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

In the same classroom a week later, a mother sits in the rear, observing her son. She is originally from Jamaica, and she admits that she doesn't "like the public education system over here" in the States. A resident of the Bronx, she is so dissatisfied with public education in New York that she's sent her older daughter to relatives to be educated in Jamaica.

She likes for children to be in uniforms, and she was attracted to the "zero-tolerance policy for misbehavior" that Bronx Success offered. She appreciated "how much like the British system" the school appeared.

But her son has been having behavioral problems, and has been acting out. "They suggested I should come in and observe him, so we can work together on helping him," she says. She is not the least bit defensive about what her son's teachers have told her, and seems to trust them completely. Whenever his eyes drift toward her, she directs him, "Don't look at me. Focus on your work."

University of Michigan instructor Jennifer Haynes greets a family. All teachers must shake every parent's hand every day.
Arlene Gottfried
University of Michigan instructor Jennifer Haynes greets a family. All teachers must shake every parent's hand every day.
Science teacher Gabrielle Levine supervises the feeding of worms.
Arlene Gottfried
Science teacher Gabrielle Levine supervises the feeding of worms.

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PREVIOUSLY
Inside a Divided Upper East Side Public School
Whites in the front door, blacks in the back door
by Steven Thrasher

The mother's story belies a common belief about charters, that they won't deal with problem children. It seems quite the contrary at Bronx Success, whose staff seemed disappointed to lose the other boy. (Moskowitz says she has never expelled a student from one of her network of schools.)

The Jamaican woman has nothing but good things to say about the administration, who she says "is working with me, 100 percent" to help with her son. He had previously been enrolled in a public preschool, but she didn't want him to return because there were too many fights and she feared for his safety.

Fights? In preschool? "Have you ever been in public school?" she responds.

Like many parents at Bronx Success, the Jamaican mother learned of the new school from a bus-stop ad. When the Success Network opens a new school (the group's eighth and ninth are set to open next year on the Upper West Side and in Brooklyn pending approval for space), the company recruits heavily. Moskowitz is eager for new students, and the school group is very open about facilitating tours and showing off what they do.

That's completely opposite from the approach taken by the city's gifted schools, which, like Lower Lab, discourage people from visiting and rely upon a system that guarantees a population about as white and affluent as the readership of New York magazine.

By comparison, Bronx Success is not only mostly black (62 percent), Latino (33 percent), and poor (81 percent receive free or reduced-cost lunches), but, contrary to the public perception about charter schools, the children are not free of problems.

A recent stroll through the hallway of Bronx Success reveals a child swinging in a cocoon-like hammock. He is being rocked back and forth gently by Jill D'Antoni, the school's occupational therapist. The child is wearing large headphones, and has his eyes closed.

"He is listening to musical tones," D'Antoni explains, as she gently swings him back and forth. "He is having trouble concentrating in class, and this helps him learn how to focus." It's a remarkably tender gesture, and the boy looks like he couldn't feel safer floating in an amniotic sac. It looks like something you'd see in a Montessori school in Park Slope, not in a public school building in the South Bronx.

She is not the only professional offering such one-on-one service. The school has a half-time psychologist, a speech therapist, a music instructor, and even a chess teacher. (Moskowitz's older son did not speak at an early age, but he responded well to chess. All children in the Success Network take chess weekly.) There are small groups and one-on-one sessions happening in every room and hallway nook, including in the principal's office.

Those small scenes of tenderness stand out in a school with North Korean–like military precision. Students line up and keep quiet by holding "air bubbles" in their mouths, their cheeks puffed out, moving through the hallway from classroom to classroom in utter silence. They must hold the handrail by the correct hand going up and down the stairs. If any students make too much noise, the entire class (or even the entire school) may be made to do a drill again, until it's perfect.

When a child is set aside for time out, he or she may be sent with a timer for three minutes (not missing an opportunity for counting). But the school uses a great deal of positive re-enforcement, as well. Hugs are common. In the classroom, teachers are constantly rewarding their students, saying, "Scholars, kiss your brains." The teachers constantly make students "track" them and ask for "all eyes" when they're speaking.

Kids aren't just sent away for timeouts, either—they're also singled out and taken to the office for a "time-in" when the teacher thinks a student has been especially good. Then, he or she is given a book to write or draw a picture in.

This happened to a first-grader when the Voice was visiting. He was sent for letting someone else get in line in front of him while queuing up. Everyone in the office cooed at what he drew, and when his parents visit, his time-in book drawing will be shown to them.

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