Success Academy’s Zero Tolerance Disciplinary Policy Examined

The Success Academy charter network has not only enjoyed success in New York City, but has also attracted attention and praise elsewhere. Success students were some of the very few to produce excellent results on the new, tougher Common Core Standards-based exams this year even as the average scores across the city and the state declined substantially. However, at least some people are now arguing that the reason for SA’s success has been a draconian zero-tolerance disciplinary policy that allows Success schools to push out exactly the kind of students who might lower their stellar results.

According to Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News, the charter network has long been criticized for the unusually high suspension rates at its 20 schools. A recent analysis of data collected by the state – as well as through interviews with staff and former students – suggest that Success Academy’s policies, especially those dealing with special education students, could be in violation of federal and state laws.

The network’s oldest school, Harlem Success 1, more than a fith of all students were suspended at least once over the course of the 2010-11 academic year. The average suspension rate for a public elementary school in the same neighborhood is 3%.

Success Academy chief Eva Moskowitz recently defended her network’s “higher than average” suspension rates compared with public schools as a way to promote “order and civility in the classroom.” And this week, the Eli Broad Foundation announced a $5 million grant to Moskowitz to help expand her network from 20 to more than 100 schools.

Those schools outperform city schools on state tests: This year, 82% of the network’s students met standards in math and 58% met standards in English, compared with just less than 30% who were proficient in math and 26% in English citywide.

On the face of it, Moskowitz’ explanation makes sense. Running a tight ship could be key to the school’s success. Yet Gonzalez writes that the reality of the situation is less innocent. Gonzalez refers to a high number of cases where special education students were removed from classes for weeks and even months. At the same time, their parents reported being pressured by administrators to transfer their children back to traditional public schools.

SA spokeswoman Jenny Sedlis denied that staff encouraged parents of some troubled students to transfer out.

“We abide by all federal and state law requirements that pertain to alternative instruction,” Sedlis said.

But in a review issued this spring on the progress of Harlem Success 2, 3 and 4, prior to granting those schools a five-year renewal of their charters, the State University of New York’s Charter Institute noted failings in student suspension policies.

“It was unclear that live instruction was consistently provided in accordance with New York’s compulsory education law,” the review said.