What's Next for This Darling of Charter School Funders?

Success Academy, the 2017 winner of the Broad Prize for Charter Schools, plans to step up its college readiness programs, roll out a digital platform to share its curriculum and pedagogy, and expand its network even further.

The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation recently announced Success, New York City's largest charter school chain, as the winner of the funder's annual prize for charter schools. The foundation said the network "has transformed not only the landscape of public education in New York City, but also the idea of what’s possible for students of color and low-income students."

Success is the sixth winner of the prize, which was launched in 2012 and awards the winning charter organization $250,000. Broad had previously offered an annual $1 million prize for urban school districts through its Broad Prize for Urban Education, but in 2015 decided to pause the award. Officials with the funder said at the time that a lack of robust growth in academic performance among urban school districts was a reason for its decision to put the award on hold.

Broad has since continued the annual prize for charter schools, awarding one each year to a charter organization that serves low-income students and children of color, and that demonstrates success in closing performance gaps between these students and their more affluent peers.

Success Academy was founded by former New York City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz and is supported by a network of Wall Street financiers and deep-pocketed funders, including Broad. The $250,000 from the Broad Prize is a tiny sliver of the millions that Success Academy has received over the years from its network of supporters. Last year, the charter operator landed a $25 million grant from the foundation led by hedge fund billionaire Julian Robertson. The Walton Family Foundation is another steady funder, giving the network several million dollars in recent years.

But the Broad Foundation has been an especially important ally to Eva Moskowitz. It reports that it "was the first major investor in Success Academy, giving $1 million to Success Academy in 2008. To date, we have invested nearly $14 million to support the charter network, particularly in its efforts to grow to 100 schools to meet the demand from families seeking a high-quality education for their children." In 2014, for example, it made a $4.2 million grant to the organization for a charter school in the Bronx.

Starting from a single school in Harlem in 2006, Success Academy now operates 41 elementary and middle schools in four of New York City's five boroughs (only Staten Island does not have a Success Academy school). It serves more than 14,000 students, three-fourths of whom are low-income and more than 90 percent of whom are African American or Hispanic. All Success campuses are in the state's top 10 percent of schools, with African American and Hispanic students at Success outperforming white students statewide, according to a report by the education news site The 74.

Moskowitz has won widespread praise from education reform advocates and was reportedly on then-President-elect Donald Trump's shortlist of potential appointees to be secretary of education. That job eventually went to philanthropist and school choice advocate Betsy DeVos. 

The $250,000 from Broad funds college readiness programs at Success, preparing its students for academic success beyond elementary and secondary school. Success also announced its plans for a digital platform that would be free to educators. Through this platform, Success plans to share its curriculum, pedagogy, training and school design so that charter schools across the country can learn from its formula.

That formula, however, includes strict disciplinary practices, an overemphasis on test preparation, and serving low numbers of special needs students and English Language Learners, according to critics who are less enamored of Moskowitz and Success Academy. In a 2014 article in The Nation, education historian Diane Ravitch wrote that Success Academy schools have few — and at some schools, zero — students with severe disabilities. In contrast, such students account for 14 percent of the enrollment in neighboring public schools in Harlem. A 2015 article in the New York Times alleged that Success maintained a "got to go" list of low-performing or difficult students to weed out.

Success has consistently denied claims that it counsels out certain students or fails to adequately serve those with disabilities. A spokesperson for the school network says that "Success has made tremendous effort to serve more high-needs students" and that it "serves a significant number of students with disabilities — roughly 1,900, or 15 percent of our students in fact." Success says further that over half of its students with disabilities are in integrated co-teaching classrooms which are led by two teachers — with the school network doing better than city-wide schools in providing such extra support. 

Earlier this year, a teacher who quit working at a Success Academy school criticized what she characterized as "an extreme environment," saying, "Most of the students I taught at Success dreaded coming to school, as did most of the teachers...  I quit Success because the brand of teaching the network demands prevented me from providing the quality of education my students deserve." Last year, a video went viral capturing a Success Academy teacher berating a first-grade student. 

Love them or hate them, Success Academy isn't going away. This month, the charter network won a victory in an ongoing battle with New York City regarding oversight of its pre-kindergarten programs. A state appeals court ruled that the city cannot regulate the school's programs because state law empowers a charter school's authorizer to oversee operations. The State University of New York is Success' authorizer.

Moskowitz, meanwhile, hopes to grow Success from its current 41 to 100 schools that would serve 50,000 students. This would make Success Academy comparable in size to the Atlanta or Boston public school systems.