Friday, September 25, 2020

Student discontent and high attrition at Success Academy; hearings next week about their intent to ditch three planned high schools in Brooklyn

 The following post is by Brooke Parker of NYC Kids PAC.  Public hearings will take place next week, Sept. 29 and Sept. 30 on Success Academy's request to revise their charter by eliminating three previously planned Brooklyn high schools.  In this post, Brooke speculates about the real reasons for this charter revision below.  The images are screenshots taken from the Instagram account @survivors_of_successacademy.  and include comments of current and former Success students and staff.

While most New Yorkers may not know what goes on behind the blue doors of  Success Academy charter schools (more on that later), their relentless demand for more space and expansion definitely rings familiar, including many well-publicized events when Success Academy closed all of its schools to have their students and parents lobby in Albany for expansion and more space in public schools.

Any public school advocate will tell you that Success Academy almost always wins their fights for space. Eva Moskowitz, the firebrand CEO of Success Academies has Governor Cuomo’s ear, and the organization has access to boat loads of money. [Note from LH: not in this one case though --where DOE wanted to give them the entire PS 25 school building  in Bed-Stuy without going through the legal process required – assuming their attempt to close PS 25 would go through, before a judge blocked this closure.]

In 2014, Success Academy held multiple press conferences and sued the city, demanding public school space for three of its schools while granting space for five other of its schools. Mayor de Blasio explained that these three would mean displacing disabled D75 students.  The city ended up renting and paying for private space for these schools at great expense.  In 2017, Success launched a $5M television ad campaign for more middle school space in DOE buildings.

Success Academy’s argument has always been that they just don’t have enough room for the huge wait lists of families clamoring to be in their schools. We must open more!  [And yet studies show that half of the students accepted at the school never enroll.]

Yet now Success has quietly requested revisions to their charter authorizer, SUNY, with announced hearings on Sept. 29 and Sept. 30 , to cancel the opening of all three planned high schools in Brooklyn: Success Academy Williamsburg, Success Academy Cobble Hill, and Success Academy Bed Stuy 2.  [You can sign up to speak or attend these online hearings here.]

Last June, they requested that their total planned high school enrollment from these schools be eliminated, and instead 118 additional students be added to Success Academy Harlem 1, located in the Norman Thomas building on E. 33 St. in District 2 this fall.  Success Academy’s ostensible reason for the closing of the three planned high schools in Brooklyn is “due to facility constraints.” Yet as far as we can tell, they never requested more space from DOE, so this excuse seems questionable. 

Moreover, because of a state law passed in 2014, the city is required to help pay the rent for private space of any new or expanding charter school if they are not provided with space in a public school.  As detailed in this report issued last year by Class Size Matters, DOE spent $2.9 million in FY 2019 alone, leasing nine buildings for Success charters.  In addition, they spent $2.2 million that same year for two Success Academy charter schools to rent space in the Hudson Yards complex on the west side of Manhattan, even though the Success Academy charter management organization owns the space. Not to mention that Success CMO enjoyed a huge surplus in 2018 of more than $60 million according to the IRS data  and $12 million for the charter schools themselves.  In 2019, they received an additional $9.8 million to expand and open new schools, including  a new high school. 

Revising their charters and moving students around  isn’t new to Success Academy. In recent years, they’ve changed planned enrollments at their middle schools  and shuffled students from one area to another. What is notable about this hearing is there will be NO Success Academy high school in Brooklyn in spite of having five Success Academy middle schools in the borough.

Given what we know about Success Academy, and their promises to families that they will continue to offer high school seats to all graduating 8th graders, combined with their relentless push for space in public school buildings regardless of community opposition, we were curious why Success Academy didn’t just ask for more space for their high schools in Brooklyn or go out and rent space that the city would have to then subsidize.

Success Academy opened in 2006 with just one school and 83 Kindergartners. They now boast 47 schools serving 18,000 students. The charter chain doesn’t admit students from outside their system after 4th grade, so middle schools and high school entry is exclusive to students who have been enrolled in their elementary schools. 


Gary Rubinstein has written about Success Academy’s attrition, calculating the rate per year at 17% after 4th grade when there is no more back-filling of students. Rubinstein analyzed the graduating class of 2020 and found: 

“…there was a combined 353 students in the cohort [2nd grade].  By 6th grade, they were down to 263 students and by 9th grade it was 191.  In 10th grade they were 161 students and in 11th grade, 146.  And now, according to the New York Post article based on a Success Academy press release, they have 114 seniors.  So only 32% of the students who were there in second grade made it through their program.  And even more startling is that of the 191 9th graders that had been at Success Academy for 10 years, only 59% of them are on track to graduate three years later.”

Still, given the network’s rapid expansion, one would anticipate enough rising 8th graders for a Brooklyn high school. That is, unless you look at Bed Stuy 1, where the 2019-2020 8th grade class of 75 began as a 5th grade class of 105. That’s a 29% attrition rate within one cohort. They just can’t seem to hold onto their students.

So far Success has only two high schools, Harlem 1 and Harlem 3, both housed in the Norman Thomas
building.  For the last three years, at Harlem 3, the 9th grade enrollment first increased from 106 to 152, but then fell to 137, an increase of only 31 students over that period, according to the DOE’s demographic snapshots. At Harlem  1, the 9th grade cohort has declined from 192 in 2016-2017, to 134 in 2017-2018, stayed at 134 the following year, and then dropped to only 114 last year – a decline of 78 students over this period, despite all the middle school students they enroll.

This year, with the planned addition of the 118 students coming from the three proposed Brooklyn high schools, we should expect Harlem 1’s 9th grade class to hover around at least 232 students. 

Strangely, we could not find out how many students are in the 9th grade at Harlem 1 this fall. After numerous requests, the DOE refuses to share the enrollment numbers. They have them, but they will not release them. Could it be that Success Academy couldn’t even get those planned 118 Brooklyn students?  If the Harlem 1 high school enrollment numbers were high, Success Academy would use those numbers as political muscle and advertise them, not conceal them.

The information about enrollment at Harlem 1 is critical to the upcoming hearings SUNY on September 29 and 30th. Even without having confirmation of decreased enrollment, there doesn’t seem to be enough interest in Success Academy to garner a high school in Brooklyn, and no matter how much they quietly declare to SUNY that they can’t find the “adequate facilities,” it looks like what’s really happening is that they just can’t keep their students. 

What could be behind the exponentially decreasing interest in remaining at Success Academy through high school? 

Public school advocates have always struggled to get information about Success Academy and their board meetings are rarely made public. But there is some information that we have been able to glean from public data when it’s available. We know that their teacher turnover rate was the highest of any charter at 42%.

We know that they enroll hardly any English Language Learners (ELLs) in areas where their neighboring public schools have ELL percentages in the double digits. We know about the inequities of any public school that is cursed with being co-located with a Success Academy charter school.  We know about the harsh punishments and zero-tolerance policies for children as young as 5 years old.  We know about the continual and flagrant violations of student privacy, which is how the Success CEO Eva Moskowitz retaliates against parents who go public about the abuse their children suffer at her schools.

Moreover in recent years, Success Academy has had mainstream media coverage of truly disturbing practices in their elementary schools, from the NY Times video footage of a teacher verbally abusing a first grader, to the infamous “got to go list -- for which the families of the students who were pushed out recently received a settlement of $1.1 million in damages before even going to trial.  There have been countless other  lawsuits, outlining a range of abuses towards children.

In 2018, Success Academy high school students staged a series of protests against their school with a

list of grievances, ranging from draconian punishments for petty issues to excessive student homework. In the fall of the following year, only 20 out of the 67 high school teachers returned. 

In  August 2018, Chalkbeat published an in-depth expose of the many problems that had arisen in their high school, with students rebelling against the school's abusive policies.  In November and December, Gimlet media ran a series about Success charters for their popular Start-up podcast.  The episode about Success high school students protesting the school's rise in suspensions and their practice of sending students back to earlier grades for minor issues was especially shocking, including reporting on a decision by Eva Moskowitz to ban head scarfs. Here is a quote from the narrator:

And Eva kept shifting the school's policies — tightening enforcement, changing the punishment. She added dress code violations and misbehavior at dismissal to the list of offenses that were punishable with a holdover. Kids and teachers, their heads were spinning. As more and more students were told that they might have to go back to the previous grade, the student body grew increasingly frustrated... 

Though the NY Post touted the fact that the 2020 high school class had an 100% college acceptance rate, they failed to mention that  one third of the students in that class had left Success Academy after their junior year, and the school had lost roughly one-seventh of their seniors during their final year, according to an analysis by Gary Rubinstein.

Staff and student anger against the racist aspect of the school's practices and policies became even more explosive with the Black Lives Matter protests over George Floyd's murder.  In June 2020, a new Instagram account was created, called  @survivors_of_successacademy described as  "A place for current and former Success Academy employees, students, and families to share their stories” with the hashtag #insidesuccess.

Three days later came this single post: “Over 200 current and past employees, students, and parents have shared their stories with us.” A little later that same day, “For those attending Eva’s town halls today: Don’t let them ignore you! Demand that they answer your questions. We don’t want to hear talking points; we want change.” #evamustresign.

On June 16, the account posted a disturbing photo taken three years previously at a Success charter school, of black children’s
headless bodies hanging upside down from a tree below the cheery phrase, “Hang in there… It’s almost summer!” 

Less than a week later, after fielding a barrage of complaints from students and staff of racist practices at the school, and the refusal of Eva Moskowitz to put out a statement in solidarity with Black Lives Matters, Liz Baker, who worked in Success Academy’s Public Relations office, publicly quit, writing:

I am resigning because I can no longer continue working for an organization that allows and rewards the systemic abuse of students, parents, and employees… As the organization’s press associate, I no longer wish to defend Success Academy in response to any media inquiries,” the letter continued. “I do not believe that Success Academy has scholars’ best interests at heart, and I strongly believe that attending any Success Academy school is detrimental to the emotional well-being of children.”

Since then, the @survivors_of_successacademy Instagram page has ramped up their posts, revealing more discontent and  devastating truths about Success Academies, from racist policies to emotional abuse of children to regularly shaming children and parents.  Many of the comments come directly from middle and high school students, who also launched a different account: @sa.vanguards. As of this writing, the Instagram account has almost 6,000 followers.

There has never been a platform like this for charter school students, parents and staff to speak out and share their experiences. Within the comments you can read both outrage and relief from feeling heard. Let’s hope that SUNY is listening. 

1 comment:

Laura h. Chapman said...

This is the most comprehensive report on Eva's empire that I have seen Thank you for the excellent documentation of this scandal-ridden business.