NEW YORK—In a colorful classroom 30 first-graders, sitting on colored circles on a carpet, listen to their teacher read from a picture book. After a few sentences the teacher asks them a question and then, with a flick of her fingers, all 30 children almost magically turn to their designated “turn & talk” partners for a short exchange.
“We change the partners during the year, so they don’t always talk to the same person,” Abigail Johnson, principal of the Success Academy Williamsburg, explained. The school is one of 22 Success Academy Charter Schools operating in New York City.
With 240 children in kindergarten to grade two and plans to expand to grade eight, this charter school is boasting its high standards on all fronts.
To a casual observer, the school has everything you would dream about. From interactive chalkboards and neat uniforms, to two teachers in almost every classroom. The atmosphere of generous resources and contagious efficiency permeates the freshly painted corridors. But everything comes at a price.
High standards are offered, and therefore required of students and teachers. Johnson admitted teaching at Success is not for everyone and teachers are carefully selected. The school day starts at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 4:30 p.m., making it a solid 11-hour workday for teachers, who have to be at school from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. A high level of commitment is also a must. “We can’t have a teacher who’s not working at 110 percent when we’re asking the kids to get 110 percent,” Johnson said.
As a result, the children have science every day, discuss different approaches to math problems, have reading instruction in groups of 10, and play chess in class. At the same time, every class schedule is planned almost by the minute, and every teacher receives four hours of professional development every week, led by the principal.
Subjects such as history and geography are missing from the schedule but are taught in a social studies class called Project Based Learning. The difference being “it’s done topic by topic, instead of year by year,” said Brian Whitley, member of the communications team at the Success Academy Network. Separate history classes start at fifth grade.
Second languages are also missing from the curriculum, but are taught in Success high schools. The first high school is expected to open next year.
In the school year 2012–2013 about 18 percent of the students were designated as having special needs. They received services in speech therapy, therapy related to visual, motor and sensory issues, and counseling, according to Whitley.
Observing the class, one immediately notices certain routines. Students cheer in unison for their classmates’ right answers, like “You go Sara!” then they wait for the teacher to signal the next task.
“From day one, we’re really big on teaching kids the routines, teaching kids how to participate in the classroom, so that when the work gets harder the kid already knows all the basics,” Johnson explained.
The basics include walking down corridors in pairs, keeping eye contact with the person speaking, staying quiet while someone else is talking, or sitting with legs crossed and hands folded on the lap. Bonus points are earned for sitting straight.
Whitley acknowledged that some parents might not like such an approach. “That’s ok. We’re pro-choice by definition,” he said.
Johnson was very proud of the school’s character development program. She said they try to impart a set of values to the children, summarized in the acronym ACTION, standing for Agency, in terms of showing initiative when seeing a problem; Curiosity; “Try and try,” meaning never giving up; Integrity, meaning thinking about what is right “even when no one is looking;” Others, meaning being considerate of other people as well as the environment; and No short cuts, meaning understanding the rewards of hard work.
“We try to make sure those values are really present throughout the building,” she said.
Students can earn privileges, like being a teacher’s assistant in a yoga class, for showing extra effort or being kind to their friends.
“We care a lot about the kids being good people,” Johnson said. “If they’re brilliant but they don’t stand up for what they believe in, they don’t get involved in their community, they don’t get up for someone on the bus, we totally failed.”
The same should hold true for the teachers. The principal said she looks for role models when hiring new staff. “We can’t have a teacher who’s yelling at kids telling them to behave,” she said.
Who is Paying?
As charter schools, Success academies don’t charge tuition. Instead, they receive funding from the public education system. But operated by a nonprofit, they can raise funds from private sources.
According to Whitley, the private money is helping them establish new schools, but the target is to get them running on public money only.
“After three years, for elementary schools, the public funding, that we get from the city and the state, makes the schools self-sustaining,” he said. Until then each school has about a $1.8 million deficit.
Being a charter school, they can save money on bureaucracy and pension plans and can have larger classes, usually between 28 and 31 students, as government funding is counted per pupil.
Whitley also mentioned certain freedoms regarding salaries, schedules, and hiring, but maintained their teachers are still paid 30 to 40 percent more that their district counterparts.
Challenge on the Horizon
If Bill de Blasio is elected mayor, his promises of charging rent to affluent charters co-located in district school buildings would cast a shadow on their years of plenty.
Having an aggregated surplus of about $23 million in total last year, of which $12 million is from donations and grants, Success would be among the first schools to pay. According to Whitley, however, that money is not “stocking up somewhere,” but will be invested in creating new schools.
No estimate on the proposed rent has been made public, so the impact for the schools cannot be calculated. “All we really know is that we would have to cut something,” Whitley said, pointing out that they would consider reducing staff and dropping programs like sports, chess, or art classes. “We would definitely have to scale back until we could be sustainable,” he said.
A quick look in the accounts would suggest there are other ways to scale back. Success network spent $3.4 million on marketing and on public relations last year, including half a million worth of services from the Washington PR firm, SKDKnickerbocker.
According to Whitley, outreach costs are necessary to ensure ample enrollment. However, in 2011, about 13,000 applications were received for about 3,500 openings.
De Blasio also promised to stop new co-locations, certainly an issue for 100 percent of co-located Success schools. Whitley admitted co-locating is never easy and district schools don’t welcome them with open arms. But once the school year starts, the “principals can and do work together pretty well,” Whitley said.
In contrast, if elected, Joe Lhota said he would double the number of charter schools.
In any event, with the rent and other challenges approaching, Whitley remains hopeful. “I still have my fingers crossed it doesn’t come to that. But it may.”