New York Magazine
The Patron Saint (and Scourge) of Lost Schools
By Jeff Coplon
Eva Moskowitz, the controversial leader of the fastest-growing charter network in the city, wants to save New York public education by, in a sense, destroying it.
Eva Moskowitz glares at the linoleum tile on the Try and Try stairwell, brow furrowed at a micromanager’s nightmare: a gray stain, six inches long. “This drives me crazy,” she says.
It’s 7:50 a.m. on a Monday as the ex–City Council member arrives inside Harlem Success Academy 1, the flagship of her mushrooming charter-school network. She’s spent the last twenty minutes at the school’s gate off Lenox Avenue, digging into a startled child’s collar to flag a missing clip-on tie, scanning for regulation footwear. (By rule, boys wear shoes with Velcro fasteners; girls, Mary Janes.) She prods stragglers in a piercing voice: “Good morning, scholars, how are you? Have a good day—work hard!” She knows nearly half the kids’ names, and looks genuinely delighted when a girl hugs her unsolicited.
On the offending stairway, still wrapped in her fur-cuffed coat, Moskowitz Tommy-guns an e-mail to her operations manager: “Custodians did not clean 2nd-floor landing. Please talk to them about doing their job.” The blunt appraisal, the dash of attitude—just a hint of what’s inspired a malicious nickname among the United Federation of Teachers and its allies: Evil Moskowitz.
“And in the bathrooms,” she says. “What I really can’t stand is urine.” The word hangs in the air, incongruous with its source, a woman whose signature accessories are pearl necklaces and patent-leather heels. “If there’s urine on the toilet seat, it’s disrespectful to the children.”
Tile stains and potty pee might seem beneath this CEO’s pay grade (north of $300,000 per year) or a distraction from running a four-school chain that aims to expand at least tenfold. But Moskowitz’s fine-grained focus imbues every facet of Success Charter Network: the reading rugs in air-conditioned classrooms, the hands-on science program (after the Brearley School’s), the otherworldly performance on last year’s standardized tests, and, yes, the gleaming lavatories. A pristine stairwell is one more step toward her objective: a data-driven, no-excuses haven for learning, where all children excel and shoestrings never come undone.
“This isn’t a job for her, this is a mission,” says Paul Fucaloro, her director of instruction and right-hand man. Or, more, a crusade—to invent a new culture for quasi-public schools and transfigure inner-city education in New York. By the available metrics, early returns at Harlem Success Academies are nonpareil. But as in all crusades, the march can be ruthless, and more than a little bloody.
Charter schools are fast filling the breach in public education; they now teach more than 1.5 million students nationally, double the number six years ago. Despite wildly uneven performance, they’ve gained a quick-fix cachet amid a pandemic of failure. They are hybrids with inherent tensions: publicly funded but autonomously owned and operated, accountable for results but largely free of government oversight. In New York, their five-year charters are granted by the Board of Regents, the SUNY Board of Trustees, or the local school board. Schools showing adequate student progress, as defined by state tests, can mostly do as they please. They may add revenue from private sources, lengthen their academic day and year, create their own curricula, hire—and fire—nonunionized teachers at will.
There are 99 charter schools in the city, 23 in Harlem alone, most of them sharing buildings with zoned schools run by the Department of Education. According to government sources, the city’s co-located charter schools receive, on average, nearly as much per-pupil taxpayer support (within 5 percent) as the zoned schools, in addition to whatever they rake in from their private benefactors. In the current fiscal year, Success Charter Network has raised $4.8 million.
The city’s charters enroll about 30,000 children from all five boroughs, overwhelmingly black or Latino and from low-income families. That’s not quite 3 percent of the city’s public-school population, as compared with 9 percent in Los Angeles or 36 percent in Washington, D.C. But market share is a fluid thing, and “New York’s moving faster than anybody,” says Steve Barr, a national charter leader. In fact, this is the only big city to welcome charters systematically into its school buildings, rent-free. By the end of his third term, Mayor Bloomberg hopes to double the charters’ numbers and more than triple their population, to 100,000, a lever that could terminate weak zoned elementary schools and cost the UFT millions in lost dues. Even now, traditional schools in Harlem face plummeting enrollments—a sign, Chancellor Joel Klein likes to say, of parents’ voting with their feet. But State Senator Bill Perkins draws a different conclusion: “What you’re seeing is people fleeing out of a four-alarm fire.” Charter schools, Perkins says, “are at best an act of desperate faith.”
At the crux of this sea change stands Moskowitz. At 47, she is feared, revered, and reviled in like proportions. As the face of the social-Darwinist wing of the local charter movement, she’s been cast as the grim reaper of moribund neighborhood schools, a witting tool of privatizing billionaires, and a Machiavellian schemer with her sights set on the mayoralty. “She’s the spokesperson in demonizing the public schools,” says Noah Gotbaum, president of District 3’s Community Education Council. “Eva’s philosophy is that you’ve got to burn the village to save it.”
But for thousands of families in Harlem, the ones who flock to her Success Academies and swell her lottery wait-lists, Moskowitz is a paladin in earth-toned suits. They back her en masse at every showdown, from City Hall to Albany. “We love what they’re doing with our kids, and so we’ll fight the fight whenever she needs us,” said Sherry Cayson at a city hearing last spring, when Moskowitz railed against the “union-political-educational complex.” Cayson’s first-grader reads 35 books a month, gets tutored whenever he needs it. “Where else are we going to get this quality of education—for free? Where are we going to put our babies?”
Moskowitz has lived in this storm since her maiden run for the City Council in 1997, as a silk-stocking-district Democrat with all the correct leanings (Amnesty International, Sierra Club, NARAL), save for one: her conviction that New York’s public schools were “tenth-rate.” Her star rose when she allied with Gifford Miller, who became speaker in 2002 and made Moskowitz the chair of the long-somnolent education committee. Over the next three years, she staged more than 100 oversight hearings—a smaller-scale Watergate, her childhood fixation. She grilled and filleted bureaucrats from the DoE on their sickly science and art programs, the back-of-the-bus Regents-diploma rates for minority students, the pervasive shortage of toilet paper in what was then a $13 billion–a–year operation. (Among thorns in his side from that era, Klein pegged Moskowitz “up there in the top five, or the top three.”)
In 2003, she torched the teachers union with hearings on seniority rights and work rules. Most everyone—even her husband—warned her that she’d be “squashed like an ant.” The proceedings, complete with hidden witnesses using voice-distortion technology, were explosive. Newsweek hailed the councilwoman as “a brave New Yorker”; UFT president Randi Weingarten likened her to Joseph McCarthy. Yet Moskowitz seemed unaware of her own polarizing impact. Two years later, she was devastated when the Times labeled her style “abrasive” and joined the UFT in endorsing Scott Stringer for Manhattan borough president, her stepping-stone toward Gracie Mansion. Stringer beat her by nine points, but it’s the adjective that still flusters her. “I’m a fierce advocate—which doesn’t mean one is abrasive,” she says.
“She could have been borough president,” says a former UFT official. “But she’s a purist. Sometimes, to me, she’s very naïve.”
The work-rule hearings kindled her epiphany: An unholy “conspiracy” between the UFT and the Department of Education had deprofessionalized teachers, hamstrung principals, and sabotaged countless students’ futures. Charter schools, uninhibited by “special interests,” were the Way. All they needed was a chance to compete, a free market. At a Crain’s breakfast, Moskowitz scolded the deep pockets in attendance for failing “to declare war on the monopoly of public education … Your silence is inexcusable.”
The day after leaving office, she set to work for Joel Greenblatt and John Petry of Gotham Capital, her network’s founding funders. Dug in at a Starbucks with a cadre of aides, she put to paper her philosophy: one part Bank Street (the liberal education college), one part Our Lady of the Assumption. She’d spent “six years thinking deeply about what the DoE was getting wrong,” as she’d tell the New York Sun. “This was an incredible opportunity to get it right the first time.
At five-two, Moskowitz perches easily on a chair made for a 6-year-old, her BlackBerry and cell phone fanned before her, a triple-shot latte close at hand. She is weary; she is always weary. “Why doesn’t anyone care that the schools in Harlem have been unsuccessful for half a century?” She speaks slowly, emphatically. “Why is this not a big deal? To me, it’s a terrible deal.” Her pink-tipped fingers cleave the air. “We’re a caring city, right? Where is the intelligentsia on this issue? Where are the civic-minded people?”
Two generations removed from a sweater peddler on the Lower East Side, Moskowitz was raised by a pair of liberal college professors and lived for ten years in Columbia housing on West 118th Street. In first grade at P.S. 36, she saw “perfectly capable” classmates unable to read, with no one paying much attention. It was her first intimation “that the system is screwed up,” a suspicion that hardened after she was switched to P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side. Even at age 7, she says, “you can see what you’re not getting.”
She slogged her way to the city’s crown jewel, Stuyvesant High School, only to find it rotted from within. During her sophomore year, a scandal broke over stolen Regents exams. “There was a culture of cheating,” she says. After the proctor left the room during the PSATs and a collaborative free-for-all ensued, Moskowitz stood and quit the test midstream. A year or so later, while editing the yearbook, she was appalled to find photos that revealed more cheating—and disgusted when the principal seized them to cover it up.
“She’s the sand in the oyster,” says Eric Grannis, her high-school boyfriend and now her husband. “Just totally out of step.”
While in graduate school (Ph.D. in history, Johns Hopkins), Moskowitz taught for two summers at the nonprofit Prep for Prep, helping disadvantaged fourth-graders about to be funneled into elite private schools. “They were like sponges—I still think they’re the brightest kids I ever taught,” she says. “But they were three years behind.” The city’s schools had failed these children—abjectly, unacceptably. A seed was planted. The system was broken. Who would fix it?
Moskowitz might lack the national track record of David Levin, the co-founder of KIPP, or the community bona fides of Geoffrey Canada and his Harlem Children’s Zone. But she is game to do what they are not: to plunge into hand-to-hand combat and mobilize thousands to follow. “Most people who got into the reform movement were educators or business guys,” Steve Barr says. “But it’s really a political problem. What Eva does is to make her parents activists.”
Edgy personality aside, it is her velocity that makes Moskowitz provocative. “Imagine you’re in a car,” Grannis says, “and the accelerator gets stuck, and the only thing you can do is steer. In some sense, that’s Eva.” Two years ago, there was one Success Academy. In August there will be seven, including two outposts in the Bronx. By 2019, the goal is 40 schools—an unheard-of concentration for a single network in one city—to serve more than 20,000 students through eighth grade and perhaps beyond.
Such ambition might seem grandiose, but Success Charter Network does not lack for tailwinds. President Obama has reserved his $4 billion Race to the Top sugarplum for states with pro-charter policies. Chancellor Klein put in a good word for Moskowitz with Eli Broad (who came through with a million-dollar grant), and waxes evangelical at every Success event. The venerable Canada cheers her on: “To bring change, you’ve got to be willing to do some bold and daring things, and that’s what Eva’s doing.”
Bold, indeed. Most charter operators, observes Sy Fliegel, president of the Center for Educational Innovation, “ask for space very quietly and hope they can get it. Eva asks for schools.” Co-location, as she once put it, is a “Middle East war.” As her beachheads roll out and roll up, one grade per year, her need for real estate sparks resistance. Police were called last summer when she brought movers to take another floor at P.S. 123, piling the zoned school’s belongings in the gym after it neglected to vacate on time. Stringer flayed her “thug tactics”; Moskowitz dismissed him as a “UFT hack.”
There is a method to these expropriations, as documented by 125 e-mail exchanges with Klein that were recently unearthed by the Daily News. In July 2007, a year before opening Academies 2 through 4, Moskowitz identified five zoned schools that had declining enrollments “and suck academically.” In October 2008, she informed Klein that she was “most interested in” P.S. 194 and P.S. 241 in Harlem. Two months after that, the DoE moved to shutter those two schools and pass their buildings in toto—a first—to Success Charter Network. But there was a problem: Success could not accept all the children to be displaced. For one thing, the network has no self-contained classrooms for the profoundly disabled; for another, it takes in no new students after the second grade. At an incendiary public hearing at P.S. 194, zoned- and charter-school parents roared each other down, neighbor against neighbor. In a colonial metaphor that made Moskowitz shake her head, one resident compared her to Tarzan’s Jane—“back again, swinging through Harlem not with vines, but with charter schools.” When Klein stayed the closings in the face of a UFT lawsuit, he also advised the zoned schools’ parents to “seriously consider” moving their children to Harlem Success.
One peril of rapid expansion is that it exposes a short leadership bench, which some would argue trumps the CEO’s vision. “I’m a skeptic,” says Klein’s predecessor, former chancellor Harold Levy. While Levy admires a number of charter schools, he is no less impressed with charismatic principals in zoned schools: “We’re not talking about charter versus noncharter; we’re talking about quality of leadership. It’s people.” Moskowitz has already burned through three principals at Harlem Success Academy 1, taking the reins each time as the school’s de facto leader. The latest was Jacqueline Getz, a highly regarded veteran from P.S. 87 on the Upper West Side, who took the job last summer and resigned within weeks. (While Getz declined to comment, she told a confidante that there were “things going on that she could not in good conscience let happen.”) Her presumptive successor is Jacqueline Albers, a 26-year-old alumna of Teach for America. Critics point out that Albers fits the profile for much of Moskowitz’s top leadership circle: young white women with thin résumés. “The people they have making decisions are inexperienced and undereducated,” a former network staff member says.
Attacks come with change-agent territory, and Moskowitz is inured to them. “I wake up every day and people are calling me names,” she says. “It’s just endless.” Schools like P.S. 194, she says, “would be shut down in a moment on the Upper East Side.” It’s her go-to theme: the hypocrisy of “classic liberals” who “believe in choice for themselves, but they don’t believe in choice for other people. To me, that is really fundamental to social justice: to have choices in life.”
“I would feel really bad,” she says, “to die and have the same public-school system.”
One year ago, HSA 1’s inaugural third grade approached its days of reckoning with the state’s standardized tests: reading in January, mathematics in March. Despite their well-documented defects, these assessments are the make-or-break barometer of a school’s “accountability” and a vital marketing tool for high-performing charter networks. Lofty numbers bedazzle authorizers and lure fat checks from foundations and trustees. “It was very important not only to do well but to do phenomenally well,” says Moskowitz. “We’re not going for okay or for better than the zone,” echoes Jenny Sedlis, the network’s director of external affairs. “We’re going for better than the Upper East Side.”
As it turned out, the network’s third-graders did splendidly in reading, with a 95 percent pass rate. But their math scores were extraterrestrial. All 60 were rated proficient, at level 3 or higher; 42 reached level 4, the top. The group’s mean scaled score ranked first among charters statewide and bested all but seven of the city’s 788 elementary schools, including perennial high fliers like P.S. 6 and P.S. 321. More gratifying still, it trounced every third grade in Mamaroneck, Chappaqua, and Rye—a coup that did not go unnoticed by SUNY, which green-lit three new Success Academies to open this summer. For Pedro Noguera, the Steinhardt School professor and SUNY trustee who chairs the charter-authorizing committee, the test results vouched that the network was “doing something right.”
Because the state’s exams are predictable, they’re deemed easy to game with test prep. But in contrast to their drill-and-kill competition, Moskowitz says her teachers prepped their third-graders a mere ten minutes per day … plus some added time over winter break, she confides upon reflection, when the children had but two days off: Christmas and New Year’s. But the holiday push wasn’t the only extra step that Success took to succeed last year. After some red-flag internal assessments, Paul Fucaloro kept “the bottom 25 percent” an hour past their normal 4:30 p.m. dismissal—four days a week, six weeks before each test. “The real slow ones,” he says, stayed an additional 30 minutes, till six o’clock: a ten-hour-plus day for 8- and 9-year-olds. Meanwhile, much of the class convened on Saturday mornings from September on. Fourth-grader Ashley Wilder thought this “terrible” at first: “I missed Flapjack on the Cartoon Network. But education is more important than sitting back and eating junk food all day.” By working the children off-hours, Moskowitz could boost her numbers without impinging on curricular “specials” like Ashley’s beloved art class.
The day before the scheduled math test, the city got socked with eight inches of snow. Of 1,499 schools in the city, 1,498 were closed. But at Harlem Success Academy 1, 50-odd third-graders trudged through 35-mile-per-hour gusts for a four-hour session over Subway sandwiches. As Moskowitz told the Times, “I was ready to come in this morning and crank the heating boilers myself if I had to.”
“We have a gap to close, so I want the kids on edge, constantly,” Fucaloro adds. “By the time test day came, they were like little test-taking machines.”
Some might deem this excessive, but Ashley’s grandmother, Yvette Rolack, was delighted with the extra attention—and with Ashley’s pair of 3’s. “They really stayed with the kids to help them get where they needed to go,” she says. “I am a security guard, and I like my job, but I want my granddaughter to excel and not just stand at the door and nod her head and give directions. I want more for her.”
For Moskowitz, success is a family affair and a shared obligation. Parents must sign the network’s “contract,” a promise to get children to class on time and in blue-and-orange uniform, guarantee homework, and attend all family events. “When parents aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Fucaloro says, “we get on their behinds. Eva and Paul Fucaloro are their worst nightmares.” Infractions can range to the trivial: slacks that look worn at a child’s knees, long johns edging beyond collars. Recidivists are hauled into “Saturday Academy,” detention family style, where parents are monitored while doing “busy work” with their child, the ex-staffer says. Those who skip get a bristling form letter: “You simply stood up your child’s teacher and many others who came in on a Saturday, after a long, hard week.” At the last staff orientation, according to one Success teacher, Moskowitz reported telling parents, “Our school is like a marriage, and if you don’t come through with your promises, we will have to divorce.”
New students are initiated at “kindergarten boot camp,” where they get drilled for two weeks on how to behave in the “zero noise” corridors (straight lines, mouths shut, arms at one’s sides) and the art of active listening (legs crossed, hands folded, eyes tracking the speaker). Life at Harlem Success, the teacher says, is “very, very structured,” even the twenty-minute recess. Lunches are rushed and hushed, leaving little downtime to build social skills. Many children appear fried by two o’clock, particularly in weeks with heavy testing. “We test constantly, all grades,” the teacher says. During the TerraNova, a mini-SAT bubble test over four consecutive mornings, three students threw up. “I just don’t feel that kids have a chance to be kids,” she laments.
Noguera, too, has reservations about the “punitive” approach at Harlem Success and other high-performing charter networks. He thinks it grooms conformists, and that middle-class parents would find it anathema. “What concerns me are the race/class assumptions built into this,” he says. “If you’re serious about preparing kids to be leaders, you have to realize that leaders have to think for themselves.”
Moskowitz doesn’t buy the self-selection premise. The children in proximate zoned schools, she insists, “are the same kids we have.” She notes that Success floods the neighborhood with glossy oversize brochures (six pieces per household, at a cost of more than $300,000 per year), and that two of three eligible Harlem families actually fill one out. “Zoned schools say, ‘We have families from domestic-violence shelters’—so do we,” Moskowitz says. “They’ve got families in blah-blah situations—so do we.”
Based on available statistics, however, charter schools have fewer of these families, including the poorest of the poor. One problem with “school choice,” as writer-activist Jonathan Kozol noted, is that the “ultimate choices” tend to get made “by those who own or operate a school.” At stake is not just who gets in, but who stays in. Studies show “selective attrition” in the KIPP chain, among others, with academic stragglers—including those seen as disruptive or in need of pricey services—leaving in greater numbers. In one flagrant local example, East New York Preparatory discharged 48 students shortly before last year’s tests, among them seven poor-scoring third-graders. (Citing financial mismanagement, the Department of Education plans to revoke the school’s charter in June.)
At Harlem Success, disability is a dirty word. “I’m not a big believer in special ed,” Fucaloro says. For many children who arrive with individualized education programs, or IEPs, he goes on, the real issues are “maturity and undoing what the parents allow the kids to do in the house—usually mama—and I reverse that right away.” When remediation falls short, according to sources in and around the network, families are counseled out. “Eva told us that the school is not a social-service agency,” says the Harlem Success teacher. “That was an actual quote.”
In one case, says a teacher at P.S. 241, a set of twins started kindergarten at the co-located HSA 4 last fall. One of them proved difficult and was placed on a part-time schedule, “so the mom took both of them out and put them in our school. She has since put the calm sister twin back in Harlem Success, but they wouldn’t take the boy back. We have the harder, troubled one; they have the easier one.”
Such triage is business as usual, says the former network staffer, when the schools are vexed by behavioral problems: “They don’t provide the counseling these kids need.” If students are deemed bad “fits” and their parents refuse to move them, the staffer says, the administration “makes it a nightmare” with repeated suspensions and midday summonses. After a 5-year-old was suspended for two days for allegedly running out of the building, the child’s mother says the school began calling her every day “saying he’s doing this, he’s doing that. Maybe they’re just trying to get rid of me and my child, but I’m not going to give them that satisfaction.”
At her school alone, the Harlem Success teacher says, at least half a dozen lower-grade children who were eligible for IEPs have been withdrawn this school year. If this account were to reflect a pattern, Moskowitz’s network would be effectively winnowing students before third grade, the year state testing begins. “The easiest and fastest way to improve your test scores,” observes a DoE principal in Brooklyn, “is to get higher-performing students into your school.” And to get the lower-performing students out.
English Language Learners (ELLs) are another group that scores poorly on the state tests—and is grossly underrepresented at Success. The network’s flagship has only ten ELLs, or less than 2 percent of its population, compared to 13 percent at its co-located zoned school. The network enrolls 51 ELLs in all, yet, as of last fall, provided no certified ESL teacher to support them. After a site visit to Harlem Success Academy 1 in November, the state education department found that the school had failed to show evidence of compliance with its charter and with No Child Left Behind, which mandates ESL services by “highly qualified” teachers. The matter is currently under review. (According to Sedlis, the network hired an ESL teacher in January.)
In reality, as Moskowitz will tell you, students are sorted in traditional schools in every district of the city: by Zip Code, by gifted programs, by admissions rigged to cream strong students off the top. But when charters exclude high-cost, high-needs children in charter-saturated neighborhoods like Harlem, they are also dumping those needy students on beleaguered zoned schools. In East Harlem’s District 4, the proportion of ELLs rose more than 40 percent between 2004 and 2008. As those schools become overburdened, the downward spiral accelerates, and education historian Diane Ravitch fears its implications. “In the future as it is now developing,” she wrote by e-mail, “there will be neighborhoods that have no public schools, only privately managed schools.” Whatever the virtues of high-performing charters, or the tarnished reality of public education, the prospect of ceding large swaths of the city to a model that can’t accommodate every child—and that exists at the mercy of philanthropic hedge-funders—is a gamble with very high stakes.
For an outsider peeking in, the Moskowitz formula can seem persuasive. Her young faculty is uneven but fiercely dedicated. The “scholars” get weekly classes in chess and dancing, Greenmarket field trips, 150 science experiments per year. Their art is shown off at Sotheby’s, their essays at Barnes & Noble. It’s a college-bound culture, stem to stern.
Last fall, Moskowitz stepped back from an arid, scripted, nationally marketed curriculum for charter schools. “It didn’t teach kids how to think about books,” she explains. She replaced it for the second grade and up with a balanced literacy program and TERC math, more or less what the middle class gets. Moskowitz had long hoped to create schools “where I’d want to send my own children,” and now she has. Harlem Success Academy 3 enrolls Dillon, 7, and Hannah, 5, the lone white students there.
Still, as the charter movement gathers force from the White House on down, nagging questions persist. Can privately run schools justly take public money while excluding the most vulnerable students? And should children be pushed to their limits—and beyond—to prove they can best their suburban counterparts on some flawed and arbitrary exam?
But these questions do not haunt Eva Moskowitz. After watching a demonstration last summer against HSA 2, she sent a communiqué to her staff quoting Schopenhauer: “ ‘All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.’ We’re at stage two.”
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