Class Struggles at a Bronx Charter School

Bronx Success Academy 1 may not quiet its critics, but it's doing a good job making its kids shut up and pay attention

Shortly before he left office, Chancellor Joel Klein described Moskowitz as "a lightning rod" of criticism, but had nothing but praise for her.

On this day in the Bronx, Moskowitz is opening a charter school that has 185 black and Hispanic children and one white child. And though she could afford to send her children anywhere on her salary ($300,000), two of her own children go to Harlem Success Academy 3, where they are among the only white children. (Her older son goes to NEST+m, a traditional public school for the gifted on the Lower East Side.)

So why is a woman who spends all her time educating poor children of color so hated, especially when she puts her own kids where her mouth is?

"Hands on top" from an adult gets a boisterous "That means stop!" from students.
Arlene Gottfried
"Hands on top" from an adult gets a boisterous "That means stop!" from students.
A reminder to speak in "classroom voices." In the cafeteria, students use their "restaurant voices."
Arlene Gottfried
A reminder to speak in "classroom voices." In the cafeteria, students use their "restaurant voices."

For one reason, her Success Academies are blamed for cannibalizing. The more Bronx Success grows, the more its "co-location" neighbor Wilton will have to shrink—putting Wilton's staff and parents on the defensive as their school is pushed toward irrelevance and possible extinction. For a charter to grow, the other school in its building must die (or, reformers hope, rise to the challenge). The battle for space alone can make enemies out of entire school communities. That movie is playing out right now on the Upper West Side, where Moskowitz is attempting to open her first charter in an affluent white community, against great opposition.

Why, contend charter school critics, pit kindergartners against each other? Why should Wilton kids see that Bronx Success has better bathrooms, a longer school day, and more resources in the same building?

Last year, the Voice examined a similar relationship between two public (not charter) schools located in the same building on the Upper East Side. Lower Lab School is a nearly entirely white and Asian and affluent "gifted" school, and it shares space with Ida Strauss, a mostly Hispanic and black "zone" school. Not surprisingly, the children in the gifted school test far higher than the children in the zone school, and not many children in the neighborhood can qualify to get into the better school.

Success Network children also score well, but anyone can get in if they are selected in a lottery. Moskowitz is taking the sort of children who would normally go to an Ida Strauss zone school, but getting results out of them that rival and sometimes even surpass those of Lower Lab, the gifted school. Her Harlem Success Academy 1 scored in the top 1 percent of the state's 3,500 public schools in third-grade reading and math.

But this may be the most remarkable thing about a Moskowitz school like Bronx Success: Walk down the hallways, and you are immediately struck by it.

The quiet.

"Our time was 16 seconds yesterday, scholars. We need to get that down!"

It's four months later on a cold January morning, and Jennifer Haynes, the 2027 University of Michigan kindergarten teacher, is timing her students as they move from their assigned places on the classroom's carpet to their desks. She has a timer in her hand. Like every teacher in the school, she times everything.

Not wasting time is an obsession at Bronx Success. Teachers time how long it takes for children to take off their boots and put on their regulation black shoes. They time how long it takes for everyone to stop talking and sit quietly in "magic five." They're always trying to improve the time from one day to the next.

Just how time-obsessed are they?

"At B.S.A.1, we resolve to make the most of every precious minute of learning." This enthusiastic mantra is printed on a schedule posted on the faculty bathroom stall door. (Yes, even the moments spent sitting on the toilet are valuable minutes to remind teachers not to waste time.)

Speaking of the bathrooms, they are a point of pride and competition, as well. "The Golden Paper Towel Competition" is posted in the hallway, pitting the school's boys and girls against each other to see who can get points for having "nothing on the floor," making "zero noise," and being "quick scholars."

The sense of timing here is rigid, and it started before the school year began. (Parents were required to attend certain meetings the summer before.) If a child is chronically late, the school initiates wake-up calls to make sure the family does something about it. But even being late one time results in Saturday school for child and parent.

It's not for every family. One child, a kindergarten boy, showed up almost late the first day of school, back in August. While the Voice was observing, he was almost always the slowest child to respond to discipline routines, dawdling when other kids were in "magic five" or had already gotten their "hands on top."

During our visit in January, he was pulled out of the school by his family, who enrolled him in P.S.30 in the same building. It's precisely this type of thing—families who can't cut the routine and leave—that gives charters a huge advantage over traditional public schools, which have to serve everyone.

But it's precisely this kind of discipline that a lot of Bronx Success families desire.

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