reporter's notebook

Why my Eva Moskowitz story is the scariest one I’ve ever written

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz touted her network's test scores at a press conference in 2017.

Writing about Eva Moskowitz, charter school impresario, is scary as hell. It’s impossible not to imagine what she, or her legions of critics, will say. Today, I am probably going to get a beating from all sides.

That’s because we published a story in partnership with the Atlantic magazine today in which I simultaneously praise and condemn Moskowitz and what she represents for our country, more sharply and honestly than I ever have before.

My key point: “Moskowitz has created the most impressive education system I’ve ever seen.” And I’m both optimistic and also really afraid for what that means for the country.

What’s impressive about Success schools, I write, goes beyond their high test scores, emerging diversity, and speed-of-light expansion. What’s impressive is the new model of public education the schools represent — one that’s taking off all around the country, especially in cities Chalkbeat covers. I introduce this model by explaining why I think school districts have such a hard time (maybe an impossible time) getting better:

The reason isn’t terrible union contracts or awful management decisions. The fault, I came to see, lies in the (often competing) edicts issued by municipal, state, and federal authorities, which add up to chaos for the teachers who actually have to implement them. It’s not uncommon for a teacher to start the year focused on one goal—say, improving students’ writing—only to be told mid-year that writing is no longer a priority, as happened just the other day at a Boston school I know of. We could hardly have designed a worse system for supporting good teaching had we tried.

Of all the reforms that have set out to free schools from this trap, to date I’ve seen only one that works: the implementation of charter-school networks. Large enough to provide shared resources for teachers, yet insulated from bureaucratic and political crosscurrents by their independent status, these networks are creating the closest thing our country has ever seen to a rational, high-functioning school system.

But what’s scary about a charter-school-takeover model, I write, is that it succeeds by squashing democracy.

They have strengthened public education by extracting it from democracy as we know it—and we shouldn’t be surprised, because democracy as we know it is the problem …

As Moskowitz built Success, she enforced what she calls a “dual mission”: first, to build schools “to which any parent would want to send their children,” and second, to enlist staff, students, and families in the fight for laws and policies that let Success build such schools. Her contention is that one mission reinforces the other. But does she wishfully overlook deeper tensions? …

According to Moskowitz, the choices she’s made have been pedagogically driven. Opting out of backfilling ensures that her students aren’t distracted by peers who lag behind; test prep arms her students for the meritocratic ordeal ahead. At the same time, these policies clearly advance Success’s reputation and help cement its political power. …

Who gets to make these trade-offs? In large part, the decisions belong to Moskowitz—or, more accurately, to the Success board. Charter boards, designed to sidestep the unwieldy directives of democratic school governance and focus ruthlessly on leading good schools, are the main reason charter networks operate so well—and also the main reason I worry as the networks grow.

I can’t wait to hear what our readers think. Actually, I’m so nervous about what you’ll say that I’d happily wait a lifetime, but go ahead and let me have it. Comment below, on Facebook, or via Twitter — I promise I’ll read each and every note.

After you read this, please check out our story from Matt Barnum — first in a three-part series — on the portfolio model that has allowed Eva Moskowitz to thrive and the philanthropists and activists who are pushing for it.

Superintendent search

Newark superintendent finalists make their pitches to the public

Clockwise from top left: Sito Narcisse, Andres Alonso, A. Robert Gregory, and Roger Leon.

The four candidates vying to become Newark’s next superintendent each claimed to be the best person for the job during a much-anticipated forum on Friday.

The two-hour event at Science Park High School was the public’s first opportunity to hear from the finalists — who include two Newark natives and two outsiders — and its last before the city school board is expected to vote for their choice on Tuesday. Whoever is chosen will become the first full superintendent to lead the system since it was returned to local control this year after a decades-long state takeover.

The finalists are former Baltimore city schools chief Andres Alonso; Newark Interim Superintendent A. Robert Gregory; Newark Assistant Superintendent Roger Leon; and Sito Narcisse, chief of schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee. They were selected by a seven-person search committee who considered candidates from across the country.

Each finalist was given 30 minutes on Friday evening to introduce himself and describe his qualifications for the high-profile position. Unlike some districts, the school board did not interview the candidates during the public event. (Instead, they were scheduled to hold closed-door interviews on Saturday.) And the roughly 200 audience members were not allowed to ask questions.

Denise Crawford, a parent who attended the forum, said that community members should have been part of the search committee, which included three school board members and four people appointed by the mayor and the state education commissioner. But Tafshier Cosby, whose son attends a Newark charter school, said Friday’s event offered the public a chance to hear each candidate’s vision for the 35,000-student Newark Public Schools system.

“Whoever has the best plan for moving NPS forward,” she said, “that is who I’m rooting for.”

Below are highlights from each candidate’s remarks in the order that they spoke on Friday.

Sito Narcisse

PHOTO: Sara Mosle
Sito Narcisse

As an outsider, Narcisse promised to become part of the community if he is hired.

“My wife and I will be living in the city,” he said, adding that he would shop at the local grocery stores and attend a local church. “So I’ll have a vested interest.”

Narcisse, who is the son of Haitian immigrants, has overseen schools in five different districts in four states. He was a principal in the Pittsburgh and Boston school systems, and a top official in two large Maryland school districts.

In 2016, he became the second-highest-ranking official chief in the Metro Nashville system, which includes 169 schools serving 88,000 students. He recently applied to become superintendent of a Florida district, but was not selected.

If he led Newark, he said he would push to pay teachers and classroom aides more and would be open with the public about how he allocates funding. He also vowed to hire Newark residents for positions within his administration.

“I will not be doing things to you,” he said. “I will be doing things with you.”

Andres Alonso

PHOTO: Sara Mosle
Andres Alonso

Before he became a New York City school official and later the chief of Baltimore City Public Schools, Alonso spent 12 years teaching in Newark schools.

Now, he wants to return to where he started.

“This is the job I always wanted,” he told the crowd. (He was recently in the running to become Los Angeles’ superintendent, but said he withdrew when the Newark position became available.)

A Cuban immigrant, Alonso said he arrived at school in Union City, New Jersey when he was 12 not knowing how to speak English. He went on to study at Columbia University and Harvard, where he is now a professor in the Graduate School of Education.

From 1987 to 1998, he taught in Newark at a school for emotionally disturbed students and at Peshine Avenue Elementary School. During that period, he gained legal custody of one of his students.

In 2007, he became CEO of the Baltimore city school system, where he closed many low-performing schools, oversaw the expansion of the charter-school sector, and tied teacher pay to their performance. During his six years as schools chief, he said he had “an extraordinary relationship” with the teachers union and with parents.

On Friday, he said that former Mayor Cory Booker and former state education commissioner Christopher Cerf had asked him in 2012 to run Newark’s school system. He turned down the job, he said, because he did not want to carry out a premade “blueprint” for the district. (Instead, Cerf became superintendent.)

Now that the district is back under local control, Alonso said he is ready to lead it.

“I want to come full circle,” he said. “I think I could help the system immensely.”

A. Robert Gregory

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A. Robert Gregory at the unveiling of a new science-education center this month.

Gregory attended Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Newark before his family moved to Pennsylvania, where he eventually went to college and majored in education. At his college graduation, his grandmother urged him to return to his hometown.

“She whispered to me, ‘Come back home, the kids need you,’” said Gregory, whose father was a longtime Newark principal.

Gregory taught at Harold Wilson and Camden middle schools in Newark before founding American History High School, a well-regarded magnet school. In 2015, he was promoted to assistant superintendent of high schools and, last June, Cerf named him deputy superintendent. When Cerf stepped down in February, Gregory became interim superintendent.

In that role, he has increased spending on bilingual and special education and negotiated a contract that raises the wages of school cafeteria workers, security guards, and custodians, he said during his presentation. He also supported students who joined in a national school walkout to call for stricter gun laws, and he is planning a conference next month where teachers will be able to share classroom ideas.

“I am the educator,” he said, “who vows to work toward restoring trust while galvanizing this city around one common goal: high-quality education for all.”

Roger León

PHOTO: Sara Mosle
Roger León

León began by emphasizing his deep Newark roots and ties to each section of the city.

He said he was born in the Central Ward, lived in the South Ward, grew up in the East Ward, visited his godparents in the North Ward, and met his first good friends in the West Ward.

“The journey of Newark has been my journey,” said León, whose parents were Cuban immigrants.

A Science Park High School graduate, León went on to coach the magnet school’s renowned debate team for eight years. He later taught middle-school algebra before becoming principal of Dr. William H. Horton School and then University High School of the Humanities.

He has been an assistant superintendent for 10 years. If he becomes schools chief, León said he would invest in attendance counselors and mental-health services for students. He also said he would encourage students to travel abroad, and would make sure that parents have different types of schools to choose from.

His past accomplishments are evidence “of how high we will go, how fast we will get there,” he said, and “of how we will learn and do it together.”

concurrent enrollment

New state law forces Denver to change course on its ‘early colleges’

PHOTO: Denver Post file

A change in state law meant to rein in the cost of Colorado high schools that allow students to stay longer to earn college credit has forced the Denver district to slow down its expansion of the model.

District officials were proposing adding another “early college,” as the schools are known, to the seven that already exist in Denver Public Schools. But on Thursday, Antonio Esquibel, the district’s executive director of early college who submitted the application to open the school, confirmed he was withdrawing it.

“With the change in statute, it will force us to have to rethink what early college is and what it should look like in Denver Public Schools,” Esquibel said.

Denver’s seven early colleges are:

  • Southwest Early College (charter)
  • CEC Early College
  • West Early College
  • Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College
  • High Tech Early College
  • Manual High School

The school board was scheduled to vote on whether to approve the school, temporarily called Denver Early College High School, at a meeting Thursday night. It could have opened as soon as 2019, either as a brand new school or a replacement for a low-performing school. The application said it would “provide all students the option to enroll for an additional one to two years to obtain credits leading toward or culminating in an associate’s degree.”

But the change in state law essentially prohibits early college students from staying in high school for a fifth or sixth year for the sole purpose of taking free college courses.

A bill lawmakers approved earlier this month defines early colleges as schools where students earn an associate’s degree or at least 60 college credits alongside their high school diploma. The bill specifies that the curriculum “must be designed to be completed in four years.”

Lawmakers in the Colorado House and Senate passed the bill, but it has not yet been signed into law by the governor. Denver district officials did not testify against it publicly.

Lawmakers wanted to change the law because they feared the early college model would become too expensive. Currently, the state pays for early college students who stay in high school for a fifth or sixth year at the regular per-pupil rate, which varies by district. In the case of Denver Public Schools, it’s $7,939 per student this year, according to state budget analysts.

There are currently 20 early colleges in Colorado, up from five in 2009. While only 315 students this year were in their fifth or sixth year, trends indicated that number would grow. Last year, there were 224 students in a fifth or sixth year. In 2013, there were only 84.

Denver’s proposed early college was based on a six-year model. At a presentation to the school board last week, Esquibel said most Denver students would likely earn just 12 college credits during their first four years of high school, and then stay for a fifth and sixth year earning 24 credits each year to get them to a total of 60, which is typically how many credits a student needs to earn an associate’s degree.

Most students in Denver’s early colleges are students of color from low-income families who are on track to be the first in their families to go to college, Esquibel said.

“Unfortunately, our students of color don’t have as much access or opportunity to take college courses or, for that matter, enroll in a college,” he told the board. “So the concept of an early college was created specifically for that reason: to buck the trend.”

School board members praised the idea.

“We have these age-old timelines that, for some reason, this is how we believe young people should go through school,” said board president Anne Rowe. “What you’ve been able to do is really push the model. … That out-of-the-box thinking is so important.”

Given the impending change in state law, Esquibel said he and other district officials will spend the next several months figuring out how to make the early college model work in four years instead of six. The leaders of other Colorado early colleges have said most of their students complete the requirements in that time, and Esquibel said Denver officials have been studying early colleges in Texas whose students do it in four years.

“It’s a little daunting, but we’ve seen schools across the country doing it,” he said.

Esquibel said he hopes to re-submit the application for a new early college in the fall.

The district will have to reconfigure its six existing early colleges, as well, he said. (The seventh early college is a charter school.) However, high school juniors and seniors currently enrolled and planning to stay for a fifth or sixth year won’t be affected by the bill. It allows districts to receive full state per-pupil funding for those students in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years.