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Eva's empty seats: the missing children of Success Academy


This op-ed was originally published in City & State on Sept. 26, 2016.

If Eva Moskowitz addresses a charter school rally in Prospect Park this Wednesday, she will no doubt complain that the city is not providing more seats for her charter schools.

She will probably neglect to mention an awkward truth — Success Academy charter schools have plenty of vacant seats because more than 800 children have disappeared from Success’ rosters and have never been replaced.

Who were these children? Why did they leave? Where did they go?

Because of Success’ penchant for secrecy and its resistance to outside audits, the answers are not easy to find. But a look at city data does show a disturbing trend.

The 60 third-graders at Success Academy Harlem 1 had in 2009 dwindled to just 32 eighth-graders by 2014, a drop of 47 percent.

Success Academy charter schools had 482 third graders in 2012. By the time that group of children reached seventh grade in 2016, their cohort had shrunk by nearly a third, down to 327 students, according to city Department of Education records.

Success counted a total 1,079 third graders in 2015, but only 948 fourth-graders this year, a drop of 12 percent in a single year.

Why do Success’ students leave in such numbers? Is it because of the demeaning attitude toward children demonstrated in a viral video of a Success Academy “model” teacher humiliating a second grader?

Is it because children can be repeatedly suspended for minor misbehavior, or placed on an errant principal’s “Got to Go” list like the one that became public last year at one Success Academy charter in Brooklyn?

Success charter schools regularly suspend a far larger percentage of students than do most traditional public schools; Success Academy Fort Green suspended nearly one-fourth of its entire student body in the 2013-14 school year, according to most recently available state suspension data.

Thirteen parents have gone so far as to file a federal civil rights complaint against Success Academy alleging the charters refused to provide special education services, suspended students multiple times without due process, and harassed parents to transfer children out of Success charters and into neighboring public schools.

What does Success gain when students disappear?

The city’s Independent Budget Office in 2014 made it clear that “leavers from charter schools have lower test scores than stayers.” And while students who leave public schools (and some charters) are replaced by others, Success charters do not generally accept new students after the early grades.

As a result their student cohorts get smaller and smaller over time, and — following the logic of the IBO report — as the number of struggling students goes down, the average reading and math scores of each class presumably go up, and charter cheerleaders can point to their “success.”

A pro-charter advocacy group, Democracy Builders, last year called on the charter industry to stop this disturbing practice, which falsely allowed some charters to “maintain the illusion of success.”

Charter schools claim to be public schools, but if the less successful students continue to vanish and charters refuse to fill the empty seats, they shouldn’t be rewarded with more space in already overcrowded public buildings, or larger rentals paid for by taxpayers in private space.

Related Topics: Op-eds, Charter Schools