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The Patron Saint (and Scourge) of Lost Schools

"We have a gap to close," says Paul Fucaloro, director of instruction. "I want the kids on edge, constantly."  

“She’s the sand in the oyster,” says Eric Grannis, her high-school boyfriend and now her husband. “Just totally out of step.”

While in graduate school (Ph.D. in history, Johns Hopkins), Moskowitz taught for two summers at the nonprofit Prep for Prep, helping disadvantaged fourth-graders about to be funneled into elite private schools. “They were like sponges—I still think they’re the brightest kids I ever taught,” she says. “But they were three years behind.” The city’s schools had failed these children—abjectly, unacceptably. A seed was planted. The system was broken. Who would fix it?

Moskowitz might lack the national track record of David Levin, the co-founder of KIPP, or the community bona fides of Geoffrey Canada and his Harlem Children’s Zone. But she is game to do what they are not: to plunge into hand-to-hand combat and mobilize thousands to follow. “Most people who got into the reform movement were educators or business guys,” Steve Barr says. “But it’s really a political problem. What Eva does is to make her parents activists.”

Edgy personality aside, it is her velocity that makes Moskowitz provocative. “Imagine you’re in a car,” Grannis says, “and the accelerator gets stuck, and the only thing you can do is steer. In some sense, that’s Eva.” Two years ago, there was one Success Academy. In August there will be seven, including two outposts in the Bronx. By 2019, the goal is 40 schools—an unheard-of concentration for a single network in one city—to serve more than 20,000 students through eighth grade and perhaps beyond.

Such ambition might seem grandiose, but Success Charter Network does not lack for tailwinds. President Obama has reserved his $4 billion Race to the Top sugarplum for states with pro-charter policies. Chancellor Klein put in a good word for Moskowitz with Eli Broad (who came through with a million-dollar grant), and waxes evangelical at every Success event. The venerable Canada cheers her on: “To bring change, you’ve got to be willing to do some bold and daring things, and that’s what Eva’s doing.”

“Our school is like a marriage, and if you don’t come through with your promises, we will have to divorce.”

Bold, indeed. Most charter operators, observes Sy Fliegel, president of the Center for Educational Innovation, “ask for space very quietly and hope they can get it. Eva asks for schools.” Co-location, as she once put it, is a “Middle East war.” As her beachheads roll out and roll up, one grade per year, her need for real estate sparks resistance. Police were called last summer when she brought movers to take another floor at P.S. 123, piling the zoned school’s belongings in the gym after it neglected to vacate on time. Stringer flayed her “thug tactics”; Moskowitz dismissed him as a “UFT hack.”

There is a method to these expropriations, as documented by 125 e-mail exchanges with Klein that were recently unearthed by the Daily News. In July 2007, a year before opening Academies 2 through 4, Moskowitz identified five zoned schools that had declining enrollments “and suck academically.” In October 2008, she informed Klein that she was “most interested in” P.S. 194 and P.S. 241 in Harlem. Two months after that, the DoE moved to shutter those two schools and pass their buildings in toto—a first—to Success Charter Network. But there was a problem: Success could not accept all the children to be displaced. For one thing, the network has no self-contained classrooms for the profoundly disabled; for another, it takes in no new students after the second grade. At an incendiary public hearing at P.S. 194, zoned- and charter-school parents roared each other down, neighbor against neighbor. In a colonial metaphor that made Moskowitz shake her head, one resident compared her to Tarzan’s Jane—“back again, swinging through Harlem not with vines, but with charter schools.” When Klein stayed the closings in the face of a UFT lawsuit, he also advised the zoned schools’ parents to “seriously consider” moving their children to Harlem Success.

One peril of rapid expansion is that it exposes a short leadership bench, which some would argue trumps the CEO’s vision. “I’m a skeptic,” says Klein’s predecessor, former chancellor Harold Levy. While Levy admires a number of charter schools, he is no less impressed with charismatic principals in zoned schools: “We’re not talking about charter versus noncharter; we’re talking about quality of leadership. It’s people.” Moskowitz has already burned through three principals at Harlem Success Academy 1, taking the reins each time as the school’s de facto leader. The latest was Jacqueline Getz, a highly regarded veteran from P.S. 87 on the Upper West Side, who took the job last summer and resigned within weeks. (While Getz declined to comment, she told a confidante that there were “things going on that she could not in good conscience let happen.”) Her presumptive successor is Jacqueline Albers, a 26-year-old alumna of Teach for America. Critics point out that Albers fits the profile for much of Moskowitz’s top leadership circle: young white women with thin résumés. “The people they have making decisions are inexperienced and undereducated,” a former network staff member says.