Chartering Scholastic Success

 

May|June 09 contents
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Class of ’86 | “The problem with traditional public education in New York City is not a problem with the kids,” says Eva Moskowitz C’86. “It’s a problem with the system. We need to restore faith in teaching and learning, because when it is done poorly, there are dire educational/economic consequences.”

Moskowitz is not just blowing smoke from the back of the room. As the CEO of Success Charter Network, she has committed her organization to opening 40 charter public schools in New York over the next decade.

“It’s a little daunting,” she laughingly concedes, sitting at a table designed for children in one of those schools—Harlem Success Academy, or HSA 2, housed on the third floor of Public School 123. Though space is at a premium, the halls are clean and bright, and the walls are covered with student-made posters of everything from internal organs to the recently inaugurated President Barack Obama. Kids walk through in two quiet lines, dressed in the Harlem Success uniforms of orange ties, navy sweaters, and plaid jumpers.

At HSAs, all classes are named after the collegiate alma mater of the lead teacher, and children are referred to not as kindergarteners but by the year that they will graduate from college. Parents sign a contract that commits them to concrete elements of the learning process, which in the initial years includes reading a book a night with their children.

The HSA curriculum reflects some of the lessons Moskowitz learned as a parent. She insists on teaching science regularly in the early years, based on her observation that kids are always asking questions about their natural surroundings. That stance pits her against some in the educational establishment who contend that students should be taught science only after they learn to read. She also believes in the pedagogical power of chess, based on her observations of one of her three children, who had special needs and spoke later than other children but was good at the ancient game. The importance of developing critical thinking in children who have less early agility with language led to a curriculum in which all HSA students, even kindergarteners, take chess.

Moskowitz’s own career path has been similarly unorthodox. She studied history as an undergraduate at Penn, earned her doctorate at Johns Hopkins, and taught history at various universities—then served a tour of duty in New York City Council before emerging as a mover and shaker in the world of New York public education. Elected to City Council in 1999 after an unsuccessful run two years before, she soon had a seat on the Council’s education committee, and in 2001 became its chair. At the time, she says, it was a “sleepy committee no one ever heard of.”

Under Moskowitz’s leadership, it woke up. She held a series of hundreds of hearings examining everything from the contracts of the unions to whether or not there was soap and toilet paper in the school bathrooms.

“If we’re too afraid to discuss the elephant in the room, we should go home,” she says. “One can be intimidated and still find the courage to go forward. Step one is honesty. Step two is the political will, or the juice, to change it.”

Case in point: If a light bulb blows out in a New York public school, it is the responsibility of the custodians’ union to change it. However, it is the electrical workers’ union’s responsibility to change a malfunctioning electrical ballast. Contract stipulations provide that the electrical workers’ union will only change a ballast if there are enough ballasts in a given school to be fixed at one time. The end result? A lot of darkened hallways and classrooms.

“And people won’t even tell you that’s the reason,” says Moskowitz, shaking her head. “No, they’ll say the lights are out because there just isn’t enough money in the system to fix it.”

The teachers’ union, which had strongly objected to the hearings before her education committee, helped defeat Moskowitz when she ran for Manhattan borough president in 2005. But she wasn’t through with education yet.

During her stint as education-committee chair, Moskowitz visited Public School 65 in Queens, which was working with the Success for All Foundation. The foundation contended that spending an additional $1,000 per pupil in New York City schools would lead to significantly higher performance outcomes.

Funding had come in part from Joel Greenblatt W’79 WG’80, an investor and founder of Gotham Asset Management, who had been looking for the most efficient way to make a philanthropic impact on the city’s education system. He and John Petry W’93, a partner at Gotham Asset Management, applied to open a charter school, intending to develop a model and replicate it in more than 40 new charter schools in New York within a decade. They tapped Moskowitz to be the CEO of the new Success Charter Network.

“The network represents a different kind of investment for me, an investment in New York and in underserved communities,” says Greenblatt. “It’s not about funding a library or donating classroom materials. Instead, we are bringing friendly competition into what has been a monopolistic public-school system that hasn’t been getting the job done for too many kids.”

“Parents should be able to shop for schools like they do for groceries,” adds Petry. “And we’re providing that quality product while making the educational marketplace friendlier to competition and parental choice.”

Moskowitz points out that while the tutoring programs at P.S. 65 were successful, replicating them on a larger scale would be extraordinarily difficult, and still wouldn’t help the child for more than an hour or two a day.

“We have to crack the replication nut,” she says. “It’s great to have four great schools, but I don’t think four is sufficient to convince people that there’s a better way and a worse way. If you have 40 schools over the next 10 years or so, with that number, you not only provide an important service, but then critics can’t say that it’s a boutique movement, that you happened to get lucky.

“We’re not interested in growth for growth’s sake—only if we can guarantee quality,” she adds. “We’ve slowed down the replication—we want to wait until 2010 because we need to get the model right.”

After eight months of recruiting students, hiring teachers, establishing school values, and getting space, the first Harlem Success Academy opened at West 118th Street and Lenox in the fall of 2006, with 165 kindergarteners and first-graders. (Each school adds a grade per year; HSA 1 now goes up to third grade.) Three more schools opened last fall, serving 1,000 children, and Success Charter Network plans to open another three in 2010. After expanding in Harlem, the group hopes to tackle the Bronx.

Why charter schools? Moskowitz thinks the answers are clear.

In Harlem, where many public schools have been designated as “failing,” charter schools offer parents who cannot afford private education an opportunity to opt out. HSA’s student body is selected by lottery, and last year 3,600 families vied for 600 open spots in Moskowitz’s schools. Video footage of parents sobbing with relief upon being selected for an HSA poignantly reveals that for some, selection is a veritable golden ticket.

“I don’t think that there is one way to design a great school, but the school design of the public-education monopoly is deeply flawed,” she states. “You can succeed in public school with heroic efforts, but the school design does not foster excellence.

“Charter schools are not a guarantee of excellence,” she acknowledges. “They provide an opportunity, free from bureaucracy, from the inflexibility of labor contracts. They set you up for success.”

Unlike most high-performing charter schools, which according to Moskowitz “are looking just to outperform the lousy schools,” the instructional vision of Success Charter Network is “very ambitious.”

“It would be easier, from an operational perspective, if we just wanted to ace tests,” she says. “That’s a lot simpler than great writing, than having kids have the level of joy that we want. It’s taxing—for teachers, leaders, and for my staff.”

Teachers at HSAs are compensated up to $10,000 more annually than their counterparts in the New York City public-school system, but school days run from 7:30 am to 4:10 pm. (One of those hard-working teachers, Michele Caracappa C’02, soon moved into a leadership role, helping to open up HSA 4.) While teachers have more prep periods and better technology than they would at a public school, they also have much more work.

“My principal does lunch duty,” Moskowitz says matter-of-factly. “Everyone needs to do what it takes for kids to succeed. If you are going to say in advance what can and cannot be done, it’s going to be really hard to run a really good school.

“I didn’t have illusions that this was going to be a piece of cake,” she adds. “Politics are tough in New York.” But, she says with a laugh, “this is a philanthropic sweet deal. You can direct public policy, and direct your resources in a way that impacts kids dramatically. Charters provide the most promising vehicle for educational and economic opportunity for kids—and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.”

—Jordana Horn C’95 L’99

 


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Last modified 4/30/09