Why Success Academy is making remote learning work as regular schools flail

In the summer of 2013, after New York adopted more rigorous standards, test scores plummeted around the state. Fewer than one in three students in New York City district schools scored proficient in math. Yet students enrolled in the Success Academy charter-school network stunned the education establishment with their performance: More than 80 percent achieved proficiency in math.

Now, amid the pandemic-driven national experiment in compulsory homeschooling and online learning, Success Academy and its chief, Eva Moskowitz, appear poised to shock the system again — offering both ­inspiration and rebuke.

Two months into the state lockdown, the network of 45 New York City schools serving 18,000 students is close to replicating itself remotely, with full days of instruction, professional development and planning meeti­ngs for staff. Principals are ­observing teachers giving online lessons.

In a matter of weeks, SA has converted itself into a functional digital school, eliminating none of its ambitious regimen of academics, internal assessments and progress monitoring — even as New York, like every state, has abandoned standardized testing for the year.

Only 44 percent of US school districts are providing instruction online and monitoring students’ attendance and progress, according to the Center on ­Reinventing Public Education. Most US districts have adopted pass/fail grading for what’s left of the school year.

Moskowitz will have none of it. “We don’t think it’s fair for kids who have to be prepared for the next grade to just dispense with grades,” she said last week. SA is pressing ahead, with average daily attendance holding steady at 97 percent among a predominantly low-income, ­minority student body.

Never one to be paralyzed by indecision, Moskowitz decided on March 12 to close her schools and announced that decision to Success families the following day. At the time, Mayor de Blasio was still insisting that DOE schools should remain open.

“This is a time for simplicity and being careful not to throw in too many bells and whistles,” Moskowitz advised in the early days of remote learning. Elementary staff, she said, would ­focus on “inspiring and engaging” students. Teachers were initially instructed to call students twice a day to check in and discuss reading assignments and math problems that they would complete independently or with parental supervision.

Two months later, even the youngest SA “scholars” spend a full day of online instruction in all subjects, including small-group math and “guided reading” with their teachers.

“You hit a routine with the younger kids and then they add another layer,” notes Erica Woolway, who works with school districts and charter-management organizations nationwide as an education consultant. Her three children, in first, third and sixth grades at Success Academy, follow a schedule from 9 a.m. through 3 p.m. daily. As we spoke, her middle son participated in a network-run soccer practice with his coach via Zoom.

Success Academy is reaping the harvest of the habits, expectations and culture that Moskowitz has carefully built for more than a decade. Its admissions process and academic model demand deep parental commitment. SA has long required parents to read nightly with their children, ­update reading logs, check homework, drill sight words and math facts and maintain frequent contact with teachers.

Thus, SA entered the crisis better positioned than most. Every student from the fourth grade onward already had a school-issued Chromebook. When it ­became clear in-person schooling wouldn’t resume anytime soon, SA acquired and distributed more than 10,000 Chromebook tablets to students in kindergarten through third grade. By May, ­every student had one. Digital communications ­between home and school has long been a standard feature of life at SA.

The contrast with the experience of most US students couldn’t be more stark. “Kids in the majority of districts . . . have little or no chance of finishing their current grade and being ready for the next grade in the fall,” observes CRPE’s Paul Hill.

Reliable data to compare SA’s performance to that of district and competing charter schools won’t be available for some time. But it should surprise no one if, when the dust clears, Success Academy students once again defy the odds.

Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and author of “How the Other Half Learns.” This column was adapted from City Journal.

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