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Gary Rubinstein's Blog: Success Academy Parents Speak Out. Part 1: “They Banned Me From Attending My Son’s Graduation.”

The Success Academy charter school network has over 40 schools in the five boroughs of New York City.  About 20,000 students in grades K to 12 attend these schools.  Though Success Academy students have gotten exceptional 3-8 state test scores, the network has been very controversial because of some of their practices which some consider cruel if not illegal.

They have paid out millions of dollars in settlements for their treatment of families of students who the school wanted to rid themselves of and even went so far to create a written ‘got-to-go’ list.

One of their teachers treated a small girl abusively by executing a ‘rip-and-redo’ after the student gave an explanation for how to do the problem that the teacher did not think was good enough.

Maybe Success Academy gets away with these things because they are perceived to be isolated incidents where an administrator or a teacher has gone rogue.  But I believe that these incidents are not uncommon, most of them just don’t make it into the New York Times, they are commonplace because they are an inevitable consequence of their mission.  That mission is to get good 3-8 standardized test scores.  Students and their families are not seen as the people that the school serves, but as either cooperators or obstacles to the mission.  Success Academy can be very cruel to students and families and they can justify this cruelty as serving some higher good.  But when you put a human face to some of these incidents, it can really make you wonder if such cruelty is justified or even legal.

When parents in a public New York City school feel that they are being mistreated, there is a chain of command that they can work their way through.  They can complain to the superintendent’s office, the chancellor, the mayor, even to the New York State education department.  But when families in charter schools feel that they have been mistreated, they can complain to the CEO, but beyond that, there is no clear way to get grievances settled.  One such parent had such a humiliating experience recently and with no clear place to file a complaint eventually ended up googling for reporters who have written about things like this especially involving Success Academy.  Since the newspapers are also pretty friendly to Success Academy, she contacted the only person that she could find who she could tell her story to, and that was me, sole writer of “Gary Rubinstein’s Blog”.  Though I’m happy to do my part and help this parent, I do wish that she had better options than me since I can’t promise that relating her story here will definitely help her get closure on this incident.  She hopes that the network will reconsider their policies so that future families don’t have to experience the same humiliation that she and her son did.

Here’s the history leading up to the incident, as related to me by this parent. If Success Academy wants to challenge any of the details, they are welcome to in the comments:

A single mother, I’ll call her D, entered her son for the Success Academy lottery after he had completed kindergarten and first grade at a district school.  He was accepted to Success Academy as one of their ‘backfill’ students (they admit new students to replace the ones who leave up until 4th grade).

Something unusual happened right away, though. Success Academy said that since her son did not attend Success Academy for kindergarten and first grade, he would not be able to go into second grade at Success Academy, even though he had just passed first grade elsewhere, but would have to repeat first grade at Success Academy.  She was ok with this and it seems to have worked out for her as her son has been exceptional academically for the past four years there.  But it is still something worth thinking about.  Is this what they do for all their backfill students?  If it is, this would be a way of replacing the weaker students who leave the school with students who are a year ahead of their grade and are even more likely to do well on the state tests later on because they had an extra year of schooling.  I also wonder about the ethics of this.  Is there any consideration to the possibility that the student is not best served by repeating the grade they just completed?  I feel like this policy would not fly with affluent white families.

So her son was doing well and was in the fourth grade at one of the Success Academy elementary schools this past year.  But D is a single mother and some of the demands of Success Academy were hard for her to always meet.  Success Academy has a strict dress code and while D was able to get her son most of the uniform, she was not able to afford the exact pants they needed.  So she sent him with pants that were as close as she was able to obtain. The school assigned her son months of after school detention because of this.  The school said they had provided a voucher for her to buy the proper pants but she wasn’t aware of this and didn’t remember seeing an email about this and then she was told that the voucher expired and she couldn’t get another one.  It seems that this went on for months without resolution.  Why can’t Success Academy with their $100 million of Bloomberg money help a family get the proper uniform when they are obviously having difficulties adding this task to their already stressful lives?

As a single mother, D would have to take her son as early as possible to school some days.  The building opened, I think, at 7:15 AM and she would sometimes get him there that early.  One day she got a call from New York’s Administration For Children’s Services (ACS).  Apparently the school had reported her saying that she brought her son to school too early, at 6:45 AM one day.  ACS came to her house to investigate.  She said that this accusation was not true and challenged the school to provide security footage showing that this had happened.  The school was not able to provide any evidence of their claim and ACS closed their investigation.

Another day, D was late in bringing her son to school.  She dropped him off a little late and got in a cab to go to her job.  A half hour later, a friend of hers called her to say that her son was wandering the streets.  It turned out that the school did not like that the child was late to school and sent him out of the building, unsupervised, to look for his mother.  By the Success Academy logic, D should have reported them to ACS for sending a 10 year old out into the streets unsupervised.

Still, D kept her son at the school. Her son was succeeding academically and it is a really hard decision to leave a school since her son already had his friends there and liked how he was succeeding there.

One day D went to pick up her son after school.  She wanted to go up to the room where he was and she was told he couldn’t, but she did it anyway and picked him up.

At the end of the school year, D was told the day before graduation that she was barred from attending her son’s graduation.  The reason given was that she had broken security or COVID protocols (she was vaccinated, so it isn’t clear what protocol this was) that day and as a consequence could not attend her own son’s graduation ceremony.  She hoped that they would change their minds, but they stuck to their decision and she had to stand outside the graduation, hoping to hear her son’s name read while her son had to suffer through the pain of looking out into the audience at his graduation and not seeing his sole parent in the audience.  Had they tried to do this with certain white families, this story would not be on “Gary Rubinstein’s Blog” but The Daily News or The New York Times.

D tried to write some letters of complaint to different Success Academy administrators but got no response. Here is an example of one of the unanswered text messages:

The issue, according to D, was the principal of the school.  When she described her as a young white woman who was really inflexible, I figured she was a former Teach For America member, and of course I was right.  This principal taught for 3 years and then has been a Success Academy employee for the past 7.  This is why you should have to teach for more than 3 years before you become a principal.  Usually teachers in their second and third year are overly strict to compensate for a rough first year.   Things are going better for them and it is really hard to be less rigid since you don’t want to risk losing the good things about your classroom.  But before you become a principal you have to learn to make the punishment fit the crime and, in this case, I can’t see that banning a parent from her child’s graduation is appropriate.  It is a vindictive move so this principal was able to ‘win the war’ or ‘get the last laugh’ or whatever it is she needed to exact revenge on a parent who has been making her work a little harder.

I’m going to make a personal plea to this principal here, from one TFA alum to another, you can be an effective leader and also be humane.  If you have confidence in your abilities, you can be less rigid and treat families the way you would want to be treated.  Though this might cause some extra work for you, it is worth it.  One day when you have more wisdom you don’t want to look back at your time as a young principal and regret the hurt you caused.  I know this because there are some things I try not to think about that I said or did during my 2nd through 5th year of teaching when I prided myself on always following through with all my threats.

I asked D where her son is going next year and she said to a Success Academy middle school in a different building with a different principal.  I was, at first, surprised and even a little disappointed about this.  But the more I thought about it, I came to the conclusion that just because the school has this toxic culture where things like banning a parent from graduation are commonplace, it does not mean that she should have to leave the school.  She can stay and use her voice to push the school to become the kind of school that doesn’t do things like this.  It’s like when people say “America, love it or leave it” well, there is a third option, you could stay in America and use your power or combine power with others to change America into a place that you can love.  So she does not have to leave the school and make her son adjust to finding a whole new set of friends.  Instead she is going to share her story and maybe get an apology from this principal or some reassurance from Success Academy that they are going to train their staff to be less cruel to the next parent that has a similar situation.

If Success Academy spokesperson Ann Powell would like to comment on this post, this would be welcomed here.  This is just Part 1 in a series.  If this series is helpful to the families, maybe it will no longer be needed since Success Academy could mend its ways for fear of negative publicity.  If you are a Success Academy parent or staff member who wants their story told, you can DM me on Twitter @garyrubinstein.

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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. ...