Amid Controversy, Head of UWS Charter Keeps Focus on Kids
UPPER WEST SIDE — Though Upper West Success Academy opened amid a swirl of opposition from local parents who fought the school’s co-location in the Brandeis High School building, Principal Carolyn Roby said she’s kept her focus on the families and students she was tasked to lead.
Roby, 33, is the school’s founding principal and welcomed its first kindergarten class to the West 84th Street location in 2011. The school now houses 400 students in grades K-3 and plans to continue adding another 100 students per year to expand through eighth grade.
In her opinion, the co-location is going well with all the schools in the building, which also houses four high schools, working together.
“Of course everyone would like to have their own space, but that is not practically going to happen,” Roby admitted.
DNAinfo New York sat down with Roby to talk about the school and her leadership.
How did you become involved in education?
I started out as a teacher with Teach for America [in 2003]. I taught second and third grade in the South Bronx. I worked really hard and made as many changes as I could. I ultimately found that there were structural things I couldn’t change. The length of the school day was much shorter — there were a lot of things my kids needed but we didn’t have enough time.
I was a founding second grade teacher at Harlem Success [in 2007]. I became a leadership resident, a principal in training, after a few years. I managed several teams of teachers and had other leadership responsibilities.
Describe the culture of the school.
Sometimes people think it’s very structured, which means kids don’t have any freedom or creativity. But having certain structures in place allows that freedom and creativity. Because kids know that that is how each lesson is going to go, they don’t have to wonder ‘What does this teacher want me to do?’ so they can spend the time [actually] thinking about math or chess [or the subject they’re learning.]
What are the school’s best practices?
We really believe that kids are capable of accomplishing a lot and it really starts with us as adults to make that happen. Our level of preparation and effort and drive is going to directly impact how a child is going to do. People might take that as a negative. I take it as a positive: you have a lot of control. We spend a lot of time looking at student work. We take a look at their writing and their math work on a daily basis, the classwork, so you can really get a pulse on how a kid is doing. If this classroom is getting one set of results, [we ask] ‘what can we take away to help all kids?’ If something is going well in one place we want to have it help all kids.
That’s a great part of being part of a growing organization. We’re always needing input and figuring out what works best. We talk about ‘What are you doing at your school?’ If somebody has made a change then we all want to adopt that. There’s that flexibility.
What are some of the challenges the school faces?
I think just the nature of our school. We’re a startup and we’re still growing. It just means each year we’re adding more families and more staff. I’m very conscious of maintaining our strong community. It’s something we’re able to do as we grow.
Going from our second into our third year, from 250 to 400 students, I had at the top of my mind to make sure we were maintaining our strong community and the same thing with our staff members. We’ve been successful so far.
You’ve said the school has a waiting list. Why do you think it’s so popular?
Some parents like the longer school day. They know it gives the kids a chance to have science every day… Other parents like how diverse our school is. Many like the challenging curriculum and our track record of success at this school.
What is your response to criticism of the school?
Before we opened there was a lot of controversy about this school, we had parents who were supporters as well. Once people see us in action, it sort of flipped. There were many more interested questions and people wanting to know more. There are all different types of charter schools, just like any kind of school. As a charter school we have increased accountability to the city and state. It’s more likely there’s going to be action that’s taken. We have a stricter review system to our authorizers.