Controversy Surrounding Success Academies & Charters
Recently, I was asked to review a book called Mission Possible, about the Success Academies in Harlem and surrounding neighborhoods. Honestly, I didn’t know much about Success Academies, but I had heard quite a bit about the charter vs. public school debate in the news in recent years. Quite possibly, Success Academy was at the focus of those arguments at the time.
The interesting thing about this book is that there are several controversies surrounding it and the Success Academies founded by Mission Possible author, Eva Moskowitz. First off, there’s the concern that wealthy white individuals are coming into communities of poverty to ‘save’ children of color. As Karl Willingham, a Success Academy parent, states in the 2010 documentary The Lottery [31:28], “The perception about charter schools is that it is this wave of well-to-do people coming into disenfranchised communities and changing the schools,” he added, “and that’s just not the reality.” Willingham shares some very powerful words in the video and is just one advocate for Success Academies who believes in their mission.
I think in the case of Success Academies, what concerns most parents is the presence of an overwhelming number of white faces, more often white women, in positions of authority over predominantly brown schools. I wonder about what this teaches our children about the “color of success”. I’m sure I am not alone in saying that it does conjure up images of the missionary schools that founded this country’s educational system. I also wonder how it is that parents of color will advocate for their children in a school where most of those in authority don’t look like them or share their concerns. I’m sure these thoughts were on the minds of many parents during the controversial groundbreaking of Success Academy Harlem 2. I haven’t researched the current demographics of classrooms at Success Academies, so I can’t say if this is the case, but it has been a concern for many and every parent should have the right to be concerned about it and to confront it in an open forum, like the one shown in the documentary covering the Success Academy controversy, The Lottery.
As a white woman navigating communities of color, I understand the frustration of being suspected as a threat or having my motives questioned like the authors and founders of Success Academy, however I will also admit that I also have suspicions of those in middle and upper-class white communities myself, because many times, our perspectives and concerns as parents may not intersect. My point being, this suspicion is a reaction to a system that has historically dis-empowered people of color and favored white communities…one that warrants some caution. It’s a system that needs to change and maybe schools like this are the answer, because they are creating leaders in undeserved communities where future leaders could have the biggest impact.
Check out this brief video for an inside look into the book and be sure to watch The Lottery for details about the controversy.
NY1 Online: Charter Schools Chief Discusses Success
Book Review – ‘Mission Possible: How the Secrets of the Success Academies Can Work in Any School’
All that said, after reading the book, I have a lot of thoughts to share, but I want to start off by saying that I think there are some excellent insights here. This book can definitely benefit those who want to understand what actions we could take to change the future of our education system, since there are several interesting ideas provided.
In Mission Possible, a direct and fairly specific answer is given to a complicated problem, “How can we improve our childrens’ education?”
I think Mission Possible does an excellent job of explaining what works and why. The only thing I might have asked for would be research data to back up their claims. If nothing else, we can look at their achievement records for validation of their efforts though, which according to the book, are better than most public schools.
I was educated in public schools myself, and I can agree…the bar isn’t set very high. When I got to college, I felt completely unprepared and my college professors actually had to instruct me on how to write a college level paper. I was also clueless about the academic language and college-level expectations. It took me several semesters in college before I was able to write a quality paper. Something I now believe that I should have learned in high school. Regardless, sticking it out and learning the ins and outs of college academics helped me to come out of that experience a much stronger person and gave me new ways to express myself in both conversations and writing.
Back to the review…
Throughout the book, you do get a sense that the authors want to pass their knowledge onto the next generation of educators, but you’re also aware that the book seems to be written equally as a defense of charter schools and Success Academy. While reading, it often feels as though you are sifting through a piece of promotional material meant to “sell” you on charters, and I think that in general the book does a good job of accomplishing this. It’s made me want to learn more about charter schools.
Authors Eva Moskowitz and Arin Lavinia don’t tiptoe around the issues either. They mention the above controversies in their book and they also sound off on their advocacy for “social justice” in education. You can definitely feel an urgency in the writing and many times over, they let you know how crucial and important this mission is for the future of U.S. education and economic security. I wholeheartedly agree…this discussion is extremely important and key to our nation’s future growth, since we’re not competing in a global economy. Whether or not we agree with their methods, we should all be able to agree that something needs to change.
Without debating the intentions of Mission Possible though, I felt that there were some very interesting thoughts shared on these pages. The book actually gives a fairly intricate description of the methods used to educate students (and teachers) at Success Academies and many of them have potential to truly impact lifelong success in the lives of children. I sincerely wish that the majority of these methods could be applied more often in our public school system.
I won’t give away too much, but I will share a few of the factors that contribute to Success Academy scholars achievement:
- High expectations and rigorous learning for students
- Career-long mentorship for teachers
- High parent engagement
- Focus on math, science and critical thinking
- Helping students to visualize themselves in a college setting
Just look at the Mission Possible chapter titles for a sample of topics:
- WHY? What’s Wrong with American Schools?
- HOW? Making School a Magical Place
- WHO? It’s All About the Adults
- FAST: Putting Adults and Children on the Fast Track
- RIGOR: Raising the Bar for Everybody
- READING: The Starting Point for All Else
- WRITING: Putting Ideas into the World with Elegance
- CALL TO ACTION: How to Make Every School a Success Academy
These statements sum up the overall focus of the book, which primarily addresses the factors that affect student achievement, rather than blaming students for poor test scores and low achievement. This means focusing on educators, classroom environments, teaching styles, etc. first. Educators work to create the most interactive and beneficial environment in their classrooms, rather than hold students accountable for the nationwide achievement gaps. Which, as they mention in the book, affects communities across the nation. Even by international standards, we rank poorly as a nation in math and science when compared to other first world countries.
“In a world where prosperity is almost entirely driven by brains, not brawn, we are losing the education race.” ~ Mission Possible
I remember back in the day, you used to hear teachers say things like, “If our students aren’t learning, we must be doing something wrong.” This should be our first assumption. Why should we continue using methods that fail to produce the desired results? If our kids aren’t learning, we have to take responsibility for that.
If you’re an educator looking for a fresh approach and a starting point for achievement standards in your classroom, this is definitely an interesting read that I would absolutely recommend it to kick start the discussion. See page 146 in Mission Possible for a round-up of their tips for making every school a ‘Success Academy’.
For parents who want to understand what a rigorous, high achievement environment looks and feels like, this is a great introduction. Purchasing the book also includes a DVD of exclusive video clips of the inside of classrooms at Success Academies and interactions between teachers and students. This is helpful if you’re considering Success Academies or similar charters for your children.
This sponsored post is part of a campaign presented by ReadMissionPossible.
GIVEAWAY – WIN ‘MISSION POSSIBLE’
To find out for yourself what you think of the book and also to learn more about the academic pillars of Success Academies, enter our giveaway below for a chance to win your own copy.
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