A Black teacher questioned Eva Moskowitz’s response to George Floyd’s death. Now, Success Academy is facing bigger questions about race.

“This is all long overdue,” a current Brooklyn Success teacher told Chalkbeat on condition of anonymity, referring to the debate about some of the network’s practices. “I’m hoping that if we get enough people to rally from within, something can actually be done.”

Success Academy students at the “Slam the Exam” pep rally held at the Barclays Center in 2018 (Photo: Pamela Wong/BKLYNER)

By Alex Zimmerman, originally published on Chalkbeat New York

Four days after the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police, a Brooklyn Success Academy teacher emailed her network’s CEO, one of the nation’s most prominent charter school leaders, asking why she hadn’t said anything publicly.

“I am deeply hurt and shocked by your lack of words on the topic that affects so many of your employees, children and families in communities that you serve,” first-year Success Academy Flatbush teacher Fabiola St Hilaire wrote to Eva Moskowitz. “All of your black employees are paying attention to your silence.”

Moskowitz responded about an hour later, thanking St Hilaire for reaching out but also brushing her aside. “I actually opined on this subject early this am. Please take a look,” Moskowitz wrote, referring to a tweet sent the same morning. “I hope you can understand that running remote learning in the middle of a world economic shutdown has kept me focused on [Success Academy’s] immediate needs.”

Upset by the response, St Hilaire posted the email exchange on social media, thrusting New York City’s largest charter network into a wider debate about institutional racism. Some current and former employees were angry that Moskowitz seemed to dismiss the concerns of an educator of color as well as the broader movement to reckon with structural racism in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing.

As other big charter networks took the unusual step of cancelling class for a day to give students and staff time to grieve and reflect, Success waited several days before following suit. Some staffers felt Success was unprepared to meet the moment, and Moskowitz’s exchange with St Hilaire morphed into a larger critique of the network. It sparked dozens of mostly anonymous Instagram comments — often touching on race — from employees, parents, and students.

The posts describe calling 911 on students with behavior problems, policing Black students’ hair by banning certain headwraps, and a culture where white educators are comfortable dressing down parents of color for minor issues like arriving late to pick up their children. Half of the teachers and principals at Success are white, 27% are Black, 13% are Hispanic and 5% are Asian. Meanwhile, 83% of the network’s roughly 18,000 students are Black or Hispanic and most come from low-income families.

“This is all long overdue,” a current Brooklyn Success teacher told Chalkbeat on condition of anonymity, referring to the debate about some of the network’s practices. “I’m hoping that if we get enough people to rally from within, something can actually be done.”

The network’s leaders have shifted to damage control mode, with Moskowitz putting out more forceful statements condemning racism and police brutality, holding virtual town halls to respond to parents and staff, and taking the unusual step of cancelling a day of class to give students and staff space to process Floyd’s death. Moskowitz even echoed activists’ calls for removing the police department from New York City schools.

A Success spokesperson pushed back against the online complaints, writing in an email that they “are being made by a handful of former employees and families. Our current employees and families overwhelmingly support our schools.”

At a town hall meeting this week with staff, Moskowitz said she “stands in solidarity with all of the protestors” and apologized for not responding more swiftly to Floyd’s killing, according to a recording obtained by Chalkbeat.

“I was late, and I really regret that,” she said. “There was no attempt to be silent on the issue. I feel very, very strongly that Black lives matter.” (Moskowitz said she had needed time to craft a response, though one educator later noted she sent a letter to the Success community the day after NBA superstar Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash.)

The broader complaints also get at the heart of the network’s “no excuses” philosophy, a mix of strict discipline and high academic expectations. In class, students are often required to sit with their hands clasped, consistently track teachers with their eyes, and are regularly corrected for any deviation from the rules. Some current and former Success teachers said they’ve become increasingly uneasy with the enforcement of behavior expectations and have even come to see them as racist.

“The number of young Black males you’re suspending is part of the problem — you’re suspending them for non-compliance, for having tantrums. That’s a cry for help,” said Erika Johnson, a five-year Success Academy educator who left last year to teach fourth grade at a KIPP charter school in Massachusetts. She said she signed on to an online petition calling for a broader reckoning with Success’ culture and more specific actions like anti-racism training.

“The change needs to start with Eva and the network office,” Johnson said.

Many charters that embraced similar “no excuses” models have in recent years moved away from the approach, reducing suspensions, changing the way teachers respond to small infractions and relaxing dress codes.

But Moskowitz has vigorously defended her network’s strict approach arguing that exacting behavior expectations that are consistently enforced provide a necessary condition for student learning. And network leaders argue it works: Success’ students, the vast majority of whom are Black or Latino, typically outperform much whiter and more affluent districts on state tests. Parents of color continue flocking to Success, and network leaders are honest about what will be expected of them and their children.

“There is no doubt in my mind that there is a significant appetite among low-income parents for exactly the flavor of education that Eva Moskowitz offers,” said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the conservative-learning Fordham Institute who spent a year observing a Success elementary school in the South Bronx and wrote a book about it. “It just does violence to reality to pretend that this is some kind of pedagogy that’s being imposed on families of color.”

At the same time, he isn’t surprised that some employees may be increasingly uncomfortable with the responsibility of enforcing strict behavior expectations on students of color, even if they are designed to foster student achievement.

“A lot of those techniques — rightly or wrongly — may feel oppressive to a new generation of young people, and I think that’s a vulnerability for high-performing charter schools,” Pondiscio said.

There are other signs network leaders are worried about the conversation swirling online. On Monday, Moskowitz directly responded to a single Instagram post that leaked a description of a 2015 ad that Success Academy was involved in producing.

A production schedule for the ad, designed to draw a contrast between the types of schools available to white and Black students, described the scene with white students as a “good” classroom and Black students in a “bad” classroom. After facing questions about that description, Moskowitz sent a letter to staff Monday saying that the terms “good” and “bad” were meant to describe the physical classrooms, not the children.

“If the person had been explaining the meaning of these scenes, I would hope they would have made the underlying message clearer by writing ‘a white child is filmed sitting in a nice classroom with a colorful bulletin board and pictures while an African American child is shown in a dreary classroom to illustrate that African Americans aren’t given equal educational opportunities,’” Moskowitz wrote. “That was clearly the ad’s message.”

At the town hall meeting with staff on Monday, Moskowitz argued that the network’s mission is fundamentally anti-racist.

“I imagined that if you could educate tens of thousands of students, mostly of color, especially well, they would get into the halls of power, and they would most effectively combat institutional racism,” she said.

Some parents said they are frustrated that Moskowitz leans on them so heavily to help advocate for the network, but when it comes to issues bubbling up in their communities, she is often absent.

“The parents did try to get together and rally when we needed a middle school and she came out for that,” said a parent at Success Academy Far Rockaway who spoke on condition of anonymity, referring to Moskowitz. “But she never comes out any other time.”

The parent said she has complicated feelings about the network: Her son was suspended several times in kindergarten, which required her to miss work or find other childcare, sometimes paying out of her own pocket. But she generally likes her son’s teachers and is drawn to his school’s academic rigor.

“Yes we love the academics, but their ways and their methods — [we] are starting to stand against it,” she said. “There needs to be some change.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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Comments

  1. Another rabble rousing, trying to make noise article. Can any white leaders do anything without being called racist and prejudiced these days? OMG!!! She didn’t close the schools? WTF?
    We really need some more measured sanity in the racial accusations and rhetoric being thrown these days; not just these reactionary hate-stirring articles.

  2. I don’t know how the rest of you parents feel, but I won’t be happy until there isn’t a single decent school in Brooklyn. They might not be able to educate my child, but dammit they’ll parrot the right slogans!

  3. My daughter has been in SA for two years, during which time she gained over 20 pounds. I attribute this to the stress of the school and yes, unconscious bias leveled against her and other students of color. The network operates under the assumption that Black and Brown children have to be controlled in order to learn, when in actuality they need support, encouragement and given a sense of pride and confidence in their own abilities. If the public school options were better and if I were still able to afford private school tuition, she would not be there. I feel as if I am caught between a rock and a hard place. The administrators punish the children for the most unbelievably minor offenses – looking out a window, stepping one foot off of a line. It is ridiculous and sad that we have to subject our children to Eva’s madness, just to get a semblance of an acceptable education. HELP.

  4. I am very happy with SA schools!i think discipline is a road to success, it’s required everywhere in school, college, at work, and even in relationships. Scholars have rules that have to be followed , nothing draconian as it was said..Both of my kids attend SA and their academic improvements make me feel that they are in a good hands. I also like that their classes are multiracial and there is no place for any discriminations!

  5. Didn’t realize this was happening behind the scenes – So wait!

    White woman starts philanthropic educational program for inner city kids and now there are over 14,000 thousand waitlisted to get in – something good must be happening.

    Just because there’s silence and nothing was said during the Black Lives Matter movement she’s considered racist – this woman tries every year to get water out of a stone so black, yellow green, brown, white and many other folks of color can have a better education than the privileged.

    We are jewish and we’ve had detention for being late at pick-up and did not feel victimized, and we have been sanctioned for being late at drop-off and not dressing properly – If you’re late for work you get fired – the school is run like an airport if you have a 6:30 flight your flight leaves at 6:30 not 6:01 – Now if your kid is held for detention you pull the victim card that’s wrong. What has the world come to…

    Have seen kids of many ethnic backgrounds in detention for the same thing we were – even the rich white gal has been in detention – everyone is held to the same expectations – My kids have a multi racial class’s and friends. And they always tell me who misbehaves in the class and they find it funny but say it’s distracting because they can’t focus –

    if a kid is disruptive 5 minutes a day 5 days a week that’s 25 minutes of lost time learning for the whole class. If you are distributive don’t value time or a good education then this is not the place for you.

    Anyone who has a job and any sense of responsibility knows the value of a schedule – ask your boss what time you’re suppose to be at work or at the next meeting.. Now show up 10 minutes late for 2 weeks then get back to me if you still have a job and I’ll buy you lunch…….

    If you don’t do your homework you’re held accountable – I would assume if you didn’t do your job you’d be held accountable too – but we are living in a time where 95% of families have become “Lawnmower Parents” so maybe Success is in the wrong for not catering to this new movement of parenting.

    We actually had off – to honor t –

    How did we go from Corona/Covid19 to quarantine/lock down / social distancing regulation to civil rights movement –

    We are in a pandemic – Remember Eva closed all Success Academies while the DOE didn’t decide to do so until the pressure from the teachers union came on. Many DOE teachers died because of this – why isn’t anyone talking about that…..

  6. I, as SA parent have two daughters who have been attending SA Bronx 1 since it opened on 141st and brook ave with Ms. Karakappa as principal. Based on my children academic performance, I cheer loudly the chater school teaching approach, pedagogy and methodology. SA network is by far better than public schools despite it is itself a public school. It’ s obvious that racism cab be an issue but does it happen only at S.A. Charter schools ? We just need those issues to be addressed by S.A. administration but we also need to recognize their endeavor in teaching and disciplining our children. Education râles place at three levels which are the home, the school and the community(neighborhood). When an issue takes place we should not blame the schools alone, but all three. We, as parents have our own role and responsibility to play in the education of our children. We should not sit and wait for everything to be done by the school. Thank you to all those who contribute to the success of our kids. I am à happy parent with S.A.

  7. How much has Eva Moskowitz’ income increased since she became CEO of Success Academy???

  8. Thank you, John Bon Jovi, for articulating so many important points!

    It is absurd that any parent would depict being reprimanded for picking up their child late as an example of discrimination. Are there not enough other examples to draw from, that this one in particular is being used? I have been both an educator and therapist in every possible setting and devoted my career to serving high-needs populations and have to add that people who have no experience actually trying to educate an entire class of kids, have no basis for making claims about how that is done. Along with support, encouragement, and self-esteem fostering, there unfortunately also needs to be rules and discipline. I do not see why parents feel their family should be given an exemption from the rules of a classroom or school. As long as policies and protocols are explained in advance of infractions, there is nothing wrong with the school carrying them out when a case presents itself. So when talking about late pickups, detention, and suspensions, perhaps the conversation should be more about what the parent is also doing to fix the problems so that they don’t happen in the future.

    I would also love to learn more about Success’s hiring practices, and if black educators are rejected on a whole in favor of white teachers and leadership. This article mentions the statistics as if the fact that 50% of the teachers and principals are white seemingly to suggest that this an inherent problem as well. Is there also a large number of black professionals who are unemployed or rejected as a result of discrimination? If so, then by all means, this should be addressed and the ratio of teachers and leadership should be adjusted so that it is more reflective of the populations being served. But I have never heard of this being a problem, which is to say that this element of the article just serves as a baseless example of racism intended to stir up controversy.

    I read in another recent article that “A recent survey of SA parents shows that 96% of the parents of the 18,000 students [Success serves] are very happy”. And it is well-known how high achieving the students in this network are. So I suggest that anyone who feels their child is a victim in any way, remove their child and enroll them in an environment that they feel is safe. If a parent believes that your child is in danger of abuse in any form, it is up to them to remove them from that situation.

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