News & Culture in Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill and Points Nearby
January 25, 2021
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News + Views

Charter War Cobble Hill

By Lisa M. Collins
Kindergartners do robotics at Success Academy on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.


A look at facts from both sides

And a walk-through Success Academy Upper West Side

Stats on English-as-a-second-language, special needs and attrition rates at Success Academy

Many parents around here are taking a loud and vehement stance against the NYC Department of Education/State University of New York Charter Institute proposal to move Success Academy Charter School – one of the top performing public schools in the state — to Cobble Hill. The school would accept kids by lottery from all over District 15, and, according to the school’s plans, would prioritize English-as-a-second-language kids regardless of where they live.

The DOE is proposing to place the academically rigorous, controversial Success Academy’s newest outpost in the school building that sits smack in the middle of our neighborhood, on Court Street, between Baltic and Butler, a facility that’s now home to two grade 6 to grade 12 schools for mostly low-income Brooklyn teens, and a small high school for autistic and severely disabled children. The move was approved Wednesday, Dec. 15 by mayor’s Panel for Education Policy. SUNY will make a final decision in late January.

About this anger-sparking plan there’s a lot of misinformation floating around, and a dearth of facts. South Brooklyn Post will try to dispel the one and provide the other.

If approved the new charter will give equal preference to kids from the Gowanus Houses, Red Hook Houses, Sunset, Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens — to kids from all over District 15. Launched in 2006, the Success Academy network has a longer school day in which kids get more recess but also do math, science and robotics every day, and teachers are required to continually advance kids in reading, based on individual student proficiency levels.

If the Cobble Hill school is anything like Success Academy Upper West Side, as Success Academy says it will be, the school will be quite diverse. Success Academy Upper West opened this year with 125 kindergartners and 60 first graders: it is 35 percent white and Asian; 49 percent black and Latino, and 16 percent multi-racial. Thirty-six percent qualify for free lunch, while 4 percent qualify for reduced lunch. That’s quite a contrast from elementary schools in District 15, which are mostly black and Hispanic and low-income, or mostly not.

Success Academy says it achieved this diversity on the Upper West Side through its random district-wide lottery that selected among 750 or so district applicants for 185 seats and prioritized kids from “failing” schools. The Upper West school students are 98 percent from that district.

Success Academy Cobble Hill (the name has not been approved yet by the state) is a public school, managed privately, and overseen by its own non-profit Board of Trustees and SUNY. It’ll accept about 100 kids a year, and, as approved, will share space with the School for Global Studies, the School for International Studies and a District 75 special needs program.

DOE says the building has plenty of unused space and room for an additional school, but students and teachers there disagree.

The DOE lists the school’s capacity at 1,615; currently 924 students are enrolled. Success Academy plans to enroll 190 kindergarten and first-grade students, and add a grade per year.

The city’s proposal indicates that once Success Academy Charter fills out from kindergarten to 4th Grade, the building will be at 108 percent capacity.

Success Academy in Cobble Hill will eventually expand to the 8th grade, the school says, but there is not a plan for where the school’s 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th graders will be housed should the city and state approve the expansion when it is formally requested.

The network

Former City Councilwoman and education activist Eva Moskowitz Runs the Success Academies

In addition to the new Cobble Hill school, Success Academy is opening a second school in Bedford-Stuyvessant and one in Williamsburg.

Currently, there are five Success Academies in Harlem, two in the Bronx, one in Brooklyn (in Bedford-Stuyvessant), and one on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They are each located in buildings along with city DOE public schools, and they score among the highest in the city and state for science and math (in the top 5 percent statewide); this year 100 percent of Harlem Success Academy 1 fourth graders scored a 4 (top grade) on the state math test. That school, the oldest in the network, is tied for No. 1 school in New York City, based on student testing.

The network is managed by a central office that handles finances, budgets and fundraising; each school is run by a principal. Success Academy, a non-profit, gets per-student funding from DOE, and sometimes facilities are paid for as well.

The Success Academy non-profit raises millions of private dollars, not in small part from Wall Street money managers, and spends considerable sums on advertisings its schools. A recent walk through the Hoyt-Schemerhorn subway station saw a wet floor nearly plastered with brochures encouraging parents to apply for the lottery.

Success Academy Charter schools are managed by former New York City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz, who for years chaired a headline-grabbing city education committee that criticized the city public schools, which made Moskowitz an enemy of the city teacher’s union.

Moskowitz, a product of New York City public schools, says social justice drives her. Her schools serve kids that are primarily low-income and minority.

Her new schools in Brooklyn, however, would be primarily district-wide lottery schools, with a mix of whatever that brings.


The Tour

With all the hysteria surrounding the proposal for a Success Academy – Cobble Hill, I attended a media tour recently to Success Academy on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

I went as a skeptic—I’m a product of public schools, albeit some pretty mediocre ones, though I made it to a great top-tier public university anyhow—and a big public school advocate (moved a mountain to live in the PS 29 school zone, or so it felt, and have a friend who sold her house so she could rent and live in P.S. 58), so I felt like many: Why do we need a charter school here? We have great public schools!

I walked into the Brandeis High School Complex on 84th Street. It’s kind of like walking into a police station—there were five police officers hanging around two metal detectors at the entrance, and two uniformed officers at the check-in station for the school. They all seemed nice, jovial, talking and friendly with the teens filtering in and out.

I signed in and went through the metal detector, and then was directed to the tour.

Brandeis was a troubled, “failing” high school that recently was split into four separate high schools, as has been the case citywide—big troubled schools are split into smaller schools with hopes they can be better managed. Half the city’s public school buildings house more than one school.

This year, Brandeis’ towering teens have the addition of 125 kindergartners and 60 first graders in little blue and orange uniforms of the Success Academy Charter School chain.

I head to the hall where Success Academy is located. Immediately I’m struck by the diversity of the kids. There’s a wide mix. It’s by far the most diverse elementary population I’ve witnessed, short of possibly the kids at PS 261 in Boerum Hill.

A handful of us reporters tour classrooms. Moskowitz led the tour, and was happy to show off the kindergartners, sitting around a student who was programming a robotic toy to move around a chart of shapes and colors on the floor. Try as I might, I could not determine what the child was doing, but the rest of the kids knew, and were helping her along. The kindergartners get robotics every day, Moskowitz tells us.

“All children are scholars,” Moskowitz says.

The kids in the classes are almost outrageously orderly, sitting with hands in laps, lining up in the hallway, falling silent when the teacher says, “Hands in laps,” or “Hands on heads” or “5,4,3,2,1, sit down.” It’s not frightening order, per se, there’s plenty of fidgeting and up-and-down to the bathroom, kids with heads in teacher’s laps and etc.

In art class, as the kids are painting mixed media impressions of their dream houses, and getting excited with all the visitors, the teacher says, “It’s getting a little noisy in here. There’s no need to be yelling. We should be working hard on our paintings—silently.” The kids comply.

Then we head to a room filled with blocks—chaos! Kids are running around, dancing, and working in groups with teachers.

Moskowitz tells me that kindergartners get a 50-minute period to play with blocks every day, and two recesses. I do a double take. “What? Two recesses!!” My daughter would be in heaven.

In addition, the young grades get multiple “choice” times per day, she says. Anyone with a kindergartner knows they’re obsessed with choice time, when they can play what they like from a set of activity/play stations.

“We use a highly progressive model,” Moskowitz says. Because the young kids get 80 minutes of direct instruction per day, the rest of the time is less regimented, she said.

Kindergartners at the DOE public schools get one recess and one choice time per day, but the rest of the school day is pretty regimented. With budgets slashed right and left, some kids do not get recess at all.

Success Academies follow a longer day, and a longer year, beginning the 2011/2012 year two weeks before the DOE’s Sept. 8 start date (which got pushed back in union negotiations.)

The day starts at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m for kindergarten; 4:30 p.m. for first grade and up.

Kids are assessed every other month to determine if they are progressing. “We’re pretty maniacle about assessing kids,” Moskowitz said. “If kids aren’t moving up, there’s a problem.”

She says her school strives to engage kids. “We are against boredom,” she said.

Why come to Cobble Hill, of all neighborhoods, I ask Moskowitz.

“Every kid should have access to a great education,” she says.

After the tour, I happen to walk behind Moskowitz to the curb, and grab her before she crosses the street. I ask her about the teachers’ and charter-opponents’ claim that Success Academies co-located in buildings with less-advantaged DOE schools is unfair to those kids, who daily have to witness all the academic services they are not receiving, and newer-nicer amenities and classrooms for the charter school children.

“It pains me, it breaks my heart,” Moskowitz says. “But the answer is to have more great schools and to close schools that aren’t working. I grew up in Harlem. It’s frustrating — we keep supporting failure. Why can’t we the adults say enough is enough?

“We can’t have failing schools in the greatest city on Earth. It’s not rocket science. The question is, how do we get more kids access.”

Cold hard stats

Critics of Success Academies say that kids who can’t follow the rigid behavioral and academic standards are weeded out in order to achieve the school’s test scores. They also say the schools don’t serve English-as-a-second-language or special needs kids. But the statistics don’t support the claims.

SUNY Charter Institute, charged by the state to oversee the charter schools it authorizes, provided South Brooklyn Post with numbers for Harlem Success Academy 2, 3 and 4, which have attrition rates of 6 percent, 5 percent and 11 percent respectively. That’s the number of kids who entered last year and did not enter again this year. The numbers are not far off from DOE figures.

Harlem Success 2 has 11 percent of kids with disabilities; Harlem Success 3 has 13 percent of its students with disabilities; and Harlem Success 4 has 15 percent students with disabilities.

The three schools, when averaged, have the same number of English-as-a-second-language kids as their DOE school counterparts in Harlem.

When it comes to low-income children, again the numbers equal out: Harlem Success 2 is 78 percent free and reduced lunch, mirroring its community district. Harlem Success 3 is 75 percent free/reduced; compared to 87 percent in the community district; while Harlem 4 is 74 percent free/reduced; compared to 55 percent in the community district.

And yet the test scores are exemplary. Across the four Harlem Success Academy schools with testing grades, 94 percent of students were proficient in math compared to 60 percent of third, fourth and fifth graders citywide. Some 78 percent were proficient on the ELA compared to 49 percent citywide.

Meanwhile, Harlem Success Academy 1 is tied for the No. 1 public school in NY State in 4th grade math with 100 percent passing and 64 percent scoring advanced proficient (4, on a 1-4 scale).

Across the four Harlem Success Academy schools, 94 percent of black students and 94 percent of Hispanic students passed the math exam, compared to 73 percent of white students statewide.

Another 79 percent of black students and 89 percent of Hispanic students passed the ELA exam, compared to 66 percent of white students statewide.

Lottery Preferences

Success Academy’s Harlem schools are more black, and its Bronx schools are more Hispanic. The Cobble Hill school will prioritize English-as-a-second-language kids, perhaps to reflect a change in state law that goes into effect in January that requires charter schools to educate and retain more English Language Learners (Success Academy claims to move kids out of the ELL category in two years with its fast-method of teaching English, much faster than DOE stats, which leaves many New York City-born kids still in the ELL category into middle school; that’s not meant as a slam on DOE, it’s just a fact).

Success Academy Charter, when and if it opens in District 15, will accept kids by lottery with certain preferences given. The school is planning to ask for a change to its preferences, said Kerri Lyon, spokeswoman for Success Academy.

Currently, these are the preferences, as laid out in the school’s application with SUNY: (1) returning students, (2) siblings, (3) applicants zoned to attend failing schools and/or applicants who are deemed English Language Learners (ELLs) who reside in District 15, (4) applicants zoned to attend failing schools and/or applicants who are deemed English Language Learners (ELLs) who do not reside in District 15; (5) District 15 kids.

But the school is looking to change those preferences, so that there is only a preference for 1) siblings, 2) English Language Learners, regardless of where they live, and 3) District 15 kids.

The Meeting

Success Academy has already won approval to open in 2012 by the city and state, but its specific location has not been approved. Dec. 15, the mayor’s 13-member Panel for Educational Policy approved the proposed “co-location” at 284 Baltic. SUNY will also have to approve the move, and is accepting comments on the location until Dec. 21 (details below on where to send letters).

The city vote was “dripping in controversy” as the New York Times put it, and took place Wednesday night at Newtown High School in Elmhurst, Queens, at least an hour away on public transit for folks around Carroll Gardens/Red Hook/Cobble Hill. There were at least 50 police officers at the school and filtering around the auditorium, in addition to officers in dark suits with ear bugs and walkie talkies who acted as bouncers if any of the speakers got too rowdy. The meeting was, indeed, rowdy, as a large contingent of union teachers showed up to rally and rail against the proposal. Charter schools do not employ union teachers.

Locating the meeting so far away was a poor move by the DOE, and reeks of a sort-of anti-Democratic sentiment, especially in light of the heavy public interest and opposition to this proposal.

The United Federation of Teachers scheduled several buses to leave Cobble Hill at 4 p.m. Wednesday to transport opponents to the meeting.

The original meeting site, a high school in lower Manhattan, is under construction, and the DOE announced the move to Queens at the pubic hearing a couple of weeks ago at 284 Baltic (in which dozens of anti-charter activists, parents and teachers turned out to rally against Success Academy… the meeting was loud, long and ugly).

Borough President Marty Markowitz, among others, asked the DOE last week to move the meeting to Brooklyn Tech, to make it more convenient to the local community.

“Switching the site immediately after the large protests leaves no room for doubt that you are seeking to reduce the turnout for the decisive Dec. 14 meeting,” says a letter from State Assembly Members Joan Millman and James Brennan, and City Councilmen Brad Lander and Steve Levin to DOE Chancellor James Walcott. “This effort to diminish the protest will be unsuccessful and will in fact continue the long-term erosion of public confidence in the New York City Department of Education.

“It is our hope that the Department will recognize that the co-location of the Success Academy is a serious mistake and the application will be withdrawn.”

In further opposition to the Success Academy proposal, Millman’s office generated a counter-proposal of late that would place a public kindergarten and pre-K at 284 Baltic, but her office did not provide a formal proposal to the public or the DOE. Details are vague regarding which and how many children would have been served by the program and how long it would operate.

Also causing furor is the fact that Success Academy’s original charter application to SUNY was to open in District 13 or 14, not District 15.

Cynthia Proctor, public outreach director for SUNY Charter Institute, says that state law allows SUNY to OK a move within a borough once an application has been approved.

The SUNY Charter Institute will present its decision about the co-location at 284 Baltic to SUNY Trustees in a meeting scheduled for Jan. 24 and Jan. 25, Proctor said.

SUNY was given the authority by the state legislature and the governor to charter new public schools in the Charter Schools Act of 1998. It is the largest university-based chartering authority in the United States. It oversees 81 charter schools in New York City. Proctor said SUNY does intensive reviews of its charters and closes them if they are not living up to SUNY standards.


The debate

Regardless of how diverse and academically strong the new charter school may be, it will cause inconvenience for the current schools located at 284 Baltic. The city’s plan says Success Academy would take over 10 classrooms, and would also take time in the cafeteria and gymnasium.

Currently the schools in the Court Street building, with 70 percent of kids at School for Global Studies and School for International Studies qualifying for free or reduced lunch, have small classes, something administrators and parents say is a draw to the school. Global Studies has 33 graduates this year; while International Studies has 88.

I talked to students one morning entering the school. They came from Crown Heights, Windsor Terrace and Red Hook. Two seniors I spoke to said they were headed to college.

They all said the school was already crowded.

Local elementaries, as well, are getting crowded.

Last year, Boerum Hill’s PS 261, Carroll Gardens’ PS 58 and PS 146 were over-enrolled. Cobble Hill’s PS 29 is reaching its 100 percent capacity but it’s not there yet. PS 38 in Boerum Hill and PS 32 need more students, and they are each improving in ways that are attracting more families; and each school has a gifted and talented program. But for parents gunning for academics, the local options are very limited.

Big Picture

For many, the argument is simple: All education dollars should go to DOE public schools. When budgets are cut and science, art and music are lacking from public schools in New York City, and some schools don’t even have recess, well that’s a sin, and they need all the money they can get.

To others: DOE public schools are very often mediocre when it comes to academics, and in low-income areas, the schools are sometimes unsafe and substandard. If public charters can do better, our kids deserve better. The world is getting more competitive, and jobs are scant.

Charter opponents say that while DOE budgets are slashed and burned, and community public schools are “set up to fail,” it’s unfair for charters to get state/city education dollars. They say charters are Bloomberg’s way of privatizing schools.

But, the charters are public, and only get public money when public school students attend. They get per-student funding of $13,500 per student, same as DOE schools.

The charters are ruled by their non-profit Board of Trustees, and overseen by SUNY. They don’t use teachers from the teacher’s union. And they circumvent almost entirely the bureaucracy of the DOE.

Instead charters raise private dollars. In a sense, it could be argued that they are bringing money into the public system, with their private fund-raising.

In a big-picture view, the state and city are choosing, in a sense, to spread the ever-dwindling pot of public school dollars, and to fund these new charter public schools while at the same time slashing budgets of DOE public schools. But the charters do not get more money than the DOE schools, and in fact, usually get less.

At the same time, schools like Success Academy are preparing kids to compete for seats at competitive middle and high schools, and to take the tests they’ll have to take to get into college.

If your child goes to 58 or 29, they have a great shot of advancing to a great middle school. For the rest of our neighbors, the road is more difficult.


Written comments can be mailed to the SUNY Charter Schools Institute, 41 State Street, Suite 700, Albany, NY 12207; faxed to:518/427-6510; or e-mailed to: through December 21.


More reading:

Story in the Economist looks at the NAACP lawsuit against charters and co-locations. More than half of city public schools share space with another school.




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