Sunday, February 14, 2016

The growing storm around Success Academy

On Friday morning, the NY Times ran a story and posted the video above, a minute and 16 seconds of a teacher berating a first grade child at the Cobble Hill Success charter school in Brooklyn, ripping up her page of math work, and sending her to sit on the “calm down” chair.  This video has gone viral, with an apparently greater impact than all the news articles, complaints, and lawsuits filed against Success charters in the past few years.  

There have been so many documented instances of students unfairly treated and pushed out of Success charter schools that it is difficult to know where to start.   One of the first parents to tell her story of how her special needs son was pushed out of a Success charter school in Kindergarten within a few weeks of the beginning of the school year was Karen Sprowal, in a Michael Winerip column in  the NY Times in July 2011 – nearly five years ago.  We followed up with Karen’s own account on our blog here.

Over the years, Juan Gonzalez of the Daily News has repeatedly chronicled the many documented instances of young children repeatedly suspended and ejected from Success Charters.  For the first time, the NY Times started critically covering the school last spring, describing their high-pressured test prep tactics and severe disciplinary practices for the purpose of achieving high scores on the state exams.

This fall, PBS ran a segment about the suspensions of young children at the Success Academy Charter Schools. You can see the segment here.  Fatima Geidi spoke about the way the school had repeatedly suspended her first grade son for minor infractions, and refused to provide him with the special education services he was entitled to.  While the reporter, John Merrow, attested to the fact that many other parents and teachers confirmed these system-wide practices, they told him they were afraid to appear on camera. 

Eva Moskowitz subsequently retaliated against Fatima and her son, by posting a falsified record of his disciplinary infractions, and sharing it with the media.  Fatima filed a FERPA complaint to the federal government, pointing out how this violated his federal privacy rights.  Months later, this falsified list of infractions was taken down from the Success website. 

Shortly after the PBS program ran, the NY Times published  an October 29 article on the “Got to Go list,” composed by the principal at the Fort Greene Success charter school targeting certain students, and explaining that their parents had to be persuaded to take them out of the school.

After that, a petition to the US Department of Education was posted online by Alliance for Quality Education and Color of Change, asking for a federal investigation and that the US Department of Education withhold any more federal funds from the school until the investigation was complete.  The petition pointed out that the US Department of Education had given Success Academy charters more than $37 million dollars since 2010, and nearly three million dollars in 2015 alone.  The petition received over 35,000 signatures.

On December 10, 2015, four parents whose children were on the “Got to Go list” at the Fort Greene Success Academy filed a 27-page lawsuit in federal court, seeking $2 million in damages. On January 4, the NY Times reported that the principal of that school had taken a “personal leave of absence” (though it was later revealed that he is now teaching at another Success charter school in Harlem.)

On January 18, the NY Post wrote that SUNY Charter Institute, the main authorizer of Success charters, was finally launching its own investigation into the practices of these schools.  In a longer story published January 20, Schoolbook revealed that the SUNY Charter Institute had sent a letter five days before to the board chairman of Success Academy, noting “allegations of improper use of student discipline practices to encourage students to dis-enroll, especially at the Fort Greene school.”

On the same date, January 20, a class action complaint to the Office of Civil Rights of the US Department of Education was brought by thirteen parents on behalf of their children with disabilities at eight different Success Academy charter schools in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Bronx.  The complaint highlighted “systemic policies” that violated these students’ federal rights, including harassing and publicly shaming them, refusing to provide them with appropriate services, calling 911 to take them to the hospital when they allegedly misbehaved, and repeatedly suspending them without reporting these actions as suspensions, and without providing them with due process or alternative instruction as required by law.

This class action complaint was joined by City Council Education Danny Dromm and Letitia James, the New York City Public Advocate. You can read the full complaint here.  More recently, another lawsuit was filed by NY Lawyers for Public Interest on behalf of a parent of a former Kindergarten student with disabilities at Fort Greene Success Academy charter school, who was successfully pushed out of the school.  

Yet none of these documented news accounts or lawsuits has had the same impact on the public consciousness as this minute and sixteen second video.  Is it the power of video in the digital age?  The ability to see with your own eyes and viscerally experience the abusive treatment that these young children were forced to suffer through, week after week, year after year?  Whatever the reason, let’s hope that this brings a wider public awareness not only about the practices of this particular chain of charters, but about all the “no excuses” charters that may produce better test scores, but at a very large human cost.


Michael Ring said...

This could happen in a public school. But the teacher would not be defended, they would be headed towards the rubber room

Steve Koss said...

I feel certain this latest video only barely scratches the surface, but it at least has value in raising awareness. Amazing how Eva classifies every one of these incidents as "anomalies."

I wrote a Comment on the Times story - it was marked as a Times Pick. Here's the content:

Having taught every level of math from 9th-grade algebra to AP Calculus and Statistics in a NYC public HS, I found this video sickening. Bad enough the teacher's harsh and demeaning treatment of a young female student and her subsequent personalizing of the student's error as upsetting and disappointing. Worse by far, the student's classmates sit rigidly alongside, hands clasped and legs crossed, doubtless stricken with fear. No effort to use a math mistake as a teachable moment ("Can anybody explain what she did wrong?"), no allowance for the notion that math learning is fraught with error and that it's from our errors that we learn most (hence the rationale for most math homework assignments), no attempt to coach the student into the correct answer or have a fellow student assist with that guidance. This lockstep, military-style learning environment is exactly how I've always envisioned Success Academy and how I've understood it to be -- students learn not to take risks, to fear making a mistake, to expect belittlement or punishment for every misstep and mistake.

As teachers, we all talk about the goal of creating lifetime learners -- nothing could be farther from that goal that what I see in this video. And by all accounts in the article -- contrary to Ms. Moskowitz's dissembling response -- teacher behavior along these lines was (and is) routine in that teacher's class and in many other of the Success classrooms. How sad!

Bronx ATR said...

Psychological torture on young children can have a devastating impact on them years later. I had some sadistic teachers in the 1960s but none would ever rip up my work. It's worse than being physically hit, because it goes to the heart of self worth just as it is being formed (and whilst it is in its weakest state). Public funds are paying for this?

Khem said...

What I do not understand, are the parents who continue to enroll their children or participate in the lottery process for Eva's schools. It would be intetesting to know if there is a connection and what neighborhood school they are avoiding and why?