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A Parent’s Perspective: Open Letter to The New York Times

Recently, The New York Times published an article about Success Academy, and it left me with a heavy heart. Success Academy is known for its joyful rigor, but the Times reporter described only the “rigor.” So I felt that I had to share my family’s experience and talk about the “joyful” part.

Last year was one of the most stressful years in our life as my husband and I debated where to send our daughter to school. We got a flyer from Success Academy in our mail box and I almost sent it to garbage without looking, but my daughter brought it to me saying “Mommy, I want to play chess!” – there were 2 kids on the flyer playing the game. That’s how we first found out about the school. It followed with hours and hours of research. I was reading every single article, visited schools, and had conversations with current parents. The school tour I joined was in SA Union Square. I fell in love with the school immediately, but still had lots of concerns. Two biggest were: very strict discipline and no special program for English learners.

Why these two things seemed so scary to me?

When our daughter was in pre-K at another school, her teacher had complained about her behavior. She suggested having her evaluated for special education services. I didn’t want to, but the teacher talked to me about it daily, and eventually I agreed. The results showed that my daughter had no processing delays or other learning disabilities. In fact, she was advanced in many areas. She was a bright and free-spirited child who, at times, had chosen not to follow her teacher’s directions. Because of this experience, I was worried that Success Academy would not be a good fit. I couldn’t imagine her on a rug, sitting still and tracking the teacher. I also was concerned because we are a Russian-speaking family, and Russian is the only language we use at home. Our daughter’s English was very limited. I wasn’t sure how she could keep up with the extremely rigorous curriculum at Success.

We applied anyway, and in April 2014 we got a letter from Success Academy Bensonhurst telling us that we won the lottery and granted a seat for our daughter to start Kindergarten in September. It was the same week when we got Gifted & Talented Test results; she got 99 and was eligible to apply to Citywide G&T schools. Should I mention how many sleepless nights we had in April trying to decide what will be the best decision for our child? This was the time I visited many G&T schools in the area. The only school that impressed me as much as Success Academy, was Brooklyn School of Inquiry. It seemed that they had very similar approach; the only difference to me was that BSI wasn’t strict at all. Other schools with G&T classes didn’t impress me during the school tours. I didn’t see any clear difference between gifted classes and regular classes. We put BSI as our first choice and PS 215 as second. We got a placement in PS 215 and from conversations with current PS 215 parents heard only good things.

This was our choice – Success Academy Bensonhurst or G&T class in PS 215. It wasn’t a situation of poorly performing zoned school vs Success Academy, but it made it only more difficult. There are many times in parenting when you have to let yourself follow your heart. My heart was saying “give Success Academy a chance” and we did.

It’s April 2015. The 100th day of school is far behind, and I have to say – every single day I feel blessed and extremely grateful to have my daughter in Success Academy Bensonhurst.

Since I shared our biggest concerns, I think it will be fair to say that of course we faced both. On the 5th day of school we got a letter that our daughter will have an Individual Behavior Plan. The plan was very simple: she got her personal velcro chart and every time she was following the teacher’s direction from the first request she was getting a star. Earning 5 stars meant 5 minutes of fun – she had her own “fun bag” with coloring pages, crayons, play dough and more to choose from. It took couple of weeks and she stopped getting corrections for “not following directions”. She was still on “red” for many months. To be on “red” means to get more that 5 corrections a day. But those corrections were for “not tracking”, “hands not locked” or “bad posture”. It didn’t seem like something to worry about, so we didn’t. Eventually she got her first “green” after couple of months and was proud of herself. It took her awhile, but she learned the rules. Now “red” happens only on first day after school break.

Very strict discipline was the scariest thing for us, but turned out to be a biggest blessing for our daughter. It allowed her to use her potential and achieve the best results possible! And is there a parent who doesn’t want their kids to have a “good posture”?

Talking about difficulties with English, I want to share one story. Couple of weeks ago before falling asleep my daughter was telling me about a book that her teacher read to them in class. She was going on and on with such a depth and so many details. She remembered all the names too. We usually speak Russian at home but this was the time she was talking in English and I couldn’t believe how much her vocabulary grew during these months in school. The book that she was telling me about was “My Father’s Dragon”. I Googled it right after our conversation. And it was another surprise for me, since it turned out to be a chapter book, not picture book. I wanted to find a summary to see if she told me the right story. And she surely did! More than that on Scholastic website I found that this book is Grade Level Equivalent: 4.8, Age: 7-10. Seriously? My daughter is 5, she is an English learner, who didn’t speak English until she came to Success Academy in September. She can understand, enjoy, retell and discuss this book in English. And I was right, Success Academy doesn’t have special program for English learners. Must be a magic!

The New York Times article presented the school as a very tests prep orientated and that’s what many people are thinking. Our daughter is in K, so we didn’t get to that point yet. Still there are things that just don’t go well with tests prep. Why would school hire a full time art teacher and chess teacher if it was all about tests? Why let kids play blocks for an hour every day? Why have hands on experiments in Science 5 days a week? Why take kids to field trips twice a month? Why work hard on updating the bulletin boards in hallways every couple of months? And you have to see those boards! One of the requirements – “The classroom (and hallways) is the second teacher! Our hallways are colorful, vibrant, engaging spaces for our scholars.”

They have Art twice a week and it’s not “arts & crafts”, it is a very serious Art program, where they learn about artists and have an access to a huge variety of art supplies. One day on a way home from school we asked our daughter what they did in art class. She said they were using water colors, like one artist. She forgot the name. I said: “Maybe Picasso?”, “No, not PABLO Picasso. By the way Picasso used cool colors”.

They have Blocks daily. That’s the time when they play with wooden blocks and work in teams. Is it a part of Test Prep?

I’d like to share another conversation with my daughter. Now it’s science related. She was reading a book about rocks. There was a sentence “Rocks can be smooth or rough.”

– Mama, do you know that earth worms prefer smooth surfaces?
– Why?
– Because they can scratch themselves if the surface is rough.
– How do you know!?
– We had an experiment in science!

There are many days in school when kids have a chance to express their creativity and individuality, like crazy socks day, career day, crazy hair day. The best part is that the principal, teachers and all staff members come dressed as well. Kids love these days!

Success Academy has a “Project based learning”. I’ll give you an example: Kindergarten scholars had their first Project Based Learning Unit, which was “Bread”. They learned all about bread: read books, went to the bakery, baked in school cafeteria, and shared their own recipes, in science executed experiments with bread, in art made art works using bread stamping. Each scholar completed his own “How to book” about baking the bread. At the end they had the “Bread Museum”. Parents were invited to see all they learned and to taste the breads from all over the world that they baked together with scholars at home.

I’d like to talk little bit about the literacy and math as well. Because this must definitely be a part of tests preparation!

When our daughter entered Kindergarten she didn’t read at all. Now she is on level H. I mentioned what kind of chapter books teachers read to them in school. They also have a “guided reading” segment every day, when they are divided into small groups and read books one level ahead of their current level with the teacher’s help. There is another segment every day when they read on their own the books that they select from a class library. Every week she is bringing home 12-15 books on her level including Fiction and Non Fiction and reads them to us. Parents also have to fill in the reading log for the books that we read to kids at home. The requirement is 6 books a week, but the more the better!

I love math curriculum in Success Academy. It’s truly amazing how much our daughter learned this year. This curriculum teaches kids to think, other than just memorizing the math facts. At 5 years old our daughter knows how to solve 9 types of word problems. Isn’t it amazing?

The New York Times mentioned “effort academy” in their article. I’d like to talk about “effort party”. The day kids are taking big accumulative tests they have an Effort Party after it. I think it’s such a brilliant idea. Teachers send to this party only those kids who showed a great effort (worked hard) during the test. It’s not about the result, but about working hard to achieve it. An example of an Effort Party is pop corn and movie.

I had a chance to volunteer in school a lot during the winter months and I was so touched by the warm and welcoming atmosphere. I had a chance to hang out in the hallways, listening to what teachers say to students as they pass by, and watching what teachers and staff members say to one another. I saw so much collaboration and kindness, so much teamwork. The best thing is that as a parent I feel like a part of this team and am proud of it!

Written by Polina Bulman April 13, 2015

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