Using the same opaque maneuvers that characterized its rapid growth in New York City, Success Academy, the controversial charter school network run by Eva Moskowitz, mysteriously withdrew its request to open an elementary school in the Lower East Side, prompting the Department of Education (DOE) to issue a last minute cancelation for a highly anticipated public hearing on the issue.
Despite the cancellation, Lower East Side residents gathered on Thursday night in the auditorium of PS 20, where the forum was supposed to be held, to give their testimony. More than 150 people were present when the forum began and 280 people signed in over the course of the evening said District 1 Community Education Council President Lisa Donlan. Many of those attending were not aware that the event had been called off until they showed up.
An overwhelming majority of the parents, teachers, elected officials and students who spoke expressed disapproval for privately-run charter schools, especially Moskowitz’s Success Academy.
“The Success Academy, to me, is a bad corporate citizen,” said Daniel Abedon, whose daughters both attend PS 20. “It reminds me of the story of The Lorax. [Moskowitz] is like the Once-ler making Thneeds. No one wants it. But this product is getting pushed.”
The area’s City Councilmember, Rosie Mendez, told The Indypendent she was skeptical Success Academy had abandoned its interest in opening a school in the district.
“Eva Moskowitz and Success Academy don’t just take their marbles and go home,” she said. “To date, the DOE doesn’t have anything in writing from Success Academy saying that they are not going to move forward in this district. This is all backdoor, behind the scenes conversations between Success Academy and the DOE.”
At 6:38 pm on Wednesday, less than 24 hours before the public hearing, the DOE sent an email to elected officials informing them that a Success Academy school would not be opening in the district and that the event had been canceled.
In October, Success Academy won approval from the SUNY Board of Trustees Charter School Committee to operate a school in School District 2, which covers Chinatown, the West Side of Manhattan from Tribeca to Hell's Kitchen and the Upper East Side. However, Success Academy later requested to change the location to either School District 1 (Lower East Side, East Village) or School District 6 (Northern Manhattan). City Councilmembers Mendez and Margaret Chin, seeking to address the lack of transparency in the application process, successfully lobbied the DOE to hold a public hearing so that the community could weigh in.
A spokesperson for Success Academy told The Indypendent that they had deferred their request for two years.
Pointing to Success Academy’s Wall Street backers, critics of Moskowitz’s charter chain see it as the leading edge of an effort to privatize New York’s public school system. Last fall, the SUNY granted Success Academy’s request to open 14 new schools over the next two years—on top of the 32 schools Success Academy already operates.
The charter school’s students do much better on state tests than those in public schools. But critics say the high test scores can be attributed to the fact that Success Academy teaches fewer students with special needs, like ESL students and those with learning disabilities, giving the charter school a demographic advantage over public schools. Success Academy has also been accused of using suspensions to push out underperforming students who then return to public schools.
“This is propaganda: Telling you that you don’t have what it takes to make it in the world,” said Arnette Scott, who has a child attending a school in District 1. “That is [Moskowitz’s] message. She comes here and cherry picks our students that are already doing well and are successful in our schools and puts them in another situation and tells them that they’re better than the ones they didn’t choose. And that is a lie.”
Indeed, a report last June by Juan Gonzalez of the Daily News revealed that less than half of the 73 students who enrolled in Harlem Success Academy 1 in August 2006 were a part of this year’s graduating class of eighth graders. None of those students scored high enough on the exam to get into New York City’s eight elite public high schools.
Others have criticized Success Academy’s workplace practices, pointing out that the non-unionized charter network has a teacher attrition rate that is much higher than at public schools and therefore is struggling to retain dedicated educators. In 2011, for example, WNYC reported that more than a third of the staff at Harlem Success Academy 3 left the school to pursue work elsewhere.
Sean Ahern, who teaches at the East River Academy on Rikers Island and whose son graduated from a Lower East Side public school, also criticized Success Academy for hiring very few minority teachers.
Ahern is a member of the Teacher Diversity Committee of New York City, which requested information from Success Academy schools about the diversity of its teachers. Fifteen schools replied to the committee’s request. On average, 74.73 percent of the teachers in those schools were white, the committee discovered. At Success Academy Fort Greene, 100 percent of its teachers were white.
“Success Academy is leading the drive to remove black and Latino teachers and to ensure that teaching is basically a whites only job. It’s a disgrace,” said Ahern.
Vincent Gchanglerth, a junior at University Neighborhood High School in the Lower East Side, said that the DOE should be directing money towards extracurricular programs in public schools instead of charter schools that already receive substantial money from investors.
“When we, as students, are interested in something, the thing that I hear the most is: ‘No we can’t afford it because there’s not enough funding.’ But they have enough money to attempt to co-locate my school twice. That’s what they have enough money for,” he said. “Instead of doing everything that they can to fund some school that is already making money, they should attempt to put more money into what I’m interested in. Things that allow me to think critically.”