On a muggy morning in August, Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz stood before a group of parents inside the network’s first high school, trying to regain their trust.
Parents were angry that students were being told they could be held back a grade if they missed four assignments. They were concerned about teachers going too far to enforce the dress code. And they were fearful about an exodus of teachers — as well as an email that said if parents missed a June meeting, Success would “assume your scholar is withdrawing.”
Moskowitz, a fixture in New York City politics who talks about her network of 47 schools with an almost religious fervor, acknowledges that she never planned to run high schools. But Success did open one in 2014 and a second several years later. It hasn’t gone smoothly.
“I knew that I was putting it together with bubble gum and Scotch tape,” Moskowitz told the parents, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by Chalkbeat. Of the Success Academy High School of the Liberal Arts in Manhattan, she added, “We’ve been at this for 13 years, and I have never seen a school in our network that has been this disorganized.”
Success Academy, New York City’s largest network of charter schools, graduated its first high school students in June to much fanfare. But behind the scenes, according to nearly two dozen parents, students, and current and former school officials, its first high school spent last year in crisis.
Worried about students’ grades and behavior, Moskowitz sidelined the school’s principal and pushed staff to change discipline rules and more strictly enforce the dress code. Twenty-eight out of about 300 students were sent back to an earlier grade, some moving back to eighth grade after starting high school.
The moves sparked a student sit-in, a protest, and eventually an exodus of staff, including the principal. Late this summer, parent frustrations reached a boiling point, prompting Moskowitz to hold two meetings to address their concerns.
Discontent at the high school, where students return to school Monday, is a significant problem for the network. Success doesn’t admit students after fourth grade, and therefore depends on convincing its elementary and middle-school students to stick around. And despite the issues at Success’ first high school, Moskowitz told Chalkbeat in an interview last week that she plans to open as many as nine more high schools in the next decade. (Its first two high schools operated mostly separately last year, but are now operating as one.)
That’s why Moskowitz ended up in a school auditorium in midtown Manhattan over the summer, promising parents that things would get better — while insisting that the school’s methods were necessary to ensure their children’s success in college.
“I could have said, look, I’m going to throw in the towel,” Moskowitz told them, adding, “I didn’t abandon you. I’m here.”
Success Academy is famous for rules.
That was true when the network launched with a kindergarten and first grade in 2006 and remains true now, as Success serves about 17,000 students — mostly students of color.
The schools deploy an at-times controversial “no excuses” approach, with strict discipline and high academic standards. As some other charter schools backed away from out-of-school suspensions in the last few years, Moskowitz has defended them with vigor.
Her schools are also known for their academic rigor, intense test prep, and sky-high state test scores. Their elementary and middle schools regularly blow past city averages on state tests and even beat much wealthier districts like Scarsdale and Chappaqua.
But how should Success’ trademark strictness be adapted for students who are older, more independent, perhaps less inclined to accept big consequences for small infractions? That question has dogged other no-excuses high schools, and Success appears to be struggling to find answers.
For the last three years, the task of figuring that out fell to Andy Malone, a well-liked former Success middle school principal who took over the high school in 2015. (The school’s first principal lasted one year.)
“That is really hard to get right,” Malone told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year. “You don’t want to Tiger Mom them to the point where they are unhappy or counterproductive. But you don’t want to be so laissez-faire that they’re not producing their best and then live to regret it.”
Malone’s strategy was to offer more freedom than was typical in the network’s lower grades. Some Advanced Placement classes pushed students to complete research papers, not focus purely on test preparation, former teachers said. Students recalled he allowed them to wear colorful headscarves featuring African prints, even if they weren’t technically in line with the network’s dress code.
But network leaders, including Moskowitz, did not completely buy in to Malone’s approach.
With Malone, Moskowitz told Chalkbeat, “Everything was relationship based — he’s charismatic, he’s devoted. That’s different from systems and routines and policies and procedures.”
Moskowitz began spending more time in the high school, and teachers said she worried about students’ grade point averages being too low and dress code violations becoming too common just as the school was trying to shepherd its first students into college.
Moskowitz’s argument, which she often makes to parents, boils down to this: Students not turning in homework means they lack the study skills they will need to succeed in college. Uncompleted assignments also have the effect of lowering students’ GPAs, hurting their chances of getting into a selective college in the first place. America rewards college degrees, and most of Success’ students are already starting from behind compared to their wealthier peers. It’s the school’s job to make sure they don’t fall off track.
“The promises that we made to these students and their families — we’re going to prepare you for college … We knew these work habits weren’t going to get them there,” said Anurupa Ganguly, the school’s director of math and engineering.
Another concern, according to a former Success official who spoke on condition of anonymity, was that the network wanted to cement policies that it could replicate in its future high schools, and the first high school didn’t look like the example Moskowitz wanted it to be.
So halfway through the year, things changed.
Small infractions suddenly came with a bigger cost. In the month before the start of the second semester, staffers were told that students should be held back a grade if they missed four assignments or racked up four unexcused absences or tardies, according to internal documents obtained by Chalkbeat.
“We cannot in good faith move you closer to college if you are not demonstrating foundational college-ready habits and mindsets,” school officials told students in a January email.
The holdover policy had shifted at least three times by February, according to internal documents and letters sent to students. Staff members began more strictly enforcing the dress code, too, and headscarves that did not reflect the school colors were banned.
A Success official said that it is not unusual for students to be held back across the network in the middle of the school year if they are struggling. Spokeswoman Anne Michaud said the changes at the high school were intended to send a “strong message” in response to a high rate of absences and missing assignments, and the school gave students a grace period to adjust to the dress code enforcement.
“It was well-intentioned,” said Natasha Venner, a high school history teacher who resigned at the end of last year. Moskowitz “wants it to work so hard that she’s using punitive measures.”
But the mid-year changes went over poorly with some students. On January 26, dozens of students staged a sit-in inside a school common space, where some confronted Moskowitz directly.
“What if I have all As? Are you going to hold me back because I’m wearing the wrong shoes?” a student asked, according to a video of the sit-in reviewed by Chalkbeat.
“I appreciate the strength of your feeling and I think you should propose alternatives,” Moskowitz responded. The issue, she told the students, was their work habits.
“It may feel restrained or restrictive,” she said. But in college, “No one is going to be checking and supporting you.”
But some students felt changes like the headscarf crackdown were not supportive, and had nothing to do with college readiness.
“It is a part of our culture to wear headwraps and it helps us take care of our natural hair, which is like kinky and curly and not the same as most of our teachers and most of the people in the network,” said Azira King, who was a freshman at the school last year.
To Reanna Phillips, a junior at the school last year, the discipline crackdown felt like the school was “taking away part of our identity.” She helped organize a student protest, and school officials eased up on some details of their dress code and holdover policies.
This summer, though, Phillips found herself in violation. Although she turned in many of her summer homework assignments, she didn’t complete the 10 SAT prep lessons required each week of rising seniors. She had already taken the test twice and earned a 1330 out of 1600 — a score she was proud of.
But after missing the deadline for submitting the assignments, Success informed her that she would have to repeat 11th grade. The school later withdrew the threat. (Brooke Rosenkrantz, the new principal who told Phillips’ mother that her daughter would be held back, defended the decision in an interview. “We’re unapologetic about it: you have to do your homework in order to matriculate,” she said.)
All of the upheaval contributed to a mass exodus of staff. Just 18 of the 67 faculty and staff employed by the Manhattan high school were returning this fall, though officials said some of the movement is due to curriculum changes and 13 of those leaving will work elsewhere at Success. Malone resigned as principal at the end of the year and was replaced by Rosenkrantz, another Success veteran.
“There was an extraordinary level of chaos and inconsistency,” said Lynn Strong, an English teacher who quit at the end of the school year. “Kids didn’t know what was expected of them.”
Some parents also spent the second half of the year worried that school officials had become too aggressive.
In May, the school told parents they had to attend a meeting scheduled on June 5 or else the network would assume their child was leaving the school. Former staffers say it was the first time such meetings had been required at the high school, and Keisa Johnson, whose daughter was a junior at the school last year, interpreted it as a threat.
“A lot of parents that I spoke to literally had to take the day off just to make the meeting,” she said.
A Success spokeswoman said meetings are held every year in an effort to be transparent about new requirements, and that any parents who contacted the school about a conflict were accommodated.
But it struck Johnson, and several other parents, as yet another example of school officials clamping down too hard. Minutes from a parent council meeting in May include worries that teachers were spending time “searching for infractions” by “lifting shirts to see if a child has a belt on or lifting pants legs to view sock colors.” Michaud, the Success spokeswoman, said faculty were told not to “worry about what they could not see.”
According to minutes from the meeting, “Scholars are under a lot of stress and a lot of scholars are generally unhappy with their current high school experience.”
The charter network has sent stern signals to parents in other ways. After one of the recent meetings to discuss their concerns, Success spokeswoman Ann Powell warned parents against talking to the press.
Meanwhile, a separate Success employee trailed a reporter outside the school. At one point, the employee also followed a parent, Amanda Santiago, for several blocks as she spoke with a reporter.
“You need to stop following me,” Santiago said after the Success employee refused multiple requests from Santiago to stop listening. After a minute or two of arguing with Santiago, she relented and walked away.
But several other parents, speaking after the meeting with Moskowitz, acknowledged the challenges but said they stand by the network. Success has since promised to send parents more explicit policies about when students can be held back and what students must do to graduate.
“They are not innocent; they’ve made their mistakes,” said Jason Peralta, who has two children at the school. “But if I were to take a 30,000-foot view on these things, and I would compare my choice versus sending my kid where he would have to go to, which is a Bronx public school” — the choice is obvious, he said.
“The average person in there has been with Eva for a long time,” Peralta added. “No one’s in there with pitchforks. It’s more like, we are at a point where we need to be heard and we need her to step up for us.”
Late last week, Success Academy officials invited parents and students to mingle with their new teachers ahead of the first day of school.
Junior Savion Ledna was there with his mother. At the end of last year, he said he could “sense the tension” in the school building, especially over the discipline policy changes.
“Maybe we can move on from that this year,” he said. “I think it’s a little bit more optimistic right now.”
A few hours earlier, Moskowitz checked in on teachers readying their classrooms. She admired a science room that had just been retrofitted with new electrical wiring at each table, a headache that involved gutting the room. And she took in a new ballet studio with fresh hardwood floors. Students will be able to choose ballet as one of their three electives, up from two choices last year.
School officials have worked hard in recent months to avoid a repeat of last school year, she said. The school has created a team devoted to overseeing instruction, and Moskowitz hired a former consultant with experience in “internal strategic management” to oversee the school’s new principal as well as its operations team. The school also launched a new data system that officials say will allow better communication with parents about how their kids are performing.
Moskowitz also pointed to Rosenkrantz, the school’s new principal and a longtime Success employee. Rosenkrantz has a big task ahead of her, especially as the school adds more than 300 students this year. Rosenkrantz told Chalkbeat she’s confident she can turn the school’s culture around.
What would she say to parents and students still shaken from last year?
“I’m sorry,” Rosenkrantz said. “And I’m here to make it better and I hope you see it’s already better.”