Eva Moskowitz Likely to Continue Plaguing the Recently Re-Elected NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio

On the morning after the recent election, POLITICO New York Education reminded us that newly re-elected New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio had delayed important education decisions until after the election.  POLITICO‘s Eliza Shapiro and Keshia Clukey point readers to an upcoming and likely contentious fight about expanding the co-location of charter schools into public schools, a battle NYC’s charter school diva, Eva Moskowitz is ready to launch.

You can read about Eva Moskowitz in a clever and entertaining review in The Nation of Eva’s new memoir, The Education of Eva Moskowitz.  Megan Erickson, a NYC public school teacher and the book’s reviewer quotes Eva describing her own belief in controversy on behalf of her Success Academy Charter Schools: “If the day ever comes when I think something is okay simply because district schools do it, I hope my board fires me… To achieve excellence, one must fight such compromise with every fiber of one’s being.”

Erickson continues, “‘Excellence’ is subjective, but the test scores from Success’s students are not. In August, the network of 46 charter schools announced that its students—predominantly children of color from low-income families—had outpaced some of New York State’s highest-performing (and wealthiest) districts on math and reading tests.  Of course, those numbers come with a caveat: Success serves fewer students who are still learning English and students with disabilities than do traditional public schools, and it serves very few students with severe disabilities… But facts don’t get in the way of the sense of righteousness that animates Moskowitz’s story.”

In her review of Eva Moskowitz’s new book, Erickson summarizes what she believes are the fatal flaws in Moskowitz’s project—an alignment with wealthy hedge fund managers John Petry, Joel Greenblatt, and Dan Loeb, along with Don Fisher of The Gap and J. Crew, and the Walton and Broad Foundations to provide an escape from public schools for poor children in NYC who are able along with their parents to meet Success Academies’ demands:

“What does it mean for parents and their children to be ‘consumers’ of education, selecting from an array of options subsidized by billionaire benefactors? Some Success families would find out the hard way. Unlike in district schools, students at Success Academy are required to keep logs of their hours that their parents have read to them at home. Poor parents, Moskowitz insists, ‘can support their kids in school, if it is demanded of them.’ And if the demands don’t work, shame will.  She recalls getting one parent to cooperate by inviting the woman’s mother, who ‘seemed… more responsible,’ to a meeting about her son’s progress. Forget the paternalism of this scene for a  second—Moskowitz’s belief that achievement is more about morals than material circumstances hinders her ability to serve families who, regardless of their intentions,  simply can’t meet the requirements.”

Erickson describes parents working several jobs, for example, and wonders:  “When… parents are forced to disenroll their children because they can’t meet the school’s demands for reading time at home, is it really a choice?  And when students with special needs leave because they weren’t given appropriate accommodations by the school, or were suspended for minor infractions… is that a choice?… District schools, run by the New York City Department of Education do not have the option of sending children with behavioral issues or special needs elsewhere—nor should they, since the United States has consistently affirmed by law that it is the responsibility of public schools to educate all students in the least restrictive environment possible… But even charter schools with a lottery system ‘choose’ students indirectly by limiting the services they provide or by instituting demanding requirements for parental involvement. This is an important part of Success Academy’s seeming success….”

Erickson highlights instances when students’ rights have been violated at Success Academies: “At the state level, children have a constitutionally guaranteed right to a free education. Repeated suspensions, or suspensions lasting 45 days—as yet another Success Academy student with special needs received this past spring—are a violation of that right.  They’re also discriminatory…. (T)he hard truth of ‘school choice’ is that it leaves families with a multitude of options but few rights.”

POLITICO predicts that the issue of co-location of charter schools into public school buildings that continue to house public schools will re-emerge now that Mayor deBlasio has been re-elected.  You may remember that, as the NY Times reported in the spring of 2014, under pressure from Moskowitz and her allies, Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York’s state legislature guaranteed that New York’s public school districts will provide free space in public schools or rent paid in private facilities for charter schools:  “Most significantly, the legislation would require the city to find space for charter schools inside public school buildings or pay much of the cost to house them in private space. The legislation would also prohibit the city from charging rent to charter schools, an idea Mr. de Blasio had championed as a candidate for mayor.”

In his new book about NYC’s Mayor Bill deBlasio, Reclaiming Gotham, Juan Gonzalez, 29-year New York Daily News reporter and the co-host of Democracy Now, describes the problems NYC public schools have endured in past years around co-location: “Moskowitz was at the center of many of those wars, inevitably demanding more space as her schools grew, with the Success Academy section of any building then routinely remodeled with new furniture, paint, bathrooms, and computers, while the traditional public school remained dingy and run-down, the students and teachers feeling like second-class citizens in their own building.” (p. 239)

Gonzalez summarizes his experience over the years reporting on Moskowitz and her schools: “In a series of Daily News columns from 2009 to 2016, I documented the combative style of Success Academy toward traditional public schools, as well as the network’s far higher rate of suspending children with behavior problems, and its pushing out of special needs children. But Success Academy has repeatedly defended its ‘zero tolerance’ approach for students who misbehave, with Moskowitz claiming her schools use ‘an appropriate disciplinary and restorative approach….’  Moskowitz continued to receive tens of millions of dollars from the nation’s financial elite while spending exorbitant amounts of money on a massive campaign to market and solicit applications to her schools to, in her own words, increase market share, all while paying herself a hefty salary that in 2015 exceeded $600,000 annually.” (pp. 239-240)

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Nikole Hannah-Jones Explores Dilemma of Segregation, Inequality, Gentrification

I continue to think about Nikole Hannah-Jones’ piece that appeared in Sunday’s NY Times Magazine, Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City.  Hannah-Jones is the reporter these days who has covered school integration with more expertise than almost anyone else.  Here she describes her and her husband’s journey as they chose where to educate their own daughter in New York City. Hannah-Jones grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, where she believes she benefited from the opportunity to be bused for school integration. Her husband was educated in the naturally integrated schools that serve the children of the American military in the U.S. and around the world.

Today the family lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant. “a low-income, heavily black, rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of brownstones in central Brooklyn.”  “In a city where white children are only 15 percent of the more than one million public-school students, half of them are clustered in just 11 percent of the schools, which not coincidentally include many of the city’s top performers. Part of what makes these schools desirable to white parents, aside from the academics, is that they have some students of color, but not too many.  This carefully curated integration, the kind that allows many white parents to boast that their children’s public schools look like the United Nations, comes at a steep cost for the rest of the city’s black and Latino children. The New York City public-school system is 41 percent Latino, 27 percent black and 16 percent Asian. Three quarters of all students are low-income. In 2014, the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, released a report showing that New York City public schools are among the most segregated in the country.  Black and Latino children here have become increasingly isolated, with 85 percent of black students and 75 percent of Latino students attending ‘intensely’ segregated schools—schools that are less than 10 percent white.”

Hannah-Jones spends some time setting up the couple’s dilemma. Her husband initially wanted to look into a public school with high test scores or a parochial or private school, but Hannah-Jones, “explained that if we removed Najya, whose name we chose because it means ‘liberated’ and ‘free’ in Swahili, from the experience of most black and Latino children, we would be part of the problem.  Saying my child deserved access to ‘good’ public schools felt like implying that children in ‘bad’ schools deserved the schools they got, too…  One family, or even a few families, cannot transform a segregated school, but if none of us were willing to go into them, nothing would change.  Putting our child into a segregated school would not integrated it racially, but we are middle-class and would, at least, help to integrate it economically.” “I understood that so much of school segregation is structural—a result of decades of housing discrimination, of political calculations and the machinations of policy makers, of simple inertia.  But I also believed that it is the choices of individual parents that uphold the system, and I was determined not to do what I’d seen so many others do when their values about integration collided with the reality of where to send their own children to school.”

Parents trapped in one of today’s most troubling and difficult moral dilemmas.

The Hannah-Jones family had public school choices, because parents in New York City can apply to schools outside their immediate neighborhood even at the elementary school level. In 2014, the Hannah-Jones enrolled their daughter comfortably in the pre-Kindergarten at a neighborhood school that serves the Farragut Houses public housing project—a school 91 percent black and Latino—a school where 90 percent of the children meet federal poverty standards.  Hannah-Jones, the skilled reporter and researcher, spends many paragraphs tracing the history of segregation—integration mostly across the South—and resegregation.  And she explores the way housing discrimination has driven school segregation in New York City. What fascinates me in her reflection, however, are the lessons of her own family’s experience.

Realizing that a school’s test scores in aggregate correlate with family income, not the quality of the school, Hannah-Jones and her husband did not choose a school based on the test scores. The test-score metric by which we “grade” schools today sends many parents to the wealthy suburbs or in a city like New York, to the wealthiest schools or those quickly gentrifying.  Hannah-Jones convinced her husband instead to visit several local schools.  At P.S. 307 they found a school where the principal and all of her own siblings had grown up in the neighborhood and attended P.S. 307 as children. Five decades later, in 2003, she became the principal at her own childhood school and dedicated herself to developing a program that includes Mandarin, violin lessons, and an intensive science program.

In the spring of her daughter’s pre-K year, Hannah-Jones learned that the city threatened to move children from P.S. 8, a nearby, overcrowded, gentrifying school into her daughter’s less crowded school.  Hannah-Jones describes her own reaction at a public meeting as powerful parents from the nearby school publicly voiced their most visceral fear that their children would be exposed to too many poor black children and in this instance to her own daughter: “I was struck by the sheer power these parents had drawn into that auditorium.  The meeting about the overcrowding at P.S. 8, which involved 50 children in a system of more than one million, had summoned a state senator, a state assemblywoman, a City Council member, the city comptroller and the staff members of several other elected officials.  It has rarely been clearer to me how segregation and integration, at their core, are about power and who gets access to it… As the politicians looked on, two white fathers gave an impassioned PowerPoint presentation in which they asked the Department of Education to place more children into already-teeming classrooms rather than send kids zoned to P.S. 8 to P.S. 307 (her daughter’s school).”

As the months passed, the city proceeded with a rezoning plan that would have gentrified P.S. 307 but that also threatened to marginalize the poorer children already enrolled.  Some of the white parents whose children were to be rezoned into P.S. 307 told the principal “they’d be willing to enroll their children only if she agreed to put the new students all together in their own classroom.”  Hannah-Jones’ husband, who had by then become the PTA president, led an effort to engage and organize the parents in the Farragut housing project to demand protections for their own children. They demanded to know, for example, whether P.S. 307. as a gentrified school, would continue to qualify for federal funds for free after-school care and other programs.  The organized PS.307 parents delivered demands—with 400 signatures—to insist that, “half of all the seats at P.S. 307 would be guaranteed for low-income children.  That would ensure that the school remained truly integrated and that new higher-income parents would have to share power in deciding the direction of the school.”  In the end, a compromise rezoning plan moved forward—with a set-aside of 50 percent of seats for low income children and at the same time a guarantee that children living in P.S. 307’s attendance zone would receive priority admission.  In a gentrifying area, where young children are increasingly white and affluent, such a plan is not a guarantee of protection for the children of the poorest families: “Without seats guaranteed for low-income children, and with an increasing white population in the zone, the school may flip and become mostly white and overcrowded.”

Racially balancing the public schools in a city like New York with rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods posses a logistical and moral dilemma for parents and public officials.  As she wraps up her story, Hannah-Jones reflects, “The sense of helplessness in the face of such entrenched segregation is what makes so alluring the notion, embraced by liberals and conservatives, that we can address school inequality not with integration but by giving poor, segregated schools more resources and demanding of them more accountability.  True integration, true equality, requires a surrendering of advantage, and when it comes to our children, that can feel almost unnatural.  Najya’s first two years in public school helped me understand this better than I ever had before. Even Kenneth Clark, the psychologist whose research showed the debilitating effects of segregation on black children, chose not to enroll his children in the segregated schools he was fighting against. ‘My children,’ he said, ‘only have one life.’ But so do the children relegated to this city’s segregate schools. They have only one life, too.”

Hannah-Jones describes only one person not much affected by the political and moral battles of the adults in Brooklyn.  Whenever she writes about her daughter, Najya is calmly enjoying her days at an educationally challenging school.

I encourage you to read Hannah-Jones’ important article.

Doing Things Differently These Days in NYC

While New York governor Andrew Cuomo is busy condemning teachers as incompetent and raging against “government monopoly” schools, New York City’s school chancellor, Carmen Farina, who has been on the job for only thirteen months, has been methodically instituting policies that, she insists, will improve the schools that struggle hardest and at the same time enhance the school day for all of the district’s 1.1 million students.  While critics say she may be trying to do too much too fast, Farina must be congratulated for substituting a school improvement philosophy for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s long and intense test-and-punish, close-struggling-schools philosophy.

Farina has recently announced a new administrative accountability network, a plan for addressing child poverty right at school through new community schools, and major new strategies to enhance academics.  The challenge will be for Farina to coordinate and harmonize all of the changes and ensure that school achievement rises, dropout rates decline, and services support all children in the huge and potentially unwieldy New York City system.

A recent NY Times report summarizes: “In the little more than a year since Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed her to lead the city’s Education Department, Ms. Farina has presided over a methodical dismantling of the policies of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s first and last chancellors, Joel I. Klein and Dennis M. Walcott. She inherited a department that tracked data closely and used it do decide schools’ fates, rating schools annually from A to F.  Principals, many of whom during Mr. Bloomberg’s tenure were drawn from the ranks of novice teachers and given managerial training, were given as much freedom as possible.  If their schools did not score high enough on an array of data points—graduation rates, attendance, the number of students passing classes and going to college—they were subject to being closed.  In 12 years, the Bloomberg administration either shut down or began to phase out 157 schools and opened 656 new, smaller schools.”

According to the NY Times‘ analysis, “Ms Farina, in contrast, believes that principals need both more experience and more supervision than they had during the Bloomberg years.  She increased the requirements for new principals’ teaching experience to seven years from three… And last month she re-established the importance of the system’s superintendents, whose role in overseeing principals had diminished during the Bloomberg years.  Rather than closing struggling schools, she has said she will support them with more guidance and an infusion of social services, from family counseling to optometry.  Shutting schools is to be a last resort.”

Earlier this year, Farnia eliminated Bloomberg’s A-F grades for schools. In a major policy address on January 22, Farina announced a new system for district-wide administrative accountability.  Farina has put in place 45 area superintendents with at least 10 years of teaching experience, including three years as a principal. “They will be my eyes and ears… Going forward, there will be consistency across and within the system.”  Farina announced she will eliminate 55 offices called Children First Networks, set up under Bloomberg’s school chancellors to support school improvement.  Farina explains: “Superintendents had the authority to rate and fire principals but they didn’t have the tools they needed to help principals improve.  Instead, that responsibility fell to 55 Children First Networks, which had access to resources designed to help schools improve.”  The Networks had long been criticized as ineffective.  Farina continues, “The leaders of these networks had the inverse of the problem facing the superintendents—despite working closely with principals, they had no authority to rate or fire them.”  Moving forward, Farina announced she will create seven geographically located Borough Field Support Centers that will, among other improvements, help coordinate and articulate programming across elementary, middle and high schools in particular areas of the city.

In her address, Farina described six characteristics that mark quality schools and schools moving toward improvement: rigorous instruction; collaborative teachers; a safe, orderly and respectful school climate; strong ties to family and community; effective leadership; and a climate of trusting relationships among administrators, teachers, and families.  These characteristics were identified by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which has developed a survey tool by which schools and school districts can measure qualitative improvement in these six areas.  Farina said she is instituting use of the surveys as a way to track progress.  “We will be evaluating every school in terms of the six measures. We will target support to areas where a school is weak, and we will hold the school accountable for demonstrating improvement.”

In her address Farina announced plans to flood the district’s lowest achieving schools—94 schools Farina is calling Renewal Schools—with support.  All 94 Renewal Schools will become full service community schools that surround students—right at school—with health clinics, social services and parent support.  Community schools are formed through formal contractual  arrangements with the city’s organizations that currently provide medical and social services; the Community School becomes the central site for the massing of the services families need.  Some have criticized this aspect of Farina’s plan as overly ambitious.  Patrick Wall, writing for Chalkbeat New York, worries that the formal school-social service-medical partnerships are being undertaken in too many schools all at once:  “The turnaround plan, dubbed ‘school renewal’ will connect the schools with agencies that will bring in physical and mental health services for students, after-school programs, tutoring, and perhaps job training or housing assistance for parents.” “Unlike a smaller program de Blasio launched earlier this year that asked eager principals to apply for money to create community schools, the turnaround plan compels leaders of struggling schools to adopt that approach regardless of whether they appear willing or able.”

In her address, Farnia described additional academic changes at the district’s 94 struggling Renewal Schools.  Renewal Schools are being paired for collaboration with schools that are currently thriving. Each school will add an hour of extra instruction every day. Renewal Schools will receive extra support for more seats in the district’s expanded after school program.  Teachers in these schools will have added training with intensive coaching from experts.  Summer programs will be targeted to these schools.  School achievement at Renewal Schools will be tracked closely.  Schools whose test scores fail to rise over three years will, according to Wall, “face leadership changes or even closure.”

Major program changes have been underway all year.  In her recent address Farina reported that 53,000 four-year-olds are now enrolled in quality, full-day, pre-kindergarten.  The school district has broadly expanded after school programming for students in middle school.  Farina is asking Renewal schools to return to “balanced literacy” reading instruction which incorporates time at school for children to read for enjoyment books they choose and write  about their personal experiences.  “I think it was a misinterpretation that all reading has to have an end-goal that is a test,” said Farina recently about reading instruction that she believes focused far too much on close reading of short expository passages and writing responses to the prompts in the state’s standardized tests.  Farina is also launching 40 dual-language bilingual education programs that use New York City’s diversity and size to advantage.  “A vast majority of the programs will be in Spanish, but there will also be some in Japanese, Hebrew, Chinese, French and Haitian-Creole.”

Lots of people are watching to see if Farina and the New York City Schools will fail.  Are expectations too high and too fast?  I am going to be looking for the successes instead.  Bloomberg’s strategy—founded in competition by schools to raise their aggregate test scores— punished principals and teachers and created incentives for pushing struggling students to the schools that struggled themselves—ensuring that those schools would score lower and lower until they were closed.

I am going to assume it is possible to improve public schools by building accountability through a strong network of experienced superintendents and principals, creating geographically based support services, making medical care available for children and social services accessible for families right in school buildings, intensively training teachers, and adding after school programs, preschools, and new and enriched academics.  I’ll be looking for some exciting developments.