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Citing Success Academy Experiences, Parents Tell Cuomo to Increase Charter Accountability

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Gov. Cuomo at a 2014 charter school rally (via The Governor's Office on flickr) 

Five New York City parents are calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo to withdraw funding and increase oversight of charter schools as a response to what they say is systemic mistreatment of children, particularly their own, by the Success Academy charter school network.

In an open letter to the governor, four parents of former Success Academy students, and one whose child is still enrolled in the network, criticize Success Academy’s disciplinary policies and say its practices are “discriminatory against students with special needs.”

The letter is being hand-delivered Friday morning to the governor’s office in Albany, it was shared with Gotham Gazette in advance. It is the latest in an ongoing, intense public debate over the practices of the controversial charter network, which has seen a series of troubling incidents come to light amid longtime concerns over its strict approach to discipline, suspension rates, and focus on test preparations.

Success Academy was founded by former City Council Member Eva Moskowitz in 2006. It is the largest charter school network in the city, with approximately 11,000 students in 34 schools across the city, in each borough except Staten Island. It also has seven new schools opening in August. Success students, or scholars as they are known in the network’s parlance, perform remarkably well on standardized tests, leading to many accolades and repeated questions about Moskowitz’s “secret sauce.”

But, the network has also faced much criticism for its harsh discipline policies and heavy emphasis on testing. Last year, the New York Times reported that a Success Principal had created a ‘Got to Go’ list to push out underperforming students. Then, last month, the Times released a video that showed a Success teacher scolding and publicly humiliating a first-grade student in front of the rest of her class. The network is also the focus of at least two federal lawsuits that were filed recently.

In face of this criticism, Moskowitz has time and again cited the network’s high performance on standardized tests compared to traditional district schools. While apologizing she has said reported incidents are isolated and not indicative of network-wide problems. She has worn the lawsuits as a badge of honor and said she is tired of apologizing.

The parents who wrote the letter disagree about whether there are systemic problems at Success Academy. “Despite what CEO Eva Moskowitz says, the targeting and pushing out of students, specifically our own, is not an anomaly within this organization,” their letter states.

The parents cite instances where their children were routinely suspended, singled out, and shamed or excluded from field trips. They say Success often called them midday to pick up their children without reporting these events as suspensions. And, they claim Success Academy retaliated by calling the Administration for Children’s Services on them when they spoke out against these practices.

“Because of this ongoing mistreatment of our children, several of us have lost our jobs or had to drop out of school,” they write in the letter. The missive and its demands to Gov. Cuomo come amid budget negotiations when funding for charter schools is being debated. Recent state budgets have been good to the charter school sector, which Cuomo has been allied with for years. Cuomo has appeared to distance himself a bit from charters, but is still seen as an ally.

The letter is signed by Fatima Geidi, former parent, Success Academy Upper West; Shanna Charles, former parent, Success Academy Bed-Stuy 2; Shaniece Givens, former parent, Success Academy Fort Greene; Elizabeth Eloheim, former parent, Success Academy Harlem 1; Katie Jackson, parent, Success Academy Harlem 2.

On Wednesday, Politico New York reported that a memo was circulated by the Success Academy legal team to all network staffers which seemed to show how the network is dealing with parents and the recent storm of negative attention. The memo lists mistakes which staff members should avoid, including one, “Letting parents get away with threats to go to the press/police/elected official.”

"If a parent makes this threat, contact advisory. Advisory can help diffuse this situation," the memo says. "But we cannot let parents 'get away' with these threats. Feel confident in pushing back on these and telling parents that threats are not a productive way to resolve conflict or build the relationship."

The parents who have written to the governor appear to have given up on the relationship. They are calling on the governor to hold Success Academy, and by extension all charter schools, accountable by supporting a state Assembly proposal to create a code of conduct for charters and to have schools provide annual discipline reports.

The letter also insists that the state should not increase funding for charters, either through the governor’s own initiatives or those proposed by the state Senate in its one-house budget. In his January State of the State address, Cuomo called for increasing per-pupil state aid to charters, which amounts to roughly $27 million. He also proposed a $63 million increase in supplemental tuition aid at charter schools. Charters have been calling for increased funding for years, including to up the per-pupil levels to match traditional public schools.

A Success Academy spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

At a recent event at New York Law School, Moskowitz defended her network. Addressing the issue of discipline, she said, “The truth of the matter is safety is the number one reason parents want out of the district schools, and we believe that our first obligation is for the safety of the children. There’s no learning that can occur if we aren’t able to guarantee that. So we have a no-nonsense, nurturing approach to discipline.”

The parents who’ve written to the governor say otherwise. “At a time like this, we need to invest in schools that hold our children up and value all of their potential and not schools that see children and families as disposable,” the letter states. “Eva Moskowitz has been criminalizing our children and ostracizing our families and we need the state to investigate and hold them accountable. No rewards for schools that do not play by the rules.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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