Officials from the K-4 school said a third of all Upper West Side children headed to kindergarten next fall applied to the school, and that many of those children are zoned to attend some of the best public schools in the neighborhood.
Residents and other parents fought the school, arguing the space within the West 84th Street building where it is located should be reserved for a public school. But Success Academy leaders said opinion has shifted in its favor.
DNAinfo reporter Emily Frost sat down with Principal Jennifer Haynes and parent Courtenay Harry to talk about the history of the school and where it's headed.
Read DNAinfo's conversation with Haynes and Harry, or listen to the podcast below or on iTunes.
Emily Frost: Just so people who don't know the school that well understand a little bit of the history, when it first started, there was a lot of opposition. There were some lawsuits. How did you overcome that controversy and start attracting people?
Jennifer Haynes: I was not the founding principal of this school, so I obviously was not here. I experienced some of the opposition in that I worked at one of our Bronx schools at the time and went to many of the PEP hearings to try to get Upper West to become one of the schools. I remember hearing stories that people thought that charter schools should remain in Harlem and neighborhoods like Harlem and the South Bronx, and that there was no place or need for them on the Upper West Side. They were not wanted by parents here. That's what I saw most of the opposition to.
As far as overcoming it, I think we've overcome it just by our success in our existence. Parents fought to open the school every single day, right up to the last minute. I think it was, what, nine days ...
Courtenay Harry: Something like that.
Jennifer: Before the school opened we were still undergoing the lawsuits, but parents made their voices heard. They wanted this school. They wanted an excellent education for their children. Since then, we've just been able to prove through our excellent results, through the happy children that attend this school, that just because you live on the Upper West Side doesn't mean that a charter school is not a great option for you.
Courtenay: Yeah, this brings back a lot of memories. It was so scary, mainly because I had a kindergartner at the time and having no idea where I was going to send my child. Then knowing that this was one option, and there was a lawsuit against the school and it might not open. I didn't know what a charter school was. I didn't know being a charter parent was going to involve all of these scary PEP hearings and lawsuits and all this arguing.
Emily: The PEP hearing was about the space utilization?
Courtenay: Yeah, the space. It's Manhattan. We're all packed in here. I didn't understand why it was such a big deal to find space for a public school. We've come so far since then and people just realizing it's really about the education. Put us where you need to put us, but we're here as one choice, just like there's a lot of great schools in this neighborhood. It's just different choices.
Jennifer: I think, yeah, your point that a lot of the opposition was because charter schools are seen as a fix to failing public schools, that they come into neighborhoods where parents don't have options. They're forced to send their children to schools that are underperforming. That's not necessarily the case here. Some of the best public schools in the city are here on the Upper West Side. People were confused why a charter school would want to come into that neighborhood where seemingly everyone had options, although you're still zoned for one school. Not all of the schools on the Upper West Side are created equally.
Courtenay: This space could have been used for a different public school coming in, right? I think that was a lot of the opposition from a parent perspective, is a charter could come into this space or another middle school could come in, or who is going to get that space. When there are so many kids sitting on waiting lists for really good schools in the neighborhood, it made sense that we've got to go somewhere, so let's make that an elementary school. Then the elementary school that's going to go in needs to be a best-in-class of what we know right now. It was easy for a charter to take that role.
Emily: Can you talk about your decision-making process? Your daughter was in the founding class, so now she's a fourth grader?
Courtenay: She's a fourth grader.
Emily: How long have you lived in the neighborhood? What was your process of deciding on schools?
Courtenay: So many memories. Yeah, I'd been on the Upper West Side for 15 years by that point. What every parent goes through when your child is in pre-K, in nursery school, is the public school application process. It's not as simple as going down to your neighboring public school and signing up. For me, I did that, and I was waitlisted, just a block away. That was devastating…
Emily: What school were you waitlisted at?
Courtenay: P.S. 199. Fantastic school. Nothing bad to say about that school. A lot of my friends go there.
Emily: A lot of waitlists at that school.
Courtenay: A lot of waitlists, and it's only getting worse. More and more parents have approached me over the last year. Last year was a rough year for them in terms of space. We need great schools in the neighborhood. I don't think anyone's going to argue about that.
Emily: It was April. You realized, "I'm on the waitlist."
Courtenay: I had to register her at a school that was not going to work for her. It was that moment when I was touring the school and asking questions, and I realized that there's no way my child was going to go here. This was just not fair. It wasn't fair.
Emily: Because of the class size, or academics?
Courtenay: No, not really class size. More like, "What is your vision as a leader? Where is your school going to go? Are you going to be a partner with me in my child's education? How is our communication going to work? What are your priorities? Are those my priorities?" A lot of parents, yeah, it's the class size that's important. I get all these questions, because I'm the president of the Parent Council, so I have a lot of questions about people who are here now. As they came in, I was getting questions. Then just in the neighborhood, as people are figuring out if they should come here.
When I decided that the school that my child was going to go to ... in order to stay in the DOE system, I had to register her. It was not going to work. I'm walking down the street one day. Another parent friend of mine from nursery school sees I'm pretty devastated, because how in the world ... I'm pretty smart. How did I get into this situation? I did everything a parent was supposed to do. I researched all the schools. I did the G&T. I took all the tours. I've got my spreadsheet, everything. How did this happen?
She said, "Look, there's this new school opening up the street. It's a charter school. It's going to be fantastic. Throw your name in." I was like, "I cannot fill out one more piece of paper." "It's online. You don't need to write. I say just do it." I'm like, "Great." I did, and it was the last day. The lottery closed that day. She got waitlisted. Then again, I'm stuck not knowing what I'm going to do. Then she got into Upper West. I got the call. I'm like, "Let's try it." She went for a few weeks. Then she got off the waitlist at 199, and I had to make a decision what I was going to do. She'd already been here for a while.
Courtenay: They start in August.
Jennifer: We start in middle of August.
Courtenay: She'd already been here for a few weeks. I was expecting to sit down with the principal at Upper West and be told, "Figure it out." Instead, they said, "You know what? Your daughter, we can see she's a really strong reader already. She's doing ... " They gave me this whole summary of just where they saw her going. Of course, you have 24 hours whether or not you want to take the seat or not.
It was a tough decision, because when you put your child into a school, it's a relationship. This is a serious decision. I struggled, because I knew 199 was proven. I knew this was a risk, but I could see the progress that was going to take place. That, to me, was very interesting. I wrote a note to give my seat to another child at 199, and I was going to take a risk, because I felt that the progress would be there. It worked. Even in the last four years of the school, it's remarkable.
Emily: At the time, did you know that you would become such a strong parent advocate? You mentioned that you had no idea what was involved in being a charter parent.
Courtenay: No way. I did not sign up for this. I will tell you, if I had known what it was to be a charter parent, I'm not sure I would have taken on all of this. What has kept me engaged is when I keep seeing things that just aren't right. You know when your gut just tells you, "This is just not OK. This is not OK. Parents need to maintain their curiosity." We teach our kids to be so curious, so curious. I'm shocked at how many parents don't ask the questions they need to at other schools. "Oh, they're fine." Are they really fine, or is someone just telling you they're fine?
Emily: This is at other public schools in the neighborhood?
Courtenay: Yeah. Look, again, great schools. I cannot stand the pitting-against-each-other thing. Drives me nuts. We're all friends at the grocery store. We're all friends at the playground. We're all friends in our community centers. We all get along just fine parent to parent. We're not pitting our schools against each other. We talk a lot about best practices across schools and how we could create this dream public school.
Emily: Did this divide you, people that chose 199? Do you have to have tough conversations ...
Courtenay: It divided because we were told to divide. You have the blue backpacks, and you get the pebbles thrown at you on the playground. People come up to you and tell you you're awful. You sit down with them, and you say, "Tell me why. Let's talk about it." Then they realize, "Oh, man. Maybe I don't have all the facts." Then everything's fine. We don't do a good enough job, I don't think. As parents, we do it individually. I don't think we're doing a good enough job of just humanizing ourselves as another choice. Our voices aren't as loud. We're fewer, so we have to be louder. What we do person to person to just say, "This is just one choice. This is not the be-all end-all. This is one choice, and we're all working to make things better," those conversations need to be happening more and more, because we just don't have the bandwidth to be so loud.
Emily: Do you think charter parents are maybe afraid sometimes of the blowback they're going to get and the ...
Courtenay: Yeah. It's adults acting like children, like screaming. Come on. It's intimidating. It's intimidating to be a charter parent, because you're outnumbered. You've been told you've done something wrong. I haven't done anything wrong.
Emily: It seems like the dialog is mainly happening when there's a big decision to be made about space?
Courtenay: We're all in this together. Our kids, if we're doing a good job as parents, our kids will stay in New York. The funny thing is, a lot of people are staying here for the schools. Who would have thought we've gotten to the point on the Upper West Side people are staying for the elementary schools? That's why you see all these numbers up. It's great. We want to give our kids the best education we can. If they're staying here, then we've done a good job. We just have to stay on it to make sure that that progress continues.
Emily: Let's talk about how the school has changed from year one to now. I know you weren't here. When did you start, Principal Haynes?
Jennifer: This is my first year as principal of this school, but I was here last year as the leadership resident, which is essentially an assistant principal role, so in residency under our founding principal, Carolyn Roby, who I think ...
Emily: I met, yes.
Jennifer: ... you spoke with last year, yeah.
Emily: In your time here, how have things shifted?
Jennifer: I am forever indebted to Cary for leaving me just an outstanding school, where I think we have fantastic teachers who care more than anyone I've ever met about children, and their academic success, and their emotional well-being. Where the culture of the school really does exemplify the Success idea of joyful rigor, that our curriculum is incredibly rigorous, but at the same time, the kids love what they are learning about. We have PBL in every single grade. It's project-based learning. They get a chance to do an in-depth study on a certain topic.
It's just a place where the kids run up to the building in the morning, because they're so excited to get to school at 7:30. There was a girl the other day who wasn't feeling very well, one of the fourth graders. Her mom told her, she emailed the main office, said she wouldn't be making it in. She woke up at 7:15, put on her uniform, and told her mom, "No, I feel fine. I want to go to school."
I think that's really the legacy that Cary left behind that I feel very fortunate to have taken over, is a school where kids want to be here. They want to learn. They like getting feedback from their teachers, because they want to get better at it. I think that's something that has been a part of this school since its beginnings. I don't think that that has been any change. Hopefully, we've gotten, as Courtenay said, better at it as years have gone on, and making it more and more joyful for the kids.
Emily: You started with Teach For America. Why did you choose the charter school system over public schools, and what do you think are some of the advantages to charter or disadvantages?
Jennifer: I was assigned to work at a traditional public school in the DOE in the Bronx. It was considered to be one of the better schools in the Bronx. It was an early-education school. I worked very hard. I had a lot of success with the kids in my class. After three years there, it came time for cutbacks, and they had to ask some teachers to leave. I was told that I may or may not have a job next year going into the summer, despite the fact that I was a very hard-working teacher, had done nothing wrong. There were perhaps other people who weren't as hard-working or didn't believe as much in children but had just been there for longer. That upset me, knowing that my hard work, my dedication to the children and the job, meant nothing. All that matters is the number of days that I had been in service there.
That summer, knowing that I may or may not have a job when I came back in September, I decided to research other schools and see if I could find a place where teachers got all the professional development that they needed, where everyone believed that every child can succeed and reach their potential. That's when I found Success, looking for a successful school. I just had to Google one word.
Emily: You decided not to go the private school option?
Jennifer: I certainly was never going to work in a private school. I joined Teach For America because I believe in the mission of Teach For America, which is that one day, all children will have access to an excellent education. It was actually tough for me to come here to the Upper West Side, given that my roots were in the Bronx. Similar to how Success Academy started in Harlem and the Bronx, and that was what people thought charter schools should be, I thought of myself as a, "No. I am an urban public school teacher in underperforming neighborhoods. That's why I got into education, to help kids who are underserved."
I think one of the things that's great about this school is that we still very much have that population of students. Because of the neighborhood that we're in, we truly have a diverse student body, socioeconomically, racially, religiously, in every way possible, which I think ... There's been studies that that is what is best for children. Segregation, pretty sure we fought against that in Brown versus Board of Education. Yet we find ourselves in a situation where our public schools are probably more segregated than ever.
I think that our children have such a unique opportunity here to go to school where a child who lives in public housing is best friends and reading partners with someone whose dad runs a hedge fund. That doesn't happen anywhere in this country. I think while I was at first somewhat hesitant to come work here ... it made me nervous, I didn't think that I was going to like the Upper West Side ... I can't imagine a better education for any child than to be ...
Emily: How do you end up with that socioeconomic and racial diversity? The lottery system, you're not looking at how much someone makes or their test scores, because they're coming in in kindergarten.
Jennifer: Totally random.
Emily: It's just totally random.
Jennifer: The district is large. District 3 is large.
Emily: You're getting applications from the Bronx, Brooklyn, all over?
Jennifer: Yep, we get applications from all over. You get preferenced if you live in District 3, but even within District 3, there's a certain level of socioeconomic diversity.
Emily: Are there disadvantages to not being in the public system?
Jennifer: I don't see them as disadvantages. Our school year is longer. Our school day is longer. We see that as benefiting the children. Our teachers are here because they want to do whatever is best for children. It's funny, because the day starts at 7:15 and ends at 4:30, 4:00 for kindergarten, but there are times when the teachers wish that we could extend the day even longer, because they couldn't get everything done that they wanted to get done, or extend the year even longer, because we didn't yet master fractions in third grade, and how can we possibly send them onto fourth grade without mastering fractions.
I think what some people might see as the disadvantages in that it might be harder work, because there's no job security, there's no tenure, the days are longer, the years are longer, we see as opportunity to give kids what they need. Because our curriculum is so rigorous and makes the kids curious and intrigued, you don't have to fight against disinterested kids, because the curriculum is so engaging. We develop our teachers in a way to teach them how to be engaging as instructors, that it makes their job so much easier, even though they're here for so much longer.
Emily: One of the hot-button issues that always comes up is co-location. When I talked to Principal Roby a few years ago, she said, "The co-location is going really well here, and it's not really an issue." Courtenay, how do you talk to parents about co-location? Then Principal Haynes, how do you think it's going? I don't know if you want to take a stab first.
Courtenay: I used to get that question from a lot of parents in the neighborhood more in the beginning. Now I think word has spread that it's OK. People were just nervous about an elementary school and a high school, are there separate entrances, which there are. We arrive before the high schoolers get here, and we dismiss after they leave. I think more of it was a safety concern. Just from a parent, it's a natural instinct. That works really well.
I will say they do a fantastic job of making sure that the space is laid out in a way where everybody benefits. Our kids go in through a different door. Then there are co-located spaces. What I'll tell parents is it's, hey, we're all neighbors here. We all get along. It's just like any other situation where if you're kind to people you're sharing your space with, whether it's your co-op or it's Manhattan, then things will work out. Space is what it is. There's, what, 60 percent of schools in Manhattan are co-located.
Emily: Yeah. I think some parents argue, "What if the high schools wanted to expand? Now they don't have that option." There's four other high schools in the building. Do you talk to the principals of those schools about their goals and your goals, and how they align?
Jennifer: We're somewhat restricted by the building utilization plan, which tells us how much space each school is allocated. I'm not certain that there's any wiggle room within that. That's not really my ...
Emily: That was decided on back in 2011, when you first moved in. There's not much argument about that?
Jennifer: No. I find our relationship to be much like roommates in that, every once in a while, both of you need to wake up in the morning and shower before work. You just have to negotiate who's going to shower first. "You take showers quicker, so why don't you go first?" It's very similar that maybe we are assigned to the recess yard for a certain time of the day, but if their school wants to use it, we can rearrange our schedule. We have this wonderful courtyard in the center of our school. The only access point is in the second floor. They like to have graduation barbecues out there or certain ceremonial events for their school. We are always accommodating of that, because there's no need for animosity. If you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. We can continue to work together quite harmoniously.
Emily: Let's talk about the interest in the school locally. You had close to 3,000 applications for 100 kindergarten seats this year. According to your data, more than 600 of those 3,000 came from District 3 parents, our local district, and a third of incoming kindergartners applied to Success Academy. Then breaking it down even further, more than a third of those applications came from district parents who are zoned to some of the best, most popular schools in the district, like P.S. 199 and P.S. 87.
Why do you think that is, that parents who are zoned to these schools with such glowing reputations and that people actually move to certain blocks in order to get into those schools are applying here? Do you think that they're also throwing their hat in the ring, and it's one more application, and they'll see what happens? Are they choosing this school over their public school?
Courtenay: I think there is part of the process. You look at all of your options, just like I did. Charter school was one option. Let's see what happens. You do all your research. Then at the end of the day, it comes down to you have to align what's best for your family and your child and that school. There's no right or wrong answer, but this does need to be in the consideration step, because what I'm finding that is a little bit different in our parent community is there is such a dedication to just education as a priority.
If we think about, as parents, everything we want to give our child, we've all come to the conclusion, based on a variety of reasons, because it is such a diverse population, that education is most important. There is that mindset here. I think parents need that option as a mindset. It's very important that if you want to put your time and energy into parenting education, that you have a school that is right there. From day one, it's going to set that as a priority for your child, just like you're going to do at home.
Jennifer: I like to think that, via word of mouth, people have heard of the rigor of our school. I think one of the complaints that Courtenay alluded to earlier of many public schools is that if your child ... I almost called them "scholar," because that's what we call our kids. If your child is doing OK, they're not of serious concern, you don't hear much from your school, and you don't get much feedback on your child's performance. We are not that way.
We like to say that we abhor boredom here. If we see a child who is bored in their grade. Courtenay mentioned she was part of the founding class. She said her daughter was in kindergarten when she started, and yet she's in fourth grade now, because she skipped a grade, because she was so academically advanced ahead of the curriculum that we, that Cary ... I shouldn't say "we," but that Cary and Courtenay decided that Sasha should skip a grade. Now she finds herself at the top of her fourth-grade class, because that's how academically advanced she was, that she could not just be the top of her own class but of the next class.
We have the freedom and the ability to think more flexibly about kids' ability levels and move them in real time, if we think that they can be challenged further. We also have an incredibly rigorous curriculum. We don't teach to the middle. We don't teach to where most kids are. We aim and shoot really high and expect that kids will rise to the occasion. We believe that kids are far more resilient than people give them credit for. If you challenge them, they accept the challenge. They exceed expectations.
I think for me, that would be one of the reasons why I would choose our school over even my ... I grew up in Southern California and went to a fantastic public school in the suburbs of Orange County. I can tell you that the kids in this school are getting a far better education and will be far more academically advanced than I was, even though I was in the gifted and talented classes when I was in school. What we're doing with them is far and above beyond that.
Courtenay: A lot of parents in the neighborhood, that seems to be what ... If they're close as to which school they're going to go to, they're really curious to learn more about the communication piece, because that's not something that every school does. It just sets up that partnership and that relationship where it takes that wall down. I'm finding there are so many walls between teachers and parents, and I don't know why that happens. I'm a little spoiled here, because it's not like that. We got to stop. We're all in this together.
Emily: Could you text or email the teacher?
Jennifer: I was going to say, I think something parents find odd when they first come here is one of the first questions is, "When are parent-teacher conferences?" We actually don't have predetermined dates for parent-teacher conferences, because we have an open-door policy. If you want a meeting with your teacher, you make a meeting with your teacher. If your child is struggling academically, you will hear from your teacher after every assessment. If your child is performing at an incredibly high level, you will get positive phone calls from your teacher letting you know that your child got 100 percent on a test.
They have business cards. They give their cell phone numbers to parents. They have email addresses for their parents to contact them. They're in constant communication with parents at all times. There's no limitations, whereas in some schools, it's one date in November and one date in April. That's when you meet with the teacher, and that's when you find out how they're doing.
Emily: Some public schools have that open-door philosophy, and some don't. You have 3,000 applications for 100 spots, and 600 of them are from this district. Will those 600 get preference? Will every kid be from District 3 in the next class?
Jennifer: Sounds like that would be the case, yeah.
Emily: You'll have a pretty long waitlist. That has been the trend for the past few years?
Emily: Do you think that you will expand? Right now, it sounds like it's just going to stay a K through 4 school. Is that correct?
Courtenay: In this building, yeah.
Jennifer: Oh, in this building. Yeah. We're opening our fifth grade next year in a different space, in actually the building that's co-located with our Hell's Kitchen location.
Emily: You won't expand any kindergarten classes, even though there's such demand?
Jennifer: We can't.
Courtenay: Where do we put them?
Jennifer: We don't have the space.
Emily: I asked whether, given the apparent demand, Success Academy would open another elementary school in District 3. Ann Powell, senior managing director of public affairs, who was also present, jumped in to answer.
Ann: Our charter was approved for that, but there's no space current ... The DOE has not found space for us. That's the question. We have been approved for a [new] charter.
Emily: That could be a couple years along?
Ann: Certainly not this coming fall, but it could be the following.
Courtenay: Everyone who has proven the model, regardless of the school, needs to be able to have an opportunity to service more kids.
Emily: It sounds like your daughter was an accelerated learner. What about kids that have special needs? Do they have a place here? I know that is a criticism, that Success Academies don't have room for special needs kids, and they counsel them out.
Jennifer: In every single grade, we have at least one ICT class, which is integrative collaborative team teaching. That's where there's a general ed teacher and a special ed teacher together. Forty percent of the class has an IEP, which is an individualized education plan mandating special ed services, and then 60 percent of the class is gen ed. We also have a special education support services teacher, who does pull-out groups with kids across the grade. We have speech providers and OT providers. We certainly service all kids' needs. Again, because of space restrictions, there are certain populations that we cannot reach to. We don't have room in this school for a smaller classroom setting, although we certainly have kids who we would love to provide that option for. It's just space continues to be the restriction.
Courtenay: Yeah. We hear it all the time. I don't know where people are getting this information. It's very interesting. Come hang out here for a while.
Jennifer: I think, again, we said we don't pitch to the middle. We also don't pitch low for our special ed kids, which ... We had a girl come into our school this year who came from a traditional public school. I'm not entirely sure where she came, but the promotional criteria on her IEP, which is basically what she ... They changed the standards for her, how much of the curriculum she needed to master to be able to be promoted to the next grade. It was 12 percent. She needed to master 12 percent of the ELA standards and 12 percent of the math standards.
We just gave a practice math test this week, and she got a Performance Level 3. She had an 85 percent on the math test. If we had been pitching to have her only master 12 percent, we would have succeeded. She would have mastered 12 percent. We were pitching for 100 percent, and look where that got us. I think actually many families who have children with individualized education plans choose our schools because we don't limit their children in ways that other schools do. We don't see it as an inability. It's simply a disability that requires different services or different routes to the same end.
Emily: I know one of the missions of the charter system is to take what's going well here as an experiment, a laboratory, and teach it to other schools. What would those things be that you would share with other public schools? Are you meeting with other principals? How's that dialogue going?
Jennifer: As far as best practices that I think we would share, I think we are very data driven in a very meaningful way. We don't view assessments as just an end point, but really that we make our assessments rather rigorous so we can then see what kids know, what they don't know, to adjust our curriculum accordingly. The longer school day certainly is an advantage, as is the longer school year. We know that we have a lot of ground to make up with a lot of kids. Having them in school for more time both allows us to help make up ground with kids who are further behind as well as academically push our highest fliers further on.
I know that in the Department of Education, teachers are given an extra prep every week for professional development. That often isn't the best-utilized time, or sometimes it's taken away because a prep teacher might not be there that day, so there's no one to take your class to art. We have a dedicated time every Wednesday. Our kids leave at 12:30, which some parents may not find super accommodating ...
Courtenay: It's not convenient. It's not convenient.
Jennifer: It's not convenient, but then our teachers have four hours every Wednesday for development. We also have an open-door policy not just for parents but with leaders. I can go in my teachers' classrooms any time I want, observe them on any lesson, give them feedback in real time, and expect that they do it that day. I'm going to come back in your classroom during math, and I expect that what I told you in ELA will be applied here, because we are working in the best interest of children. It's about the adults in that it starts with the adults. The adults have to be incredibly professional and incredibly well prepared, but it is because everything we do is for the kids. They want the feedback. If they could have me sitting in their classrooms all day coaching them on how to be better, I could clone myself, and they'd all be happy.
Emily: Do you get any time to talk to P.S. 9 across the street or any of the other schools?
Jennifer: I am certain that I could use my Wednesdays for that type of professional development. I, in my first year as principal, have not taken that on as a cause yet. I know Courtenay has been pushing me to do so, so it's something that we will look into.
Should charter schools and public schools share space? How can they better co-exist? What's your experience with local public schools and charter schools? Let us know in the comments below, on Neighborhood Square and on our Facebook page.
For more Upper West Side podcasts, listen here: