NEW YORK—It was a massive undertaking for large New York City charter school networks this Thursday. Instead of taking students to school, buses took thousands of students and their parents to Foley Square, just a block away from City Hall, for a rally a long time in the making.
The organizers of Don’t Steal Possible estimate 21,000 attended. No official count was available.
Their message: About 10 percent of city public schools fail miserably on state standardized test scores.
Their demand: Every child should have a chance to go to a great school.
Most of the participants were students of Success Academy charter schools and their parents. With 32 schools and 9,000 students, it is the largest charter network in the city—and its founder Eva Moskowitz plans to add 14 more schools in the next couple of years. Achievement First network, with 17 schools in the city, also participated.
Charter schools are privately run schools that receive per-pupil public funding and don’t charge tuition. Admissions are based on lotteries.
“My school is a charter school and we support other charter schools,” said Josiah Ragin, 11, a student at Success Academy Harlem Central, who came to rally with his class. He said the rally felt a bit like a field trip and they will return to school afterward.
Pascaline Ayenengoye attended the rally with her two children that go to Success Academy Bronx 2. She had a bad experience with traditional public schools. When her son David was in kindergarten, he wasn’t able to learn to read or count, and the school, M.S. 44, recommended him for medication. Ayenengoye didn’t agree and instead applied for a seat in Success Academy. David got in but had to repeat kindergarten. A year later M.S. 44 was closed for poor performance.
The school is “very hard,” David said. Last spring he faced the English and math state tests for the first time. At Success Academy, test preparation starts around January. Every day the students would practice answering test questions, he said.
Success Academy network has been criticized for excessive test prep and an overly strict discipline code, but many parents don’t seem to mind.
Another participant Rob Fitz has a child in Bergen Beach Success Academy in Brooklyn. He said the school is “rigid,” but he still prefers that over district schools, where he said the education is “a joke.”
Fitz got a phone call from the school about two months ago asking him to come to the rally. And it has been advertised ever since. “They had a constant countdown,” he said, “how many days to the rally.”
Isatu Barrie attended the rally with her three children, who attend Success Academy Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Everybody received a red T-shirt, breakfast, and a MetroCard to get back home. “They give people food, everything,” Barrie said.
“The school has been really rallying parents to really come out, show the support,” said Samantha Nedd, mother of a second-grader and a general manager at the Five Guys restaurant chain.
Her daughter Madison just transferred to Success Academy Crown Heights from P.S. 375 because Nedd was’t satisfied with the school. “I’ll get my daughter to college,” Nedd said. “If she went to school anywhere else around my neighborhood, it would not happen. Success Academy? I know it’s going to happen. I know for a fact it’s going to happen.”
Success Academy has no record of college success yet, as it only accepts students from grades 1–3 and its oldest students just started high school this year. None of them were accepted to the city’s nine top selective high schools last year, out of some two dozen who applied.
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced her vision for public education Wednesday, most notably removing its focus on test scores from school quality reviews.
“Yesterday was a step backward for accountability,” commented Jeremiah Kittredge, leader of Families for Excellent Schools, the main organizer of the rally.
Fariña said the A to F grades schools received were mostly based on the test scores, but often didn’t reflect what children were really learning. She criticized the excessive focus on test scores.
“Test prep may improve grades, but it does not get you ready for life,” she said to roaring applause from an audience at P.S. 503’s auditorium.
Another pro-charter nonprofit, StudentFirstNY, stated in a release the letter grades were an “objective measures of school quality,” adding that their members are frustrated with the direction taken by this administration.
“Mayor de Blasio and his chancellor claim things are getting better, but what about the tens of thousands of kids trapped in failing schools?” asked Anyta Brown, a StudentFirstNY member.
De Blasio previously criticized big charter school chains for not accepting enough children with disabilities and children yet to learn English. He said he wants to improve condition for all schools, not just charters.
“We know our schools need help. We believe the answer is to fix the entire system,” City Hall spokesman Wiley Norvell stated in an email reply.
Additional reporting by Shannon Liao