Success Academy Harlem 1 Charter School
Manhattan NY 10026
High test scores, daily science classes
Some chafe at strict rules and punishments
Success Academy Harlem 1 opened in 2006, the first in a provocative New York City charter network that has grown to 12 elementary and two middle 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 2013 lottery attracted 2,478 applications for just 122 slots.
Harlem 1 has many hallmarks of charter schools: uniforms, non-union teachers, longer school days and a no-excuses attitude toward student achievement. Hallway floors are dotted with numbers and words (so even class transitions can be instructional) and classroom rugs contain circles so kids know precisely where to sit. Children dress in the network's uniform, which features orange ties for boys and plaid jumpers for girls.
School days begin at 7:45 am, although kids can arrive as early at 7:15. Kindergarten lets out at 4 pm, and other grades get out at 4:30. (Kids go home early on Wednesdays so teachers can have planning time.) A fixed schedule moves kids briskly from one lesson to the next, and timers keep the day on pace. Often, a teacher will explain an assignment, then kids will break into small groups to do the work as a timer ticks off the seconds. Teachers often use the "turn and talk" technique, in which pairs of students discuss or review what has just been learned.
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 other programs. Kids have recess and snack daily and regularly get PE, art and music classes, but no foreign language.
Young kids learn to read and write using the phonics-based Success For All reading program, as well as the THINK Literacy program developed by Success Academy experts. 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.
Young kids moved silently in "zero noise" halls and moved efficiently from one lesson to the next. Teachers regularly reinforce model behavior with exclamations like, "I love the way Jenny is sitting quietly," and many students proudly wore small stickers that had been awarded for giving good answers.
Yet, Success Academy schools are also famous for a no-nonsense attitude toward bad behavior. Defiant kids who don't obey the conspicuously posted school rules quickly earn punishments ranging from brief timeouts to school suspensions. While parents generally approve of the rules, about one-third of middle school students complained that discipline is unfair, according to the 2012 Learning Environment Survey.
The school demands a great deal from its teachers, who typically 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 be available at all hours to answer parents' questions.
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. A sense of faculty discontent came through in the Learning Environment Survey: Fewer than half the teachers said they usually look forward to work, and 79 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement "I wouldn't want to work in any other school."
Asked about faculty attitudes, administrators cited the network's no-excuses focus on reinventing education. "We're on a quest to design the best schools in the country. It's challenging work," said Jenny Sedlis, senior managing director of external affairs for the Success Academy network. "It's a tougher job than in a lot of schools, and we acknowledge that." [Jenny Sedlis left Success Academy to become the executive director of StudentsFirstNY in 2013.]
Graduates of the elementary school go on to middle school at Success Academy Harlem West, which opened in 2012. Harlem West occupies the fifth floor of a shared campus at 215 West 114th Street called the Wadleigh Secondary Building, which is also home to Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing & Visual Arts (an arts-based middle and high school) and Frederick Douglass Academy II (a middle and high school).
Founding Harlem West principal Andrea Klein was a 4th-grade teacher at Success Academy Harlem 1, the first school in the charter network. Klein later joined the network's literacy team, where she helped develop the THINK Literacy curriculum. [In 2013 Klein returned to Success Academy Harlem Charter 1 as principal alongside Danique Loving, who was previously principal of Success Academy Harlem Charter 4.]
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.
Admission: Lottery, District 3. Siblings get preference in admissions. There are far more applicants than available slots. (Skip Card, May 2013; updated by Ella Colley, December 2014)