Chasing Success

Chasing Success


The following post is by Educate Nebraska’s Executive Director, Katie Linehan.


Last winter, I treked across the 145th street bridge that connects Harlem to the Bronx to pick up a few items at a store near my apartment. Waiting in line, I began a conversation with the little girl standing next to me. Dressed in an orange and blue plaid jumper and matching orange polo shirt, with navy blue tights and black dress shoes, she stood admiring a book that would soon be hers. I asked her about the book and about her school. I learned that she was in first grade, she loved her school, and she especially loved her teacher. Her uniform gave the rest away.

When I told this little girl’s mom that I worked for Success Academy, her face lit up. She told me how her daughter was reading on her own less than a year after starting kindergarten at her Success Academy school. Then she told me of her son, the little girl’s brother. “He never won the lottery. I couldn’t get him into a charter school,” she said, “Now my first grader is teaching my fourth grader how to read.”

Despite compelling accounts from parents and educators about children thriving in charter schools, some would prefer that this mother enroll her five-year-old daughter in a school that was failing her eight-year-old son.

The Success Academy public charter school network, which predominantly serves low income children of color living in the poorest neighborhoods of New York City, started as one school in Harlem in 2006. Today, more than 10,000 children attend a Success school. On average, Success students perform better than 97% of all students in the state on annual assessments in math and reading. As evidence of effectiveness mounts and failure in the traditional system persists, more and more families want in. This year, more than 20,000 students applied for less than 3,500 available seats. One out of every two kindergartners living in Harlem applied.

While Success Academy has the capacity, will, and demand to expand, political forces, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and the teacher’s union (Success schools are non-unionized), work to curtail the network’s growth. They do so despite the overwhelming evidence that the schools are working for kids and wanted by families.

That charter schools cream the “best” students from traditional schools, making outcomes between the two systems incomparable, is a common myth used to excuse failure, explain away success, and prevent charter school expansion. The theory goes that only the “good” parents will take the necessary steps to enter a charter school lottery, leaving the “hardest-to-teach kids” in traditional district schools.

What’s happening in Harlem puts this theory to rest. Less than one in six kindergartners applying for a seat in a Success Academy school will win the lottery this year, meaning a significant number of the children attending a failing district school do so despite their parents’ best attempts to provide them with better opportunities.

Entry into a high performing school, versus a school that fails year after year, changes the entire trajectory of a child’s life. The odds, dictated by chance and circumstance, rather than children’s potential, can mean the difference between college or incarceration, a life enriched through learning or hampered by its absence. These odds are stacked against low income children of color, making schools like those in the Success Academy network transformational and the need for more schools like them profound.

When fourth graders cannot read at a first grade level, who is responsible? An antiquated and bureaucratic system that recurrently fails to educate children? The adults who put politics and special interest groups before kids? Or parents like the mom I met that night, a woman who, when it came to a choice of schools, overcame the odds for one of her children but not the other?

The growing demand for high performing public charter schools, particularly in communities flooded with failing schools, goes a long way in exposing the truth. Yet, from New York to Nebraska, rather than embracing success, some aim to block it.