Taking Back America By Taking Back Our Schools
07 April 2014 The Report Card
(Editor: www.thereportcard.org Success Academy Charter School opened its doors in Harlem in 2006, and now has 6700 students enrolled at 22 schools. Their self proclaimed mission:
“We prepare scholars to succeed in college and in life. Exploration, creativity, and curiosity abound in our classrooms and inspire a love of learning in scholars. Our rigorous and innovative curriculum provides an unparalleled, free, public education to children across New York City.”
Students and parent love Success Academies because they inculcate great learning and great results. For that reason, NY teachers unions at traditional public schools are opposed to Success Academy. Nicolas Simmons, a 7th grade math teacher at Success writes in the Wall Street Journal why he thinks nothing succeeds like Success).
I’m a seventh-grade math teacher at Success Academy Harlem West, a public charter school. On April 30 and May 2, 3, the 272 students at my school, along with some 480,000 other New York City public school children, will sit for the state math exam. Last year, 89% of my seventh-graders and 83% of our sixth-graders passed the test, more than half scoring at the highest level.
But only 29% of all sixth-grade public-school students in the city passed the New York State Mathematics Test last year. Among sixth-grade black and Latino kids, only 15% and 17% passed, respectively. Among my sixth-graders, 97% are African-American or Latino, and three out of four of them are from low-income families.
Many teachers and parents—as well as New York City’s school chancellor and the mayor, have said there is too much emphasis on testing. But at Success Academy, we believe internal assessments and the results from state exams are essential feedback for how well we as teachers have done our job in the classroom. Students and teachers embrace academic rigor and take pride in having some of the top math scores in the city, in many cases outperforming the city’s gifted and talented programs.
I grew up in an affluent Connecticut suburb, attended an elite private school, and had many advantages the children in my school do not. Yet students are getting a far better education than I did. They are in school from 8:00 a.m. until 5:15 p.m. If some students do not fully understand a concept that day, they willingly stay for tutoring after school until they master it, sometimes working till 6 or 6:30 p.m.
Success Academy critics, however, have a hard time accepting our students’ academic achievements, even after a five-year track record ranking among the state’s top-performing schools. Critics, among them the teachers union, claim we “counsel out” special needs or low-performing students to keep scores high. Success Academy loses fewer of its students (10%, including special needs students) each year than our peer co-located public schools do (21%). Despite evidence to the contrary, this myth is frequently cited as fact in print and online. Last year, 1,538 Success Academy students took the state exams; 13% of them were special-needs kids. Of that group alone, 56% of them passed math. An average of 7% of New York City district special-needs students passed math.
The newest theory regarding our test scores is the most outlandish. Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change, a union-funded nonprofit, was quoted in Bloomberg News saying that Success Academy is “trying to find ways to increase test scores; that’s why they go into the wealthier neighborhoods.”
Really? Is it just me—or does anyone else hear the prejudicial undertone in that statement? Is it really impossible for Mr. Westin to believe that Success Academy’s poor black and Latino children can achieve at extraordinarily high levels? That with hard work and dedication, significant numbers of children in Harlem and the South Bronx and Bed-Stuy can be proficient at math and reading? That Success Academy might want all children—black and white, poor and middle class—to have access to great schools in various New York City neighborhoods?
Critics fail to understand how insulting and hurtful their remarks are to students and their parents. One of my students recently asked me, “Why are so many people mad at us if we are doing so well?” These children work incredibly hard, and they’re proud of their success. No one, especially without knowledge of their situation or home life or personal effort, has the right to undermine their remarkable achievements.
There’s an excellent reason why Success Academy scholars do extraordinarily well on the state exams: We believe they can. We believe all children can succeed, no matter their socioeconomic circumstances.
Our critics do not share that belief. To them, the achievement gap—with only 11% of African-American children and 12% of Latino students prepared for college—is a given, an unfortunate, but unavoidable fact of New York City’s public schools.
Our students have flipped that “fact” on its head. Now it’s time for educators to start believing that with the right changes, we can achieve these results for all New York City students.
Mr. Simmons is in his second year teaching mathematics at Success Academy Harlem West Middle School.