If the parent activists at Palm Lane Elementary School are successful in their battle to invoke SB54, the Parent Trigger Law, they would be well advised to study the network of high-performing charter schools in New York City founded by former teacher and City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz as the template for the school it must design to replace the current failing institution.
Aptly named Success Academy, each of the 46 schools serves disadvantaged youngsters from minority communities (66% Black, 30% Hispanic) who had been failing academically in their neighborhood public schools. Today they are among the highest performers on New York state achievement tests. 96% pass the math exam (compared to a 38% citywide average). 68% pass the English Language Arts exam, more than double the 29% citywide average.
Founded in 2006 in a poor Harlem neighborhood, the schools 2013 lottery drew 2,478 applicants for 122 slots at one campus. Guided by Moskowitz’ firm hand, the rigorous structure and strict rules closely resemble some training programs for athletes and military cadets. The results of this classical disciplined approach have been remarkable. The same approach to education guides the leadership at the most successful private and parochial schools.
There are longer school days and a lengthier school calendar. Classes begin at 7:45 a.m. and end at 4:30 p.m. (4 p.m. for kindergarten). Weekend workshops are held to prepare for state exams and to provide extra help for students who are lagging behind their peers. Students wear uniforms, learn chess and follow a strict code of conduct. They are expected to behave or face disciplinary measures if they don’t. Compliance is striking.
A key to Moskowitz’ success is the strong sense of family that defines the school’s ethos. She is the ideal loving parent whose primary interest is the success and well-being of her offspring and the development of their character. The school becomes a therapeutic community that provides a much-needed corrective emotional experience that has profound psychological and intellectual benefits.
Teachers function a bit like surrogate parents. They instill shared community values and a dawning sense of personal pride in the youngsters. The transformation inspires genuine hopefulness in them for the future and their success in it.
Moskowitz’ philosophy is imbued in the curriculum, code of conduct and expectations for each child. It also guides her selection of teachers. They are bright, young in spirit, enthusiastic and dedicated to their students.
None of the teachers are union members. Freed from the shackles of union rules and restrictions, they arrive early, stay late to work with students who need extra help and meet with parents on a regular schedule to address their concerns and discuss their child’s progress. They are rewarded with promotions and pay raises for their efforts.
Success Academy students receive daily classes in science and math, instruction in chess and can choose among a long list of electives that include drama, chorus, speech and debate, journalism and robotics. There are outings to museums, concerts and major league baseball games, but the emphasis is squarely on the Three R’s: reading, writing and arithmetic. Mastery of grammar, composition and elocution is expected.
Students read for one hour each day in class and at home after school. They are expected to read 22 books per month. Surprisingly, they often read far more than the minimum requirement. Since 2006, the 2400 students at SA schools in Harlem and South Bronx have read one million books outside of school, an even more impressive accomplishment given the dismal reality of their first days at the academy.
Teachers are held to the same high standards as their students. They receive regular evaluations and can be fired for not performing well. Attendance is mandatory at an annual weeklong training workshop before the commencement of the academic year. New hires spend their first year with a senior master teacher as a mentor, a common practice in Asia and Europe that sharpens professional skills and classroom competence.
With its lengthened school day and school year, by the end of the 8th grade, Success Academy graduates receive the equivalent of two extra years of instruction.  California educators would be well advised to emulate this practice.
Eva Moskowitz calls her young students scholars. It is a label they have earned. She has created a program that stands as a model of excellence for everyone interested in establishing a charter school. Success Academy provides a roadmap to success. Palm Lane parents should give her a call.
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About the Author: R. Claire Friend, MD, is the Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, UC Irvine Medical Center, and the editor of the UC Irvine Quarterly Journal of Psychiatry. She is a retired psychiatrist and frequent commentator on the psychological dimensions of education and social welfare policies.
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(1) California schools, in contrast, have a 175-day, 840-instructional hour calendar year. This ranks behind 30 other states in number of days and 35 states in number of instructional classroom hours. In his book Measure of a Nation, author Howard S. Friedman noted a 90% correlation between number of hours at middle school and scores on international achievement exams. Students from the top performing schools in China spend 1000 hours in class each school year and in South Korea, attend school for 220 days each year.
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