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Taking the Higher Ground at Success Academy Washington Heights

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My current neighborhood reminds me of my hometown. There’s a physical border in the form of a massive cliff cutting off Hudson Heights from the rest of Washington Heights, but it’s the metaphorical barrier that truly divides. There are well-documented socioeconomic and ethnic differences that fall along this division.

My school sits at the top — on the affluent and highly coveted side — but my students, admitted through random lottery, come from all over the city, including “down the cliff.” We have the longest waiting list of any Success Academy School, a testament to our outstanding academic achievements: On the most recent state exams, Success Academy Washington Heights was first in the state for math and in the top .03 percent for ELA.

Our families may not be zoned to “this side of the cliff” (although some of them are), but they have every right to attend a high-performing school. We’re proud of our diversity, our inclusiveness, and our excellence, but have discovered that not everyone celebrates what we’ve achieved.

As with any school in our tightly-packed New York City neighborhoods, we have to contend with logistical challenges. Our goal in this regard is to minimize the potential disruption that comes from hundreds of children arriving and leaving at the same time each day. We also try to maximize what we can give back to the community, bringing our children to sing at senior citizen homes, and hosting community art shows. We’re not perfect, but we’ve taken extensive efforts to adjust and improve — as is the Success Academy way.

Nevertheless, during our twenty-minute arrival and ten-minute dismissal periods, we endure daily abuse. I’ve been told that we’re ruining the neighborhood. I’ve been angrily asked, in reference to our families, “Where are these people from?” Anti-charter campaigners stand at our entrance handing out flyers with common charter school myths. Parents have been confronted in front of their own children, bullied online in neighborhood forums, and called out at community meetings.

As principal, I want to be the best ambassador to the neighborhood that I can be — but I also need my families to know that they belong here. They are part of an incredible learning community, one that they truly deserve and helped create.

Together, we’re shaping future leaders who will shatter metaphorical cliffs. I am hopeful that we — Success Academy staff, faculty, and parents — are raising these citizens of the world that know how to embrace diversity and create positive change.

Recently, several SA moms spoke with me about their reactions to our ongoing challenges. I wanted to share some of their remarks below, because I continue to be inspired and humbled by the families that make Success Academy Washington Heights a truly amazing place.

Written by Kelsey DePalo November 21, 2017

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