Q and A

Former Success Academy lawyer hoping to start own charter network wants to ‘take it to the next level’

As the former top lawyer for Success Academy, Emily Kim had a hand in almost every aspect of New York City’s largest and most controversial charter-school network — from negotiating lunch times for schools in shared buildings to defending Success in court.

After spending six years with Success, Kim is setting off to launch her own charter network with locations in Manhattan’s District 6, which includes Inwood and Washington Heights, and the Bronx’s District 12, which includes the south and central Bronx. Called Zeta Charter Schools, she hopes to open in 2018.

PHOTO: Photo courtesy of Emily Kim
Emily Kim

Kim is still a big believer in Success — two of her children go there, and she praised its lightening-rod leader, Eva Moskowitz, as “brilliant” — but she thinks she has something different to offer.

“I chose the best schools possible for my own children,” she said during a recent interview with Chalkbeat near her home on the Upper West Side, “but I’m still going to innovate and take it to the next level.”

The school’s co-founders — Jessica Stein and Meghan Mackay — also have ties to Success, as do several board members listed in the school’s charter application. (One of the board members, Jenny Sedlis, is a Success co-founder and director of the pro-charter advocacy group, StudentsFirstNY.)

But Kim’s vision also seems tailored to avoid some of the usual critiques of charter schools, including that they rely on harsh discipline policies. By contrast, her plan for Zeta calls for limiting the use of suspensions. She also wants her schools to be diverse, though she admits that will be difficult in residentially segregated areas like the Bronx.

A mother of three, Kim has taught in classrooms in New York City, Long Island and even West Africa. She worked on special education issues in Philadelphia district schools before heading to law school at Temple and Columbia. While working as a corporate litigator, she took on a case pro-bono for Success — and was soon offered a job as the network’s first general counsel.

Below are edited highlights from our interview with Kim earlier this month where she described how her experience as an Asian-American growing up in Iowa shaped her views on school segregation, why she believes high-stakes tests are important, and what role she sees for charter schools like hers.

Kim talked about sending her son to Success:

My child was 4 years old when all of this kind of unfolded. The first school I visited was Eva’s school, Harlem 4.

… I was so astounded by what I saw — which is the energy of the teachers. Just the level of dedication, commitment, the joy and energy of their teachers — I was blown away.

Then Eva gave a talk at the end. She was clearly a hard-driving, almost in a sense, from my perspective then, a business person. So I thought, “That’s the type of person who should be running schools.”

What’s your role going to be as you launch your own charter schools?

I’ll be the CEO. I want to take all of the great things that I saw at Success and at other schools and — like in any other enterprise — I want to take the best of the best, and I want to implement it.

And then I want to work on implementing some of the ideas that I have as well.

What’s your goal for your schools?

The number one goal is to just create additional education opportunities. As a parent, I feel this very strongly: No parent should have to send their child to a school that is not a good school.

… Our schools are going to prepare kids for the tests, and the reason is that tests are access to power. And whether you like it or not, if you want to go to college — to a good college — if you want to go to law school like I did, you take the SATs. You take the LSAT. You have to do a good job.

How are you going to measure your schools’ success?

Academic outcomes are first and foremost because truly, if I can’t hit the academic outcomes, there’s no point. I’m wasting everybody’s time and I don’t want to do that. That’s number one.

… We’re looking at going backward from very rigorous high school and college curricula, and working backwards from there. So that’s our vision when we’re establishing our schools. What do kids need to be successful in college?

And it’s not just the testing outcomes, but it’s also the soft skills that kids need in order to get there. Kids need to be able to self-regulate, and that’s got to start in elementary school, in order to be successful in middle school.

On what her schools will look like:

One of the most important elements of our school design is going to be technology.

We’re still in early days, but I’m visiting many schools across the nation that are doing things that are very exciting in technology. I’m also going to be looking in the private sector to understand what are the skills that kids need to actually be innovators. I’d love if one of our students were able to invent an app that made a difference in the world.

Many New York City schools, district and charter alike, are highly segregated by race and class. Kim spoke about the city’s segregation:

In New York City, with the exception of Success Academy and other high-performing schools, you can go to the playground and look at the skin of the children who are playing there or look around the neighborhood and the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood, and you’ll know the quality of the school. It’s a terrible, terrible situation. And that’s 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

And how her own background informs her views on the issue:

I grew up in Iowa. I was one of the very few students who looked like me. My dad was a math professor. There were very few African Americans, few Hispanics, and very few Asians. That was hard in a lot of ways in that I grew up with a lot of teasing and whatnot. But I also was forced to navigate a world that I didn’t understand from my own experience.

… I have the perspective that it shouldn’t [just] be the case that minorities are integrating into the larger majority population. The majority population also has to integrate themselves in the minority enclaves. As long as we have this idea that it has to go one way only, that’s perpetuating the problem.

Have the city’s charter schools done enough when it comes to integration?

… It’s just so challenging for charters because honestly, opponents of charters use the segregation idea as another weapon against charters in terms of why they’re not serving the greater good — because they’re segregated.

Well, they’re segregated because they went into areas that were low income. Unfortunately, those kids weren’t getting a good education.

So what should the mission of charter schools be?

Charter schools were largely, originally intended to bring options to children who didn’t have them — so that would be low-income [students]. That’s not really my vision of charter schools. I think that charter schools are places where innovation can happen.

… I would love for what we learn through our [research-and-development] approach to be implemented at district schools. I’m very interested in district reform. I think there are a lot of challenges to district reform, but we’d love to come up with solutions that can be applied in other contexts.

Kim explained her decision to leave Success and start her own schools:

Staying with Success surely would have been a very rich experience, but I also thought I wanted to build something and I had some ideas.

… It was a really hard decision. But I’m really glad I did and every day I’ve made that decision, I feel like I’ve made the right decision.

I guess it will be answered once I have the schools up and running. If they’re doing well, then I’ll have my answer.

How I Lead

A scooter, a reflection journal, and no surprises: One Denver principal’s approach to leadership

Scott Wolf, the principal of North High School in Denver.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here and pieces in our sister series “How I Teach” here.

Scott Wolf, principal of Denver’s North High School, expected pushback when he discussed a teacher’s poor showing on an evaluation. Instead, the teacher readily acknowledged the problems and vowed to do better.

The episode was an example of Wolf’s belief in a “no-surprises” approach to staff feedback.

Wolf talked to Chalkbeat about how that teacher later went on to excel, why North emphasizes restorative justice, and who he looks forward to chatting with in the hall each day.

In January, Wolf was honored by the Colorado Music Educators Association for encouraging arts programming at North High.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

While studying learning and organizational change at Northwestern University, I worked at the central office of the Chicago Public Schools. During my time there, I saw just how complex and challenging it was to improve educational outcomes, and felt called to this work. I saw education as the highest leverage opportunity to improve life outcomes for all people and wanted to do what I can to make a positive difference. My work at the central office inspired me to volunteer at a local elementary school where I worked with students on their reading skills and saw light bulbs go on every day. I knew that my career would focus on education from this point forward.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I __________. Why?
My day at school isn’t complete unless I have the opportunity to talk to Diego in the hallway and encourage him to get to class. Almost every day Diego struggles to get to class, but there is something about our conversations that makes me think he looks forward to our conversations just as much as I do.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

I love getting to know students. I would spend my entire day with students if I could. I get to know students by sharing my whole self and trying to embody the value of fun. I ride my Razor scooter around the hallways, I ask students about their lives, and I try to be present during lunch and after school activities to connect with kids. In addition, I have feedback groups so I can hear student voices and learn student stories.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?
Thankfully, most of my teacher evaluations have gone great because I have had ongoing conversations with teachers, so there were no surprises. There was one time years ago where I thought there would be lots of pushback from a teacher on the scores because they were not very good. The teacher did not push back at all though and instead said to me, “You have been telling me this all along, and now it is in my face. This is the motivation that I needed.” This teacher became one of the best teachers I have ever supported. I have found that evaluations are about honesty and humanity, and it has been great to work with so many people who just want to be the best they can for students.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
I am proud that North High School has increased its enrollment from 769 students when I started at North five years ago to a projected 1,216 students this coming school year. I have spent significant time creating a great school culture where we are a model restorative practice site for the nation, improving our academic performance so we reached a “meets expectations” status last school year, and building relationships with our community as we value diversity.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
As a restorative practice school, it is all about working to build skills with students so that everyone involved makes different choices in the future. I don’t really believe in students getting in trouble, but see opportunities for students to learn. Restorative practice focuses on what happened, who is affected, what’s the ownership, and what needs to be resolved.

We work to bring individuals together to dialogue with each other, understand different perspectives, and work to improve the next time. We have even started a restorative practice class this year where students facilitate the restorative process for other students and staff members.

What is the hardest part of your job?
The hardest part of my job is keeping an even temperament regardless of the situation. My days are filled with extreme highs and extreme lows, and I have to go from one situation to the next. I might arrive at school to receive great achievement results back, only to find out that we did not get a grant we were hoping for, to going into a classroom where there is amazing instruction taking place, to find out that two students tried to resolve their issues by confronting each other. The days ebb and flow, and it is hard to stay calm and collected in all situations.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I love talking with families! My favorite place to have conversations is on a home visit where families can share with me their special place. On a home visit three years ago, a family shared with me that while they were not always able to attend every event, they wanted to be in the loop and asked to join things. This has helped me to make sure that everything is transparent and that we create a welcoming environment.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?
The biggest education policy having an impact is school funding. My school leader friends in New York get over twice as much money per student as we do in Colorado, where we are funded close to last in the country. To address it, I am trying to work with community organizations and businesses to provide additional resources at North since we cannot simply rely on state funding. I think we have to work on mutual partnerships so that the school can give back to the community and businesses can give back to schools.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
The best advice I have ever received is from my first principal who told me to slow down and reflect. He told me that I was really good at my job as a teacher, but I needed to reflect more. As a gift, he gave me a mirror to remind me to reflect, and for the last ten years I have religiously journaled to help me reflect intentionally.

the right mix

How to integrate Manhattan middle schools? This parent says make them enroll a mix of low- and high-achievers

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents weigh in on a proposal to integrate District 2 middle schools by making them enroll students with a range of academic abilities.

In Manhattan’s vast District 2, students can choose which middle schools to apply to — but many of the schools get to choose which students to accept. As a result, some schools wind up with many high-achieving, privileged students, while others serve many needy, struggling students.

One parent has a plan to fix that: Require each middle school in the district, which stretches from Lower Manhattan through Chinatown to the Upper East Side, to enroll a mix of struggling, average, and high-achieving students. Shino Tanikawa, a member of the district’s Community Education Council, presented her idea at a committee meeting on Wednesday.

“We need an admissions system that does not judge students or value some students more than others,” she said.

Tanikawa is part of a small but growing group of advocates across the city who are trying to combat segregation by reforming how students are assigned to schools — a grassroots effort that the de Blasio administration has encouraged and, in one district, turned into official policy.

But the administration has so far only been willing to act on plans that have local support. That could present a challenge for Tanikawa’s proposal in District 2, where parents are used to competing for spots at selective middle schools. While most families support classroom diversity in theory, many also want their own children surrounded by students with similar skill levels.

“There is research that shows that just as some kids at the lower end need support,” said Debra Freeman, a parent at Wednesday’s meeting, “there are kids who are at a higher end who will be very bored and can have issues if they’re not sufficiently challenged.”

District 2 families can enroll at middle schools near where they live, or apply to others across the district. Eighteen programs at the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, interviews and other factors. Most schools consider students’ attendance records in admissions decisions — a screen the education council has proposed to eliminate based on research showing that poor students are more likely to miss school.

Critics say that screening applicants by ability exacerbates school segregation, since academic achievement is closely linked to students’ socioeconomic status. In District 2, schools are largely divided along race and class lines: Among schools with middle-school grades, the student-poverty rate ranges from a high of 70 percent to a low of 3 percent, according to data collected by Tanikawa.

“These are public schools,” said Robin Broshi, a member of the education council who supports the proposal to mix students with different academic abilities. “There’s no reason why one segment of a population should have a systematic advantage over another segment of the population to public schools.”

Tanikawa’s plan is based on the so-called educational option, or “ed opt,” admissions system used by some of the city’s high schools. Designed to promote integration, schools using that model aim to enroll students along a range of different academic levels. However, many have struggled to attract enough high performers because they compete for those students with the most selective schools.

To prevent the same thing from happening in District 2, Tanikawa’s plan calls for all the middle schools to use the ed-opt model. Tanikawa said the district should also adopt recruitment practices to attract a diverse mix of applicants to each school, and better ways to share information about schools with parents. She would pair those changes with efforts to attract more teachers of color to the district and ensure that classroom instruction reflects all cultures.

But getting families to apply to middle schools that currently serve more needy students is likely to be an uphill battle, with a school’s selectivity often equated with its quality. Parents who listened to Tanikawa’s proposal said that some of the district’s middle schools offer advanced courses and are known for sending students to elite high schools — while others are not.

“Work has to be done around these middle schools because there are disparities,” said Tunisia K. Riley, a parent in the district.

Other districts that have tried to adjust their middle-school admissions policies to promote integration have faced pushback.

When the superintendent in neighboring District 3 floated a plan to integrate Upper West Side middle schools by reserving some seats for low-income students, some parents rebelled and the idea was shelved. An outcry also ensued at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Brooklyn when the education department changed admissions there. Parents at the elite school worried academics there would “deteriorate.”

In District 2, a final plan is still a long ways off.

Tanikawa intends to recruit parents, principals and district leaders to come up with specifics for the proposal. While the education council does not have the power to enact it, Tanikawa hopes that if it garners enough local support, the city will make good on its promise to back local integration efforts and sign off on the plan.

That is what happened in District 1, which includes the East Village and Lower East Side. After years of advocacy, parent leaders won city approval for a new admissions system designed to make the district’s elementary schools more diverse. It will be in place for the upcoming school year.

“I’m hoping people will have the courage to change the system in a meaningful way,” Tanikawa said.