Education

NYC Public Advocate Launches Lawsuit Against Success Academies

The network is accused of pushing children with disabilities out of its schools.

portrait of high school students discuss with teacher during the class
Photo Credit: markos86

Success Academy is New York City's largest charter school network. About 11,000 children attend its thirty-six schools. The network receives federal and state funding and free space from New York City for all of its schools. But apparently it also discriminates against students with disabilities, at least according to a legal complaint filed by parents and New York City Public Advocate Letitia James.

The network is accused of repeatedly suspending young children who have been difficult to push their families to transfer them out of the charter schools. In October the New York Times reported that at least one of the network's charter schools maintained a "got to go" list that singled out students who were considered troublesome. The suspicion is that the "Suspension" network's harsh disciplinary practices are designed to boost their schools performance rate on standardized tests. 

The State University of New York, which licenses charter school in the state, is currently investigating Success Academy's for violations and a civil rights complaint is now pending with the U.S. Department of Education. The civil rights complaint was filed by parents with support from New York City Public Advocate Letitia James and City Councilmember Daniel Dromm, chair of the Council's Education Committee. It alleges that Success Academy failed to comply with the disciplinary due process rights of students with disabilities. 

In May 2014, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights issued a letter to charter school operators reminding them that the "Federal civil rights laws, regulations, and guidance that apply to charter schools are the same as those that apply to other public schools." According to the memo, "These laws extend to all operations of a charter school, including recruiting, admissions, academics, educational services and testing, school climate (including prevention of harassment), disciplinary measures (including suspensions and expulsions), athletics and other nonacademic extracurricular services and activities, and accessible buildings and technology."

Complaints have not stopped Success Academy from lobbying for additional public funding in partnership with a group called Families for Excellent Schools. On January 20 the groups bussed 500 New York City school children to Albany for a rally at the State Capitol building. A spokesperson for Governor Andrew Cuomo says the governor's proposed budget increases state funding to charter schools and allows more local funding. The Alliance for Quality Education has launched an online petition campaign to block the additional state funds. 

Parents in two Brooklyn communities are at the forefront of the battle to stop Success Academy. In Fort Greene, an advisory panel representing public-school parents demanded that the New York City Department of Education (DOE) and the State Board of Regents investigate the company's discipline policies and suspend the network's authorization to open new schools. The Success Academy charter network denies students were severely punished for minor infractions in an effort to drive them out of their schools and has apologized for the "got to go" list. The principal responsible for the "got to go" list is on an indefinite personal leave and the school has its fourth leader since it opened in 2013. However network CEO Eva Moskowitz refused to meet with the Fort Greene panel.

Meanwhile in Bedford-Stuyvesant, parent groups are protesting a recent decision by the DOE to permit Success to open a new charter school in the community. The charter would be located inside a public school that has had declining enrollment. The school's principal and dozens of teachers, parents, and students from P.S. 297 protested at a public hearing against the move. They charged the charter would take away space used to provide occupational, speech and physical therapy to special needs students, students who the Suspension Academy notoriously does not serve. At the meeting the DOE's deputy chancellor of operations acknowledged that in the 2018-2019 school year, P.S. 297 would lose three full-size classrooms and one smaller area. In addition, the principal argued that any under-utilized space should be used to allow the school to add additional grades. The school currently has grades pre-k through 5th.

Most of P.S. 297's students are Black and Latino and come from two nearby public housing projects, but the community is in the process of gentrification. A different charter school was previously located in the P.S. 297 building, but it was closed by the DOE because of poor student test scores and high teacher turnover. One suspicion is that a new charter school would primarily serve new middle-class families moving into the area. Fred Baptiste, a parent panel's Brooklyn representative, said "With this population, with this school, with the changes they're making, with the fragileness of the school community, I really have to question whether this fits in Bed-Stuy."

According to a 2014 report by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, New York City schools are among the most racially, economically, and ethnically segregated in the United States. "In 2009, black and Latino students in the state had the highest concentration in intensely-segregated public schools (less than 10% white enrollment), the lowest exposure to white students, and the most uneven distribution with white students across schools. Heavily impacting these state rankings is New York City, home to the largest and one of the most segregated public school systems in the nation."

New York City needs an overall plan to address school segregation and educational inequality before it authorizes any new charter schools, especially any new "Suspension" Academy schools.

Alan Singer is a social studies educator, Hofstra University.

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