Success Academy 5: Expectations
December 14, 2018
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It’s no mystery that Success Academy has high expectations — not just for its teachers, but also for its parents and students. Having a high bar is the foundation for Success’ amazing results. But the charter network’s expectations can make life hard for families and kids who don’t quite make the mark. In this episode, we will hear from two families who ran headlong into Success Academy’s high expectations.
Peter Leonard mixed the episode.
Our theme song is by Mark Philips.
Build Buildings wrote and performed our special ad music.
Additional music by Peter Leonard, Bobby Lord, Haley Shaw, Marmoset and Bluedot.
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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.
LISA: Every spring, after Success Academy’s lottery determines the kids who get spots for the upcoming school year, Success holds welcome meetings for the kids and their families. Sometimes principals run the meetings, sometimes, like this one, they’re run by Eva Moskowitz.
EVA: Hi everyone, I’m Eva Moskowitz the founder and CEO of Success Academies. It’s very nice to meet you in this large auditorium.
LISA: Eva paces across the stage in stilettos, a fitted blue dress and leather bomber jacket, her standard attire. She's speaking to a couple hundred parents, near Success Academy Union Square. That’s one of 30 Success elementary schools offering spots to new students.
EVA: First of all, congratulations for those of you who have won the lottery.
LISA: This year Success Academy had a little over 3000 spots for about 17000 applicants. That means through a random lottery, only about one out of every six kids got a spot.
Eva tells the audience that she designed Success Academy with the hope that kids would fall in love with school. They have science labs in kindergarten, kids learning chess early on. She touts the school’s high academic standards. But she is also clear about some of the things that parents might not like.
EVA: We believe in homework. A lot of it. So if you feel really strongly that that is not something you like, you probably shouldn’t come to Success. Cause we’re going to be arguing for 12 years about homework and we’re gonna win.
LISA: Want small class sizes? We don’t have that. And, of course...
EVA: Tests. Anyone against tests? Anyone want to be part of the opt-out movement? Great, thank you for your honesty. Success is not the place for you.
LISA: Success is not the place for you. Parents start hearing that line early on. Eva makes it clear at this meeting that they’ll expect a lot of parents.
EVA: We’re very very strict on kids getting to school on time. School starts August 20th and you must be here the first day of school, no exceptions. We expect at a minimum for you to return our phone calls. I had a parent who was refusing to meet with the principal. God forbid. No no no no no.
LISA: Welcome to SU, I’m Lisa Chow. Depending on where a parent sits, Eva’s introduction to Success could sound energizing, and inspiring — equal to the aspirations they have for their kid. Or it could sound like a warning — we’re intense, we ask a lot, we’re not flexible, maybe you should consider other options.
Success' expectations can mean the charter school network sheds less able families and lower performing kids. And that's exactly what riles its critics. They believe that schools like Success Academy draw the more stable families from poor communities and further concentrate the hardest to serve kids in neighborhood public schools. Later in the episode, we'll visit one of those public schools. But first, we hear from two families who ran headlong into Success Academy’s high expectations.
Jo-Laine Duke Collins actually started hearing about Success Academy at work. She works for the New York City Department of Education. She read up on Success, and liked how rigorous and focused on student achievement it was. It was really different than the public school in her neighborhood, where the vast majority of kids were failing state tests in reading and math.
When her older daughter Nia won a kindergarten spot at Success, she was relieved. Nia started at Success in 2012, and Jo-Laine says Nia loved it.
JO-LAINE: She wanted to go to school every day. Oh my God. Mommy. I'm sick. I know I have 104 degree but I promise you I'll be okay. I'll promise you. She got her bag every day. She did her homework. And she was performing very well. So I'm like, “This is working!”
LISA: Jo-Laine liked that she could text Nia’s teachers any time, day or night, and they’d respond. And while it was the school’s academic rigor that initially hooked her, she also liked that the school wasn't just homework and tests. There was a room dedicated to block play for kindergarteners. There were lots of dance parties. Then, there were the field trips.
JO-LAINE: They had me at the trips. My daughters will call me. Hey mom I went to MOMA today. The trips were the most exciting part of the week. They had different performers coming to the school to talk to... so you know whereas when I was in middle school we had the fire department come in and that was the highlight of the year. Now you have the of the head of MOMA talk about color patterns and pantone color of the year and I am like this is amazing.
LISA: Nia was thriving during her first years at Success. But things started to change toward the end of elementary school. By fourth grade, Nia was feeling anxiety about taking the state tests. She didn’t wake up excited about school anymore. In fact she started to dread it.
JO-LAINE: It was a lot of frustration, anxiousness. Her not wanting to wake up and go to school. And crying a lot.
LISA: Still, Nia passed the state tests in both math and reading, in third grade, and then again in fourth. Last year, Nia started fifth grade at a brand new Success Academy middle school and got into a class that seemed to bring back some of the joy of the early years of Success.
JO-LAINE: She was taking step classes. She was so excited
NIA: And when you’re stepping you have to be really energetic and you have to stomp really hard so everyone can hear you.
LISA: That’s Nia, who’s 11.
JO-LAINE: All you’re hearing is this from her room, Right? And she’s like, "Mom, this is it, I found my thing, I’m so excited about it."
LISA: Nia told me that when she grows up, she wants to be a dancer — maybe a dance teacher. Jo-Laine said that this step class made Nia feel better about school in general. But then, even the step class started to stress her out. She thought the teachers didn’t like her. She ended up getting a poor grade in the class.
Throughout the fall, Success was telling Jo-Laine that Nia was struggling. In her first trimester, she had a GPA of 69 on a 100 point scale. Early in the new year, before Nia’s second trimester grades were out, Jo-Laine got a call from Success.
JO-LAINE: They didn't tell me what for, just said please come to school.
LISA: Jo-Laine brought Nia into the meeting with her advisor.
JO-LAINE: We sit down and he says to me, you know, Miss Duke Collins, I'm gonna be very honest with you. Um, there is a high chance that Nia will not be promoted to the sixth grade. I will never forget the look on my daughter's face. She immediately started bawling. I said Nia mommy's asking you to excuse yourself immediately from this room right now go sit in the hallway, I'll come outside in a few.
NIA: And I just went on the hallway floor by the door and I just started holding my hands on my head thinking about I’m not smart enough, now I can’t say I'm not dumb. And I just imagine people are going to laugh at me.
LISA: Nia says she felt heartbroken. And for Jo-Laine, the thought of Nia having to repeat a grade was scary; and she really didn’t want it to happen.
This news that Jo-Laine got, it’s not so uncommon — hundreds of families at Success get it every year. Jo-Laine knew Nia’s grades had slipped, she’d been getting calls about it, but she said no one from Success had ever made Nia’s repeating a grade seem this likely. And she was upset that they’d bring it up in front of her daughter.
JO-LAINE: I got up and I closed the door and I said, how dare you start that conversation like that with her. This is a conversation for you and I. Well, he's like, yeah well, we like to have the students in the room because we want them to understand the consequences of their actions and what will happen when they don't apply themselves to work. Girl, all of my … my good education my articulateness, my religion, everything almost left the door because I am like Mama Bear has entered the building. I tried to play nice, but I really feel like I'm in some type of cult. Like, I'm like I am going to absolutely lose my mind if you don't get it together right now.
LISA: Nia’s advisor tried to explain — he pulled out a report on his laptop and started going through Nia’s performance. Jo-Laine just saw rows and rows of numbers on a spreadsheet. She says it was too much information to digest at once. Her mind was stuck on the possibility of her daughter having to repeat a grade. The advisor told her they’d work out a plan to get Nia back on track, and the meeting ended. She met Nia in the hallway outside the office.
JO-LAINE: So I get to the door and she’s so afraid. And she looks at me and she buries her head into my chest and she's like I am so sorry Mommy. I am so sorry. I tried. I promise I tried. I'm like, Nia, you didn't do anything to me. I promise you didn't do anything to mommy. You’re gonna get up get your book bag go to school. You're not going to get left back. Today and for the next couple of months you going to come here you're going to show up every day and you're going to get this work done every day. And I promise you you'll go to the sixth grade.
LISA: Jo-Laine checked in with the school about the academic plan they were going to put together for Nia. She says she never received it. Success disputes this, they say they shared a plan for Nia, but Jo-Laine declined to sign it.
Jo-Laine was determined to do everything in her power to get Nia’s grades up, and keep her from having to be held back. She checked homework and reading logs, got Nia a private tutor. She monitored Nia’s grades.
With all the work they were doing, Nia started making real progress. Her GPA went from a 69 her first trimester to an 80 in her second. But when she followed up with Nia’s principal, the principal told her that Nia was still way behind most of her classmates.
JO-LAINE: She's like, Yes, ma'am the bottom 5% through your daughter is you need to understand that. And this might not be the right school for her. I’m gonna be honest with you. I'm like, whoa.
LISA: How did you feel hearing that?
JO-LAINE: Humiliated. I felt confused. Maybe she is academically challenged, like am I missing something? Does my child have a learning disability? And in the same token, she also made this comment that stood out to me. She goes, even if Nia scored a 4 on the ELA and a 4 in the math, I don't know if I would promote her.
LISA: What she’s talking about there — 4s on ELA and math — those are the highest scores on the state tests. Success’ expectations seemed like a constantly moving target. Nia had gotten her GPA up to an 80 in the three months since that meeting with the advisor, that felt like a victory. But hearing that if Nia got 4s on the state tests, it still might not be enough…that was confusing to Jo-Laine.
Why didn’t a school so focused on data have a clear bright line between advancing, and repeating a grade?
Success Academy defends this, though, saying retention decisions aren't just based on GPA or state tests. These decisions are case-by-case evaluations of what’s in the best interest of the student.
JAVERIA: This is not an administrator sitting in an office going through a Rolodex of kids with a bunch of numbers.
LISA: Javeria Khan is Managing Director of Schools at Success. She said these types of conversations with families are really hard to have.
JAVERIA: It’s not easy, parents are upset and kids get upset, and there’s a lot of good reasons not to do it. But there are a lot of good reasons to do it. We don’t want to pass along kids who are not prepared.
LISA: Javeria says a kid who’s struggling in 5th grade, is only going to be struggling more in 6th grade. And she believes that repeating a grade can actually improve a kids confidence. They can go from struggling to mastering, and start to feel academically successful. She says Success doesn't have hard and fast rules about who gets held back because these decisions are complicated.
JAVERIA: There’s no quota. We're not like, ‘You got to do your....Whoever the bottom three percent are that’s the one…’ it’s so much more personal than that. We know the kid, we’ve studied the work, we’ve talked to mom. We’ve set that really clear expectation of like, ‘This is not looking good. And these are the things we’re gonna to do to get them on a better path, within reason.’ This is where holdovers burn… Oh my god you are telling me it’s a possibility, ok I am going to kick my butt into action, typically what we see is one or two good upticks from that meeting or from that idea, hey this is on the table. But the year is long, a lot of work and tests, and just rarely have we seen it be a a long term true change in behavior to get the kid where they want.
LISA: And ultimately Success decided Nia Collins wasn’t where they wanted her to be. At the beginning of May, Jo-Laine got an email from Nia’s principal. “Nia’s outcomes do not meet grade level expectations. Therefore, Nia will remain in 5th grade for an additional year.” It continued, “In the new school year, Nia will need your support, and we expect you to invest at a high level.”
That same day, Jo-Laine met with the school's principal to make a final appeal to her that Nia shouldn’t be held back. This time, she recorded the conversation on her phone. And as you’ll hear, Jo-Laine is pretty upset.
JO-LAINE: So I guess my question is, so this is a final decision? This is a final decision?
JO-LAINE: And I cannot appeal this process at all?
JO-LAINE: I cannot talk to anybody else about this process?
PRINCIPAL: If you would like to talk to someone you can reach out to the network.
JO-LAINE: Who, who in the network?
PRINCIPAL: You can just call the general number.
JO-LAINE: I don't get anyone when I call that general number. Why are you doing this to my daughter? You know that she is a bright kid, you know she has potential. You know she does.
PRINCIPAL: Of course.
LISA: Of course she has potential, the principal says. And she notes the improvement Nia had made by the second trimester.
PRINCIPAL: She was at a 77 and we said if she continued going in that direction, she continued doing her homework, she continued really applying herself in class, then we could possibly promote her to the sixth grade.
LISA: Nia’s GPA had jumped from 69 to 80, and her grades for participation had trended up too. Jo-Laine asks where Nia would have needed to get.
JO-LAINE: So what is the passing GPA to be promoted?
PRINCIPAL: There is no passing GPA.
JO-LAINE: There isn’t a passing GPA, it’s so much ambiguity. How do I know how my kid is succeeding?
LISA: The principal points out that these decisions are not just about GPA — they consider a lot of factors. She says Nia doesn’t have the work habits to succeed in the sixth grade.
PRINCIPAL: So ultimately the issue is that she does not have independent work habits that she needs to be successful next year in a tougher grade with a more rigorous curriculum. Good habits of working, so like asking questions, trying hard, going back revising your work.
LISA: At some point during the back-and-forth, Jo-Laine gets more frustrated.
JO-LAINE: I have it in text message, ok, and in emails.
PRINCIPAL: Please don’t talk to me like that.
LISA: The principal says the conversation is no longer productive and asks her to leave.
JO-LAINE: I’m not leaving until we finish talking about... I do not agree with your decision.
LISA: Jo-Laine starts to say something to an assistant principal who’s also in the room.
PRINCIPAL: You’re not speaking to my assistant principal, this is my school to be clear.
JO-LAINE: Who are you talking to?
PRINCIPAL: I’m talking to you.
JO-LAINE: I am not speaking to you. You just told me I may not speak, I’m not, no.
PRINCIPAL: I’m done.
JO-LAINE: You cannot tell me I cannot speak to this woman here and that you’re going to call security on me.
PRINCIPAL: I will call security on you.
LISA: The principal calls security, and Jo-Laine is escorted out of the building.
JO-LAINE: and I left and i cried like a baby. I let out this howl when I left the building.
LISA: Jo-Laine said she felt defeated. All the opportunities she thought Nia would have because she won the lottery and got into Success were now disappearing. That’s because, if Nia was going to be held back, Jo-Laine wanted to take her out of Success when the year ended, even though the school had been Nia’s world since she was 5 years old.
what was the conversation with Nia that night?
JO-LAINE: You know Nia, things are going to be different. Same thing, same routine conversation, you got to go to school every day and do your best. Mommy has to be very honest with you. We need to try a new school. I don't think Success Academy is healthy for you. And she cried. Silent silent tears. And she's like, ‘I'm going to miss my friends. This is all I know. I'm a little afraid of public school. But it's okay Mommy.’ And that changed everything for me. I remember sitting on her bed and she's like 'Mommy it's OK. You know I just want to be happy.'
LISA: While Jo-Laine was fighting to get Success to promote Nia to the next grade, she had also applied to several middle schools, as backups. And Nia had been accepted into a public school. It’s a selective one. Students have to have good marks and test scores from fourth grade to get in.
JO-LAINE: So I have the acceptance letter. And the first paragraph says, congratulations Nia, we want you to know that you were specifically chosen for this school for your academic achievement, thousands of kids applied to star academy and you were one of the 60. She was like 'me? Oh my god, me mommy?' and I am like 'you', and I could honestly say with all confidence, it wasn't a lottery, it was like we chose you, we want you.
LISA: In Nia’s final report card, which she got in June, after the decision to hold her back had already been made, her GPA had gone up another few points to an 83. A few months later, she got her state test scores for fifth grade. Top scores again, fours on both.
I sat down with the principal and school manager for Nia’s school, to talk about the decision to hold Nia back, and pretty quickly I understood what Jo-Laine was up against. First they told me it wasn’t just about GPA, Nia needed to show more effort in class and on homework. Then they said the true measure of success was her scores on her exams. Here’s Javeria again, the school manager.
JAVERIA: She ended up getting on her math final like a 54. It was over 80 percent of the kids in the grade passed that exam. It was the third lowest in her classroom. So it was an outlier assessment.
LISA: I saw this exam on Nia’s report card. Her mom showed it to me. But on that very same report card, it says that the exam only made up 20 percent of Nia’s total grade in the class. Her final math grade was an 80.
I'm speaking as a parent you know a right. I'm just saying from a parent's perspective, if if this final is so important to passing the grade, why is it weighted at 20 percent? And I hear what you're saying about the work habits. But if you're going to say that this is the thing that, this number is the reason she didn't go on to the next grade then this should not be weighted at 20 percent.
JAVERIA: Yeah I mean listen I think, I think there's a lot of, I think there's a lot of, a lot of things at play and we are trying to juggle them all.
LISA: The school’s principal, Asha Woldemarian, said the report cards aren’t everything they’re looking at.
ASHA: I really don't think that that tells a full story but you know I do want to assure you that we communicated heavily. That is what we do. We do really believe that parents are our partners and that we need to work with them make sure that our scholars are set up for success. so as early as August 23rd of last year we were calling saying hey you know she's missing parts of the summer homework. So I understand how on paper it can look one way but you know, we do ultimately always have the best interests of the child in mind.
LISA: What Asha’s basically saying here is "trust us". As a parent, I can see how that would be really hard to hear, especially when it’s your kid’s future that’s on the line. Asha says telling a family their kid needs to repeat a grade is hard; she'd rather not do it. But she doesn’t want to pass a kid along to the next grade who isn’t prepared for the work. And, she says she’s thinking about college, and how the kid will do there. She points to her own experience. Asha went to some of the city’s best public schools, including Stuyvesant, a selective high school.
ASHA: I'm from Brooklyn. I grew up in a single mother home. And even though I went to Stuyvesant, I went off to USC and was on academic probation with my first year and a half. And while I you know did well prior to college when I got to college I didn't have the right work habits. I didn't understand what it meant to sit down and really study and you know do your work well in advance and not try to do it the night before and pull the all nighter. I come at this from from that perspective. I want every single one of my students to be successful. And while I understand that it's not easy to hear that your child is being held over, it is done with the best of intentions. We do want the kid to be successful.
LISA: I showed Nia’s report cards to two former Success middle school principals, and both were surprised she’d been held back. The fact that Nia, with a climbing GPA and highest possible scores on the state english and math tests, would be considered at the bottom of her class, made me wonder how realistic the school’s standards for promotion are. I asked school manager Javeria Khan about this.
LISA: Do you think there’s such a thing as a bar that's too high?
JAVERIA: For whom?
LISA: For kids at Success.
JAVERIA: Well see I think when people ask that question and I'm not saying you are. So please. I think when people say we're too hard and we're too rigorous I always ask is that because we run schools in poor neighborhoods? Do you mean is it too hard for poor neighborhoods? Because rich white kids are doing this all day and they're paying for it.
LISA: It is a question you have to ask. Where is the bar? It seems like a very legitimate appropriate question to really think through.
JAVERIA: I do often think when that questions comes up... And by the way I wish we can control the bar but the bar often is determined by really elite colleges who get their kids great jobs.
LISA: Javeria tells me that Success Academy is trying to set its academic standards so that all students are on track to complete college in four years. Success says about 10 percent of its students get held back every year. And half of those students end up leaving Success. When their alternative, their zoned traditional public school, is willing to take them at the next grade, that can seem like the more attractive option for families.
LISA: Do you worry about like the kids who are leaving because they were held over.
JAVERIA: I guess worry about that meaning... I guess that's a thing, like do we think we're doing something wrong and that's why they're leaving? like do we are we too rigid and too difficult and too painful of a schools so we're pissing people off and they're leaving? No I don't. I mean I think I think…
LISA: Or just even studying like why kids leave? Like you know I’ve spoken to other charter school networks that are studying the kids who leave and really trying to understand that.
JAVERIA: I mean we can't, we're not a prison we can not make anyone sign up to do things they don't want to do. And so that's why I asked like is the issue should we ease our design in any way to keep more people is like I think where you're headed in that question, which is no, we don't want kids to come any later to school. We are going to continue to ask for them to wear a uniform. We are going to be rigorous. We are not going to willy nilly promote kids because it feels good.
LISA: Success doesn't buy into the practice of social promotion — moving kids up through grades to keep them with their age group. The charter school network believes that promotion should be based on achievement. And in many ways, their position makes sense. You don’t want someone to graduate from high school, not being able to read an elementary school text. And yet by sticking to extremely high standards for kids, Success is, in effect, sending a lot of families to the same schools it says it’s saving them from.
This very thing started worrying Jim Manly when he was a principal at Success. You heard from him in an earlier episode. He’s now the New York City head of KIPP, a nationwide charter school network with a model similar to Success.
JIM: For me, keeping parents and keeping students is a priority so I want to make decisions that increase the likelihood that folks won’t leave. I do believe a lot in remediation and giving kids additional help and support, but I don't know that actually holding them back from a grade is generally the best answer.
LISA: Jim is well aware of the problems with promoting a kid into a grade they’re not ready for — they can fall farther behind each year. But he also sees how retention can actually work against the goal of setting kids up for college.
JIM: Those impacts. Sometimes we don't see them all but when they're 8 or nine years old and holding them over seems like the right thing because they're behind. But when you get to see them when they're 18 and 19 and 20, those students were really clearly not that engaged in school anymore. Most of their friends are doing other things and the likelihood that they may enroll in college goes down. And so if we can find another way to remediate, we should be creative about it as best we can.
LISA: After weighing all this, Jim decided that, with very few exceptions, his KIPP schools wouldn’t hold students back after the second grade. He thinks the cost of losing kids is too high, for the school and the kid.
Jim and Eva Moskowitz are motivated by the same goal: closing the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and students with means. But if Success’ pursuit of high standards means shedding students, then it’s narrowing the range of kids it gets across that achievement gap.
After the break, we see the view from the far side of that gap. We go to a traditional public school — the sort that Eva’s always warning about — and ask why its test scores are so low.
And we catch up with the mom we heard from in the first episode, who thought Success was going to be the key to a better future for her son.
LISA: Welcome back to StartUp. Sherisse Torrence became a Success Academy parent two years ago. She’s the mom we heard from in the first episode, who went to New York City public schools all her life. She had entered her son Malachi in Success’ lottery, thinking the charter school could help him have a better, more stable life than she’d had growing up. And then, she got a phone call.
SHERISSE: I remember coming home and it was the evening and someone called me. Said this is I don’t remember who from Success Academy and Malachi has been accepted. I was just like, oh my god. Thanks you so much! I’m so excited. I was just so happy. I was totally in tears. I can remember... I’m getting emotional now. I can remember. I was so happy that now my son can actually be part of something that has a history of performing in which I know that he’s learning, that his foundation is gonna be strong. I said he really, finally he has a chance.
LISA: This past August, in Malachi’s first week in the third grade at Success, Sherisse got another call.
SHERISSE: I get a call from a new employee at Success Academy and she said we think that he needs to be put in the second grade. I think everything after that became like another language.
LISA: Sherisse was upset. Success thought her son needed to repeat second grade. She knew Malachi had some low scores the previous year, and the school warned he might be held back. But, after talking it over with Sherisse, they agreed they would move him to third grade, with some conditions. They gave Sherisse extra work to do with him over the summer. And she and Malachi finished half of it. But Sherisse said she couldn’t help him with the math work because Success, like many schools, teaches math in a way that was really different from the way she’d learned. Then he failed an assessment they gave him on the first day of school in August. Sherisse was really torn about what to do, because she was a big fan of Success.
SHERISSE: I loved Success Academy for myself, for 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. It's like these are no choices. This is it, and you could take it or leave it. I just felt crushed like I honestly felt like somebody just dropped a bomb on me
LISA: Sherisse acknowledges that, when she was going to New York City public schools, she was promoted up through grades when maybe she shouldn’t have been. But even so, she really didn’t want Malachi to do second grade again. She thought it would be embarrassing for him, and she felt like he had worked really hard, and he didn’t need to be held back. The academic expectations that she grew up with, yes they were low, but she believed what Success asked of its kids, and the time and energy it expected its families to put in, was just too much.
SHERISSE: It's very easy for Success Academy way of education seeping into every single part of your life. It becomes your life.
LISA: She is a single working mom, raising her son on her own. So Sherisse pulled Malachi out. The first schools she visited seemed like bad schools to Sherisse. Some wouldn’t take him because he wasn’t in their zone. That’s why she was out in the heat, headed to another school. Malachi was with her.
SHERISSE: There was a heat wave one day, it was like 102 degrees. And I literally was crying on the corner of Beverley road and Ocean avenue. This had to be at least the fourth school that I went to, trying to enroll my son. And he has his button down shirt on. I have him in his khaki pants because I want him to look bright eyed and clean. And I was like be sharp when they ask you your name, you make sure you tell them it’s.... I'm so upset. Make sure you tell them really nice and strong, It’s Malachi Mussington. If they ask you how old you are, you tell them. I said you know your birthday. You know your address. And I'm coaching him. I hate this world sometime that we live in, you know. Because this sort of rejection that Success Academy sets up for some of these students. And I’m walking him from school to school and I'm just like Malachi, there's nothing wrong with you. And I'm coaching him on every corner and then he's like, I got it I got it. And in that moment I just wanted him to know that he can rise above. Like, they’re not better than you and you're not better than them. We just going to turn the corner. We're just going to do this differently. That's it. You understand? If that's how they do it, that's... it's not a judgment. That's how they do it, it doesn't work for us. And we gotta know when to sever ties and to move on.
LISA: Sherisse eventually found Malachi a spot in a school where she’d been a substitute teacher. She says he’s still getting used to it. She wishes he were still at Success, but only if he could be in the third grade. We spoke to Malachi's principal from Success, and she said Malachi was really struggling with some of the material in second grade, in spite of all his efforts, and she wanted him to feel successful, to feel confident. She didn’t think that would happen if he went on to third grade.
LISA: Sherisse feels some guilt about what happened at Success — maybe she could have done more to help Malachi. And that’s the thing: when you rise above background, circumstances, whatever it is, and meet Success’ expectations, it can feel empowering. But it can also feel crummy when you don’t.
A lot of families who leave Success, whether it’s because they were asked to repeat a grade, or were getting suspended, or just had had enough of Success’ inflexibility … a lot of those families go back into the traditional public school system, a system that Eva Moskowitz says is failing.
EVA: Rome is burning. The place is on fire. Kids are trapped in schools where they will never learn to read.
LISA: We decided to pay a visit to one of these schools — one of the public school boogeymen that Eva points to as the grim alternative to Success. This one’s called Public School 536, or PS 536. It’s in the Bronx. Just over 20 percent passed the state’s reading and math tests last spring. That’s about half of the citywide average, which in turn is less than half of where Success Academy scores.
JESSE: Good morning guys, good morning, good morning. Good morning Amir. Good morning Samira. Good morning Franchalese. Buenos Dias.
LISA: Every morning, the school’s principal, Jesse Yarbrough, stands outside in a little courtyard, welcoming a stream of students being dropped off by their parents. Similar to Success Academy principals, Jesse knows most of the school’s 420 students by name.
The kids streaming inside Jesse’s school have some significant differences from those at the Success Academy school that’s a mile away. A lot of them are first generation immigrants — from the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Bangladesh. The school has four times the number of kids for whom English is a second language. It has almost double the number of kids who are homeless..
After arrival, Jesse takes us around his school.
JESSE: This is our school…
LISA: The school doesn’t look all that different from a Success Academy school. The walls are vibrant, with Dr. Seuss quotes graffitied on them by local artists. Students are in uniform. There’s even a new 3D printer — part of a science and engineering effort at the school. After we sit down, I ask Jesse what he thinks about his school’s low test scores.
JESSE: it’s not good, it’s not good enough.
LISA: This is Jesse’s second year as principal of the school, which had a reboot several years ago. He says there are many factors that contribute to the scores, some that he and Eva Moskowitz might agree on. For one, he says it’s too hard to get rid of underperforming teachers.
JESSE: The teachers have a union. I have a union but the students don't and so it's my job to really stand up for them. And that causes me to have a lot of difficult conversations with teachers. So just this morning I had a conversation with a teacher where I teach you who as tenure and I said, I don't think that this is any longer a good fit for you here in the school and I want you to go apply to a different school because it's not working out here.
LISA: and how did she respond in that conversation?
JESSE: She said she's going to look for another job. Yeah, so good. Like it gets hard, when teachers have tenure, we can't just fire them. And so we have to come up with other ways to put pressure on them to encourage them to find another position.
LISA: The teacher Jesse is talking about was one of four underperforming teachers who left at the end of the school year. In fact, he hired a former Success Academy assistant principal to replace one of them. Jesse believes a good teacher in every classroom is really what moves a school and so he’s trying to do everything he can to make sure that happens.
Another thing slowing down his school is outdated technology. Jesse uses an incredibly clunky data system run by the Department of Education. It’s called ATS.
JESSE: It stands for automate the schools and it’s been around forever. It's this old like black and green screen. It feels like you're like back in 1994 when you... like it's dial up internet and you're like going on to check your AOL account. It's so old school.
LISA: This machine contains lots of data… students’ biographical data, performance data, attendance data... every class a student has taken. Very important stuff. But the thing is nearly impossible to navigate. Jesse says that generally, in a given school, there’s only one special somebody who knows how to use the thing and at his school, that person is not him.
JESSE: Like I have no I have a lot on but like there's no way I could print a single report.
LISA: It’s miles away from the real time data Success Academy principals have at their fingertips. Jesse deals with a lot of bureaucracy too… lots of “mandatory” emails and forms that can suck up his time. He has to fight to keep the office work from becoming a full-time job, and stay focused on what he thinks is most important for kids: good instruction.
JESSE: I spend the majority of my day in the classrooms and I always give feedback to teachers about ways they can structure their lessons a little bit better to maximize learning for all their students. Cause if you see something that’s not up to standard and you don’t say anything, then you set a new standard.
LISA: But there are also contributing factors that Jesse and Eva might not agree on. For example, to Jesse, poverty has huge implications for his students. The vast majority — more than 90 percent of his students — are eligible for free or reduced lunch.
Eva thinks that great and rigorous teaching can counteract what’s happening outside of the classroom — poverty shouldn’t be an excuse. But Jesse doesn’t want to ignore the things going on in his students’ lives that could distract them or weigh them down.
JESSE: While we are focused on improving those scores, that's not our biggest concern. When sixty five students out of four hundred and twenty are homeless we want to make sure that they're being supported the best that we can socially and emotionally and that they feel like they have a home here because they don't have another one.
LISA: On one of the days we visited Jesse’s school, in June, he and his staff were welcoming new families to the school. We head inside for a kindergarten orientation for parents whose children will be starting in the fall. Things kick off with a few performances.
KIDS: Today, I saw a rainbow in the rain.
LISA: The students raise both hands from the middle out to the side in the universal kid mime for rainbows. It’s pretty cute. Then, Jesse steps up, and welcomes everyone.
JESSE: We’re so happy to have you here in the school; we can’t wait to get to know your child.
LISA: He introduces parents to the school’s values.
JESSE: Our first promise is you can click to the next slide. So love. We promise to love and care for your child and get to know them as unique individuals and support them in the best way that we can.
LISA: Jesse also pledges to keep their children safe, and to make sure that they are learning to the best of their abilities.
JESSE: So how do those three promises sound. Sound good? We’re going to ask for a few promises from you to us.
LISA: He lets parents know the school doesn’t give homework — they got rid of it last year. He points to a growing body of research that questions its usefulness, particularly for elementary school kids. But he asks them to make sure learning happens after the school day ends — to read to their kids 20 minutes a day, and to find other teaching moments. He also asks parents to stay in touch with the school, and to get their kids there unless the kid has a fever. Jesse runs through his expectations in two minutes. Eva does hers in 16 minutes.
JESSE: Thank you guys for being here, can’t wait to see your kids in the fall.
LISA: The expectations Jesse lays on parents are much lighter than at Success, and the expectations on kids are less intense too. Academically, Jesse says about 6 percent of his students are held back every year. In kindergarten through second grade, decisions are based on the student’s attendance and progress. In the upper grades, they’re based on state tests and student work. And summer school gives kids an opportunity to avoid repeating a grade, altogether.
LISA: Jesse’s expectations on how kids behave in the classroom come from an entirely different place too. There is nothing like Success’ magic-five — expecting students to sit locked in still attention throughout class. For kids who act up, teachers are supposed to help them make step-by-step improvements. Jesse describes their approach to guiding kids behavior as a bullseye. At the middle is ideal classroom behavior — sitting, focused, materials ready. For kids on the outer rings, they bring them towards the middle, one step at a time.
JESSE: We have a fifth grade student who is new to us and the first couple of days of school he was walking around the room and shouting or yelling while the teachers trying to teach and he would shout louder if the teacher gave him attention so we learned it was attention seeking behavior. And so our first step for him is right now he's walking around the room and yelling, let's see if we can get him to walk around the room without yelling.
LISA: One circle closer to the bullseye. Next, they asked him to stop moving around the classroom. He can stand up by his desk; he can sit in a beanbag chair over on the side of the room. They notice he tends to act up more in math class, so they give him strategies for coping with that frustration. They learn that he sees his parents fighting a lot, so they work with the family on that. One thing they rarely do? Kick the student out of class. Jesse has suspended one student in his two years as principal. The Success school down the street suspended 32 students in the 2015/16 school year, the last one for which data is available.
JESSE: Students are here in school to learn, and the learning happens in the classroom. He’s not being violent, he’s not hitting or fighting. Every child needs something different. And there’s nothing wrong with him, we’re going to support him differently. These are the students that we need to support most, and by removing them it sends a message that they’re not valued, that they don’t belong, and it also sends a message to the other students that are seeing this happen, and it sends a message to the families.
LISA: Jesse says his school regularly gets kids from charter schools, and what he sees are a lot of the feelings that our two families earlier in the episode expressed: feelings of shame and guilt.
JESSE: They tend to come feeling like they were pushed out. Parents have told us that the principal kept calling them in to say that the student wasn't behaving or the student wasn't doing their work and that kids are always coming home with infractions, whether it's for uniform, for attendance, for lateness for homework, and if you're constantly getting negative feedback about your child, you're going to think that the school doesn't want the child there. And a lot of parents come in and they say my son had so and so issues, my son was kicked out, they said that we couldn’t be there anymore. And that's terrible too because then they have that same perception of the child.
LISA: Jesse’s school and Success Academy have radically different philosophies on schooling. And as a parent, I can definitely see the tradeoffs. Success Academy’s test scores are hard to dismiss. Add chess, soccer and science every day, and it looks pretty compelling. But then I imagine my kid being left out of a party because he had a bad day and flunked a practice test. Or I think about a first-year principal who has only known my kid for a few months telling me, trust us, we know what’s in the best interest of your child.
At P.S. 536, when I hear Jesse talk about his dedication to meeting the emotional needs of his students, and molding the school to fit the individual, it sounds pretty great. But then I think about only one in five kids reading at grade level, or I imagine my kid sitting in a classroom where another student is walking around and yelling.
Fortunately for me, this is not a choice that I have to face, because I’m not poor — I have more options. But this is a choice that thousands of parents in New York City do have to wrestle with.
Next week on Startup, the most powerful man in New York City goes after Success Academy.
DE BLASIO: Time for Eva Moskowitz to stop having the run of the place, she has to stop being tolerated, enabled, supported.
LISA: And a secretly recorded video shot inside a Success classroom, threatens the school’s reputation. That’s next week, on 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, Emanuele Berry and Caitlin Kenney, with help from Rob Szypko, and Saidu Tejan Thomas Jr. 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 the series. For full music credits, visit our website, GimletMedia.com/startup.
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