Teacher John Kaufmann working with first graders at Success Academy Union Square. Photo by Byron Smith
BY HEATHER DUBIN | Three months into the school year, Success Academy’s Union Square location is beginning to smooth out some logistical kinks. The kindergarten and first-grade classes at the charter school are now able to walk to their recess destination from 40 Irving Place, at E. 16th St., to Union Square Park in six minutes flat.
Success Academy has the second floor at the Washington Irving High School campus, as well as its own cafeteria and entrance, which is separate from the main lobby entrance, where there are metal detectors in place for the students from the six high schools that share the building.
Success Academy was founded in 2006 by former City Councilmember Eva Moskowitz, who is the growing charter network’s C.E.O.
On a recent tour of the new Union Square charter school with Principal Paola Zalkind and Ann Powell, senior managing director of communications for Success Academy charter schools, following close behind, the inner workings of three different classrooms were revealed.
Zalkind was a kindergarten teacher at Success Academy’s flagship school in Harlem, starting from when it was founded in 2006, and has eight years of teaching experience under her belt. She began teaching in New Orleans, and then landed a position at the Harlem charter, where she was intrigued by the program’s model of education, and later taught third grade. After completing her master’s degree at Columbia Teachers College, Zalkind, 32, was an acting principal for Success Academy Upper West — on the Upper West Side — and Harlem in 2013.
In a brightly decorated classroom with six tables, a calendar and alphabet cutout letters on the wall, kindergarten students sat on plush carpeting for guided reading with their teacher, Ms. Crane. The students were all dressed in uniform — girls in plaid jumpers and boys in orange shirts with dark pants.
Crane’s classroom is named Syracuse, which is the university where she attended college. Each of the rooms for the five classes at the school, which currently enrolls 125 students total, is assigned the lead teacher’s alma mater as a means of motivation.
Zalkind explained that the students are presented with a number story, and the challenge that day involved a boy named Emmanuel, who has 18 apples, but his family ate 11. Students are encouraged to choose their own method to solve the problem of how many apples Emmanuel has left.
Teacher Jennifer Waldman gives special attention to a first-grade student at Success Academy Union Square. Photo by Byron Smith
Periodically Crane reminded her students in a strict tone to, “Sit up nice and tall.” On her command, the class’s students appeared to have grown two inches. When one student stood in front of the class to present her answer to the problem, Crane instructed the class to “Show her love,” and the students quieted down to give her their attention.
“We say the problem over and over again because they can’t read it,” Zalkind said. Outside the classroom, a teacher’s assistant was working on visualization techniques with students in rotating small groups to better understand the problem.
The next stop was the Vanderbilt room where Ms. Kahle’s class was focused on number stories. Again, the classroom was well-equipped and inviting, with students working in small groups at tables with a timer counting down the minutes projected onto a screen. Zalkind noted that the kindergarten students were working on comprehension of 10 as a unit.
A writing workshop on narrative stories was taking place in Mrs. Waldman’s first-grade Hartford classroom.
“We want them to try to communicate something very important to them,” Zalkind said. One student read her story aloud for a visiting reporter about when her baby brother came home from the hospital. Using a checklist, students also revise their own work and add dialogue if necessary.
The final classroom on the tour was also named Vanderbilt, with Ms. Macy, another graduate of that school, working with kindergartners and blocks. Classes are 45 minutes, and blocks are allocated for half a class period.
“We’re trying to get them to do more collaboration, be creative and work together,” the principal said. Two girls were building a “restaurant” where they were making Spanish food, and one student was sitting in the corner reading a book. Zalkind noted that the books in the room, at this grade level, were mainly for inspiration, but this student “just felt like reading.”
Zalkind, who has not taught in a New York City public school, was unable to comment on whether there was a difference of curriculum or financial resources between the two school systems. At Success Academy, students have a longer school day that begins with breakfast at 7:15 a.m., classes start a half hour later, and the day ends at 4 p.m. for kindergarten and 4:15 p.m. for first grade. According to Zalkind, the Washington Irving Campus high school students arrive after 8 a.m.
At Success Academy, each classroom has a lead teacher and an assistant teacher.
“Teachers have a lot of flexibility,” Zalkind explained.
Art and sports are taught twice a week, and science daily. There is also exposure to music, which Zalkind makes a priority in her school.
“In kindergarten we have to keep them moving, academic or nonacademic,” she added.
There are 6,700 students in the Success Academy network of 22 charter schools in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan. Each school is allocated $13,527 per pupil per year in public funding. Powell pointed out that this amount is substantially less than what public schools receive, which is reportedly $18,000 to $19,000 per pupil.
Similar to the public school system, students are admitted to the Success Academy Union Square by lottery, with neighborhood residents of Community School District 2 given preference.
For the first year, a charter school is run on deficit, with grants from foundations and gifts from private donors to help finance its first three years. There is no capital funding, and a charter school must fundraise to open.
“Each elementary school runs about $1.8 million deficit over three years, which includes start-up costs and salaries,” Powell said. “By the third year, our elementary schools are able to operate solely on public funding.”
Currently, charter schools do not pay rent in public schools. During his campaign, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio called for charter schools that can afford it to pay rent in city-operated facilities.
Zalkind’s office contains a very large flat-screen television near a round conference table with several ergonomic chairs. When asked where the funding came from for the television, Powell noted that charter schools have flexibility in how they operate.
The TV is used for teacher professional development to watch videos to improve their own teaching. Additionally, Powell said, “Principals from all 22 schools and network professionals regularly video-conference to review curriculum and teaching challenges.”
Success Academy students are required to wear uniforms, and parents foot the bill — $146 to $231 for boys, and $199 to $238 for girls. Vouchers are also available to families in need. After kindergarten graduation, boys add a tie to their uniform. Girls, no matter what age, are not allowed to wear pants. All students are expected to buy laceless black shoes; girls wear Mary Janes, and boys are allowed Velcro-strap shoes.
Student uniforms are a bonus for parent Randi Bayroff, 43, who lives in Gramercy and works in financial services. In a telephone interview, she expressed her admiration for Success Academy Union Square, where her son Max, 5, attends kindergarten.
“That’s another great thing,” she said. “I don’t have to deal with clothes and negotiation in the morning.”
According to Bayroff, Max would want to wear shorts and a tank shirt, but since he knows he cannot, it is a nonissue.
“Everyone’s on the same playing field,” she noted.
As for academics, Bayroff is extremely pleased with Max’s progress.
“Six months ago, he couldn’t write more than the three letters of his name,” she said. Now he can write the entire alphabet, spell, and he started reading last week.
Bayroff considered Public School 40, on E. 20th St., but she was more impressed with Success Academy Union Square.
“Science every day, they have chess,” she said. “And now all he wants for the holidays is a chess set.”
Max actually wants to do homework and is excited to go to school in the morning, she said.
Bayroff did have reservations about the school’s location, but feels it is “on top” of security.
“What’s amazing is the level of communication,” she said. “There are action fliers and I’m constantly in touch with the school.”
In a separate interview, Monica Thornton, a Chelsea resident and a lawyer, spoke about her son’s experience at Success Academy Union Square. Sebastian, age 7, is in first grade after repeating kindergarten twice at two different public schools.
“For us, it’s been an absolute savior,” she said. “Short of us not having a just fantastic experience, we were going to have to move.”
She and her husband were not happy with what they found in traditional public schools, which Thornton dubbed as “a complete disaster for us.”
They decided to give Success Academy a shot, figuring it could not be worse than what they had previously endured.
“We’ve been blown away,” she said. “It’s a much superior experience. The teachers are stronger, the commitment is stronger, and the efficiency and effectiveness of the school is noticeable.”
Thorton admits the school’s administrative side is different, and is conducted in a “strict and stern way,” but she also finds it “kind and thoughtful.”
Sebastian has improved academically the past three months.
“He’s gone from the bottom to being at the top,” his mom said. She feels the students at Success Academy are challenged, and the students feel that everyone knows their name.
“I’ve seen a huge turnaround in our son,” she said. “He’s excited about school and his subjects. He gets up himself and wants to go to school to the next day. For us, that’s worth a lot.”
Thornton does have concerns about security, and noted there was a breach that day. A follow-up e-mail with Powell on Wednesday explained that a man was arrested after entering the massive building through a delivery entrance, and the incident is under investigation.
Success Academy has done well on New York State tests, with a pass rate of 82 percent in math and 58 percent in English in 2013. Smaller class size, better resources and teachers receiving more support may be the secret behind the equation.
Eventually, the school will grow to 500 students in grades K to 4. It will be linked to a middle school at another, yet-to-be-determined location.
Co-location of charter schools in existing public school buildings continues to be a hotly debated issue. This April, Gregg Lundahl, Washington Irving High School’s veteran union chapter leader, speaking to The Villager, said of Success Academy Union Square, “I anticipate that the charter school will be entirely barricaded from the other schools.”
“We believe that she [Moskowitz] will want to expand into the first floor,” Lundahl predicted then.
They definitely wouldn’t be rolling out the welcome mat for Moskowitz and Co., he added.
“Eva will not find co-locating at Washington Irving comfortable,” Lundahl vowed. “We are dead set against her due to her legacy of not playing fair with space.”
Lundahl did not respond to a request for comment for this article.