[Marxism] How charter schools cherry-pick their students

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jul 11 08:47:31 MDT 2011

NY Times July 10, 2011
Message From a Charter School: Thrive or Transfer

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 
be included.

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,” 
she said.

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 
“phenomenal” school.

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 
voluminous documentation.”

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 
in September.

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 
moving forward.”

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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