Success Academy Harlem 1 Charter School
High test scores, daily science classes
Some chafe at strict rules and punishments
Success Academy Harlem 1, opened in 2006, is the first in a provocative New York City charter network that has grown to more than 40 schools. Success Academy's rigid structure and strict rules don't suit everyone's tastes, but no one denies most students earn enviable test scores and display good behavior. Surveys of parents regularly reveal high satisfaction with the charter school's academic instruction, and the school's lotteries attract more applicants than there are available slots.
Like all the schools in the Success network, Harlem 1, which serves grades K-4, has a strict uniform policy, non-union teachers, longer school days and a no-excuses attitude toward student achievement and parent involvement. Parents are required to attend rallies at City Hall or in Albany in favor of charter school expansion. Parents are also graded on their effectiveness in getting kids to school on time, attending conferences and more, as outlined in the school handbook.
Hallway floors are dotted with numbers and words (so even class transitions can be instructional) and classroom rugs contain circles or squares so kids know precisely where to sit.
The elementary school day begins at 7:45 am, although kids may arrive as early at 7:25 am, and school lets out at 3:45 pm. (Kids go home early on Wednesdays so teachers can have planning time.) Kids move briskly from one lesson to the next on a fixed schedule, and timers keep the day on pace.
Each day, Harlem 1 students get a science lesson that includes a hands-on experiment. When we visited, 1st-graders were eagerly learning to measure and pour precise amounts of liquid in a calibrated beaker. Math instruction follows the TERC Investigations curriculum, supplemented by more practice in word problems or number stories, as Success calls them, and drill in math facts called no hesitation math or NHM. Kids in younger grades have recess and snack daily, and regularly get Physical education, time in a block room, art and music classes, but no foreign language.
During reading lessons, students frequently break into small groups of kids who are at the same reading level, and it's not uncommon for a group to be joined by a child from another grade who is reading above or below grade level. The literacy program includes read aloud, independent reading, small group work and project-based learning, such as a bridge study in 2nd grade in which students explore engineering principles behind bridge construction, read about the history of the bridge and visit the bridge to record observations and interview pedestrians.
Young kids walked silently in "zero noise" halls and moved efficiently from one lesson to the next on our visit. Teachers regularly reinforced model behavior with exclamations like, "I love the way Jenny is sitting quietly," and many students wore stickers on their faces or clothing that were awarded for giving good answers or following rules like sitting up straight in a ready position.
Success Academy schools are famous for a no-nonsense attitude toward bad behavior. Defiant kids who don't obey the conspicuously posted rules quickly earn punishments ranging from brief timeouts to school suspensions. Parent may be called frequently if a child is misbehaving. In 2014-15, there were 139 suspensions in grades K to 9 at Harlem Success 1, or 15 percent, five times the statewide average of 3 percent.
The school demands a great deal from its teachers, many of whom join the Success Academy system right out of college and then spend a year in training under the wing of an established teacher. Harlem 1's non-union teachers can be fired if administrators feel they aren't doing a good job. Teachers must give out their cell phone numbers and answer parents' questions within 24 hours. Burnout is common, and the teacher turnover rate at Harlem Success 1, the networks flagship school, was 59 percent from 2014-15 to 2015-16. (A spokesman for Success said some of the turnover could be attributed to teachers moving between jobs in the network; excluding this the average turnover rate in the network is 28 percent, compared to 20 percent in Central Harlem, for example.)
Success Academy network administrators handle day-to-day bureaucratic chores, freeing on-site educators to focus on instruction. Network leaders also make all major decisions about curriculum, textbooks and methods, which often leaves faculty little discretion in what or how subjects are taught.
Most graduates go to middle school at Success Academy Harlem West, which opened in 2012.
SPECIAL EDUCATION: Children with special needs are taught in Integrated Co-Teaching classes that feature two teachers, one of whom is certified to teach special education. Some of the schools in the network also have self-contained classes. In the past, parents at several Success academies accused the network of discrimination against students with special needs, but Success officials say they are committed to offering appropriate services to children with disabilities.
ADMISSIONS: Lottery, District 3. Siblings get preference in admissions. There are far more applicants than available slots. (Skip Card, May 2013; updated, web reports and school data, Lydie Raschka, June 2017)