Q&A

New York charter leader Eva Moskowitz: Colorado doesn’t spend enough on its students

PHOTO: Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images
Eva Moskowitz of Success Academy at a Harlem location in 2014.

The leader of New York City’s largest charter school network was in Denver Tuesday for a conversation with Chalkbeat’s editor-in-chief that touched on school culture, education funding, and why “no-excuses” is a label Eva Moskowitz doesn’t want attached to her schools.

The event was hosted by The Colorado Forum, a civic group concerned with education.

Moskowitz founded her first Success Academy charter school in Harlem in 2006. The one school has since grown into a network of 46 that serve 15,500 students across New York City. Success Academy charters are known for their academic rigor and high test scores – and have come in for criticism for their rigid discipline and intense test prep. Moskowitz has said her goal is to expand the network to 100 schools in the next decade. In a recent article, Chalkbeat editor and CEO Elizabeth Green asked what this approach means for the future of public education.

Moskowitz sat down with Green and members of The Colorado Forum, as well as some Chalkbeat readers, for an hour-and-a-half question-and-answer session. We’ve excerpted some of the conversation below.

Teacher training is paramount to the Success Academy model, Moskowitz said.

“Our teachers come four to five weeks before the children come. And they go through a series of training including a very in-depth content institute.

“If they’re teaching kids in the older grades, we also look at the data and the student work of the previous year. So if you’re a second-grade teacher, we really want you to study the data of the first graders from the year before. We want you to look at samples of student work. And we want you to understand all of those things related to the pedagogy, not to mention how you handle challenging students or the expectations around positive phone calls to parents.”

She said students need to be trained, too.

“Depending on the age level, we do invest time in teaching the basic routines. It may seem obvious to you that a 5-year-old would know how to hang up their coat, and where to put their coat, and what to do with the boots and everything else, but actually you have to teach kids that.

“I remember when I opened Success Academy, the first one, and I really did not know what I was doing, I experienced the lack-of-two-hands-on-the-lunch-tray problem, where the milk slides over, and I had the contents of 200 trays on the ground. And I didn’t understand…how many times you would have to tell 5- and 6-year-olds to keep two hands on the tray.

“That stuff sounds terribly boring and unimportant compared to poetry, but if you don’t take the time to really learn the routines and practice the routines, you can’t hit the ground running.”

Success Academy has been criticized for treating students harshly, especially after the New York Times published a video of a teacher ripping up a student’s work. But Moskowitz said that video isn’t representative of the network’s culture.

“Our view is that schools should be a place where children are loved and feel loved, and that one can do very rigorous learning and be a place of joy and love.

“I think you can see kids in uniform and say, ‘Oh, you’re a no-excuses school.’ But we’re not. We’re a school that does project-based learning, that does block play in kindergarten and first grade. We are tremendous believers in games. We play games for 90 minutes every Wednesday. … My favorite is Monopoly in second (grade).

“All of our schools have art, music, dance. We have science five days a week. I don’t think any journalist who comes to our schools with an open mind is going to see anything other than exuberance – incredible exuberance – about school.

“The notion that somehow all these parents are hoodwinked by this joyous paramilitary environment – you know, they’re savvy consumers, they love their kids, they want their kids in a happy environment. It just seems implausible that somehow everyone would get snookered simply because I put a pamphlet under their door saying, ‘Hey, come to Success Academy.’”

In order to offer electives, Moskowitz said she has to make certain budgetary decisions. That includes having bigger class sizes, such as 32 students in kindergarten.

“It’s not that I like big class sizes. And as a teacher, you’d much rather have a smaller group of students. And as a parent, I’d much rather have 15 kids in my kid’s class than 32.

“It’s really about the economics. If I have 32 kids in a class, then I can pay for the art, the music, the dance, the dedicated science teacher, the chess teacher. So I have to make choices about what I value the most. If I could value everything equally, I would have small class sizes and the chess teacher. But I can’t do that. So I have to make the model work.”

This year, Success Academy will graduate its first class of high school seniors. The class of 17 seniors started off as a group of 73 kindergarteners, Moskowitz said. She explained that while Success has a lower than average student attrition rate, the network does not accept new students – or “backfill,” in education-speak – after fourth grade.

“I think reasonable people can differ on, ‘Is it more virtuous to backfill or to open schools faster?’ And I have chosen to open schools with lightning speed. But to start at the beginning, I really believe that teaching children to read is of the utmost important, and so I want to get that right.

“But also, there are practical reasons. If you admit a kid in ninth grade, then it’s going to be very hard to teach ninth grade physics because the ninth grade physics is dependent on kids who’ve had science five days a week, K to 8. If you really build backwards from calculus, you’re doing things mathematically in kindergarten that are foreshadowing that.

“We find that even in fourth grade, kids are three years behind.”

Moskowitz talked about rallying parents to lobby New York state lawmakers for more per-pupil funding for charter schools. In the beginning, Success Academy got $10,579 per student, she said. Now that amount has increased to $14,501. Colorado schools get about half as much: $7,662 per student this year. Asked about teacher recruitment, Moskowitz said being able to offer teachers a good salary and benefits helps.

“I don’t know that much at all about Denver, Colorado. But from the little I know, you have a per-pupil problem. It’s going to be very hard to attract talent, no matter if you’re district or charter, unless you get that per-pupil up.

“I’m not suggesting that money is everything. But it’s a very important something.

“You can’t educate kids well on what you guys are dealing with.”

Moskowitz, a Democrat, also talked about her much-publicized meeting with President Donald Trump shortly after he was elected. She said she was at one of her schools when he called. She didn’t answer at first because she thought it was a prank.

“I did make the decision, and maybe it was a poor one, that when the president-elect calls you, that you should meet with them. I wasn’t tainting anything by responding to the president-elect’s call.

“But I am a Democrat, and I found the campaign very troubling, and that was before everything that happened. I am far more troubled even now than I was. I didn’t think I could be more troubled. But I am more troubled now.…The notion teachers should carry guns in school just astounds me as an answer to the tragedy in Florida. I can’t think of a worse idea.

“I’m not going to talk about a private conversation. But I was really focused on improving Success schools and trying to get to 100 and break the scaling code, etcetera, so that’s what I’m doing.

“He did ask me about Common Core. I kept trying to disclose, ‘I’m a Hillary supporter. I’m a liberal Democrat.’ And I said, ‘Oh, and I believe in Common Core,’ because I thought that would lead me to the door. And he said he said, ‘I believe in Common Core.’ And I said, ‘No, you don’t.’ On that level, it was very strange.”

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.