After the appearance of the New York Times’ article about the successes and harsh methods of Success Academy, there was quite a lot of discussion about whether the article was accurate and balanced. Eva Moskowitz said it was “slanted” with anecdotes.
I received an email from a former SA teacher who wanted to tell her story. She worked at SA for two years, but quit for reasons she explains below. She now works in another charter school. Her story is self-explanatory. She was not one of the teachers interviewed for the story in the New York Times.
In the recent New York Times article about Success Academy, CEO Eva Moskowitz defended a school leader’s use of the phrase “misery has to be felt” in an email about students who were not meeting expectations. After spending 2 years as a Success Academy teacher, it’s clear to me that misery was indeed a favorite tactic.
I’ve never worked anywhere where there was such a high chance of walking into the bathroom and seeing a colleague crying. Over the course of my two years there, I walked in on someone in tears at least a half a dozen times, and another half a dozen times the person crying in the bathroom was me. Teachers felt a lot of misery.
The first – and only – time I called out sick, I received a phone call around 9am from my assistant principal informing me that having “just a cold” was not a valid reason to call out sick, and that “unless you are vomiting, you are expected to medicate and push through.” At the end of the year, that sick day was given as a reason why my “level of professionalism” was a concern and why my rehire for the following year was in question.
My principal, who had no formal training as an educator, nevertheless frequently took control of my classroom in the middle of lessons and offered nothing but criticism of my teaching. After several weeks of feeling completely demoralized, a colleague delicately told our principal that it was getting hard to hear nothing but negative feedback, and that we were beginning to feel like the leadership thought nothing we were doing was right. He responded by rolling his eyes and saying “Oh, you want one of those compliment sandwich things? Ugh, I hate those!”
Another teacher who dared to raise the same concern on behalf of many of us at a staff meeting was fired. She was quietly brought back a few days later, but the damage to morale had been done.
One morning our beloved receptionist, an older woman that everyone regarded their work mom, came around classroom to classroom hugging each one of us. “There is a dark cloud over this building,” she said. “I want you to know I’m praying for you and for our kids.”
But of course, the real tragedy of Success Academy is the misery of children. The misery of the low-income children of color who Ms. Moskowitz claims to want the best for. The misery of children who have learning disabilities and routinely don’t score well on the quarterly in-house assessments because their legally-deserved testing accommodations were denied them by the administration. The misery of children who have diagnosed emotional and behavioral disabilities and are still expected to adhere to the developmentally inappropriate behavioral expectations. The misery of any child who might be slightly different than the average, who is forced to comply with cookie-cutter behavioral and academic expectations that don’t respond to the needs of the individual child, in the name of systemic uniformity and “no excuses.”
To this day I feel sick to my stomach over the way I was made to speak to my students, and the things I was forced to demand from them. Backs straight, hands still, eyes tracking the speaker every second. Walking in the hallways silently and with their hands crossed over their chests so they wouldn’t touch things they weren’t supposed to. Working in complete silence almost all day long and hardly ever given an opportunity for collaborative work. For most of one of my years there the first and second graders ate lunch in silence too, because our principal had decided they couldn’t handle talking at an appropriate volume.
But of all of the awful stories from my time at Success, none will top the story of one of my little boys in first grade. He was new to Success, having left some other charter school for unclear reasons, and at first presented as a bright, sweet boy. But sometime in the winter, after months of seeming more and more defeated by a school environment that squashed his fiery spirit, he grew anxious and fidgety. These symptoms quickly escalated into weekly full-blown crisis situations in which he would suddenly start screaming and try to knock down every piece of furniture in our classroom. It was deeply troubling for the other students as well myself because it was clear that something very serious was going on in his little mind, and yet all our administrators seemed concerned about was getting his behavior under control. Their solution was to have our school security officer, a large man dressed in uniform, come upstairs and drag him out of our room. Knowing what I do now about childhood trauma, I understand the extent of the damage that must have done to him, as well as to all the other children in our class. At the end of the year it was not-so-subtly suggested to his family that this might not be the right place for him, and he moved on to to his third charter school in as many years.
Eva Moskowitz says Success Academy is the answer. She says she wants all kids to succeed. But she also says they need to feel misery if they do not rise to her nearly impossible expectations. What kind of success is that?