Success Academy's Harlem West, Wadleigh Secondary, and De Blasio's "Hodgepodge of Feel-Good Programs"

Nicholas Simmons, currently a vice principal at New York City’s Success Academy, tells his “tale of two schools, one building” in yesterday’s Wall St. Journal.  This account of the disparities in instruction and student growth between a well-run charter school and  a flagging traditional school highlights predictable results when  “the needs of adults supersede those of children.” It also bodes poorly for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school reform plan* which, for Mr. Simmons, amounts to little more than “a hodgepodge of feel-good programs.”

In NYC, charters and traditional publics are sometimes located in the same building. In this case, Success Academy’s Harlem West shares facilities with Wadleigh Secondary School  a traditional district school that also boasts a performing arts academy. All students in the building share the cafeteria, gym, and courtyards. All live in the same neighborhood and more than 95% of both cohorts are black or Hispanic. Poverty rates are similar: 60% free lunch at Harlem West and 72% at Wadleigh.

But that 12% difference in poverty levels doesn’t explain vast chasms of achievement. Simmons, who used to teach math at Harlem West (he’s now a vice principal in a different Success Academy school) gives us the data: at Harlem West 96% of students were proficient in math (80% were at advanced levels) and 75% reached proficiency in language arts. At Wadleigh 0% met state standards in both math and language arts. 

He attributes a large part of these differences in student growth to differences in expectations that are embodied by student and teacher schedules. At Harlem West, school is in session from 7:30-5:15. “Teachers spend evenings and weekends speaking with families about their children’s progress.” Summer vacation for teachers ends on August 3d (for two weeks of intense professional development) and students arrive on August 17th.

At Wadleigh, students start classes at 8 and (depending on a variety of factors) and leave between 3 and 4. Summer vacation for district teachers, per the UFT contract with the City Board of Education, ends one day before students appear, this year on Sept. 9th.

Simmons is adamant that NYC has the resources to effectively educate the students consigned to Wadleigh; at $20,331 per student per year, the second highest annual per capita cost in the country’s large districts, he’s surely right. But union rules and de Blasio’s indifferent school plan render such aspirations fanciful.

He writes, “excellent public schools shouldn’t be a privilege enjoyed by those lucky enough to win an admissions lottery; they should be the standard. The city has the resources -- now it needs the will.”

For a side note, Mayor de Blasio originally opposed co-location of Harlem West with Wadleigh, as he has often in such cases.  Maybe he just didn’t want the charter to make the traditional school look bad.

*Here's my take on Mayor De Blasio's school improvement plan.

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