bureau of bureaucracy

How Eva Moskowitz’s growing bureaucracy handled a school-supply fiasco

A panel including, from left, Sheridan Schools Superintendent Mike Clough, Denver Preschool Program CEO Jennifer Landrum, Littleton Public School Superintendent Scott Murphy and State Sen. Mike Johnston couldn't answer, specifically, how the state should move forward after voters rejected an income tax increase to overhaul education funding. Photo by Maura Walz

Days before the start of this school year, principals across New York City faced a nightmare scenario: large portions of their furniture and books were not actually in their schools, but miles away in a warehouse on Long Island. Students might arrive and have no chairs to sit in or books to read.

Worst of all, the disaster was happening at a school system created by Eva Moskowitz, the ambitious school founder who has staked her career on a blistering critique of school systems’ inefficient bureaucracies that harm children’s ability to learn.

In this case, Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools responded swiftly. A team of staffers from the network was dispatched to Long Island to sort the furniture and supplies into boxes destined for the right schools, staff members said, volunteering nights and weekend days to complete the work.

By the first day of school, the Success Academy schools had what they needed. Within weeks, the executive overseeing operations no longer worked at Success.

“We just all pitched in and it got done,” said spokeswoman Ann Powell. “Not all things run as smoothly and perfectly as we would like.”

The incident offers a window into how a school system designed to upend traditional bureaucracy will handle classic logistical challenges as it rapidly expands its footprint in New York City.

Already the largest charter school network in the city, Success’ central offices are growing almost as fast the schools. Today, their 34 schools serve 11,000 students — roughly the number attending district schools in the Lower East Side’s District 1 — and Moskowitz wants to reach 100 schools in a decade.

With that growth has come the trials of running a large school system, like managing huge book deliveries. It also means the network has needed to add more staff to support schools, according to the organization’s tax forms. In 2013, the network employed a total of 575 people, up from 125 just two years earlier.

Powell said that the network had 246 full-time employees as of September and that many people who work there are in internships or work part-time.

“Every year we add more grades,” Powell said. “The support we want to provide to the schools has become a little more elaborate.”

Moskowitz has criticized the district school system for its inefficiencies and inability to quickly fix problems since her days as a city council member representing the Upper East Side. She has been outspoken about her belief that the work rules in union contracts are often to blame, a perspective that has made her an enemy of the United Federation of Teachers, among other groups who object to Moskowitz’s aggressive advocacy tactics.

“It’s her conflictual way of approaching everything,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew told the New York Times Magazine last year. “It’s, ‘I’m going to show we’re better than public schools.’”

In building Success Academy, which began with a single school in 2006, Moskowitz has sought to develop an organization that is able to nimbly pivot when a certain program isn’t working, a view she described in a LinkedIn post this summer.

“Schools often take the view that if they have a problem, fixing it should wait until the next year,” she wrote. “I don’t believe that. If you waste a year of a kid’s life, the child will never get that time back.”

Just a few days later, that philosophy was put to a test.

Many Success Academy schools put their books and furniture in storage when the school year ends to clear the way for renovations, explained Khari Shabazz, a principal at a Success Academy middle school. But this summer, no one kept track of the inventory after it was boxed up and sent to the warehouse. Officials didn’t realize there was a problem until the school year was about to start.

“I know from how hard they were working there was an urgent situation going on,” Shabazz said. “I don’t know what the warehouse looked like to them, but apparently it was in a state where they had to go in and work around the clock.”

Shabazz, who has worked at Success since 2007, recalls when operations were run out of a single room. As more schools opened, support staff moved into offices in Harlem. Now there are schools in four boroughs and a separate downtown headquarters with a hefty annual rent.

“I’m actually amazed at the level of sophistication needed to do this kind of enterprise,” said Shabazz, who noted that a separate supervisor in his school is responsible for handling operations.

The school supplies episode preceded a larger management shakeup at Success. The network recently added several people to its leadership ranks, including new heads of academics, operations, enrollment, and marketing.

Noel Leeson, ‎the executive vice president in charge of business operations during the inventory crisis, left the network this month after two years. Kris Cheung, a longtime Success director, was promoted to chief operations officer shortly after. Dennis McIntosh, the network’s chief financial officer, who joined Success less than two years ago, also left this month. Attempts to reach Leeson and McIntosh were unsuccessful.

Powell declined to comment on the departures. The new leadership positions were not related to the supply issues, but the network’s growth, she said.

Moskowitz, who was not available for an interview, acknowledged other issues in the LinkedIn post, including curriculum materials that didn’t live up to their promise. Her schools are like Elon Musk’s rockets, she wrote, only with even higher stakes.

“By learning from our mistakes, constantly reassessing, and fixing problems now, not later, we built a culture of success that can persist even when something major – like a rocket – blows up,” she wrote.

Correction: A previous version had the wrong total for the number of schools currently operated by Success. 

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.