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Gary Rubinstein's Blog: Should the Success Academy SPRINT Program Be Investigated?

About four months ago I received an unusual DM in my Twitter account. Though over the years several different Success Academy parents have reached out to me, this was from someone who claimed to be either a current employee or a former employee. They used an anonymous name and to this day, I have no idea who this person is. But they reached out to me because they had a story to tell and felt, I guess, that I was the best person to tell it to.

Over the months they have provided various internal Success Academy documents, screen shots from internal Success Academy message boards, and so much information about what is truly going on at Success Academy, that I have no reason to doubt their authenticity.

Much of the information was about chaos that is going on behind the scenes at Success Academy. Like how they are struggling to convince elementary students to remain at Success Academy for middle school and to convince middle school students to remain at Success Academy for high school. I even got to see an internal document with talking points to tell families in order to convince they to stay.

The document had the title “Grade 4 Teacher Selling & Persuading Talking Points” and began with the words: “Framing: Unfortunately, over the years we see that after all the hard work of our elementary school teachers and schools, some of our 4th graders leave us and end up attending failing middle schools. We cannot let this happen. And so for the first time really we want to invest our scholars in the “why” behind SA’s magical middle schools. We want our scholars and parents to make truly informed choices about the next leg of their educational journey.”

I had already known based on enrollment numbers that Success Academy was having trouble getting families to continue to trust them after all the years of shady practices, but my source says that things are very dire, especially in the Brooklyn high school, which nearly had to be shut down for low enrollment.

I got a lot of other good insider information from my source. Their description of the morale of the staffs at several of the schools and the extreme turnover definitely made me feel bad for the teachers there but even worse for the students who have to endure such instability. The picture was worse than I had expected. But still I didn’t get what I considered to be a ‘smoking gun’ — something that the school was doing that was illegal.

A topic that this insider kept returning to was something that, at first, I didn’t have much interest in. It is well known that Success Academy used to not have a very high percent of students requiring special education services. My sense was that Success Academy did not want many students requiring special education services because those students would require attention which could take away resources from their test prep gaming system. But my insider often returned to something that really seemed to bother them, and it is about the way that Success Academy identifies students for special education services. The program is called SPRINT.

The way most schools work, a special education referral is initiated by a parent or sometimes a teacher in consultation with a parent and the school administration which might include guidance counselors and social workers will start the process. As a parent of a student who was diagnosed with various learning issues, I know that this is a very difficult time for a parent when they learn that their child qualifies for special education services.

But the way it works at Success Academy is unlike anything I’ve ever heard of at any school before. And according to the insider, many people who work for SPRINT or who used to work for SPRINT feel that they are working for a corrupt division of a corrupt organization. Whether what the SPRINT team is doing is illegal or just immoral or neither will be up to state investigators to decide if they ever have the desire to check into this, but this is the little that I understand about it.

According to my insider, the SPRINT staff are given quotas of special education referrals that they have to meet each week. It is something like five referrals per week. I don’t have all the details, but this is a big numbers game where referrals are driven by these quotas. If this is true and this team is pressured to find students to refer, this would mean that some students and their families go through the arduous referral process unnecessarily.

I asked the insider why would Success Academy want to inflate their special education numbers. The insider wasn’t sure about the motive. They felt it might have had to do with finances as having more special education students enables them to hire more teachers for ICT classes. But they weren’t certain about the motive, just the fact that special education referrals are done to fulfill quotas and not driven by what parents or teachers are noticing.

I asked the insider what the harm is from over referring for evaluations. Isn’t it better to have too many referrals and some students are denied services than to have too few and have students who would qualify but who never get evaluated? The source admitted that it is hard to pinpoint exactly what the malicious intent is but made it seem like this whole SPRINT quota system was very shady. Like they were gaming the system to get some students to qualify for services even if they really didn’t need them. But even if getting supports for student who might not need, the issue is that Success Academy seems to be doing this from a business point of view and not to truly help struggling students.

I know all this is kind of vague and my insider is going to wonder why I didn’t include more of the specific details of the color coding for the different levels of referrals. But they made it clear that to meet these quotas the staffers on the SPRINT team have to be very aggressive. In order for a team to make five referrals a week, they have to hound the families and if the families are resistant they have to step up the pressure. The insider even says they were encouraged once to call ACS on a family that would not agree to go through the referral process.

For sure there is a lot more detail to be filled in on this story. If you are working for SPRINT right now and are having trouble sleeping at night because of it, feel free to reach out to me, I can help you out.

Here is a post on an internal Success Academy message board from an actual employee:


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Gary Rubinstein

Gary Rubinstein is a high school math teacher. He is the recipient of the 2005 Math for America Master Teacher Fellowship. ...