[Marxism] How charter schools cherry-pick their students
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Mon Jul 11 08:47:31 MDT 2011
NY Times July 10, 2011
Message From a Charter School: Thrive or Transfer
By MICHAEL WINERIP
In 2008, when Katherine Sprowal’s son, Matthew, was selected in a
lottery to attend the Harlem Success Academy 3 charter school, she
was thrilled. “I felt like we were getting the best private
school, and we didn’t have to pay for it,” she recalled.
And so, when Eva S. Moskowitz, the former city councilwoman who
operates seven Success charter schools in Harlem and the Bronx,
asked Ms. Sprowal to be in a promotional video, she was happy to
Matthew is bright but can be disruptive and easily distracted. It
was not a natural fit for the Success charters, which are known
for discipline and long school days. From Day 1 of kindergarten,
Ms. Sprowal said, he was punished for acting out.
“They kept him after school to practice walking in the hallway,”
Several times, she was called to pick him up early, she said, and
in his third week he was suspended three days for bothering other
In Matthew’s three years of preschool, Ms. Sprowal said, he had
never missed time for behavior problems. “After only 12 days in
your school,” she wrote the principal, “you have assessed and
concluded that our son is defective and will not meet your school
Five days later, Ms. Sprowal got an e-mail from Ms. Moskowitz that
she took as a veiled message to leave. “Am not familiar with the
issue,” Ms. Moskowitz wrote, “but it is extremely important that
children feel successful and a nine-hour day with more than 23
children (and that’s our small class size!) where they are
constantly being asked to focus and concentrate can overwhelm
children and be a bad environment.”
The next week, the school psychologist evaluated Matthew and
concluded he would be better suited elsewhere: “He may need a
smaller classroom than his current school has available.”
By then, Matthew was throwing up most mornings and asking his
mother if he was going to be fired from school. Worn down, Ms.
Sprowal requested help finding her son another school, and Success
officials were delighted to refer him to Public School 75 on the
Upper West Side.
At that point, Ms. Sprowal had come to believe her son was so
difficult that she was lucky anyone would take him. She wrote
several e-mails thanking Ms. Moskowitz, saying she hoped that
Matthew would someday be well-behaved enough to return to her
Three years later, looking back, Ms. Sprowal said she felt her son
had been done an injustice. Matthew, who has had a diagnosis of an
attention disorder, has thrived at P.S. 75. His second-grade
teachers, Johanny Lopez and Chanté Martindale, have taught him
many ways to calm himself, including stepping into the hallway for
an exercise break. His report card last month was all 3s and 4s,
the top marks; the teachers commented, “Matthew is a sweet boy who
is a joy to have in the classroom.”
Matthew’s story raises perhaps the most critical question in the
debate about charter schools: do they cherry-pick students, if not
by gaming the admissions process, then by counseling out children
who might be more expensive or difficult to educate — and who
could bring down their test scores, graduation rates and safety
Kim Sweet, director of Advocates for Children of New York, said
she had heard many such stories. “When we look at our cases where
children are sent away from schools because of disabilities,” she
said, “there are a disproportionate number of calls about charter
There is no more tenacious champion of charters than Ms.
Moskowitz, whose students earn top test scores and who has plans
to build a chain of 40 schools. She saw Matthew’s experience in a
far different light, as her spokeswoman, Jenny Sedlis, explained
in two voluminous e-mails totaling 5,701 words.
“We helped place him in a school that would better suit his
needs,” Ms. Sedlis wrote. “His success today confirms the
correctness of his placement. I believe that 100 percent of the
time we were acting in Matthew’s best interest and that the end
result benefited him and benefited P.S. 75, which now has a child
Ms. Sedlis denied that Matthew had been suspended, and said he was
not disciplined when he was kept after school.
“Practicing walking through the halls is the opposite of a
punishment,” she wrote. “Just as in math, when a child does not
get a concept, we re-teach. We don’t let the child fail. We ensure
he gets it. We take the same approach with behavior. If a child is
struggling, we re-teach. This is an example of when the school
went out of its way to help Matthew be successful.”
Ms. Sedlis noted that two Success board members were leaders of
well-respected special-education schools, Donna Kennedy of Gillen
Brewer and Scott Gaynor of the Stephen Gaynor School.
She also offered counterexamples, like Iris Ayala, whose
6-year-old son, Alexander, has an attention disorder and speech
problem but has thrived at a Success school.
Ms. Ayala said Alexander often acted up, running out of the
classroom. But the school gave him special-education help, she
said, and now he is reading above grade level. “I love the
school,” Ms. Ayala said.
Alex or Matthew — whose experience is more emblematic? You would
think data could help shed light here.
Indeed, Ms. Sedlis cited figures from the city Education
Department’s Web site showing that the attrition rate is lower at
the Harlem Success schools than at traditional public schools in
the same district.
On the other hand, every traditional public school that is housed
with a Success charter has more special-education children as well
as students for whom English is the second language, according to
numbers posted on city and state Web sites. At Success 3, the
school Matthew attended, 10 percent are in special education and 2
percent are English language learners, according to the publicly
available data; Mosaic Prep Academy, a district school that shares
its building, has 23 percent in special education and 13 percent
learning English as a second language.
But Ms. Sedlis said that the Web sites were wrong, and that 7.6
percent of students at Success 3 had limited English. “It is
imperative that you not use incorrect data,” she wrote. “It is a
complex system and I will walk you through it and produce
Even if not a single number on the Education Department’s Web
sites can be trusted, there is one indisputable fact: The
traditional public schools handle the most severely disabled
children, which Success charters do not serve. At Mosaic Prep, 58
percent of the special-education students — 46 children — are
those requiring the “most restrictive environment” and are in
classrooms of their own. At Success charters, the
special-education children are classified as needing the “least
restrictive environment” and are mainstreamed, though two of the
charters will add classes strictly for special-education students
Ms. Moskowitz has enormous political clout, and without my asking,
Laura Rodriguez, a deputy chancellor, sent an e-mail saying the
Success charters were getting better about special education.
“Harlem Success has made a real commitment to improving services
for students with disabilities,” she wrote, “and we’ll continue
working with them to enroll and serve even more of these students
Serving children with special needs lowers test scores. At P.S.
75, Matthew’s new school, 17 percent are in special education, and
for 17 percent, English is a second language. In 2009, 76 percent
of the school’s general education students were proficient in
language arts. But when special-education scores were factored in,
proficiency dropped to 69 percent.
Still, Robert O’Brien, who has been principal there for 14 years,
says the most gratifying part of his work is with the children who
lower his test scores.
E-mail: oneducation @nytimes.com
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