By KYLE SMITH
On Aug. 13, while his mother, Jenna Sternbach, was meeting other parents and teachers, 4-year-old August went to “dress rehearsal” at his new school in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. “He hadn’t been particularly excited about school before,” says Sternbach, a freelance publicist and stay-at-home mom. “Now he can’t stop talking about it.”
August was one of 1,429 applying to Success Academy Cobble Hill, which is in the basement of an existing school building (two other schools are upstairs) on Baltic Street. Places were allocated by lottery, with 20% of seats set aside for English learners.
Success Academy now operates 12 of New York City’s dozens of charter schools, which are funded by the public purse but are run without the input of the United Federation of Teachers. Sternbach, 32, visited a Success school that opened last year on the Upper West Side and came away enchanted.
Sternbach, who also has a 3-year-old and a 2-year-old, is zoned for PS 261 in Boerum Hill and thought, “It was OK.” But, “When I toured Success Academy on the Upper West Side, I thought, this facility is beautiful and the teachers are very energetic and engaged with the kids.
“Everything was very bright and cheerful.
“I love the energy of the school. When they meet a standard, they keep raising the bar.”
Tomorrow, Success Academy Cobble Hill opens to 165 kindergartners and first graders. Along with other charter outfits, such as Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone and the Knowledge is Power Program, Success gets inundated with applications every time it opens a new school. Seats are allocated by lottery, with priority given to locals.
Founded by former City Council member Eva Moskowitz, Success has a topsy-turvy idea about how schools should be run: to please customers instead of employees.
Success Academy Cobble Hill (SACH) was bustling on a recent visit. It took over most of a basement that three months ago was a dingy storage area. A greenhouse outside in the courtyard wasn’t being used; they put it to work, too.
New, bright-blue flooring has been installed. The tiles are neatly inscribed with vocabulary words and numbers, so kids learn even as they shuttle between classes. A huge room is filling up with boxes of blocks for play time. Brand-new, little desks and chairs are being taken out of their wrapping.
Because a principal shouldn’t have to spend her time on budgets and purchasing, Success schools divide the role into a chief educator (a career art teacher, Kerri Tabarcea) and an operations manager (Dawn Antoine, an MBA and former J.P. Morgan banker). At the start of the school year, parents get a sheet listing the teachers’ cellphone numbers, and Anne Osmon, the chipper community-relations coordinator, is also available to talk after-hours. School policy is all calls get returned within 24 hours, except on weekends. “My generation is used to being on call all the time,” she says with a shrug.
Arriving in SACH isn’t quite like arriving in Oz from Kansas. It’s more like arriving in Oz from Rahway State Penitentiary.
Most of the building is occupied by the seemingly redundant Brooklyn School for Global Studies and the School for International Studies, both serving grades six through 12. Much in the way Wile E. Coyote’s business card used to say, “Genius,” these schools’ titles compare uneasily with their accomplishments.
The Brooklyn School for Global Studies, which barely escaped being closed by the city for gross incompetence earlier this year, rates 18% of its students as proficient in reading, 33% in math. The number of students who passed a “college preparatory course” under the city’s definition: zero.
Yet recently it rewarded itself by spending your money buying iPads for its teachers (who at this school are paid an average of $71,000).
At the School for International Studies (“very few classes with an international theme,” dryly notes InsideSchools.org), 23% of students are rated as proficient in reading and 54% in math.
That’s “proficient,” not “prepared for college,” much less “employable.” Lead off your résumé with “proficient in English,” see how many job offers roll in. Last year zero students passed an AP exam. The school mainly seems to serve as an employment agency: The student/teacher ratio is 12 to 1.
At the Success schools, it’s more like 28 to 1. Fewer teachers does not necessarily mean worse results.
Moskowitz’s charter schools take some private money while they’re getting off the ground, but after the third year they are self-sustaining, run entirely on public funds. They don’t even allow parents to raise additional money for the school — a familiar feature of many of New York’s better public schools, whose parent groups tirelessly rattle the tin cup — on the reasoning that lower-income parents shouldn’t be burdened or made to feel that their kids are on an unequal footing.
Many of the charter-school teachers are refugees from the ordinary public schools. The good news for them is they get paid about 15% more at Success schools, in exchange for which the charters don’t have to deal with the ironclad, innovation-stifling 165-page contract enforced by the United Federation of Teachers. That means, among other things, a longer school day (until 4:30) and more flexibility to get rid of bad teachers, reward good ones and continuously direct and train them.
Actual passage from the UFT Web site: “The contract expressly forbids supervisors to discipline you for the appearance and format of your bulletin boards, the arrangement of your room or the length of segments of your lesson. If your evaluation is rated ‘U’ [unsatisfactory] for any of those reasons, see your chapter leader about filing a grievance or pursuing professional conciliation.”
New York’s much-vaunted changes to teacher tenure, which traditionally has made it virtually impossible to fire someone after three years on the job, are more hype than reality. This year “ only” 55% got tenure — what other gig offers lifetime job security for being average? — but only 3% were outright rejected.
Thanks to engaged teachers, Success students, who wear bright orange and blue uniforms (financial aid is available for those who can’t afford them), are notably enthusiastic about school, according to observers such as InsideSchools.org.
“Every moment is packed with purpose and structure,” InsideSchools ruled of the Success Academy on the Upper West Side, which opened last fall. “During block time, students are given activities and goals. In art, before they paint a full picture, students practice skills such as how to use a brush, how to make different marks with the brush and how to clean a brush before dipping it into another color. We observed one teacher playing a math game with her students while they waited on line to use the bathroom . . . We met students displaying impressive skills.”
“We call it joyful rigor,” says Moskowitz, taking a break from scrambling to open similar schools in two other Brooklyn neighborhoods: largely middle-class Williamsburg and impoverished Bedford-Stuyvesant. Moskowitz holds a Ph.D. in history and helps teach intensive teacher-prep classes in the weeks before school starts.
She has produced blockbuster results: The first four Success schools to receive state ratings all got an A last fall. Success schools rank in the top 1% in the state in math and in the top 3% in English.
By now there should be a statue of Moskowitz in Harlem (where she grew up and lives). But no true revolutionary lacks enemies.
The United Federation of Teachers, correctly perceiving market-based competition to be a dire threat, organizes front groups to kick up a fuss at community board meetings. One SACH information session at a public library last October was greeted with protesters screaming “co-location kills public schools” and ended abruptly when hecklers shouted down Moskowitz.
“It was crazy,” says Sternbach, a parent who was there. “I wasn’t aware of the level of opposition at that point. It was all teachers’ contract stuff. I sort of need to be more focused on the education aspect.”
Unionistas bring frivolous lawsuits (they keep getting dismissed by judges) and wage a furious war in the press, enjoying seemingly limitless access to the pages of The New York Times. Only in the public-education system would anyone argue that failure should be rewarded with more money, that monopoly is good or that choice is bad.
Success students are self-selecting, given that it takes a bit of initiative to apply, and some students are easier to discipline than others. By their nature, charters attract motivated families.
But so what? If there aren’t enough life boats for everyone, does that mean everyone should drown in the interest of “fairness?” The obvious answer is more lifeboats. Not suing the boat makers.
“This shouldn’t be so threatening,” Moskowitz says with a sigh. “We’re just offering parents one other option. You don’t have to go to the school, but if you want an alternative that is academically rigorous, this is one more addition in the neighborhood.
“And yet we have to defend ourselves in court. That’s a little wacky. We should be making it easier, not harder, to access academic excellence.” Of just over 1,000 public schools in the city, Moskowitz notes, 60% are “abysmal failures” in which most students cannot read at grade level.
Contrary to what its opponents would have you believe, SACH, and the Success schools in general, are progressive-minded. They venerate science (Moskowitz believes hers are the only public schools in the country that feature science five days a week from kindergarten on), they welcome special needs and English language learners and disproportionately serve the poor and people of color (11 of the 14 Success schools are in predominantly minority neighborhoods).
They also provide a partial remedy to one of the great shames of New York City, which is that our schools are de facto segregated. “I wish there were more outrage,” says Moskowitz. “There was a time in this country when that was important to us and people lost a lot of literally blood and tears over that problem.”
At the Success on the Upper West Side, two-thirds of the school’s students are black and Latino, compared with 30% at PS 9 across the street. Yet SACH has been castigated as an unfair perk for the rich. Its union-backed enemies argued absurdly that it was marketed so that only white families would hear about it (in fact Success takes out ads on buses and other public spaces), that it was taking away space from a needy school (but there is so much wasted space within existing city schools that 200,000 students could be accommodated by charters without adding a single brick to a building).
Moskowitz is confident that common sense will prevail, and that the charter movement will continue to grow even after its most powerful champion, Mayor Bloomberg, departs office in 16 months. Even if, unfortunately, any would-be successor will be begging the UFT for campaign support.
“I think parents are very powerful, and I think any mayoral candidate or future mayor who tries to reduce parent choice is going to be a little caught off guard by the power of the response,” she says.
After all, this is a love story, and love conquers all. “If you put teaching and learning front and center and you have a very high rigor bar,” Moskowitz says, “the kids are not only going to learn more and faster but the kids are going to fall in love with learning.”