school. And for that I’m deeply sorry.
LISA: That’s the principal, Candido Brown. He’s at a press conference that Success Academy called on the heels of the story to do some damage control. Candido is standing at a podium, flanked by his fellow Success Academy principals. They all look somber. The headline-grabbing story seemed to substantiate claims against Success Academy that it pushes out difficult students to keep its test scores up. The story was a huge blow to Success’ reputation.
Candido Brown was a new principal, put in charge of a Success Academy elementary school in Fort Greene, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. The school had already gone through two other principals in a year. The place did not represent the Success ideal of quiet classrooms and well behaved kids. It was chaotic, teachers were demoralized, and kids were defiant. Candido had worked at Success for six years but never as a principal before. He was under pressure to turn the school around. But he said drawing up the list was his own idea.
CANDIDO: I was not advised by my organization to push children out of my school. I was doing what I thought I had to do to fix a school where I would not send my own child.
LISA: Success Academy’s founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz said she shared some of the blame for what happened. But she insisted that what Candido had done did not reflect practices of the organization as a whole.
EVA: What this incident illustrates is that it is not our policy to have got-to-go lists or to push out students. One principal at one of our 34 schools had such a list, and within days, he was reprimanded and forced to end it.
LISA: Welcome to Startup. I’m Lisa Chow. How did Success Academy, which built its reputation on serving low income, black and brown kids, the ones who’d basically been written off by the system, how did that organization get to this point where a principal targeted certain kids to show them the door? One major factor is the pressure that this period of hyper-growth put on the charter school network. In four years, Success Academy had grown from 9 schools to 34 schools. Today on the show, we're going to examine how that growth changed Success… for better and for worse.
In this episode, you’re not going to hear from Candido Brown. He still works at Success, and Success declined our interview request because several families who were on the “got to go” list are suing Success Academy. Instead, we’re going to talk about the culture that Candido came up in at Success, through the stories of four people. Success wanted to portray his got-to-go list as an anomaly, not a product of their culture. But through these four stories, we'll find hints of how Candido Brown's got-to-go list came to be.
Do you remember how quiet those third graders were on the first day of school, back in episode 1?
tape of classroom
LISA: That silence is the result of Success’ system of behavioral management. For that system to work, teachers need to build strong relationships with their students. Then, on top of that foundation, teachers do three things. Step 1: Set clear expectations… even for the simplest things.
For example, when kids at Success Academy are sitting on the rug, they need to be in what’s called magic five: hands locked, feet crossed, back straight, ears listening and eyes tracking the speaker.
Step 2 is to point out when kids are following those instructions — to narrate good behavior.
TEACHER: Liam is still in magic five. Chastity is silent. Malia’s hand are locked Kalia’s hands are locked, Kalia’s eyes are right on me. Liam is sitting up straight and tall, Sam is sitting up straight and tall. Kalia is tracking Hendrick, Amari is tracking Hendrick
LISA: And, as soon as teachers see a student who’s not following the instructions, they call out the behavior. That’s Step 3: Issue corrections.
TEACHER: Colin is sitting up super tall. Eliany hands in your lap. That's a correction.
LISA: A correction is basically a warning to the student. The teacher here says it so matter of factly that you barely notice. That’s the point — discipline is woven into the fabric at Success. And if a student gets too many corrections it can land them in trouble — a timeout, a phone call home. For more serious infractions, they’re suspended.
Now a lot of people take issue with this system… Is it too rigid? Are the expectations reasonable? When you’re trying to manage 30 kids at this level, how can you possibly implement the system fairly? We'll get into some of these questions later in the episode, but first we’re going to try and understand why it exists in the first place.
EVA: We do behavior management in order to unleash the kid's intellect.
LISA: That’s Eva Moskowitz.
EVA: It's foundational. It's not the, it's not the purpose of schooling. It's just if you have big class sizes and inexperienced teachers, you want to get the behavior management down so that the teachers can focus on facilitating student centered learning. You have to have a system.
LISA: Eva said an important thing here that I want to highlight: this particular way of managing kids behavior was developed to accommodate two things: big class sizes and inexperienced teachers. Success has big class sizes because it’s more economical, and it wants to have money to spend on its soccer, dance, chess, and art programs. As for inexperienced teachers, when you’re growing really quickly, as Success is, it's almost a necessity to hire a lot of them.That’s why Success developed a step-by-step system of behavior management. It takes one of the most challenging things for new teachers, managing a roomful of kids, and standardizes it.
LISA: In 2011, four years before Candido Brown's got-to-go list became public, Success was rushing to open new schools and hiring a lot of recent college grads … people like Wintanna Abai.
Wintanna had joined Success Academy because she believed in the mission — the idea of giving poor kids access to a great education, a great school. She had an experience in college that made her realize how messed up the public school system could be for poor kids, for black and brown kids. She’d volunteered to teach an SAT prep class in a poor neighborhood in Boston. She told our producer Heather Rogers that on the first day of the class, she was hit with a harsh reality.
WINTANNA: We opened up the group talking about where our aspirations were going to go and how much the SAT mattered. And we started and it was clear that none of the kids could read. So.
HEATHER: how old were they?
WINTANNA: It was high school.
WINTANNA: Obviously I went in really passionate about helping and it was my first moment where I realized like all the efforts that I could put in it, and all of the energy that they brought... They always came every day, they were on time and excited. And it was the first realization I had that maybe it was too late to help them and that was a lot.
LISA: This experience inspired Wintanna to join the education reform movement in New York City. She first taught in one of Success’ elementary schools, as an associate teacher. But her struggle began when she became a lead teacher. It was then that she realized that she couldn’t actually manage a class, even if her students were just first graders.
WINTANNA: I was in the front of the room and not everyone was doing what I said. And then I didn't know what to do as they didn't do what I said. Because they were six and I wasn't. But it was 30 of them and just me so... it was very challenging and not just for one day. It was for months.
LISA: Kids were not paying attention to her. And no matter how much Wintanna prepared for that day’s lessons, she couldn’t seem to change that dynamic. And she kept thinking of those high school kids she’d met who couldn’t read. Wintanna took her inability to manage her class very seriously, and blamed herself.
WINTANNA: Knowing that I wasn't good, and how that was... How that would impact kids was really stressful. Because it was my job to do better every day so that they could do well. And every day that I didn't do well was just me failing them. And that felt really horrible.
LISA: Wintanna struggled to implement Success' behavioral management system. She wasn’t doing those three steps, giving clear directions, narrating kids who were following the directions, and correcting kids who weren’t. She told Heather that she stayed late at work and used all her spare energy and time to figure it out.
WINTANNA: I practiced a lot. I practiced in front of the mirror. At the time I had a boyfriend I would practice with him. I would go on the train practicing narrating because it was just so unnatural for me to say things in this way when I really just wanted to be like, alright guys, let’s do it. But that does not work, I can let you know it doesn't work.
HEATHER: So what were the things that you were practicing?
WINTANNA: Yeah. So practicing giving really clear directions. You can't just say all right come to the rug because the next thing you know they're skipping to rug or running to the rug or pretending to swim to the rug whatever it is. So you need to be really explicit. You need to say something about how they are moving, what their voice is like, what they should be thinking about as you do it. And before you consequence a kid, you want to tell them what other kids are doing so you're giving them another chance to hear those directions. So you're saying things like, Molly's hands are locked so, so and so's tracking me, so and so’s voices off. So I would go on the train and I would start practicing and saying what I saw people doing on the train. Man with the purple shirt is holding on to the pole. So-and-so is reading the newspaper. Cause I had to train myself to say like noticing where people are doing and saying what they were doing in order to get better in the classrooms.
LISA: Outside the classroom, Wintanna was practicing on the train. Inside the classroom, the principal of her school was coaching her. The principal used a pretty unusual technique, definitely not standard practice at regular public schools. She'd stand in the back of the room, while Wintanna was giving her lesson to her students, and she’d talk to Wintanna through a walkie talkie that was connected to an earpiece that Wintanna would wear. This kind of real time feedback is typical at Success. And if you think about it, it's pretty extreme … just imagine your boss talking directly into your ear as you’re trying to do your job. Stacey Gershkovich was Wintanna’s principal.
STACEY: You know we acknowledge to the kids very quickly that they were there because they see you know it's not hidden.
LISA: Stacey would direct Wintanna during times she noticed Wintanna wasn’t carrying out Success’ behavioral management system. For example, if Stacey noticed that kids were confused about what to do in the moment, she’d say “clear direction” into the walkie talkie. If Wintanna forgot to narrate the kids who were following her directions, Stacey would say “narrate.” If there were any kids still not paying attention to Wintanna, Stacey would tell Wintanna to “correct” those kids.
STACEY: And it goes on for about 20 minutes
LISA: 20 minutes of that?
STACEY: Not always but yeah 20 minutes. The beginning is usually a mess. And the goal is for them to be successful because you want to then have the conversation with them afterwards to say, So what did you notice? What did you hear me saying? How did that feel? And the goal is for them to come out of it recognizing how it felt when her kids were all listening to her for one moment. So even if you can get just one moment of that you want that teacher to experience that as soon as they see that I can do this. And here... that's all I had to do... I did that, I can do this again.
LISA: That's so interesting so 20 minutes they've followed your instruction and then they see these attentive kids.
STACEY: Yeah and you say to them, look they're all with you. They're supposed to have that moment where it's like wow this is cool.
STACEY: It's really nice when my kids listen to me. I want more of that. And then they're more open to continuing to do it. Then you go back in and you see them or not and then you have a conversation of like do you not what your kids to listen? Do you not want them to go to college?
LISA: Wow it goes all the way.
STACEY: You go deep.
LISA: Geez, that’s a lot of pressure.
STACEY: It’s a lot of pressure but you want.... You know I get it takes a teacher a while to learn but we can, right? Those kids only have first grade once. If I don't get 100 percent of my kids to be listening to me, then I'm essentially saying that it's okay if some of my kids don't learn the lesson that I'm teaching them or I'm saying that the lesson I'm teaching them is not that important and either way it's a problem right.
LISA: That's intense.
STACEY: Yeah. We’re an intense place. I think you know that about us.
LISA: 100 percent of the kids, 100 percent of the time. This is a mantra at Success. And it’s an incredibly high expectation on someone who's never taught before. Wintanna did eventually figure it out with time, practice, and a lot of coaching and support from the leaders at her school.
LISA: After two years teaching first grade, Wintanna was promoted to third grade... a grade where the stakes are higher. It's when students start taking standardized tests. Wintanna’s kids did really well on the tests. In 2015, almost all of her kids, 93 percent, passed in both math and reading, which was about three times the city average. That year Wintanna’s class was the top performing third-grade class in reading across the Success network.
WINTANNA: By far it was the most proud moment of my life. Those kids were... many of them were in my first grade class, my challenging year of being a lead teacher, so I had just grown to love them a lot and they felt incredibly confident in themselves, which is like, I think is a great thing for a child to feel. Cause I think the whole world, there are so many people that consistently make assumptions based on how they look but they actually have the confidence to know, and the data to show, what kids in Harlem can do too. It obviously connected to a much bigger picture.
LISA: Wintanna embraced the system, and it worked for her. And when it works, this is what it can look like. After five years at Success, Wintanna became a founding principal of one of the new schools that Success opened. Her quick trajectory is typical at Success, and it has everything to do with the network's rapid growth. To keep filling all the new schools with teachers and principals, Success has to keep hurling promising people up the career ladder.
But there’s a downside to people’s fast trajectories. Too much inexperience in one school can create a situation where Success' system of behavioral management breaks down. That was the situation Molly Cohen faced when she became a principal at Success. Like Wintanna, Molly came to Success out of a sense of social justice. She’d studied public policy in college, and saw education as a way to have a real impact. Molly was promoted up the chain even more quickly than Wintanna was. After just four years at Success, she was tapped to be principal of her elementary school. Instead of managing 30 kids in a classroom as a teacher, she’d be responsible for a staff of 40 and the education of some 350 elementary school kids.
LISA: How old were you when you took the role of principal?
MOLLY: I was 26 when I took over as principal.
MOLLY: Yes. I definitely had the energy to do it but I definitely had a lot of growing up to do in a really short period of time.
LISA: It was a big change for Molly. On top of that,12 of her school's most experienced teachers left the year she became principal, many taking jobs elsewhere in the growing network. So that meant Molly had to bring on new teachers — a lot who’d just graduated from college, a lot of Wintannas. And so suddenly, here Molly was: an inexperienced principal with lots of inexperienced teachers. The result, she says, was a school that sometimes felt out of control.
MOLLY: The misbehaving was becoming contagious. So kids often like flipping their desks over um, throwing a pencil, hitting each other, things like that were happening and it was really frightening because I felt really inadequate in getting my teachers to maintain peace and order in their classrooms.
LISA: The behavioral problems paralyzed Molly. During her time as a teacher, she'd never seen that level of chaos at her school before. She felt bad punishing first graders for misbehaving because she knew the teachers were inexperienced. She also blamed herself. She had so many decisions to make — and these decisions had real consequences — and as someone new to the role, she didn't always know what to do.
LISA: Take suspensions. Suspending a 6 year old multiple times could frustrate a parent and cause them to pull their kid out of the school. But not suspending a kid for, say, flipping a desk could send a signal to teachers and the other kids, that this type of behavior was OK. Molly spent a lot of time agonizing over each kid.
MOLLY: I continue to do the mental gymnastics my whole first year of being principal which was really taxing for me and really emotional. I mean my now husband was like you are a wreck. And it was what I would think about and wake up in the middle of the night about.
LISA: What would you be waking up about?
MOLLY: To be honest I think that there were some honesty trauma. Because I think I told you this, it felt like we were working in an emergency room. Also kids some kids who were in crisis. questioning, Oh should I've done this, should I have done that? Those kinds of things.
LISA: When Molly talks about kids in crisis, she said there were instances of kids banging their heads against the wall or threatening to hurt themselves, and she felt at a loss when parents refused to get their children help. What was her responsibility as a principal? Then on the matter of suspensions, if she was feeling conflicted about a decision, how could she possibly deliver the news to parents with the confidence she needed?
Several months into her first year as principal, Molly did start suspending kids — and she said the suspensions, in most cases, led to kids turning around, changing their behavior. But they also led to a few families leaving the school.
MOLLY: Some parents did take their kids out because they didn't agree with what we were doing. And I feel sad that that happened. But I mean the school is the way it is. I'm not going to change... I will never think it's OK for a child to flip over a desk and endanger people. But they were just not on board with those things.
LISA: Suspensions are a fact of life at Success in a way they aren’t at a lot of other schools. In the 2015 to 2016 school year, the latest for which numbers are available, an average of close to 10 percent of Success students were suspended. Contrast that with New York City’s regular public schools. Over that same year, only about 1 percent of students were suspended.
Molly told me that the way she built more conviction around her decision to suspend kids was thinking about the other kids … and not just the other kids in her school, but those wanting to get in to her school.
MOLLY: The waiting list at my school is like thousands and thousands of kids long. It's not fair for me to do these mental gymnastics about oh should I suspend a child for throwing a desk at their teacher or should I not when it's literally putting all of those kids in the classroom at risk and that teacher too. And I think I had to just become a lot more black and white about what is suspendable, what is not. And ultimately I had to view it around the greatest good for the greatest number.
LISA: The greatest good for the greatest number. It’s a utilitarian view that the right action is an action that produces the most good. If suspending one kid, allows for an environment where learning can happen for the 29 other kids, then it's right to suspend.
But it also runs contrary to this other value that Success shares with its teachers, 100 percent of the kids 100 percent of the time. It was a critical moment for Molly in her transition from teacher to principal, moving away from thinking about individual children and individual families to a more practical view of the whole system.
During that first year as principal, Molly met with Eva Moskowitz one on one over drinks. The principal job is one that Eva herself did, many times, in the early years of starting Success Academy. She knows how hard it can be.
MOLLY: We had had a couple glasses of Prosecco or something, like having charcuterie, And she was just like OK what is plaguing you? You know, what are your top ten concerns? And I think it had become very clear that I was very self-critical beating myself up. I knew what a good classroom and a good school looked like and I knew my school was not that, and she said something like Molly is your school better than P.S. 123 that you're co-located with?
LISA: PS 123 is the traditional public school that shares the building with Molly’s Success Academy charter school.
MOLLY: And I was like yeah but... she was like, is it better than that? And I was like yes. And she was like for this year that needs to be enough. And it was cool hearing that from her but I think in some ways that's like OK, it's true, my zoned school is PS 123. That year 0 percent of kids in third grade passed the math state test which is so easy. But Lisa, 0. And my school had 96 percent of kids that year passed the state test in third grade. So...
LISA: And that was during your hard year.
MOLLY: That was during my hard horrible year. You know so in some ways that is the bottom line. Are the schools, even if they're run by inexperienced principals and inexperienced teachers, are they better than the alternative? And almost always the answer is yes.
LISA: Molly’s now in her fourth year as principal. And she tells me things are going well. Teachers are happier… kids are more well-behaved. Suspension rates are even down. And her school looks a lot more like Success’ ideal of calm classrooms.
But the way Molly got to this point, thinking about the greatest good for the greatest number, which, by the way, is a phrase that I’ve heard from several principals at Success when defending the school’s strict discipline... this thinking can be problematic, particularly when an inexperienced principal writes up a list of 16 students under the heading got to go.
After the break, we meet two people, who after many years at Success, reject the notion of greatest good for the greatest number.
LISA: Welcome Back to Startup.
Around the time Molly Cohen had become principal of her Success Academy elementary school in Harlem, David was teaching at another Success school on the other side of New York City, in a neighborhood in Brooklyn called Prospect Heights. He came to Success with the same idealism as Wintanna and Molly.
LISA: David taught at Success Academy for five years. In his sixth year, he was looking for a new challenge and so he decided to become a special education teacher in a second grade classroom, where both general ed and special ed kids learn together. A small portion of his students had dyslexia, ADHD, and autism. But he was still expected to follow Success’ strict classroom management system, to get 100 percent of his kids to pay attention 100 of the time. The problem was, this system wasn't working for some of his kids. And worse, David didn’t know what to do about it.
DAVID: We were taught to interpret behavior in this kind of binary way of like compliance or defiance, control a very specific way. And then probably what's more important is that you're not provided the flipside of that. You're not provided how to work with the outliers in these systems.
LISA: When you say outlier, a kid who doesn’t fit into the system, are you saying that they’ll consistently disobey the rules, even if they’ve been dealt many many many consequences, it just doesn’t work?
DAVID: That’s right. There are certain kids who are smart and good and you know not abnormal, but who don't fit into these systems. And I think the fact of the matter is that those behavior management systems serve to agitate children who are volatile and who otherwise wouldn't be so disruptive but who are set off by the systems.
LISA: So not only was the system not working for some of his kids, David believed it was actually triggering them. The relentless management of how to move their bodies. The consequences which for some kids, felt incredibly punishing because they were so public. And then also, the injustice that some kids felt when they saw others get away with not locking their hands or tracking the speaker. David believed this system was pushing some kids to a breaking point.
Very early in the school year, he was in over his head. But there was no one for him to turn to for help. His school looked remarkably similar to Molly Cohen's school. There was a lot of inexperience around him — he had a first time principal, two first time assistant principals, and about half of his school’s teachers were lead teaching for the first time.
David worried that his training in Success’s behavioral management system wasn’t enough to provide for what his kids needed. He remembers one kid in particular.
DAVID: Working with him, I felt very tense. You felt like you were handling a nuclear bomb, continuously. It took a lot of psychic energy to navigate it.
LISA: David says the student was incredibly unpredictable. Sometimes he'd get upset if you praised him; other times, if you were too firm with him, he'd explode into a hysterical tantrum. David felt the weight of every decision he made with this kid.
DAVID: I remember you know we'd play Monopoly we'd play games with the kids and he would, he's playing with this one kid. And you know he just like, “No, you're cheating your cheat”. He would just get so riled up. And this other kid is like "No, I am not cheating, what are you talking about." And So then he just starts rolling back and forth and he's like "I'm not playing anymore, I'm not playing anymore". And I remember sitting down with him and being like, you know, just trying to get him to just play this game. And he just couldn't, he just couldn't.
LISA: Was there something about that moment that makes you upset?
DAVID: You really, you know I don't know. You really feel like you failed the kid. And it just makes you sad; makes you emotional. It's just so inscrutable. It's like what is setting this child off? Giving him a consequence for not playing the game correctly, clearly not going to work. Just kind of encouraging him to play the game wasn't working out moment. So like, what do you do?
LISA: It turns out, some of the student’s behavior was driven by things outside of the classroom.
DAVID: We eventually learned that he, you know, was being physically abused at home.
LISA: How did you learn about that?
DAVID: We saw you know bruises and marks. That was that was really tough.
LISA: David said the school called child services, which assigned a social worker to the kid's family. But the kid, who was 7, he kept getting in trouble at school. David said he was suspended at least 10 times. Success points out that that number is unusual — a tiny percentage of their students are suspended more than three times. Success says if a student is threatening the safety of teachers or other kids in the classroom, they’ll suspend, regardless of the student’s circumstances.
For David’s student, these suspensions had little to no effect in changing his behavior. He was an outlier in Success' system, and eventually, his mother pulled him out of Success. She did the same thing that some of the parents at Molly Cohen’s school did when she suspended their kids multiple times. I asked David about the way Molly explained her decision to suspend based on this idea of greatest good for the greatest number.
DAVID: Greatest good for the greatest number. I mean that's that's that's an upsetting thing to hear. This child wasn't at fault. Right? He's the victim of this system that fails him and yet he is punished. In addition to that the thing that makes me you know just makes my head kind of spin is that every time a child like that leaves Success, Success is rewarded. Right? When when that boy left my classroom, my data jumped up and now my ranking as a teacher jumped up right. And Success' ranking as a schools can they can say well now we get this right. But that child just went to the public school system. The one thing that always it's always bothered me is that you know when a child like that leaves he goes into the public school system, the public school system has to retain him, has to take him. And then Success turns around and says well look at this neighborhood school compared to our school. Right? Our school got 90 percent whatever, 90 percent pass rate with the neighborhood school got whatever 20 percent pass rate for example. But they've literally just dropped the scores of their of their neighborhood school and raise their own scores by pushing this child out, by failing this child right? And they they package it as if it's somehow their success and not their failure.
LISA: This idea that Success Academy might be sending some of its hardest to serve kids to the regular public schools, this is one of the main objections people have to charter schools ... that they have sorting mechanisms they use to shape their student population. Now to be fair: Many public schools in New York City shape their student populations too, some very explicitly through enrollment criteria like grades and test scores. Other schools have a more opaque admissions process. And then of course, there are the geographical boundaries, or zones, that all public elementary schools draw around themselves — to determine who they serve and who they don't. So it’s not just Success Academy that’s shaping its student body.
At Success, multiple suspensions that drive away certain families is one way they’re doing it. But occasionally, Success has to be even more direct. They have to tell the families that Success isn’t a good fit for their kids. One of the people who used to deliver that line is Violet Davenport.
Violet started at Success Academy the year it opened its very first school. She was sold on the vision: high quality education for all. She said in the beginning, she loved working at Success. The founding team was constantly discussing new ideas and experimenting with curriculum, routines, ways of teaching.
She believed in the culture of high expectations that Eva Moskowitz was building, because kids’ interests were at the center. But as Success grew rapidly, and standardized the way it did behavioral management, so that recent college grads with little to no experience with children could be brought on quickly to teach, she saw Success become increasingly inflexible and she started to have real problems with kids having to sit with their hands locked, feet crossed, backs straight, ears listening and eyes tracking the speaker.
VIOLET: Is this really moving children to want to do or be in school or learn at a high level. Yes, it creates an environment that kids can focus. But are they comfortable? Are they really exploring all they know or are they only doing what the teacher wants them to do because that is what it seems like. It may be creating what we love to say is like self discipline, but I'm not sure if that's really creating self discipline or is that just monitoring bodies.
LISA: Part of what bothered Violet, who’s black, is that it was a lot of young white teachers at Success buying into this idea that black and brown kids need to sit in magic five to learn, to pay attention.
VIOLET: if you’ve never taught anywhere else Lisa, you believe that. You believe that one black and brown kids are somewhat out of control and need this discipline to get the learning that they need. And then secondly you believe that you have to sit up straight for like anything to penetrate your brain which is a lie, right? It's a lie. If you've never done any work with children or you've never been in a school and this is what people say and you're nervous anyway about imparting knowledge on small brains, then you take that as Bible.
LISA: Violet had been working at Success as a first grade teacher for five years. Then she took on a new role, dean of students at one of Success’ Harlem schools, where she was in charge of managing kids who weren’t meeting Success’ expectations.
LISA: What was that dean of students role like for you.
VIOLET: I did not like it at all. I did not like it at all. Honestly, if I could erase it from my memory, I would. Because the amount of kids in crisis that we witnessed that year, it was heartbreaking. I can honestly say there were nights I did not sleep.
LISA: Violet said the kids who struggled the most to meet Success’ expectations, whether that was sitting in magic five, or not talking out of turn, or doing homework regularly, were typically those who weren't getting much support or guidance at home. She'd have to meet with those families, and start pushing them to think about other options.
VIOLET: I would say like it depends, if this is the place for you, or is this the education that you want for your child?
LISA: meaning you can stay and...
VIOLET: and adhere to this, or you can go. It's your choice. No one pressured you. Those things were optional. But the folding of the hands was never, or the crossing of the legs was never.
LISA: How many conversations like that did you have to have when you were dean?
VIOLET: We have several. I wouldn't say we had a lot of them. Some would silently pull kids out like you didn't have to have the conversation, they would put their kids somewhere else, and then other like, other people would work hard to figure out what was the catalyst for their child's behavior, be it they were going to bed at night or what have you, so that the child can remain at school. But the conversations that we had to have with some parents, they were hard, they were hard, to tell people if your child if you can’t get with the program, whether it was about homework or what have you, they were really difficult, because circumstances don’t always allow for people to do—to be so rigid. I may be sleeping on my cousin’s couch every night, and my mom works every evening, so do I always have the time to finish my homework before I have to hand it in? And where was the flexibility there? Sometimes there was none.
LISA: We’ve talked to several families, all at different schools, who have heard some variation of this line — “Success may not be the right setting for your child.”
LISA: In that moment did it, did it feel wrong to you to be telling parents that?
VIOLET: Yeah it felt wrong. And it, and it haunts me to this day in conversations I need to have from time to time in my current practice. I always say this is where I will not never go. I will always offer alternative and also help before we even start to think about there needs to be a different place, or this is not the organization for your child to learn. Yeah.
LISA: Violet now works at another charter school network in New York City. She says that today, when she’s got kids who have a tough time in the classroom, she pulls in people who have the skills to help, or finds outside resources for parents, and then follows up with the family as much as she can. But during that particular year at Success, she didn’t feel she had that luxury because Success was bringing on so many inexperienced people.
VIOLET: In growth and people being brand new to teaching, and not having that understanding of social and emotional development, the quick and easy thing is to just remove the child, not exhaust every resource to get the person the help they need. Because scores and competition is more important than being thoughtful around, like, how can we watch this child turn around, cause we could turn around children with some of the things that we as educators can do.
LISA: Violet says she realized that to achieve the mission of providing a high quality education for all, no matter the kid’s background, Success would have to put a lot more money behind retaining teachers and principals, hiring more social workers, something that Success wasn't doing as it scaled rapidly. And so instead, Success had just become a place that reflected the larger society that we live in ... a place where the stronger win and the weaker lose.
And all of this brings us back to Candido Brown. Candido was a star teacher, who like Wintanna, rose up the ranks quickly. He taught first grade, then fourth grade, then he became an assistant principal. His first principal job was at the Success school in Fort Greene. He’d been tapped to take over the school, which had already gone through two principals in a very short period of time and was in disarray. Like David, he probably saw kids who weren’t fitting into Success’ classroom management systems, who were outliers. Like Violet, he might have concluded that the setting just wasn’t right for these kids. And like Molly, he probably wanted to offer the greatest education possible to the greatest number of kids, the greatest good for the greatest number.
The difference is, he wrote down the names of those 16 kids and someone leaked that list to the New York Times.
Several people told me that things weren't like this at the beginning of Success. It was the growth, and the pressure to continue performing at incredibly high levels, that led to all this, which makes you wonder, could all of this have been avoided if Success had just grown more slowly?
LISA: Can I ask you Do you ever wonder if success grew too quickly?
EVA: Oh yes. My god, are you kidding? Not only do I worry, I think it did.
LISA: That’s Eva Moskowitz.
EVA: But it's sort of easy to conclude that, but what about the moral imperative of the kids who would go to a failing school? It would have been far easier to grow more slowly; would've been better for everyone, except the children who got to learn to read and got to play chess and got to be part of a wonderful community. My thought process was always go as fast as we can without screwing it up.
LISA: What did screwing it up to you mean?
EVA: Well there there are teachers who've been so unsuccessful. Not every kid every year has gotten the best teacher possible. Not every kid every year has gotten a principal who's highly effective right. That's the situation we had at Fort Greene. If I had grown more slowly, that school wouldn't have had three principals. We would have better trained teachers. But there are thousands of kids who would have been trapped in a failing school. I’m going to continue to go as fast as I can, screwing it up as little as I can, but I don't think the decisions can be made out of fear of failure. There is need. I don't regret having 47 schools serving thousands of children. I wish others would go faster so that we could solve this crisis once and for all, and I don't want it to take another 200 years if we go slow and we don't have more people in the space solving this problem, it's going to take a really long time and that will be too late for millions of children.
LISA: With rapid growth, every year Success is getting more and more kids to learn to read and do math, as measured by the state tests. The question is, how can Success be a model for national reform, if they’re not serving every type of kid, and every type of family.
Next week on Startup, we’re going to talk to some of those families who have left Success Academy.
SHERISSE: I loved Success Academy. For myself, my Malachi. I loved the teachers. They love him. They care about him. They care about his future. But they don't allow you to make a choice.
LISA: We’ll get into that on the next episode of Startup.
LISA: StartUp is hosted by me, Lisa Chow. This episode was produced by Bruce Wallace, Heather Rogers, Sindhu Gnanasambandan and Molly Messick. Editing by Sara Sarasohn and Emanuele Berry, with help from Rob Szypko, Max Gibson, Matilde Urfalino, and Caitlin Kenney. Fact checking by Michelle Harris.
Our theme song is by Mark Phillips. Build Buildings wrote and performed our special ad music. Peter Leonard mixed the episode, and composed original music for it. For full music credits, visit our website, GimletMedia.com/startup.
Special thanks to Kate Taylor, who did the original reporting on Candido Brown’s got-to-go list for the New York Times and who provided the audio of Success Academy’s press conference.
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 we’ll see you next week.
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