Invasion Of The Charter Schools

Former City Councilmember Eva Moskowitz, with Bloomberg's union-busting blessing, is pushing her Success Academy edu-franchise into Brooklyn. The natives aren't buying.

That seems like both a truly laudable goal and, given the unfortunate brand message the above race statistics transmit, a smart business decision as well.

Citizens of the World shares Success Academy's target demographic. Citizens' initial proposal to SUNY set a goal of 55 percent white enrollment in Williamsburg—a far higher percentage than you'd find at any local public school there. In a tour de force of PR spin, Citizens' community engagement director, Tara Phillips, says, "We wanted to create a school much more reflective of the diversity of the community relative to other public schools." In English, that means recruiting more white, affluent families to the school.

But diversity is a multi-dimensional metric. So while New York City charters have more minorities, they also have far fewer English-language learners than local schools (6 percent versus 14 percent) and fewer high-need special education students (2.1 percent versus 7.7 percent). The Success Academy I visited in Williamsburg had almost no special-ed kids. Critics like education historian and analyst Diane Ravitch say this is the result of charters' creaming off the students who don't need as many resources. The phenomenon of charters starting to pursue more white kids could add a whole other meaning to the term "creaming."

P.S. 84 Jose de Diego in Williamsburg. After years of work by local parents, the school is
“balanced,” but on a knife’s edge.
Photograph by Kelly Schott
P.S. 84 Jose de Diego in Williamsburg. After years of work by local parents, the school is “balanced,” but on a knife’s edge.
Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz pulls down more than $300K per year.
edworkforce.house.gov
Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz pulls down more than $300K per year.

The mission statement of Citizens of the World focuses on community, peacemaking, and global citizenship. Phillips mentions "diversity" and "community" five times each in a 25-minute interview. Yet their community-relations problems didn't start in Brooklyn. Citizens' founder, Kristean Dragon, faced allegations of financial and ethical mismanagement and cronyism in relation to her previous organization, Wonder of Reading, which got millions of dollars to renovate Los Angeles school libraries before it folded. And Dragon met stiff opposition when opening in Silver Lake, a Los Angeles neighborhood that is a gentrified blend similar to Williamsburg. Stephanie Anderson, the WAGPOPS mom, connected with Silver Lake parents on Facebook and actually flew out to meet with them. "They did a lot of race-baiting in those neighborhoods," she recalls. "Saying, 'you don't want your kids to go to school with low-income Hispanics, do you?' It was the same playbook they're trying in Brooklyn."

Despite these long-standing issues, "the opposition has taken us by surprise," says Phillips, who can't keep a petulant note out of her voice when she talks about WAGPOPS. "The false accusation that we were targeting only white families just wasn't true. . . . It's been a very frustrating process to have the opposition throw lies at us to defeat our cause when there's so much work to be done."

"What's wrong with offering more choice to kids?" asks Abby Johnson, the principal of Success Academy Williamsburg. The upstairs hallway of classrooms within a middle school on South 3rd and Roebling is cheerful and orderly on a sunny Tuesday morning in January. In one room, kindergartners are playing with blocks; in the science lab, they are conducting experiments in growing bread mold; and in art class, they are painting pictures of cake à la Wayne Thiebaud.

The school appeared both progressive and regimented. I saw students, clad in uniforms, being repeatedly reminded to sit up straight and make eye contact with the teacher. Class sizes are at the high end (to make room in the budget for specialized teachers and a school psychologist), and the extended school day goes from 7:45 a.m. to 4 p.m. Starting in kindergarten, there is a relentless focus on college graduation, with each classroom named and decorated after the teacher's alma mater.

"That military, rigid discipline, that 'look me in the eye,' 'no excuses' stuff—I get that Eva Moskowitz is sociopathic enough to put her own kids in this school to prove a point," says Parker. (Two of Moskowitz's three children attend Success Academy Harlem.) "But the president wouldn't put his kids in a school like this. No person of means would. They think somehow this is OK for poor kids, but you don't see the suburban schools operating that way."

"Our pedagogy is incredibly progressive," counters Moskowitz. "Discovery-oriented science, constructivist math, THINK literacy. Our commitment to recess and blocks is deep and wide. We have yoga!" (She clearly sees yoga, offered only at the Williamsburg branch of Success, as some kind of dog whistle to parents of my breed.) "I think you'd be hard-pressed to come to the conclusion that it is 'no excuses,' " she continues, referring to a tagline associated with the more militaristic KIPP charter chain.

She might consider herself progressive, but Moskowitz's communication style hasn't made her hearts-and-minds campaign any easier. "Eva Moskowitz has quite a reputation," says Wilson, laughing. A 2009 post on gothamschools.org asked, "What is it about Eva Moskowitz that attracts so many enemies?" (Conclusion: It's mostly a matter of personality, combined with that salary.) Neither she nor her husband will speak on the record about their separate-but-equal working relationship or about the somehow unseemly fact that they are pushing dueling charter chains on the same neighborhood.

Grannis says the help he offered Citizens of the World was limited to a single e-mail sent to the hui to arrange a meeting for local parents interested in charters: "My role has been greatly exaggerated by people who find my connection to Eva useful in pitching the vast-right-wing-conspiracy angle." Moskowitz prefers to believe in a vast left-wing conspiracy, writing off most of her opposition—including the multiple lawsuits and public hearings with hundreds of parents turning out against her schools—as the product of the unions and their "surrogates." "Randi [Weingarten, head of the United Federation of Teachers] made it very clear that it was part of her mission to stop Success Academy," she says.

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