I didn’t know much about Success Academy until seeing the movie “The Lottery.” Out of the several school reform movies I love, this is one of my favorites. By favorite I mean it punctured my chest, tore my heart out, poured lighter fluid on it, set it afire, put it on a stake, ran with it through the deepest recesses of my mind until it came to my conscience at which point it reignited my passion for emancipating black families from the mind-numbing human catastrophe that is public education. That might be dramatic. In “The Lottery” more than 4,000 parents agonize about getting into Success Academy. It feels very life or death for them. Getting into Success offers the hope of a good life, and failing to get in seems like sending kids into the educational pits. If you will ever cry watching a non-fiction movie, this is the one. However, these days, Success Academy is catching hell. While most charter school leaders dodge the issue of suspensions and student discipline, Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academy network, stridently stands her ground on the the practices she believes makes her schools so successful:
At Success Academies, the schools I founded, our suspension rates are higher than average and I’m sure we’ll be criticized for this. For example, Success Academy Harlem 5, has a suspension rate of 14 percent. (That means 14 percent of our kids get suspended at least once during the year.) Located in the same building is a district school, PS 123, whose rate is 9 percent.It’s those types of statements that inflame RiShawn Biddle, editor and publisher of DropoutNation.
Are We Really for Parent Power?For years Biddle has been a dedicated crusader against harsh discipline practices in public education. DropoutNation has consistently raised the issue of discipline using national statistics and research to illustrate how schools can grease the skids between childhood and incarceration. He has a gift for data and details, and he’s not afraid to share. More recently I noticed a new target of Biddle’s analytical gifts: Moskowitz. She has been a minor fascination for DropoutNation, and Biddle has argued with folks online about her. There’s a level of intensity and passion I can’t explain, but he obviously feels something I’m not in touch with. Now he has company. He recently published a post, When Black Parents Stand Alone, co-written with parent advocate Gwen Samuel that peppers those of us unwilling to condemn Success and Moskowitz. The post contains an ultimatum: either join Biddle, Samuel, New York education activist Mona Davids, and Tonya Fitzgerald in their Twitter activism against Success, or be labeled as complicit with oppression of black people, immorality and racism. I doubt anyone will be cyberbullied into complying, but their central points merit attention. They make three claims:
- Success relies too heavily on suspensions.
- It was wrong for Moskowitz to release details about a student’s discipline record.
- Education reformers in general don’t care about black children, black parents or black education activists.
Some of these reformers, both black and white and including those who I call allies, will negotiate a child’s well-being through their silence. They will behave in ways little different than the traditionalists we must also oppose. Such silence is an implicit choice to side with oppression, to support mass incarceration, disproportionate use of harsh traditional school discipline, even to be a champion of the school-to-prison pipeline. No transformer for children can be silent in the face of these injustices and also say that all children matter.This feels forced and wrong. Disagreement about how to run an orderly school isn’t the same as being silent on matters of racial justice. I try to keep things simple. Like the African proverb, I ask, “how are the children?” Moskowitz would say most kids in her care are excelling academically. In 2015 her students were 93 percent proficient in math, and 68 percent in reading. That compares to citywide averages of 35 percent in math and 30 percent in reading for New York students overall. To that Biddle would reply, “the kids Success suspends aren’t doing well.” I would ask him to consider for a moment that there was a drug that cured cancer for 89 percent of patients, while also making 11 percent other patients sick. Would we condemn that drug? Doubtful. When I visit chaotic schools and see little learning taking place, that feels like oppression to me. When I calculate the damage done by school districts with proficiency levels at less than 20 percent, I see that as supporting mass incarceration. When I think about what happens to illiterate, innumerate young black adults who enter the workforce after 12 years in anything-goes schools, their economic displacement seems like really harsh discipline to me. Adults with low-literacy levels earn less than $245 per week; they are 3 times more likely to depend on food stamps, and 10 times more likely to live in poverty. Schools that process kids like black-market paychecks without facilitating their learning, that is the real currency of the school-to-prison pipeline. So, yes, I think it is important to stand with black families. The difference is I’m standing with the thousands of black families who are getting a kickass education at Success Academy, and the 23,000 sitting on waiting lists to join them. I’m standing with the majority of black Americans that favor orderly schools with discipline systems that advance learning. I agree with Samuel and Biddle too. We should do our best to support students that throw desks at other students, punch teachers in the face, threaten sexual assault to other students and generally make it difficult to achieve results for the majority of students. We should support parents’ right to protect their children’s privacy even if those parents are working with union organizers to take down schools that work for the the black poor. In the matter of DroupoutNation vs. Eva Moskowitz, I find in favor of thousands of black and brown parents of Success Academy.
Chris Stewart is Director of Outreach and External Affairs at Education Post. An earlier version of this post appeared on Citizen Education.
Photo courtesy of Citizen Stewart.
Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of brightbeam. He was named CEO in April 2019, after formerly serving as chief executive of Wayfinder Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. In the past, Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, ...