The Cruel Dystopia of Success Academy
Gather ‘round, children. I was recently terminated from my job at New York City’s largest network of charter schools, and I never signed an NDA.
Up until Thursday, March 2nd, I was the 8th grade English teacher at Ditmas Park Middle School, one of the 14 schools in Success Academy’s (SA) network of middle schools, which is part of a network of some 45-odd schools across New York City. I was fired by a new principal who had been there for less than two weeks because I was “not aligned with her vision for the school.” What this meant, in reality, was that I disagreed with the draconian rules she was attempting to enforce at my school, and I was vocal about that disagreement. I went down fighting for the children, and, as such, I have no regrets. However, I worry that if they continue pushing out vocal advocates like myself and my colleagues, the remaining staff will be so concerned about being there for the kids that they will have no choice but to continue to follow those rules as they are set. My hope, in writing this, is that I can shed some light on what is going down at that school and the network as a whole and that raising awareness will prevent the situation from getting worse.
I think it’s important to note, before I get into anything, that my former leadership is already spreading lies to my students and former colleagues about why I was terminated, and to them, I say: go ahead. Bring it on. I recorded every meeting and I am happy to use your own words against you in court.
PART ONE: SUCCESS ACADEMY OVERALL
As of right now, SA is the only charter school I’ve ever worked at, so I truly cannot say if these are problems that permeate the entire charter school system or are unique to SA. I have teacher friends who are quite happy at other charter schools, and I also know of a lot of other cases that speak negatively to charters as a whole. I’m not here to litigate that. Anything I’m about to talk about is a condemnation of SA and SA only, at least for this piece of writing.
There is, frankly, an overabundance of issues with the SA network that it’s hard to know where to start: working there constantly feels like trying to bucket water out of a sinking boat. I’ll start with operational issues, and then discuss academics.
A. How the School Operates
SA’s entire model revolves around hiring young, inexperienced teachers, largely straight out of college, and giving them less than two weeks of training before throwing them in the deep end. If you get hired during the regular summer hiring season, you get one to two weeks of training (if it can be called that), but that’s cut down to a few days if you’re hired during the school season. Even given the most amount of “new teacher training” available to you, you will receive virtually no actual pedagogical instruction. SA’s entire teaching model is centered on behavior management: the idea is that if students are well-behaved, they will learn in the classroom. The issue, though, is that they never actually teach you, well, how to teach. There is no training centered around how to organize a lesson, how to communicate concepts to children, how to teach around gaps in understanding, how to scaffold tasks, or anything else that they will then expect you to know. I was very fortunate in my first year to work with a lot of experienced teachers who guided me, mentored me, and showed me such basic things as how to enter grades online since no one had told me.
All of this, then, contributes directly to the culture of criticism at the school: they throw novices into the trenches and then shower them with negative feedback until they either come out stronger or buckle under the pressure. I was once literally laughed at by a manager when I asked if there was any positive feedback in a meeting. In my first year, we had 33 staff members (from a starting staff of approximately 60) quit during the school year. Most of the rest ended the year and did not return; the school currently has only about 25 teachers. Instead of investing more time and energy into training rookie teachers so they are better equipped to handle the year, the schools encourage this churn and continuously hire throughout the year, filling in holes as they appear (again, sinking boat anyone?).
It should go without saying that this is an incredibly volatile environment in which to work, or to attend as a student. My former students all, justifiably, had some serious abandonment and trust issues because of all the teachers who have left them during their many years at SA (the school doesn’t accept incoming students past 4th grade, so they’ve all been in the network a long time). Despite everything, though, the students know. Every student who has come to trust me has expressed, at some time or another, that they know the leadership (and everyone higher up the chain) is at fault for their losses. Anyone who has ever worked with kids or teenagers knows that they are incredibly perceptive, and they know when they are the victims of injustice.
This, speaking of injustices against children, leads me to my next point: the punitive system. I know for a fact that this system is slightly different at SA elementary and high schools, so, although the ideology behind them remains the same, I’m only going to talk about the middle school system. When I started at SA, we were using a system of bonuses and deductions to manage behavior. The concept, simply put, was that when a student did something bad, they got a deduction; when they did something particularly good, they got a bonus. Bonuses would be counted as twenty “scholar dollars” to be added to their “scholar bank accounts,” which they could use twice a year to buy little prizes, ranging from a cute pen or a piece of candy all the way to a tablet or AirPods. Deductions would deduct twenty dollars and would reset in every class: if a student got three deductions in one class, or did something egregiously bad (there was a list), they would receive a 30-minute after-school detention. If they got a second detention the same day, they would receive 45 minutes.
Last year, the network seemingly analyzed the data and realized this approach was not working. They shifted, instead, towards the “moonshot.” The moonshot is a load of nonsensical buzzwords that has since become obsolete anyways, but the important part here is that they changed the deductions system to a purportedly common-sense system of consequences. The idea, I believe, was originally to give the kids an in-the-moment punishment (a word they steadfastly refuse to use) that would show them the immediate consequences of their actions. You didn’t charge your laptop overnight? Guess you get a zero, since you can’t use your laptop to do the work. Action, consequence.
Except, obviously, it didn’t work that way. In that scenario, no teacher would actually force a student to sit there for ten minutes and watch the rest of their class complete a given classwork simply because their laptop wasn’t charged. We all had loaner laptops and chargers in our classroom; what most of us would do, in that situation, was to verbally say “you have a consequence” and then give them the charger or the loaner to complete the work. The consequences, therefore, acted the same way as the deductions used to.
When we asked, repeatedly, for more examples of consequences we could use in the moment, we were told to come up with them ourselves. Most of us did not, because we have enough to do without that added difficulty. The cumulative function of the deductions was also carried over: three consequences in a day would result in a 30-minute detention, and five or more would result in 45 minutes. The whole system was rebranded and given a shiny new coat, but the underlying creed remained the same: three strikes, and you’re out.
Note: I’m not going to discuss this, because it’s a problem that is true for the entire US education system and not just charter schools, but I strongly believe the entire concept behind the scholar detention system is misguided and a blatant perpetuation of the school-to-prison pipeline.
B. Academic Failure and Dishonesty
I have a feeling that, despite everything I discuss further down, this will be the most controversial section, but I have to say: I truly don’t believe SA offers a good education to students. This has often been, if not a defense, at least a justification for SA existing and families attending: the idea that, despite it all, these children are receiving a top-notch education for free. I’ve heard it from parents, students, teachers, and advocates alike. I’m sure that, for some families, their district public school either does not exist or does offer an education worse than their child is receiving from SA. I do not doubt that many examples prove that. However, from my perspective, the education SA offers its families is subpar and never actually in the interest of educating children.
SA is a data-driven institution, just like the entire rest of the American education system. This is not a surprise. What was a surprise, though, was the lengths the school goes to attain its desired data. For nearly three months leading up to the NY State English and Math tests (January to March), the students are not learning anything. I feel the need to emphasize that again before I explain: for three months, students attending a school are not learning anything in their time there. What they are doing, instead, is practicing taking multiple-choice tests, day in and day out. This is, ironically, called “Think” season.
During Think, the students take practice tests for the state exams in every single English and Math class, every single day. For the last two years, halfway through February, when they realized the data was not good enough yet, the network canceled Science and History classes to do more English and Math practice tests. Those are their only four content classes. I say again: students are not learning anything during that time. All they are doing is practicing test-taking skills and hating every minute of it. This is not education. This is callous data-chasing.
Even if we were to accept the data-chasing of it all (which we shouldn’t), there are plenty of other problems with the education we give students. First of all, I truly cannot emphasize enough how untrained all the teachers are. SA has no requirements for teachers to have Master’s Degrees or any sort of teaching credentials: the vast majority of us have a Bachelor’s Degree and no experience in a classroom. If teachers don’t know what they are doing, they cannot deliver high-quality education to children, especially with only a week or two of training.
Second of all, the design of the curriculum itself is deeply, deeply flawed. As an English teacher, I can speak directly to the fact that the English curriculum, K-12, does not, in any way, adequately teach grammar and writing skills. There is no grammar curriculum to speak of. Each literature unit comes with something called “The Art of the Sentence,” which teaches students about sentence types, conjunctions, appositives, subject-verb agreement, and a few adjacent concepts. That could, in theory, work amongst an otherwise appropriately scaffolded grammar program. Obviously, though, this is not the case. The AotS units are, no joke, the same from third grade to eighth, with only a few concepts updated with the transition to middle school.
The first time I attempted to teach students about something as simple as subject-verb agreement, I realized they literally could not identify nouns and verbs, let alone the function of a subject and a verb in a sentence. My fourteen-year-old students, who were about to go to high school, did not know what an adjective was. The school simply does not teach students the fundamental building blocks of grammar. Every single time I raised an issue with this, whether to my managers, principals, or curriculum writers at the network, I received some version of the same answer: the school believes that if we teach kids to read, the writing will come naturally. They used the excuse that in Math we teach the “why” and “how” behind concepts instead of forcing rote memorization. When I asked how that squared with the fact that we do teach formulas to be memorized, since, for example, we can’t expect students to come up with Pythagoras’s theorem independently, I was shut down.
There is also an important physical issue with the school’s lack of writing: the students do not know how to write by hand. The school prides itself on being a “paperless” institution (supposedly motivated by environmental reasons), and all students receive a laptop from the school, albeit one that will break if you breathe on it too hard. The teachers are prohibited from assigning classwork or homework on paper (I was pulled into meetings about this), and even kindergarten students practice writing their alphabets with flimsy styluses on their laptops. As a result, I have teenagers with handwriting that would not be out of place in an average third-grade classroom.
Far beyond the lack of grammar, the whole curriculum is steeped in the stench of systemic racism. A few years ago, at a panel about some updates to the Science curriculum, a teacher spoke up and asked about the lack of POC representation in the curriculum. One of the panelists responded that there were no examples of positive contributions by people of color to the field of science. She added, of course, that the teacher was welcome to offer suggestions if they thought of anyone.
For my part, I ran up against similar issues in my yearly short story unit. I was given six stories to teach to the students, all of which were written by white men, except one by Sherman Alexie (who maybe shouldn’t be added for other reasons anyways). SA is a network that, per their own website, is 93% non-white. My school was 94% black, and only about 2% white if memory serves. I was appalled at the lack of any POC or non-male voices in the unit, so I reached out to the curriculum design team at the network. In the three or so weeks it took them to answer, my coworker and I had already made the executive decision to switch one of the stories out for Ursula K. Le Guin and continue our Malcolm X unit from the previous semester, since we hadn’t had the chance to finish it. The two people who reached out to me seemed to completely agree with me and wanted to hear more of my feedback. I met with them several times over video conference, and I emailed them regularly with my in-the-moment feedback about whatever unit I was teaching. They promised nothing short of a complete overhaul. I’m adding screenshots below so you can see I’m not misrepresenting the enthusiasm.
The next year, I was confronted with the same curriculum, with the same stories and authors. When I reached out to those people to figure out what happened, the emails bounced back. They were both no longer at the network. I have no idea and no way of knowing what happened, whether they were fired, moved, or quit, but I find it damning nonetheless that some of the only people to show me enthusiasm and a commitment to changing and diversifying the curriculum are no longer with the company.
The education, across contents, that the students receive is subpar and imbued with the exact kind of racism you would expect from a school run by a white woman who interviewed to be Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education.
Another common argument for SA’s existence is that it offers students resources they would not receive elsewhere. These include in-school services for students with special needs, free meals, and a laptop the students keep for as long as they attend the school. This is all, in theory, true. The students receive all of these, on top of having pencils, notebooks, and books provided for them. It’s worth looking, though, at the quality of the resources provided.
They do indeed have speech therapy, occupational therapy, social-emotional counseling, and reduced class sizes for students with special needs. However, I cannot emphasize enough how understaffed and underprepared all these services are. All the service providers I worked with in my time there were wonderful, great at their jobs, and genuinely and deeply cared for the kids. However, they are usually only one or two people for, in some cases, hundreds of students. The SEL counselors working at my particular school were, at the best of times, two people in a school of three to four hundred students. On top of trying to provide adequate care to students, they are also forced to fill in duties in the school operations as needed for understaffing, which is always. They do not have the means to provide the best care possible, despite having the will and commitment.
When it comes to the reduced classes for students with special needs, there is no training given to teachers who teach the Special Ed classes, nor are they certified in any way. These classes have students whose needs range from small refocusing reminders to consistent one-on-one attention from a paraprofessional by their side, and yet teachers are given no support or instructions on how to do that. We are given a roster of scholars, told to read their IEPs (Individualized Education Programs), and then left to our own devices to figure out how to scaffold and adapt a lesson plan to a class with such varied and specific needs. It’s also no secret how little the school prioritizes special education; at my former school, at least, the SpEd classes are phased out before 8th grade, so students who were in the reduced-size classes either leave the school or get integrated into the larger classes.
The free meals are also an affront to the health and well-being of the students. Common lunches included two slices of cold cheese sandwiched between whole wheat bread (nothing else), a spoonful of beans and a whole wheat tortilla, and hummus with nothing to dip. When I tried to file a complaint my first year about the lack of any nutritional value in these meals, I was scolded for breaking the chain of command and going straight to the network instead of my own school’s leadership, and then informed that I had created a bureaucratic mess since our CEO had not approved of our schools serving hot lunches. Is this really the best thing we can provide for our students who, as the school loves to promote, are often living under the poverty line?
The physical resources the students receive, such as computers and books, are a definite plus. I know there is a scourge of teachers in the US having to use their own money to buy their students pencils and paper, so the fact that SA provides much more than that should reasonably be an easy win. (Although I definitely spent a lot of my own money to buy the students new books to read when the school rejected my order for more) However, if you’re tracking the pattern, there are serious issues with these that make you question whether it’s worth the trouble. The laptops the students receive are cheap Chromebooks that constantly have connection issues, and whose screens will come apart if you open them too fast. Every single time students take a test, there will be a handful who have tech issues that lead to them taking the test in another way. A lot of students also don’t have WiFi at home, which the school assures is not a problem since they provide mobile hotspots for families in need. However, when a student of mine could not complete their homework (and was repeatedly receiving zeroes) because they did not have WiFi at home, the school told them to get a 90-day free trial with an internet service provider. This is just one of many examples where the school very pointedly does not put its money where its mouth is.
PART TWO: DITMAS PARK MIDDLE SCHOOL
During my time at DPMS (clocking in just under two years), I experienced a veritable barrage of poor leadership, ranging from the incompetent to the actively malicious.
A. This Was the Good Part
In my first year at DPMS, in what I now recognize to be the better alternative, I had a direct manager who repeatedly committed homophobic and racist micro-aggressions against myself and my colleagues, as well as the students. When my colleague received a wildly inappropriate and homophobic email from a parent, which she immediately reported to the school, she was told by this manager that she probably shouldn’t have disclosed her sexual orientation because it could be “confusing and difficult for children,” and essentially told to go back into the closet. When I expressed concern over calling a potentially homophobic parent because their child told me I was probably going to hell, I was given no support and told that it was “good practice for making tough phone calls.”
Beyond the harm to staff, the leadership team also consistently deadnamed and misgendered children with no care as to any potential trauma they might be inflicting or triggering. One time, I pulled a student out of class who was having a panic attack at the idea of being kicked out of home after coming out. I was speaking to them in the hallway, attempting to calm them down, when this manager came out of her office to tell me they needed to go back to class. Even though this child was in obvious and visible distress, my manager spoke to me without addressing them, and misgendered and deadnamed the student multiple times right in front of them. This was several months into the school year, and the student had been out at school the entire time.
That same student, another few months later, made the top rankings at the school based on academic performance and got a shout-out in our weekly morning show run by the principal. The shout-out was attributed to their deadname, again ignoring the fact that the student had been using a different name all year. When they were, very understandably, triggered by this, my colleague and I both messaged our principal asking if the name could be corrected. We both received the same message, saying our messages were “not the appropriate way to communicate feedback.” This was far from the first time we had asked them to be respectful of names and pronouns, and it wouldn’t be the last, either.
DPMS also has a history of racist and xenophobic leadership: a former colleague of mine was forced to teach Science for three years, despite having an International Relations background, simply because she was Asian and assumed to be good at it. During a DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) session, in which we were discussing our personal experience with racism in small groups, my manager inserted herself into our conversation to tell me that I don’t count as POC since I am white-passing. I had just been talking about my complicated experience as someone who is Latinx yet white-passing, so I receive all the privilege that comes with that, while also being aware of my identity being erased and ignored. She continued pressing on this, telling me she believed that, essentially, if you weren’t black then you didn’t count. This was the culture the leadership team cultivated.
There are other even more insidious incidents I can’t entirely disclose for legal reasons, but I can say that, from my perspective, the leadership team did not care about the emotional or physical health and well-being of our scholars or the staff. There was plenty of lip service paid to “mental health” and “self-care,” but it was coming from the same managers who would pull us into two-hour meetings to tell us we were failing our students and made staff members cry with such consistency that we all had a preferred secret spot in which to cry (big fan of the lab closet, myself). At the end of the year, the assistant principals and operations manager were moved to other schools, and the principal was demoted to a network position. They were replaced, and the school moved on.
B. What’s Going On Now?
The current state of DPMS is evolving day to day, so, by the time this is published, it might be entirely out of date. All I can do is talk about the situation that led to my termination.
In the middle of February, we were told on a random Friday afternoon that that would be our principal’s last day with us, as she was being moved to another school. This was a shock to everyone, including our new leadership team. The new principal came in and quickly introduced herself as a specialist at saving “failing schools,” which we apparently were, based on our data. Without going too deeply into the white savior-ism of it all, it did not go unnoticed that, at a school with a 94% black student population, a black principal was replaced with a white one to “save” the school (and during Black History Month too, as my students were quick to identify).
This new principal (let’s call her H), came in and immediately implemented a host of changes across the school which, to quote Douglas Adams, made many people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move. My first offense came when I spoke out against scheduling changes. In a meeting with the 7th- and 8th-grade teams, our direct manager (let’s call her B) disclosed the new schedule which essentially left us teaching 9-hour days with no breaks. A colleague (let’s call him T) and I both spoke up when B asked if we had questions, and we expressed that this schedule was inhumane and illegal, given labor laws. We asked for a conversation to happen with our principal, who refused, and we asked B to advocate for us, to which she evidently took offense. This meeting happened on Wednesday, February 22nd. On Friday the 24th, T was fired for supposed “ongoing lapses in professionalism,” and I received the following email five minutes later, when I was on my way to meet him:
Over the following several days, H continued to institute more and more rules to supposedly reach for the academic success we were failing to meet. It’s important to note, here, that my students were never failing. The 8th-grade students were, consistently, the only grade in the school to pass their daily practice tests (since we were in the middle of Think). When I brought this up to B, she explicitly told me that she did not believe the students were achieving those scores independently and that I must be coaching them through it. Yes, I also have a recording of this.
Nevertheless, my students were subjected to the same absurd new measures reaching the rest of the school: offenses that had simply been worthy of a consequence or a detention prior were now qualified as an automatic detention or suspension. Students were not allowed to touch their faces or hair, at any time. They were not allowed to have their hands in their laps or pockets at any time, no matter how cold they got: they always had to be over the desk. Unless they were actively writing, they were not allowed to hold a pen or pencil in their hand. They had to leave them on the desk. If they were not actively typing, their laptops had to sit in the top corner of the desk as a rule. They were not allowed to have bottles of water on the desk or the floor next to them: they had to be in their bags, which had to be fully zipped up with both straps on the chair. All of these led to consequences or detentions if the students committed infractions.
I was explicitly and vocally opposed to this. I did my job and enforced the less immoral rules, and every single day I received emails that looked like this from B:
It’s important to me to state, again, that my students were thriving academically in my classroom during this time. They were passing their practice tests every day (so much so that B was telling me to give them 11th- or 12th-grade level texts since they were passing well above their level), engaging in the short debate exercises I tried to do every day, and completing their homework and independent reading with gusto. Given this, I continued to argue that my students sitting on their hands because they were cold, or twirling a pencil in their hand, does not indicate academic failure or a lack of engagement.
On Wednesday, March 1st, one week into H’s tenure, I got called into a meeting as a “final warning” against my actions. H asked me, repeatedly, why I was “not aligned” with her vision of the school. When I asked her if she could reflect on whether her “vision” was overly militaristic and punitive, she refused to engage in the conversation and told me that that was simply further proof of my misalignment. The meeting ended with her saying we would “reconnect” about this, and, despite having no further communication that night, I was fired at 7:30 am the following morning.
In those last few days, four of my students were suspended in a row for inane reasons. B tried to call school safety officers (who are wonderful and lovely people) on a student because they refused to follow her out of the classroom. This student was not being loud, threatening, or in any way violent; they simply did not want to follow B’s directions, and this was apparently cause enough for B to call security. After I was fired, B also tried to call security on me when I was standing outside and saying goodbye to my kids.
With T and me gone, the 7th and 8th grades did not have any English teachers. Two different History teachers from different grades were pulled into 7th grade to cover English (since History isn’t being taught), and a new teacher is teaching my former class. I’m not going to get into specifics of what’s happening now since I no longer can speak firsthand, but what I’m hearing speaks of a worsening situation with a stark increase in the number of daily suspensions (almost as if they have a quota to meet) and abhorrent treatment of students, as well as a denial of rights for students with special needs.
The students at DPMS have been failed repeatedly and consistently by the people charged to care for them and their education. Their health and well-being is constantly ignored or disregarded in the interest of chasing results, and the education they receive is subpar at the best of times and nonexistent at the worst. Is now a good time to mention that my students did not have Math class for two months last year because the teacher quit and the school couldn’t replace her?
The kids and staff deserve so much better than the treatment they receive every day, and all I can really hope for is that this reaches at least one person who will be inspired to speak out. If the school continues to silence our voices when we advocate for the children, then everyone will suffer for it. The whole point of charter schools is to provide the best possible education to students underserved by public institutions. If advocates claim to care for children and care about quality education, then they simply cannot continue to support Success Academy. Something will have to give eventually, and it cannot be the children.