Success Academy Offers Sobering Lesson for Reopening NYC Schools

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(Bloomberg) — If any school in America could find an edge just now — a magic way to reopen kindergarten or teach Algebra online — you might think it was one beloved by Wall Street millionaires and billionaires. But not even Success Academy, the largest charter-school network in New York, […]

(Bloomberg) — If any school in America could find an edge just now — a magic way to reopen kindergarten or teach Algebra online — you might think it was one beloved by Wall Street millionaires and billionaires.

But not even Success Academy, the largest charter-school network in New York, the nation’s largest school district, has easy answers for teaching kids during this pandemic.

As school districts everywhere weigh bringing students back against the risks of spreading the virus, Success Academy offers a sobering lesson about how daunting that calculus has become. This much is certain: reopening schools is now one of the most formidable obstacles to fully reopening New York — and the nation’s entire economy.

Over the years, Success Academy has formed ties with the likes of hedge fund luminaries Dan Loeb, Ken Griffin and John Paulson, who have collectively lavished tens of millions on the network and helped it expand to 47 schools serving 20,000 students across the city. The consistent high scores of its mostly low-income Black and Latino students, who routinely outperform kids in wealthy, privileged suburbs, have earned it fanfare and acclaim.

Yet its no-excuses approach, hardball politics and disciplinary practices have also provoked a public backlash and made it a lightning rod for the contentious debate over the role of charters — which are publicly subsidized, but privately run — in addressing the stark racial inequities in America’s schools.

It’s hard to overstate the enormity of the task facing Success Academy and Eva Moskowitz, its chief executive and one of the most controversial figures in American education. Just days after she held a webinar that drew anxious parents and explained that students will be brought back in August on a hybrid schedule, the network had to scuttle those plans after learning it wouldn’t get access to buildings until mid-September.

Success Academy’s scholars, as the network calls its students, will instead start school remotely.

The network says it still intends to move to a hybrid model as soon as it’s practical to do so. And its plan — a few days in the classroom, a few days at home — is not unlike many public schools. But while public-school parents can elect to keep their kids at home full-time, Success Academy thus far plans to only offer that option for a few weeks. After that, students who don’t return to classrooms on their scheduled days will likely end up getting dropped. (For this coming school year, nearly 17,000 applied by lottery for 4,000 slots.)

At the webinar last week, the questions and counterpoints about the approach came in rapid fire.

How could students be required to come back as the coronavirus still rages through the country? What about children whose parents have health issues? And where was the consideration for teachers, who are expected to be on campus every day?

“Black and brown families are most affected by Covid-19,” one person asked Moskowitz. “Why are we further contributing to this by reopening schools?”

In recent weeks, such scenes have been playing out all across the country. While the pandemic has laid bare the shortcomings of online learning, particularly for younger children, and everyone agrees that schools should reopen as soon as possible, definitive answers over how, when and how safely they can do so have been hard to come by.

Recent research has shown that remote learning will likely leave at-risk children, particularly from low-income households, even further behind, and some experts argue the costs, at least to some degree, outweigh the benefits. But then there are the health risks — not only to the students, but also to teachers and staff. A study of 65,000 people in South Korea showed that older children spread the coronavirus just as much as adults, suggesting school reopenings will cause more outbreaks.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has threatened to punish states that don’t fully reopen schools in the fall, without implementing a national policy to contain the virus or addressing the billions of dollars that cash-strapped school districts need to do so safely.

“We would love to flip the switch and go back to normal, but that option does not exist,” Moskowitz said in an interview.

The show-up-or-get-dropped policy isn’t set in stone and may change. But it’s very much in line with the network’s approach — a mix of sky-high academic expectations and strict discipline. Critics have questioned a rigid culture where they say teachers, often White, routinely reprimand its largely Black and Latino students and parents over minor infractions. Others say the network might be better understood as a withering test-prep factory that cherry-picks, not the students per se, but the most motivated parents who can best support them.

Nevertheless, droves of parents of color continue to seek out Success Academy for their children, often as a refuge from public schools that are deeply underfunded. There’s a wait-list each year. And the network’s leaders, who have never been shy about courting controversy, make no bones about what’s expected of them and their children.

That approach has also attracted many names in finance, some of whom have served on the charter’s board of trustees and donated generously. The money, Success Academy says, is used to expand. The network aims to more than double the number of its charter schools — whose renovated facilities can stand in stark contrast to the neighborhood public schools that often share the same building — by the end of the decade.

Having deep pockets has certain advantages. After schools were shuttered in March, students who didn’t already have laptops quickly received one. Teachers pushed ahead and taught new material. The network said online attendance averaged 97% through the end of the semester. The school was praised by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a longtime proponent of charter schools, earlier this month.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been challenges. Some computers didn’t arrive on time. Many teachers spent long nights with parents ironing out technical issues. One teacher said trying to introduce new math concepts to second-graders was a Sisyphean task when you see, at most, eight of your 30 students over video chat at any given time. Less than half passed an internal assessment at semester’s end, and numbers were hardly better in other classes, she said.

And while funding is usually less of an issue at Success Academy, the pandemic forced it to cut some non-teaching staff but kept salaries intact for everyone else, including Moskowitz, who earned nearly $900,000 in 2018, according to its latest tax filing.

Some parents are also struggling. One said that while at-home learning had made her two sons feel more independent, she had to quit her retail job because she couldn’t do that and watch her kids. She’s looking for a new job, but is stuck if it ends up conflicting with the remote-learning schedule. Moskowitz said Success Academy has done what it can to ensure parents wouldn’t have to take on the role of teacher, but admitted the school isn’t “in the business of providing childcare.”

“These are the most difficult operating circumstances possible,” she said. “But this is the situation we’re in.”

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