Enrollment Data And Department of Education Investigations Bolster Claims Against Success Academy

CREDIT: Mike Groll, AP

Charter school advocates rally outside the state Capitol on Wednesday, March 4, 2015, in Albany, N.Y.

The enrollment patterns for an controversial charter school network bolster accusations that it may be encouraging students with disabilities to drop out in order to maintain its impressive academic achievement record, an analysis by the Guardian shows.

A group of parents recently filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights against Success Academy, a charter school network based in New York City, alleging discrimination against students with disabilities.

The Guardian compared the charter school network to traditional public schools in high-poverty neighborhoods and found that Success Academy shed 10 percent of its enrollment between grade levels — while only 2.7 percent of enrollment among public schools in physical proximity to the charter schools was lost from grade to grade.

There could be three possibilities for that difference, as Richard Kahlenburg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who focuses on education policy, explained to the Guardian. Success Academy could be “counseling out weaker students,” not replacing students after they leave, or both. Some of the changes may also be due to the fact that up until last year, the charter school network didn’t accept new students after the third grade, a researcher from Success Academy countered.

But another interesting finding from the analysis is that despite the schools being located in areas populated by low-income families, there were significant gaps between the populations of students with disabilities, poor students, and students with limited English proficiency in the areas it serves versus the later grade levels in the schools themselves. For example, while schools in those areas had 27.6 percent students with disabilities, Success Academy only served 2.4 percent students with disabilities.

None of this is surprising given previous investigations into Success Academy. A New York Times investigation into Success Academy reported on the story of a mother who said her daughter’s name was on a list of students with the header “Got to Go.”

The Times also spoke with current and former employees of Success Academy who said that administrators and staff members would explicitly discuss ways to encourage parents to withdraw their children, such as making suspensions and asking for many meetings with parents. PBS NewsHour, meanwhile, reported that 44 students in a group of 203 first-graders and kindergarteners received suspensions at Success Academy.

Adding fuel to recent criticism, the Times released a video of a Success Academy teacher berating a first grader and ripping up her paper, then telling her to sit further away from her classmates. The students were quiet and composed and as the student walked away. The video, released by an assistant teacher after she left Success Academy, featured what’s known as a “model teacher,” which means she was responsible for training other teachers at the school. She was suspended while the incident was investigated and later returned to work, the Times reported.

Eva Moskowitz, the leader of the charter school network, has dismissed claims that this incident reflects typical behavior for her teachers, but then appeared to defend the teacher in a press conference earlier this month.

“I’m tired of apologizing … Frustration is a human emotion. When you care about your students so much … and you want them to go to college and graduate, it can be frustrating,” Moskowitz said, according to Chalkbeat New York.

She also released a series of tweets defending the teacher in the video.

In addition to its analysis of enrollment data, the Guardian also obtained documents that show the federal civil rights office began investigating the charter school network even before the parents’ complaint was filed.

The department has opened three investigations into Success Academy over the past couple years — two regarding disability discrimination involving student discipline and appropriate education, and a third addressing racial discrimination for issues of student discipline, an Education Department spokesperson confirmed to ThinkProgress.