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The South Bronx School That Outscores the Suburbs

books and culture

The South Bronx School That Outscores the Suburbs

A new book profiles the rigors and achievements of New York City’s Success Academy. October 15, 2019
New York
Education

How the Other Half Learns, by Robert Pondiscio (Avery, 384 pp., $27)

Robert Pondiscio’s new book, How the Other Half Learns, chronicles what he observed in the year he spent in Success Academy Bronx I Charter School. Success Academy is New York City and State’s largest and fastest-growing charter school network and also, by far, the most successful—earning it and its founder Eva Moskowitz the disdain of Mayor Bill de Blasio, a teachers’ union partisan. Pondiscio addresses the criticisms—some fair, some not—that Success has received, while offering a vivid picture of daily interactions among administrators, teachers, students, and parents, showing the culture of the school in action.

Two things struck me in reading his account: first, Success Academy’s design and methods are pragmatic and firmly grounded in the here and now; second, Success Academy requires a tremendous amount of work from all associated with it—staff, students, and parents. The school’s detailed design is tailored to the needs of its students, and teachers and administrators are expected to implement it thoroughly. This attention to planning sets Success apart from other schools—much more so than its admissions policies, which have been the subject of intense controversy.

Despite its reputation for rigor, Success is not trying to recreate a mythical golden age of Victorian-style instruction. Supporters and critics of the network might be surprised to learn that its pedagogical orientation is broadly progressive. Founder Eva Moskowitz describes her schools as “Catholic school on the outside, Bank Street on the inside.” Pondiscio notes that the school sometimes fails to live up to all the ideals of “Bank Street”—a stand-in for progressive education—but that its math instruction is “easily the most ‘constructivist’ aspect of its curriculum; at least at the elementary level.” In math, Success reaches seemingly impossible levels of achievement on the state’s annual exam. Progressive or not, though, the school is certainly defined by hard work, from the two weeks of staff preparation prior to the first day of school through the last day before summer break. No one—administrator, teacher, student, or parent—gets off the hook for student outcomes.

The intense focus on student achievement comes with a real human cost, however. Staff turnover is high, and the school’s interactions with parents and students, while sometimes loving, can be blunt. Pondiscio describes a January meeting of kindergarten parents, called because the five-year-old students are not performing at expected levels on the school’s interim assessment of reading levels. The teachers sense that “something is off.” About a third of the parents show up and are informed that unless the children improve by the next assessment, they will not likely reach the required reading level by the end of the year. If that happens, they will not be promoted to first grade. “All of us in this room are not doing enough for our kids,” they are told.

Later in the meeting, a parent points out that her son has no trouble completing his assignments at home but that he gets scared in school and misses answers. One might expect the teacher to offer encouragement and emotional support, but that’s not the Success Academy way. The teacher replies, “At home, your child is in such a relaxed environment. Do you time him?” No, the parent says. “Start timing him.” Such an unstinting approach can appear harsh, but this is what Success promises parents it will deliver.

In this light, Pondiscio relates a story he heard from the mother of a Success student. Growing up in the Bay Area, the student’s mother attended “supposedly good” public schools, which promoted her from grade to grade despite teaching her little. “They were like, ‘Just let this Latina pass.” That never happens at Success Academy. Accountability is inescapable, and students and parents always know where the children stand relative to one another in terms of achievement.

When a five-year-old kindergartener fails to complete his book review, he is told that he will not be allowed to participate in “block time” the following day. Pondiscio admits to the teacher that he would have caved in after seeing the tears well up in the child’s eyes, but Success teachers are on a mission: to get their students proficient in reading and mathematics in time for New York State testing in third grade. National research shows that fewer than one-third of students who fall behind by fourth grade attain college readiness by high school graduation.  

The school asks no more of students or parents than it does of teachers. Professional assessment is not limited to annual or semiannual reviews; it happens on a regular, almost daily basis. In early August, teachers get information about students who struggled or exhibited behavioral problems in the previous year, and they develop plans to address those issues. The first day of school offers no soft start for teachers or students; by the early afternoon of that day, senior staff is identifying “rooms of concern” and others that need “adjustment.” Emails go out to teachers that evening.

Critics often charge that Success screens out students who don’t do well. Pondiscio reports that screening does occur—not of students, though, but of parents, who are assessed on a single measure: their willingness to comply with the schools’ policies, from sending their child to class each day in a school uniform (including the right-colored socks) to doing the required reading at home each night. From the outset, parents hear about what’s expected and are reminded that “Success Academy is not for everyone.” Some parents decide that that’s all too true, and the network taps its waiting list (also compiled by lottery) to fill the vacated seats. The churning goes on right up to the first day of school. Pondiscio describes a kindergarten entrant who moved from 106th place on the waiting list to acceptance just before the start of school. The school’s model relies on parental buy-in and compliance.

Traditional district schools operate differently. They may be required to serve students who show up unexpectedly on the first day of school or at any point in the school year. They must work with kids whose parents pay no attention to their homework and never show up for parent-teacher meetings. These factors mute some of the validity of comparisons of test scores between Success Academy and surrounding district schools, but they do not negate reasonable comparison between Success Academy and the traditional school system. That system is far from egalitarian. In New York City, the wealthiest parents obsess over getting their child into the right nursery school, which will lead to the right prep school and eventually (the thinking goes) to some elite college. Less affluent families do the same for gifted-and-talented schools, entrance to which is based on assessments given at age four or five. If your children clear that bar, they’re on their way to a selective middle school, and then to one of the city’s selective public high schools. Parents with means can decamp to the suburbs, where small, homogeneous school districts promise their own form of screened student bodies, in return for higher school taxes and home prices. For many reasons, none of these pathways meet demand in the lower-income communities that Success Academy serves in Harlem, the South Bronx, and other parts of the city.

Success Academy provides an environment that traditional district schools largely deny black and Hispanic families—but at a price. It’s not an ideal solution, but in an imperfect world, it offers disadvantaged kids a chance they might never get otherwise. Along with some other charters and scholarship programs working with religious and other private schools, Success offers the best opportunities for black and Hispanic families seeking to send their children to schools with advanced curricula, and among students from families who share their values. Success Academy remains committed to growth, though New York City and State’s political leadership has thrown up roadblocks to its continued expansion.

At the end of the 2018–2019 school year, the students in Success Academy Bronx I, the subject of How the Other Half Learns, aced their state exams. Its students, 100 percent black or Hispanic and 84 percent “economically disadvantaged,” showed proficiency rates of 89.9 percent in English Language Arts (ELA) and 98 percent in math. Forty-one percent of students scored at the highest level in ELA, as did 83 percent in math—rates meeting or exceeding the performance of elementary school students in two of the state’s most affluent communities, Scarsdale and Bronxville, where no students are economically disadvantaged. In sixth-grade math, Bronx I outperformed the suburban kids by a large margin, with a more than 35-point advantage in students scoring at level 4. Success Academy students will face challenges in middle school and high school, and then again when the college-admissions process begins, but as Pondiscio makes clear, they approach those challenges knowing that they have achieved at levels equal to or higher than students anywhere else in New York.

An important and compelling book, How the Other Half Learns portrays what might be the high point of more than 20 years of urban school-reform efforts.

Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

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