Sunday, July 10, 2011

“My special child, pushed out of Kindergarten at a NYC charter school"

Here is the story of Karen Sprowal and her son Matthew, that Mike Winerip of the NY Times writes about here. While charter schools have advertised themselves as open to all students through random lotteries, many have been shown to enroll relatively few numbers of special needs children and English language learners, and to have high rates of student attrition.  The charter school described below is a member of the Success Academy chain, the fastest growing chain in NYC.  Its rapid expansion has been enthusiastically supported by the DOE, and by their authorizer, the NY State University Board of Trustees, whose charter committee is headed  by Prof. Pedro Noguera.  There are currently seven Success Academies, all co-located in NYC public school buildings, with two more planned for the fall, and three more authorized by SUNY to open in NYC in 2012. 
If you have had similar experiences with a charter school as this parent, and would like to share them either on or off the record, please contact Karen at and/or Leonie at
This is a mother’s personal story about having child with different needs “counseled out” of a NYC charter school. It’s also testimony of how inclusion, a smaller class size, and the supportive attitude of a great public school made an astounding difference in my son’s life. My name is Katherine Sprowal and I’m the mother of a delightfully spirited and rambunctious son whose name is Matthew. Like most children his age, he’s a vision of pure joy and enthusiasm: often bursting with energy to play all day, every day! 

We live in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan. Back in 2008, both of our zoned schools were listed as “failing.” About a year prior to Matthew entering Kindergarten, we embarked upon a journey of securing an elementary school placement for him. I began my search with help from Early Steps, an organization that assist minority parents through the private schools admission and application process. As suggested we applied to about ten different private schools. To my dismay, Matthew was not accepted to any of the schools and was placed on the wait list for only two of them. 

I had no backup plan for school options except the neighborhood “failing” schools. I then recalled meeting a woman a year prior at a “School Choice” fair in a Harlem church. Her name was Eva Moskowitz. Not knowing who she was or her political background, we engaged in a conversation, as two parents expressing our thoughts about the lack of quality school choices. She then began to promote the charter school she founded, Harlem Success Academy. She explained how it came out of her own personal frustration as mother with no quality public school choices for her own children. She was most impressive in her presentation and argued that minorities need public school choices.  She went on to convincingly state how HSA and other charter schools were  filling that gap. She then asked if I would mind being interviewed by a media crew present at this fair and I happily agreed. 

My neighborhood was saturated with mailings, bus ads and pamphlets about Harlem Success Academy. I applied just in time for her lottery deadline. Matthew won the lottery and was accepted to Harlem Success Academy #4.  We learned of this news with great fanfare at the lottery drawing event held at the Armory on 142nd street.  This lottery received huge attention; both then-Gov. Paterson and much of the media were there. I ran into Eva at the event and she remembered us, we embraced in a hug and she shared in our pleasure from Matthew’s win. Matthew and I continued to be videotaped straight through to the August parent HSA orientation.

Shortly after this, we attended a mandated orientation and signed all required contract agreements, which included provisions stating that that parents had to respond within 24 hours to any request from the school, they had to purchase costly school uniforms, and children had to complete summer homework assignments. At the meeting, Eva also told us that because all the local elected officials were against charter schools, parents would be expected to attend hearings in support of the school.

Matthew and I couldn’t wait for the first day of school. One day prior, we were given a choice to attend Harlem Success Academy #3 as another Kindergarten class was being added, so it would be a smaller class size. So we changed schools to HSA#3.  On August 28, 2008, Matthew attended his first day of school, gleaming with excitement. Yet on the very first day, he was held back in detention for not walking through the halls in an orderly manner. I thought this was a bit harsh for a five year old, but understood that self-discipline was a major part of HSA model. 

During the first week of school, I noticed immediately how HSA classes were fully stocked with educational supplies and how nice and shiny their classrooms were in comparison to the existing public school space, which appeared dingy and dark. I thought to myself that it seemed a bit odd for HSA to share a building with another school, but never common areas of the building at the same time. The students didn’t eat, play in the yard or even use the same stairs together. I wondered what negative psychological effects this could have on students at both schools. I felt privileged to have my son in HSA and embarrassed all at once. I was anxious to meet the HSA and co-located parent reps to discuss these issues. I was also curious as to why parents didn’t appear to be welcome beyond the HSA entrance doors during drop off and pick-up. I had to literally force myself into the HSA school area during school hours the first couple of days of school. 

When I did, I noticed that the HSA school staff and children didn’t seem to laugh or smile much. I couldn’t help notice there were none of the typical sounds of laughter one would expect to hear in an elementary school. The atmosphere appeared sterile, militaristic and robotic, as the children walked the halls in silence. There were many other things that raised an eyebrow and gnawed at my gut as “not right,” but I quickly dismissed them because “We won the HSA lottery.” I was reassured that the physical appearance of the school and academic mode seemed to resemble a few of the prestigious private schools we had previously visited.  Additionally, Eva and other faculty enrolled their own children along with Matthew. I was certain all my concerns had reasonable explanations and my questions would be answered by Eva directly or by the PTA at a later time. 

Unfortunately, I would soon learn there were no HSA PTA and no meetings with parents at the co-located school. It became clear that parental input was not welcome, supported or encouraged in any meaningful manner. I would later observe students at the existing school taunting and teasing the HSA students whenever they briefly crossed paths. How could they not target the HSA students to express their opposition to the “separate and unequal” practices they internalized and witnessed daily? 

Matthew continued to be held in detention frequently for one reason or another over the next few days. I wasn’t too concerned about it until it was apparent he was no longer excited about attending HSA. He began to have frequent emotional meltdowns before going to school and complained of stomachaches. He became increasingly anxious about school work and not being able to behave as his teachers wanted him to.  This was known as going “Beyond Z.”,   a widely used HSA motto meaning that students should behave like little soldiers, work hard and keep quiet. After about a week of this, the principal blatantly stated my son was “not performing at the school’s social expectations.” She said he had poor interpersonal skills, was un-focused and disruptive to the teacher and the entire class. 

In response, I pointed out that he was only five years old, and had spent the last three years in a nursery with a Montessori philosophy – a very different setting. I asked for her patience and time for him to make the transition. I then offered to shadow him in class for a few days.  She was reluctant, but agreed to my request. My presence helped provide Matthew with some of the emotional support and the security he was seeking. But by mid-day he often became fidgety, agitated and just wanted to move around and play. The school psychologist told me she had to fight to have them put a tiny play area and provide play time in the Kindergarten classrooms.

There were three other children exhibiting the same behaviors as Matthew, all African-American boys. They were assigned seats together, separate from the rest of the class as though they were contagious. By the second week, additional HSA staff began coming into the class in shifts to observe my son and the other boys in his group. The staff sat quietly in the back of the room and wrote notes. One by one, all these other boys left the school, without any explanation, over a period of two weeks. I have no idea if their parents fought for them to remain as I continued to do with Matthew, but within a few days from the beginning of school, they had already been marked as not HSA material. 

By the third week, it became apparent that the school had deemed Matthew as defective and unapologetically wanted him gone. I outright refused to comply with the principal’s request for me to transfer my son to another school.   I told her it was not an option for us. I said that Matthew and I both felt threatened, unwelcome and that were being unfairly forced out of the school.  The following day I was told that I could no longer shadow my son in school. She stated that if his behavior was not corrected within a few days he would be suspended. Not knowing what my rights were as a parent, or if indeed Matthew required additional support, I continued as best I could to work with him to avoid any further disciplinary action from the school. I suggested half days for him through this transition, which they agreed to.

They proceeded to call home for him to be picked up within an hour of being dropped off at school over the next few days. On the third day of one of these pick up calls, the principal informed me that he was being suspended for disruptive behavior and not respecting another student’s personal space. The principal then scheduled Matthew for psychological testing, without any prior discussion, or my input, notice or consent. I only found out when a message was left on my voicemail to pick him up later than the regular dismissal time that school officials had scheduled him for psychological testing that day. 

In response, I sent a written complaint to the principal that challenged his suspension and for scheduling this testing without my consent. I sent copies to Eva Moskowitz and the HSA board of directorsEva responded to my complaint directly via email and assigned her administrative assistant to sit in meetings with myself, the principal and school psychologist. We had two formal meetings and HSA remained consistent and adamant that Matthew must leave the school. They insisted he was incapable of learning and behaving appropriately in a HSA school setting. I remained adamant in my position as well, and that transferring him to another school would not be an option. I explained that the way that they had dealt with us was insensitive and dismissive. I was not going to permit any further negative consequences due to their failure to follow the appropriate procedures.   

Yet Matthew’s awareness of not being wanted in the school and being scapegoat as the “bad kid” perpetuated his challenging behaviors. The HSA school psychologist wrote on September 22 that "Matthew has the intelligence and desire to learn. However, he is beginning to develop a negative sense of himself and is in danger of seeing himself as bad and a failure. It is very important that Matthew enter a school situation where he feels supported and successful…Matthew may need a smaller classroom than his current school has available.”

On the day of my third planned meeting with HSA, on the ride to school Matthew looked up at me and asked Mommy, is today the day that HSA is going fire me?” He recently learned the definition of this word as I had recently been laid off from a job I’d had for ten years. I realized at that moment the only real successful outcome had to be for Matthew to feel good about school and good about himself again. His emotional well being and happiness was the most important issue. 

I attended that final meeting and negotiated that HSA would transfer him to a public school of my choice that day. They eagerly accommodated me to the extent of arranging that he would be placed in a school outside his zone, at PS 75 in District 3, on the Upper West Side. Despite my best effort to advocate and protect my son, Matthew left HSA crushed, thinking he was an unwanted “bad child.”  A milestone period that should have laid the foundation to foster a lifetime of learning had the complete opposite effect. The ugly truth that our personal experience at HSA revealed is that this charter school is purposely designed to exclude!   

Matthew now attends the inclusive Emily Dickinson Public School 75. The principal, the guidance counselor, teachers, schools aides and support staff took the time to go above and beyond to make learning fun again for Matthew. They embraced his imagination and need to be active completely!  On his most difficult days they showed him more love and gave “us” increased support. They do this each and every day with every child, no matter how they learn or where they come from.  The principal Mr. O’Brien personally spent hours with my son and me, because he wanted to know who we were and what I thought would be needed for Matthew to thrive. They encouraged and welcomed my partnership, to ensure that my son would be happy and could achieve his full academic potential.

After a rough second year, they recognized that a smaller CTT class setting of 18 students with two teachers might be more conducive for his temperament and style of learning. And they were right!!!  Matthew will be entering the third grade in the fall with academic evidence that inclusion and class size does matter. He has done exceptionally well this year and has exceeded all academic expectations. 

In addition, the school has provided us with helpful referrals like the Boys Scouts of America and St Luke’s family services, for on-going comprehensive support. This is a school that unites communities rather than divides them and has opened their arms to me and my son.  With the help of P.S. 75 principal, teachers and support staff, Matthew and I have moved forward. But I have not forgotten about this awful start to his academic career.  I also hope that those other little boys who were separated from the rest of the class the first few days of school along with Matthew were as lucky as we were in finding a public school that would help them succeed.     


Anonymous said...

This is no surprise,charter schools do not take on the problems that public schools are faced with. If they are unhappy with a student they dump them onto the neighborhood public school,sometimes the one that is forced to share a building with them.The percentage of ELA and special ed students is much lower in charter schools.

Sean said...

Lotteries require a parent that is involved enough to go through that process. The toughest cases are often students who do not even have that much. That is difficult for the reading, thoughtful, voting public to fathom.

in a quandary said...

Thank you Ms. Sprowal for sharing this with us! My heart goes out to you! The comment about being "fired" was particularly troubling. I suspect that these corporate models of education, will be very damaging to our children. A nine hour day for 5 year olds? That's just cruel! What's the big hurry for them to be corporate drones? Why so regimented? Why can't they be nurtured, and encouraged to have a life long love of learning instead?

Beauty Boss Agnes said...

Good for you on being aware of what was right for your child. I am an avid advocate for public schools having sent all my children to elementary, middle and high schools...and then on to a SUNY or CUNY college....I even work in a public school...they are for the children ... exclusively...thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I just want to point out that this parent moved her child from the charter to a public school out of her district. She chose not to send him to her zoned, failing school. Charter schools provide an important choice and alternative for families zoned for failing and substandard schools.

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous 3:22
What an asinine comment. Did you not get the point of this mother was making?

The charter school had no interest in helping or keeping her son, and actively worked to get rid of him almost from the first day. They are only "a choice and an alternative" (your words) if they (the charters) want to help and nurture a particular child; otherwise, they are quite happy to throw them under the bus.

Mairead said...

It is sad to say thta this story did not come as a big shock but it is a glaring example of how the charter school system "cherry picks" ttheir students.
My big question is how the HSA was able to guarantee this mom a new school of her choice, right away, without any concern about variances or PERs.
This smacks of favoritism for the Harlem Success Academy from the DOE, in an effort to further the HSA agenda; it allows the HSA to dispose of "problems" easily by getting child a seat in a school that would normally never be available to them. This favoritism resembles the effort former Chancellor Klein made on HSA's behalf to get them a $1 million grant a few years ago. I'm sorry, I thought Mr. Kleinwas the Chancvellor for ALL of the children.
I am glad Matthew is doing so well in his new school.

Unknown said...

Parents pull their children from zoned schools all the time because their children have special needs and need a smaller setting. Why doesn't she mention what this "disruptive behavior" was? Her child was placed in a CTT class, so it sounds like she actually took Harlem Success's advice and it worked for him.

Anonymous said...

Given that the ultimate solution was to have the child in a CTT class that had a smaller class size with additional teachers, it sounds like HSA was right all along, though perhaps abrasive and thoughtless in their approach to addressing the child's needs.

Anonymous said...

This does not surprise me at all. I had the same experience with my son with a different outcome. My son briefly attended Kinder classes in the South Bronx Charter School for International Cultures and the Arts. My gifted child was told that he had serious neuro issues by principal Evelyn Hey. He was obviously never tested by a neurologist nor is Evelyn Hey an MD. No matter how many different ways I asked the question, she and his teacher could not cite specific scientific reasons for this assumption. I fought for him to stay but she stated that in order for him to remain there, I would have to pick him up everyday at 11am. This schedule was decided by his fresh out of college teacher and Hey within the first week of classes. I told them I could not afford to lose my job because of their incompetence and lack of trying.

What made this situation so frustrating was that I had given up a Kinder seat in Manhattan after hearing Hey describe how much better this school was going to be compared to ALL public schools. She talked at length about how the class size was going to be smaller with experienced teachers. The truth, which I eventually found out, was the class size was approximately 30 children and ALL of the teachers were in the classroom for the first time in their lives. It is a typical south bronx school which was the opposite of what my son needed to grow.

I had requested the same help from Hey which consisted of assisting us in getting him back to the Manhattan school he was accepted to or a school of the same caliber. Her reply was that it wasn't her job to do that. Since he was only going to school from 8am to 11am, I requested all of the supplies that I purchased with my hard earned money to be returned to me. His teacher and Hey refused stating that the supplies were for the class even if he was not going to be a part of it anymore.

After a year of working with my son to reverse the mental issues South Bronx Charter School for International Cultures and the Arts caused him, he began to flourish again. It was the private school that discovered that he was too gifted for the simple lessons that the charter school attempted to "teach". If I could do it again, I would have ignored Hey and the rest of the incompetent teachers.

ksprowal said...

Thank you for the comments!
Matthew was placed in a CTT class in his current school recently as a general student.
The required ERB test Matthew took when applying for private schools suggested above average intelligence. The psychological testing performed by HSA discovered he had a superior range IQ and was gifted as well. But because he could not physically remain still/sit for any period of time, they wanted him out. The problem with HSA and other charters is that they denied such practices “cherry picking" exist. In Matthew’s case it did and was extremely harmful. Charter schools are "Public Schools" these practices along with co-location should have no place within any public education system… I witness the effects of both first hand and it was disturbing on so many levels...

Patrick J. Sullivan said...

Thank you Karen for sharing your story and for showing us how to fight for what our kids deserve. It takes courage to come forward like you did.

Anonymous said...

As a public school teacher, Im disgusted that public schools are called "failing" because we have to deal with students with all sorts of problems - and charters WONT. Why should they help your child at all? Why do YOU think he was excluded? Becuase his test scores at the 3rd grade 6th grade level MIGHT drag the school down to the level of schools I work at. Why take the risk? Their whole reason to exist is their supposed ability to make Public school scores look terrible in comparison. WHy would they risk their profits? They profit from YOUR TAXES, by paying teachers less, and hoping they quit before they turn 30 since there's no recourse when a bad boss wants to fire you, no due process like the city. Im disgusted everytime somebody calls a school 'failing'. Children fail, when they dont put effort, when their parents dont care, and unfortunately that happens alot in Inner city schools. But its just reflecting the ills of poverty that the rest of society doesnt want to deal with. Schools that people with no concept of the social ills that children bring WITH THEM to the class, and want to call "Failing". Shame on them, because no matter what you call an inner city school, there are sucesfful children in ALL of them. They are deemed failing because alot of students wont put the effort, or have parents who dont or wont discipline them. You who are an involved parent are going to have success with your child, whichever public school you choose. Because we work WITH you. We care. It was our whole reason to work in those districts. But now, WE are given the blame, and charters are supposed to be the answer, because they break our union and any security we might have from Nazi regimes like this one. I shudder when I think what the future will bring, naturally, this school is going to have high scores and be called a success, no matter how much the children might end up hating learning forever. Nice job, HSA.

Anonymous said...

You should be applauded for your advocacy for your son. It is great that you finally found the right environment for your son to succeed!
As a public school teacher, it is good to know that public education went the extra miles for Matthew.

Anonymous said...

I am so happy that you and your son found a school where your voices were heard. As a public school teacher in a CTT classroom with a Charter School in our building, I know that there are many differences in approach to teaching the students (and even interacting with them). Taking the whole child into consideration is so important. Students are not robots and should not be judged by test scores alone.

Anonymous said...

I applaud the parent for advocating for her child, however there are many factual "flaws" in this post:

I wish someone would post the statistics for co-locations. The DOE co-locates about three times as many regular public than charters. Many charters raise money to be in the district that that they want to serve because the DOE DOES NOT make charter school space a priority. It co-locates and expands the regular public schools first.

School uniforms expensive? Probably not as expensive as what a parent would spend on a school-year's worth of clothes.

Sure there may be a lower percentage of Special Ed and English Language Learners in charter schools, but has anyone looked at the percentage of those students in the application pool. My guess is the percentage of applicants is lower than what is attending a neighborhood public school.

Is getting fired, the anxiety of only the child? Did the parent come home and explain every part of the meeting to the child? Isn't there some benefit to tell the child that the school is not supporting him the way he needs to be supported (obvious because the parent is now happy with the CTT classroom) so leaving the school is actually empowering for the child and the family, and she got the choice of going out of district?

No one mentioned that the services needed were actually not even provided in the district schools, so isn't it possible that this school actually IS a better choice for some types of learners?

Anonymous said...

HSA was right. The mom may not like how her kid was pushed out, but HSA knows how to handle parents with sensitive issues. Kid has been placed appropriately, and is happy.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree! I am so happy that although, HSA might not have been a good match for him, they found him a school that could give him the support services they were unable to provide, so he could be successful.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you found the school for Matthew . I just want to let you know you are not alone. I'm glad you step out as a parent to post your story .They need to know all children are not the same they are individuals .It takes one village to raise a child.Teaching children requires a whole lot of patience and some teachers and staff don't have.

FedUpMom said...

Great post. I linked to it at my blog, the Coalition for Kid-Friendly Schools.

A Mother Speaks Out

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry this happened to you and your son! Thanks for writing about it. My city is considering creating a charter school like the one you describe and I fear it will take funds away from the public schools. We've been subjected to a slick advertising campaign and sales job meant to ensure guilt-trip the school board and create a school that will be largely unaccountable to the district. I found your blog while researching my uneasy feeling that this type of school is a fad which will make some proponents a lucrative career, but will it really serve kids?

AutismWonderland said...

Reading this breaks my heart. I feel as if we are going through something very similar.

On my son's 2nd half day of kindergarten, his teacher told me that "she didn't think she could teach him. How is he going to learn if he can't sit still. We'll give it a few more days but for now he's on a probation. We may need to reconvene." My son's program is a specialized for children with autism.

It is repulsive what the DOE will try to get away with. How often they want to pass the buck, when they encounter a child who has difficulty transitioning.

THANK YOU for your sharing your story!

Anonymous said...

I would like to thank you and commend you for being your sons advocate..I stumbled upon your story trying to find a school for my child..You have given me a place where to start..Thank you..

Carlaann said...

I must consider myself lucky. My son who also has special needs was offered a spot in one of the Achievement First Charter schools. We did all the paperwork, attended orientation and were scheduled for a family chat. My husband and I really wanted to attend the family chat because we found out the school does not have gym classes for the students and according to the Dean they could not find anyone qualified enough to teach physical education!
Anyway, at the family chat we were told blatantly that they could not accommodate my son because they were not equipped to provide the services he needs. My son needs speech therapy, OT and counseling. Unbelievable! Hers is a charter school in my community, my child was accepted and because he has an IEP he cannot attend. My other concern is the fact that these kids are in school from 7:30 am until 4:15 p.m M-F with little or no physical activity. I s anyone else aside from me and my husband bothered by this? I think these schools are great academically but they need to be more balanced and we the citizens need to make ourselves heard in our communities

Anonymous said...

My son has an IEP and he is being forced out of Harlem Success 4. he ask to use the bathroom and they make him urinate on himself and single him out because of his disability. He i sonly 5 years old...the princilpe Dominique Loving had the nerve to tell me that "im tired of parents using IEP's as a crutch"! I was even told "some parents love when their kids have IEP's for some reason or another"! THIS SCHOOL IS DIGUSTING!!!!!!!!!!!!! and they need to be stopped immediately!

Unknown said...

I cannot believe that its true. I am wondering how it could happen in pre-k school. It never happens in Phoenix kindergarten as far as I have noticed.

Anonymous said...

What happen to the concept that all kids can learn the same way and we need to find the right place for each child, which apparently this mother has found now. How was this child's behavior or need affected the other students in the class. We cannot group all kids together because the reality is that other students get impacted by the actions of some and the other students didn't ask for or need the distraction. In a perfect world, all the students would be at the same level or require the same needs, in the real world we need to find the right place for EACH child and the fact that is convenient to send a child to a specific school does not really mean that it is the right choice for them.

AngryParent said...

I just came across this article as I am going through the same problem with my son. He is in kindergarten at SA3. I suspect he is dealing some ADHD issues and I am having him see a mental health provider for evaluation next week. However the staff at SA3 has been impatient, cold and unhelpful regarding his situation. He has been suspended multiple times and I am disgusted at the lack of interest in trying to work with me or reach my child. Its very sad to see that this article was written nearly 4 yrs ago and nothing within the SA network has changed.

Leonie Haimson said...

AngryParent, please email us at All info you provide will remain confidential. thanks Leonie

Unknown said...

Special kids like Matthew often face these problems almost every day. I would suggest enrolling him in a specialized school like Rebecca School who can help him overcome his disabilities and challenge his strengths. You can visit for more details.

Cglaub said...

It would be very interesting to take a closer look at all the kids who are "washed out" from SAs city-wide. Are the statistics publically available? I suspect they are truly failing African American boys in particular and taking away much needed funding from local public schools. I hope that all the kids who get suspended from SA find a second chance at academic satisfaction, but it is probably not the case

Anonymous said...

Anonymous of July 14, 2011 at 2:12 PM said:

"I shudder when I think what the future will bring, naturally, this school is going to have high scores and be called a success, no matter how much the children might end up hating learning forever. Nice job, HSA."

American governments' corporatizing, other privatizing, underfunding, and undervaluing of the needs and potential of public k-12 education was one of the first contributing variables that came to mind when I learned of the USA's November 2016 federal election outcome. (Internationally stunning.)

Consequences can be broader than some voters recognize. Too many American citizens have underestimated the value of each American born child receiving in their public k-12 education a common core of public values, including inclusion.

Whose needs were too many citizens considering when they cast their votes? The needs of those domestic populations who, through no fault of their own, most need good & inclusive government and its assistance? The needs of their and everyone else's environment? Whatever happened to the Golden Rule, about treating our neighbours as we would like to be treated were we in their shoes? There's no more important time for the Golden Rule than at elections and when otherwise influencing public policy, including education policy.