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The Patron Saint (and Scourge) of Lost Schools

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Attacks come with change-agent territory, and Moskowitz is inured to them. “I wake up every day and people are calling me names,” she says. “It’s just endless.” Schools like P.S. 194, she says, “would be shut down in a moment on the Upper East Side.” It’s her go-to theme: the hypocrisy of “classic liberals” who “believe in choice for themselves, but they don’t believe in choice for other people. To me, that is really fundamental to social justice: to have choices in life.”

“I would feel really bad,” she says, “to die and have the same public-school system.”

One year ago, HSA 1’s inaugural third grade approached its days of reckoning with the state’s standardized tests: reading in January, mathematics in March. Despite their well-documented defects, these assessments are the make-or-break barometer of a school’s “accountability” and a vital marketing tool for high-performing charter networks. Lofty numbers bedazzle authorizers and lure fat checks from foundations and trustees. “It was very important not only to do well but to do phenomenally well,” says Moskowitz. “We’re not going for okay or for better than the zone,” echoes Jenny Sedlis, the network’s director of external affairs. “We’re going for better than the Upper East Side.”

As it turned out, the network’s third-graders did splendidly in reading, with a 95 percent pass rate. But their math scores were extraterrestrial. All 60 were rated proficient, at level 3 or higher; 42 reached level 4, the top. The group’s mean scaled score ranked first among charters statewide and bested all but seven of the city’s 788 elementary schools, including perennial high fliers like P.S. 6 and P.S. 321. More gratifying still, it trounced every third grade in Mamaroneck, Chappaqua, and Rye—a coup that did not go unnoticed by SUNY, which green-lit three new Success Academies to open this summer. For Pedro Noguera, the Steinhardt School professor and SUNY trustee who chairs the charter-authorizing committee, the test results vouched that the network was “doing something right.”

Because the state’s exams are predictable, they’re deemed easy to game with test prep. But in contrast to their drill-and-kill competition, Moskowitz says her teachers prepped their third-graders a mere ten minutes per day … plus some added time over winter break, she confides upon reflection, when the children had but two days off: Christmas and New Year’s. But the holiday push wasn’t the only extra step that Success took to succeed last year. After some red-flag internal assessments, Paul Fucaloro kept “the bottom 25 percent” an hour past their normal 4:30 p.m. dismissal—four days a week, six weeks before each test. “The real slow ones,” he says, stayed an additional 30 minutes, till six o’clock: a ten-hour-plus day for 8- and 9-year-olds. Meanwhile, much of the class convened on Saturday mornings from September on. Fourth-grader Ashley Wilder thought this “terrible” at first: “I missed Flapjack on the Cartoon Network. But education is more important than sitting back and eating junk food all day.” By working the children off-hours, Moskowitz could boost her numbers without impinging on curricular “specials” like Ashley’s beloved art class.

The day before the scheduled math test, the city got socked with eight inches of snow. Of 1,499 schools in the city, 1,498 were closed. But at Harlem Success Academy 1, 50-odd third-graders trudged through 35-mile-per-hour gusts for a four-hour session over Subway sandwiches. As Moskowitz told the Times, “I was ready to come in this morning and crank the heating boilers myself if I had to.”

“We have a gap to close, so I want the kids on edge, constantly,” Fucaloro adds. “By the time test day came, they were like little test-taking machines.”

Some might deem this excessive, but Ashley’s grandmother, Yvette Rolack, was delighted with the extra attention—and with Ashley’s pair of 3’s. “They really stayed with the kids to help them get where they needed to go,” she says. “I am a security guard, and I like my job, but I want my granddaughter to excel and not just stand at the door and nod her head and give directions. I want more for her.”

For Moskowitz, success is a family affair and a shared obligation. Parents must sign the network’s “contract,” a promise to get children to class on time and in blue-and-orange uniform, guarantee homework, and attend all family events. “When parents aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Fucaloro says, “we get on their behinds. Eva and Paul Fucaloro are their worst nightmares.” Infractions can range to the trivial: slacks that look worn at a child’s knees, long johns edging beyond collars. Recidivists are hauled into “Saturday Academy,” detention family style, where parents are monitored while doing “busy work” with their child, the ex-staffer says. Those who skip get a bristling form letter: “You simply stood up your child’s teacher and many others who came in on a Saturday, after a long, hard week.” At the last staff orientation, according to one Success teacher, Moskowitz reported telling parents, “Our school is like a marriage, and if you don’t come through with your promises, we will have to divorce.”


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