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

Class Struggles at a Bronx Charter School
Photo by Arlene Gottfried

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.

Bronx Success students keep quiet by holding "air bubbles" in their mouths.
Arlene Gottfried
Bronx Success students keep quiet by holding "air bubbles" in their mouths.
Kindergartners (also known as "2027 scholars") sit in "magic five."
Arlene Gottfried
Kindergartners (also known as "2027 scholars") sit in "magic five."
"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."
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.
Evil, or effective? Success Network CEO Eva Moskowitz.
Arlene Gottfried
Evil, or effective? Success Network CEO Eva Moskowitz.

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."

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?

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.

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."

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.

It's a little after 11 a.m., and inside the auditorium at Sojourner Truth Elementary School (P.S.149) on Lenox Avenue, chaos has begun to take over.

The Little Mermaid is showing on a video projector, and dozens of children are running around screaming, out of control. Teachers seem unable to do anything about it, and also don't seem very put out.

"It's not even lunchtime, and they're watching a movie," Eva Moskowitz says with completely unconcealed contempt. "It's quite sad, really."

Her Harlem Success Academy 1, founded in 2006 and the oldest of the schools in her network, shares the building with Sojourner Truth, and the difference between the two schools is stark.

She walks from the cacophony in the auditorium to her charter school's upper-grade area. The halls are silent.

Still, she seems to play down the discipline. "We aim to make schools compelling for kids, something they're excited about," she says.

She steps into a fourth-grade classroom, where "2023 scholars" are reading to themselves. She asks one to step into the hallway. The young black girl seems shy but at ease with Moskowitz, who asks her about the book she's reading.

"They're watching movies. Meanwhile, our kids are reading," Moskowitz says, and she adds that it's crucial for kids to have free time to read.

Free reading time. Music classes. Chess practice. None of it fits the image of a school obsessed with standardized testing.

"We don't believe in teaching to a test," Moskowitz says.

Take science, for example. Science as a subject that is not tested until fourth grade. Yet the children at Bronx Success, from kindergarten, have science lab every single day, taught by science teacher Gabrielle Levine, a Teach for America fellow.

The teacher, a young woman of extraordinary multitasking ability, has to keep five-year-olds still long enough to teach them about the scientific method. (Yes, they're already learning about hypothesizing, experimenting, and analyzing conclusions as they're just learning to read.) For a first-year teacher, she has an unbelievable energy and ability to address her classes by name, sometimes calling out 10 scholars from Williams College a minute by the Voice's count. She can do this at a dizzying pace, and still seems to keep her lesson on track.

In addition to teaching math and reading along the way, the science teacher plans and executes a new lab project each day with the students. On a recent cold winter day, the lab involves mealworms. Each table is getting several in a clear plastic bowl, and the experiment involves figuring out how many sets of legs each larva has.

As soon as they get them, the kindergartners are excited to look at, prod, and do everything short of eating their mealworms. (In actuality, they are supposed to hypothesize about how many legs they have, investigate with a magnifying glass, and observe, record, and analyze the results.)

"If any of these mealworms make it through this alive, I'll be shocked," the teacher says as she hands them out.

sthrasher@villagevoice.com

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