This Charter Supporter Gets Real about Success Academy. Will School Choice Opponents and Union Proponents Get Real Too?

This is a guest post by Zachary Wright, a national finalist for the United States Department of Education’s School Ambassador Fellowship and 2013 Philadelphia Teacher of the Year. Now he is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education serving Philadelphia and Camden. Prior to that, he was the 12th-grade world literature and AP literature teacher at Mastery Charter School Shoemaker Campus. 

In writing this I am answering a challenge.

The challenge stems from the troubling fact that when people talk about education, particularly on social media, they not only tend to speak only from their own factionalized entrenchments, but assume everyone else does as well.

The factionalized assumptions look something like this:

  • To support charter schools is to hate public schools (never mind that charter schools ARE public schools); to deride charter schools is to hate families.
  • To criticize unions is to hate workers; to love unions is to not truly support kids.
  • To be for school choice is to be conservative; to be for social justice is to be liberal.
  • To be for accountability is to be against teachers; to close severely underperforming schools is to destroy communities.

These are all false choices; yet this is how education folks compartmentalize themselves and others.

There’s real danger in this. It paralyzes our conversations with one another, and therefore limits the progress that could be made if we spoke to one another with nuance and the willingness to listen, rather than just waiting for our turn to talk.

So, as a general supporter of charter schools, I was challenged to criticize perhaps the most well known, respected, and derided charter network in the country, Success Academy, the assumption being that since I support charter schools in general, I must somehow support any and all charter schools that have been or ever will be.

That, of course, is absurd.

To me, the ideal public charter school is one that serves the surrounding neighborhood zip codes, operates via lottery if there are more applicants than spaces, is required to accept students with IEPs and 504s, and must “backfill” their enrollment.

To “backfill” a school’s enrollment means, for instance, that if there are 50 students in a kindergarten class, there will be 50 students in 12th grade because either all 50 students stayed at the school, or because if a student left the school, a new student took their place.

It is here where Success Academy seems to be woefully, and troublingly, wayward.

As reported in Chalkbeat last summer, Success Academy celebrated its first graduating class. The graduates, all of whom were college bound, deserve the highest praise and our deepest respect.

The only problem is that there were only 16 of them.

Apparently, “while losing so many students along the way: Success Academy does not admit students after fourth grade, saying those who have attended other elementary schools wouldn’t be ready for the school’s rigorous approach.”

This means that not only have many of the original students left Success Academy, but more importantly, after a certain grade, the “backfilling” stopped.

That’s a problem. Other families would take those spots in a heartbeat. To close the door on quality education when there are spots available is unconscionable.

Now, I have never set foot in a Success Academy school. I have never spoken to a teacher, student, or representative of Success Academy. Thus, the thoughts above are based upon second-hand information.

But please understand, this does not mean that Success Academy should close, nor does this mean that all charter schools operate in the same way. This does not mean that all charter schools are bad, or that anybody who supports charter schools must support all charter schools and all practices.

I didn’t like the recent report about Stuyvesant High School accepting only seven Black students, but that doesn’t mean I think all of New York City’s schools are bad, or that all magnet schools are bad.

We need to break out of our factions, and speak to the nuance of our conversations.

So since I, a general supporter of charter schools, have spoken on the shortcomings of a widely well known charter school network, I challenge other voices to abandon their own entrenchments.

I’d love to hear an honest accounting of a teachers union by a union member.

I’d love to hear a school choice opponent account for families of privilege accessing choice by buying into high-quality education zip codes.

I’d love to hear opponents of teacher accountability speak to the dissonance of teachers being overwhelmingly rated “effective” while sometimes more than half of their students can’t pass a state exam.

If we speak with and listen to one another, we might actually make more progress for kids.

What do you think?

3 thoughts on “This Charter Supporter Gets Real about Success Academy. Will School Choice Opponents and Union Proponents Get Real Too?

  1. Maybe by 4th grade kids from union-run public schools are too far behind to catch up with Success Academy kdis? That’s no joke. I spoke with a math teacher at an average — not failing — public middle school. To my question, he said only about one-third of his/her 8th graders understand fractions. The rest, two-thirds of them (if you can do fractions) are just guessing. And the reason they are guessing is that they never mastered basic arithmetic in grade school. So the reason Success Academy gives for not taking 4th graders may very well be truthful. Don’t be so dismissive.

    1. Good morning, Anthony!

      Thank you for engaging.

      I hear what you are saying about it being extremely difficult to address the varying needs of students who have only recently arrived at that school.

      You’re right, it is no joke and it is extremely difficult.

      And it is very, very possible and, I would argue, necessary.

      I taught twelfth grade and every year we had new students. It was difficult for them to adapt to a new environment and difficult for us to meet them where they were and support their learning.

      But just because something is difficult does not mean it is impossible, let alone not worth trying.

      How would we feel if our children finally got access to a school with as good a track record as SA and we were told they simply was too far behind to join?

      That’s outrageous, short-sighted, and I might even say, cowardly.

      I thank you for your engagement and the push.

  2. Regardless of whether kids entering SA beyond 4th grade can keep up academically with their peers, the real issue here is the mayor’s refusal to allow charter schools the space to expand. Last year we had to fight tooth and nail to get space for a middle school for our rising middle schoolers. How can we add children to the middle school when there isn’t space for the high schools to open and barely enough space for the middle schoolers? I seriously hope that by the time my child is ready for high school (and I intend to keep her at SA) that we have a mayor who supports school choice, otherwise there are going to be an awful lot of very disappointed parents and kids.

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