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By Tessa Stuart
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In New York City's public schools, the most common problem for teachers is that they cannot get their kids to shut up. From kindergarten through high school, it is the bane of almost every teacher's existence. Even experienced teachers talk about the frustration of having a handful of disruptive kids—or even just one—that keeps everyone else from learning. Bronx Success Academy 1 isn't having any of it, and not just because it can fire teachers and students. The newly opened charter school is part of a network run by Eva Moskowitz, a woman who inspires a remarkable loathing from New York's teachers' union and other advocates of traditional public education. Employing non-union instructors, Bronx Success exists not only to educate kids but to show that it can do so better than traditional public schools, like the one it shares a building with, P.S.30 (Wilton).
The Voice was there the day Bronx Success opened its doors for business in August. For now, it has only kindergartners and first-graders.
And miraculously, they know how to keep their mouths shut.
The sheer efficiency with which the students, teachers, and parents present themselves and govern nearly every gesture and utterance is so striking that the thought "North Korean–like" kept coming to mind during multiple Voice visits over a four-month period to Bronx Success.
From day one, students are indoctrinated with drills: how to clear their trays and deposit trash at the cafeteria; how to stand in line and walk up stairs; how to track adults with their eyes when they walk and when they talk.
And to really make it sink in, movements are matched with rhymes.
"Hands on top," adults ring out, and children instinctively know to respond, "That means stop!" as they put their hands on their heads. Sitting with their hands in their laps is "magic five." Spend just a few hours there, and soon you'll be responding like a trained poodle: Months later, there hasn't been any let-up from the day of the school's opening, and the rhyming and gesturing is as hard-wired in the children as a soldier's salute.
Every staff member takes part; every one of them refers to their five- and six-year-old students as "scholars." Each class, meanwhile, takes on the identity of the alma mater of its teacher. So one group of kindergartners is known as the "2027 scholars of the University of Michigan," referring to the year they will graduate from colle ge if they go to the school that educated their instructor. A group of first-graders is known as the "2026 scholars of NYU."
It's symbolic, this collegiate mindset for kindergartners, and the kind of thing you'd more expect to see in an elite private school or a highly competitive Manhattan G&T (Gifted and Talented) public school. But anyone can get into Bronx Success, via lottery. Most children here are poor, and it's almost entirely black and Hispanic (there is one white child in the entire school).
On a rainy day in August, the principal, Michele Caracappa—a reservedly energetic white woman who appeared in the divisive education documentary Waiting for Superman—wears a business suit one might mistake for that of a media executive. She is bending to greet each kindergartner, reading their names off the tags around their necks and shaking hands.
Her attention to each and every child is not just a first-day ritual. Principals in the Success Network group of schools are required to shake the hand of every student, every day. That's some 186 handshakes a day, and just one of numerous drills that staff members, children, and parents learn with military precision at all seven of the Success Academies. When a parent picks up a child at the end of the day, he or she is required to shake the teacher's hand. Every time.
"Welcome, scholars!" Caracappa addresses the student body. "We are so excited to have you here. We have been waiting so long for you, and have been working so long for your arrival." Her speech is going over the heads of some youngsters, who squirm in their little uniforms. The girls wear matching skirts, and the boys polo shirts. (The kindergarten boys are spared the indignity of a clip-on tie for another year.)
On this first day of school, not all goes according to the very detailed, down-to-the-minute plan. Quivering lips sometimes give out to cries for mommy. (A typical response from the staff: "You're a big kid, now, and you've got to learn to do for yourself.") One child wets his pants. Another little boy goes to the bathroom after much pleading, only to have a complete and utter meltdown inside, crying hysterically.
After a brief discussion, a female teaching aide goes in to check on him. Adults are typically not allowed in bathrooms in public schools, for fear of lawsuits.
Policies that defy common sense infuriate Eva Moskowitz, the well-paid CEO of the Success Charter Network. A former chairwoman of the City Council's Education Committee, she has been the scourge of the United Federation of Teachers, the department of education, and civil rights activists at one time or another. She is praised by some education advocates and reviled by others. An article about her on GothamSchools.org is named "What is it about Eva Moskowitz that attracts so many enemies?" A longtime source for the Voice says, "She is the devil, and I cannot think of anything good to say about her."