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The Patron Saint (and Scourge) of Lost Schools

New students are initiated at “kindergarten boot camp,” where they get drilled for two weeks on how to behave in the “zero noise” corridors (straight lines, mouths shut, arms at one’s sides) and the art of active listening (legs crossed, hands folded, eyes tracking the speaker). Life at Harlem Success, the teacher says, is “very, very structured,” even the twenty-minute recess. Lunches are rushed and hushed, leaving little downtime to build social skills. Many children appear fried by two o’clock, particularly in weeks with heavy testing. “We test constantly, all grades,” the teacher says. During the TerraNova, a mini-SAT bubble test over four consecutive mornings, three students threw up. “I just don’t feel that kids have a chance to be kids,” she laments.

Noguera, too, has reservations about the “punitive” approach at Harlem Success and other high-performing charter networks. He thinks it grooms conformists, and that middle-class parents would find it anathema. “What concerns me are the race/class assumptions built into this,” he says. “If you’re serious about preparing kids to be leaders, you have to realize that leaders have to think for themselves.”

Moskowitz is driven by the enthralling notion that an inner-city school, with enough smarts and elbow grease, can transform the lives of children who would otherwise drown in institutional failure. Like other charter champions, she drew encouragement and affirmation from a recent study by the Hoover Institution’s Caroline Hoxby. Comparing state test results for New York’s charter-school lottery winners and losers, Hoxby found that the winners scored much higher. She went so far (too far, in the opinion of a peer review) as to contend that local charters had bridged most of “the Harlem-Scarsdale achievement gap.”

But Hoxby also noted that even the lottery losers made distinct progress compared to their zoned-school peers. Though they didn’t close the achievement gap, these children held their own—unlike their traditional-school classmates, who lagged further behind the suburbs each passing year. While charter-school lotteries may be blind, they are hardly random; by definition, their entrants are self-selected. The least stable families—the homeless, say, or those with a parent on dialysis—might not find their way to apply. And there is the rub: If charters’ populations skew toward more motivated students, they cannot fairly be compared to come-one-come-all zoned schools.

Moskowitz doesn’t buy the self-selection premise. The children in proximate zoned schools, she insists, “are the same kids we have.” She notes that Success floods the neighborhood with glossy oversize brochures (six pieces per household, at a cost of more than $300,000 per year), and that two of three eligible Harlem families actually fill one out. “Zoned schools say, ‘We have families from domestic-violence shelters’—so do we,” Moskowitz says. “They’ve got families in blah-blah situations—so do we.”

Based on available statistics, however, charter schools have fewer of these families, including the poorest of the poor. One problem with “school choice,” as writer-activist Jonathan Kozol noted, is that the “ultimate choices” tend to get made “by those who own or operate a school.” At stake is not just who gets in, but who stays in. Studies show “selective attrition” in the KIPP chain, among others, with academic stragglers—including those seen as disruptive or in need of pricey services—leaving in greater numbers. In one flagrant local example, East New York Preparatory discharged 48 students shortly before last year’s tests, among them seven poor-scoring third-graders. (Citing financial mismanagement, the Department of Education plans to revoke the school’s charter in June.)

At Harlem Success, disability is a dirty word. “I’m not a big believer in special ed,” Fucaloro says. For many children who arrive with individualized education programs, or IEPs, he goes on, the real issues are “maturity and undoing what the parents allow the kids to do in the house—usually mama—and I reverse that right away.” When remediation falls short, according to sources in and around the network, families are counseled out. “Eva told us that the school is not a social-service agency,” says the Harlem Success teacher. “That was an actual quote.”

In one case, says a teacher at P.S. 241, a set of twins started kindergarten at the co-located HSA 4 last fall. One of them proved difficult and was placed on a part-time schedule, “so the mom took both of them out and put them in our school. She has since put the calm sister twin back in Harlem Success, but they wouldn’t take the boy back. We have the harder, troubled one; they have the easier one.”

Such triage is business as usual, says the former network staffer, when the schools are vexed by behavioral problems: “They don’t provide the counseling these kids need.” If students are deemed bad “fits” and their parents refuse to move them, the staffer says, the administration “makes it a nightmare” with repeated suspensions and midday summonses. After a 5-year-old was suspended for two days for allegedly running out of the building, the child’s mother says the school began calling her every day “saying he’s doing this, he’s doing that. Maybe they’re just trying to get rid of me and my child, but I’m not going to give them that satisfaction.”

At her school alone, the Harlem Success teacher says, at least half a dozen lower-grade children who were eligible for IEPs have been withdrawn this school year. If this account were to reflect a pattern, Moskowitz’s network would be effectively winnowing students before third grade, the year state testing begins. “The easiest and fastest way to improve your test scores,” observes a DoE principal in Brooklyn, “is to get higher-performing students into your school.” And to get the lower-performing students out.

English Language Learners (ELLs) are another group that scores poorly on the state tests—and is grossly underrepresented at Success. The network’s flagship has only ten ELLs, or less than 2 percent of its population, compared to 13 percent at its co-located zoned school. The network enrolls 51 ELLs in all, yet, as of last fall, provided no certified ESL teacher to support them. After a site visit to Harlem Success Academy 1 in November, the state education department found that the school had failed to show evidence of compliance with its charter and with No Child Left Behind, which mandates ESL services by “highly qualified” teachers. The matter is currently under review. (According to Sedlis, the network hired an ESL teacher in January.)

In reality, as Moskowitz will tell you, students are sorted in traditional schools in every district of the city: by Zip Code, by gifted programs, by admissions rigged to cream strong students off the top. But when charters exclude high-cost, high-needs children in charter-saturated neighborhoods like Harlem, they are also dumping those needy students on beleaguered zoned schools. In East Harlem’s District 4, the proportion of ELLs rose more than 40 percent between 2004 and 2008. As those schools become overburdened, the downward spiral accelerates, and education historian Diane Ravitch fears its implications. “In the future as it is now developing,” she wrote by e-mail, “there will be neighborhoods that have no public schools, only privately managed schools.” Whatever the virtues of high-performing charters, or the tarnished reality of public education, the prospect of ceding large swaths of the city to a model that can’t accommodate every child—and that exists at the mercy of philanthropic hedge-funders—is a gamble with very high stakes.

For an outsider peeking in, the Moskowitz formula can seem persuasive. Her young faculty is uneven but fiercely dedicated. The “scholars” get weekly classes in chess and dancing, Greenmarket field trips, 150 science experiments per year. Their art is shown off at Sotheby’s, their essays at Barnes & Noble. It’s a college-bound culture, stem to stern.

Last fall, Moskowitz stepped back from an arid, scripted, nationally marketed curriculum for charter schools. “It didn’t teach kids how to think about books,” she explains. She replaced it for the second grade and up with a balanced literacy program and TERC math, more or less what the middle class gets. Moskowitz had long hoped to create schools “where I’d want to send my own children,” and now she has. Harlem Success Academy 3 enrolls Dillon, 7, and Hannah, 5, the lone white students there.

Still, as the charter movement gathers force from the White House on down, nagging questions persist. Can privately run schools justly take public money while excluding the most vulnerable students? And should children be pushed to their limits—and beyond—to prove they can best their suburban counterparts on some flawed and arbitrary exam?

But these questions do not haunt Eva Moskowitz. After watching a demonstration last summer against HSA 2, she sent a communiqué to her staff quoting Schopenhauer: “ ‘All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.’ We’re at stage two.”