The School Success Sequence

What it takes to bring excellent education to poor children

The booming New York City charter-school network Success Academy, and its lightning-rod leader Eva Moskowitz, appear to have created something unprecedented in American education: A means for thousands of low-income families of color to get an education for their children that equals or even exceeds what wealthy families take for granted. The question looms: How do they do it? To find out, I spent a year embedded in a Success Academy charter school in the South Bronx, in the same neighborhood where I taught for five years at a low-performing conventional public elementary school. 

During this year of intense discovery, I observed two things that Success employs to guide disadvantaged children to superb educational results: Remarkable efforts made in the classroom. And remarkable expectations placed upon parents.

Far more children hope to enroll in high-performing charter schools like Success than state caps typically allow, so by law these schools admit students via lottery. What follows that random drawing, however, is not random at all. Winning admission to Success Academy begins a series of mandatory meetings and “deliverables” where principals and teachers outline the demands the school places on families. This begins a continual process of mobilizing parents that is crucial to Success’s astonishing results. 

Warning: parents need to be on board

At precisely the top of the hour, Shea Reeder, principal of Success Academy Bronx 4, the newest school in the borough, rises from her seat in the campus auditorium. Eschewing a microphone, she introduces herself as a seven-year veteran who believes deeply in what Success does for children. She was a teacher, an assistant principal, and a dean, “and then they finally were crazy enough to give me my own school.”

What comes next is more of a warning than a welcome. “Keep this question in mind during this entire presentation,” she urges. “Is Success Academy the right fit for me and my child?” 

Most schools would ask parents to consider only if the school is right for their child, not the parent. But Reeder’s question is intentional. She wants parents who might start the assembly wondering only about their kid’s place in Success to mull whether they can handle the demands its culture places on parents. 

“Although you’re going to hear a lot of great and amazing things about us, there are places you may say, ‘Mmm, doesn’t work for me,’” Reeder warns. “And that’s fine. Success Academy is not for everyone. We want to make sure you are making an informed decision about coming to our schools. Because we expect that you accept us 100 percent.” Parents can’t say they like the curriculum but not the way Success manages its classrooms, or that they want the safety policies but won’t meet the uniform requirements. “It’s not Burger King. You can’t have it your way.”

Reeder recites a brief history of Success Academy. Ten years ago, Eva Moskowitz launched a school in Harlem with high goals for low-income children. Results were exceptional and demand became high. Success has been expanding ever since. “Some of your zoned schools are not really great options, as you know. You want something more and better for your child.”

“We do not allow scholars to fall to the wayside or get lost in the classroom,” Reeder says emphatically. “We’re on top of every single child that comes into our school because we believe that all children can learn. We support them in every way possible.”

She isn’t freelancing or going off-message. As she speaks, a network-designed PowerPoint is projected on a large screen on the stage.  The phrase “Is SA right for you?” looms over her, clarifying that high expectations run both ways. “You need to be on board,” it explains at the top of a list of non-negotiable requirements: Early school start times. A spring-break schedule that does not line up with conventional public schools. Safety and order even if that means “the possibility of suspension.” Nothing is soft-pedaled.

“In terms of behavior, we suspend, all right? Let me be clear with that. We suspend,” Reeder says. “We do not tolerate hitting, biting, kicking, fighting, anything. We suspend kindergarteners if they do that.” If parents have a problem with that, she says yet again, this might not be the school for you. “Eva likes to say this is a marriage. We are partnering up and raising this child together,” Reeder tells the prospective parents. “We expect that you guys are on board with everything we’re doing.”

Again and again during my year of observation, I witnessed this mix of straight talk and tough love, aspiration and encouragement followed by unsparing demands for compliance. Few schools would be comfortable pressing these kinds of expectations on parents. But this is stamped right on Success Academy’s genetic code.I witnessed a mix of straight talk and tough love, aspiration and encouragement followed by unsparing demands for compliance. 

It works because the same unsparing ethics are present in most of the parents who commit their children, and themselves, to the Success culture. A common, cutting criticism of urban “no-excuses” charter schools is that they impose middle-class values on children. Such criticisms miss a crucial reality: When they are freely selected by parents, high-expectation schools don’t just rally and reinforce a set of values. They appeal to families already in possession of them. Many poor parents are deeply attracted to places that demand excellence and discipline and self-restraint, because those are qualities they themselves want for their children. 

High-expectation parents hiding in plain sight 

Like millions of other low- to moderate-income couples hiding in plain sight across our country, Vanessa and Andre Farrer are working class, married, deeply religious, and heavily invested in their children’s education. In many ways they are the Success Academy family from central casting. They live with their three sons on the tenth floor of a new apartment building on St. Ann’s Avenue in the South Bronx. Vanessa Farrer has worked for 24 years for the New York City Police Department, where she supervises civilian workers at a local precinct; Andre is an inspector for the New York City Housing Authority. They met at Great Redeemer Church, an evangelical congregation that convenes in a storefront in the Soundview section of the Bronx, and their faith is central to their lives and how they raise their sons. Vanessa’s e-mail signature features a verse from Colossians: “Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them.”

Their two youngest sons, Antwan and Avery, are at the kitchen table hunched over their math homework when I visit. If their parents had sent them to their zoned district school they would be at P.S. 277, the public school down the block where I taught for five years. But these boys will never set foot in my rough, underperforming, old school. Each morning Vanessa loads them into a minivan and drives them to Success Academy Bronx 1 instead. 

Vanessa first heard about Success while watching TV one night. She happened upon The Lottery, a 2010 documentary that followed four children from the Bronx and Harlem as they tried to win seats at Success Academy. “I was like, ‘Wow. I want my son to go to that school,’” she says. The positive picture she got from the movie was reinforced by a member of the Farrers’ church with experience at one of the academies. Local congregations like theirs are quiet drivers of charter-school enrollment.

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Vanessa’s resolution was fueled by her frustration with the schools her eldest son Myshonne had attended—public, private, and charter. They pulled Myshonne out of several unacceptable situations as they struggled to find a place that would reinforce the values of their home—or at least not undermine them. Finally, says his mother, “he’s gotten the understanding that your grades are first. That was hard for him to understand at first.”

When her son Antwan reached school age Vanessa hedged her bets by applying to the Bronx Charter School of the Arts and a local Montessori charter school, in addition to Bronx 1. She visited all three campuses. Yet there was never any doubt in her mind that Antwan would go to Success if he got in. The Farrers were fortunate in that year’s lottery and their second son enrolled at Bronx 1. A couple years later, the school’s sibling preference made the path straight for his younger brother Avery to enter Success as well.

Andre Farrer spent his childhood shuttling between New York City and North Carolina. Though he was an unmotivated student he was smart enough to get into two four-year colleges, yet never attended either. “I chose the fast life,” he says with sadness. He drifted into selling marijuana on the streets of Charlotte, and ended up serving a four-year prison sentence. The phrase “I should have” comes up often when Andre reflects on his youth.

“I’m horrified with my past,” he says while his two sons work on math problems a few feet away. I “wasted so much time.” His regret over lost opportunities drives his determination to see his three sons take a different path. “Now I raise my children to appreciate things. I teach them discipline. Just stay on the path,” Andre says. “I’m 53. By the time they get to 53 I want them to already have a house. I want them to have gotten their education and work in a good job.”

The Farrers’ focus on preparation, discipline, and personal responsibility—lessons learned the hard way—makes Success Academy a natural fit for them. Andre has little patience for those who criticize the school’s rules. “I’m all for structure,” he says. Nor does he have patience for complaints about requiring that parents be actively involved. “They have to have that. It all starts at home. Unfortunately in our neighborhood, most parents think you just go and drop the kids off, and be done with them for six hours.”

When I mention I’m scheduled to see Success leader Eva Moskowitz the next day, Vanessa grows animated about the way charter-school enemies attack her. “It’s not even a fair dislike,” she says. “People say, ‘Oh, but Success treats children like robots.’ Teaching them respect is teaching the children to be like robots?” Andre seconds his wife. The couple suggest that when I meet with Moskowitz I should “Tell her she’s got us praying for her.”

The Farrers explain that when testing days approach, the volume of calls from Antwan’s third-grade teachers increase noticeably, with constant feedback gleaned from practice tests. “She’ll say to me, ‘Listen, he didn’t do too well today. He worked too slow. Or he went too fast. He didn’t check his answers,’” says Vanessa. “Every night­—every night—one of the teachers will call Antwan and ask him, ‘What’s your strategy? What’s your plan?’”

The nightly calls have taken some getting used to. “Your cell phone is going off, and you get an email, you get a text, and another phone call,” says Andre. “But then I’m like, ‘This is really good. This shows that they care.’” Chaperoning field trips has given Andre additional respect for his children’s teachers. 

Working as an inspector for the city housing authority brings him in daily contact with slices of life that are invisible to most New Yorkers. “We know how many people are supposed to be in the house, most often a mother and her children,” he says. “There’s always some John Doe in there with his boxers on saying, ‘Oh, I don’t live here. She had to go on an appointment, she told me to be here,’” Andre says, shaking his head. “You go in apartments and it’s horrible conditions. It’s filthy, nasty, roaches and mice, mold around the tub. I don’t care if you’re grown and you choose to live that way, but when there are children, that bothers me,” he explains.

The disorder he sees everywhere reinforces his own commitment to his children, their education, and his faith. “When I get on the train or a bus and I look at the youth, I see a lack of respect for others,” he says. “These children walk with their pants down, cursing like it’s nothing.”

When he drives through the neighborhood with his sons, he points out grown men hanging around the streets. “I just show them. Because if you walk out the door, you see the guys standing on the sidewalk.” Before he quit smoking, Andre would go outside for a cigarette and see tenants setting up grills to barbecue even though it was approaching midnight on a weeknight. “I’m like, ‘Aw man, we’ve got to move.’” Andre dreams about getting his boys down to North Carolina and into a house. But “as long as we’re here in New York City,” Vanessa says flatly, Success Academy “is where they’re going to be.”

Family matters most of all

In 1966, sociologist James Coleman published a landmark 700-page report that drew on a data set covering nearly 650,000 children, 60,000 teachers, and more than 3,000 schools to identify the true sources of educational success. It arrived one year after passage of Great Society legislation that dramatically increased the federal role in American education. The report was expected to reveal a need for further government intervention and expenditure to equalize educational opportunity. The surprise finding of this huge investigation, however, was that spending is not a major driver of educational results, and that home environment and peer influences are the main determinants of school outcomes. Since this did not support President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” mobilization, officials decided to quietly release the Coleman Report on the Fourth of July weekend, hoping it would be ignored.

Recognizing the major implications of this work, however, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and others organized a yearlong Harvard Faculty Seminar to delve into the details of the Coleman Report. A series of academic papers followed. These cemented the findings of the study, and enshrined it as one of the most important pieces of research in the history of social science.

One place where the Coleman Report is still echoing today is the headquarters of Public Prep, located just a few blocks from the Farrers’ apartment in the Bronx. A small network of single-sex charter schools serving low-income children of color from pre-K to eighth grade, Public Prep is run by Ian Rowe, a middle-aged African-American man whose close-cropped hair is shot through with gray. Rowe is a product of New York City public schools who went on to a Cornell computer-science degree and an MBA, then held senior positions at MTV and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.High levels of parent involvement in education are more easily achieved when parents choose a specific school for their child. This is common sense.

Since assuming the helm at Public Prep, Rowe has taken issue with progressive educators and his fellow education reformers for their unwillingness to acknowledge and address the role that family structure plays in influencing school outcomes. The decline of stable two-parent families has stunted millions of children, he says, especially black and brown ones, and “must be confronted head-on.” He insists that it’s wrong not to acknowledge what we have known since the Coleman Report: that personal choices in family formation will have lifelong effects on the school success and upward mobility of children.

Among whites, Rowe notes, nearly 30 percent of births are now out of wedlock. For Hispanics it’s 53 percent. Among African Americans, non-marital births have hit 71 percent. This rate of family disruption, he warns, exerts a force that no amount of money, reform energy, or do-gooder earnestness can fully surmount. Among other responses, Rowe wants schools to draw the attention of their students to the effects of family disruption, and to take the lead in encouraging them not to go down the same road.

Rowe draws heavily on the “Success Sequence” described by Brookings Institution scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill in their 2009 book Creating an Opportunity Society. If a low-income American will simply graduate from high school, find full-time employment, get married, and have a child—in that order—the chance of their falling into poverty as an adult drops to a mere 2 percent. “There is no public policy that comes even close to those kind of results,” says Rowe. He insists schools have a moral obligation to make sure that children growing up in poverty or at risk of falling into it are at least aware of the Success Sequence formula. 

Low-income children in communities with high rates of family instability, he notes, are the least likely to hear about the simple steps that can keep them out of poverty, to grow up with those actions taking place around them as a social norm, or to have parents and other adults in their communities pressuring them to follow the basic inoculations. There is, of course, no guarantee you’ll succeed in school or life just from having two parents, but the odds are overwhelmingly stronger in your favor. “If we don’t acknowledge that, we’re being delusional,” Rowe insists.

Schools praise and condemn behaviors and attitudes all the time. They preach to small children on the virtues of kindness and sharing. They warn middle schoolers of the dangers of smoking, drinking, and drug use. They push their older siblings to attend college. Schools are not neutral and value-free, they are culture-forming machines. If the Success Sequence is the key to upward mobility, Rowe insists it’s irresponsible not to share this in ways that can inform personal decision-making. Rowe has taken issue with progressive educators for their unwillingness to acknowledge and address the role that family structure plays in influencing school outcomes.

If Rowe has found few disciples to join this crusade, that’s because the vast weight of education-reform thought and ideology has veered in an entirely different direction in recent years. Sobered by the lack of major progress despite decades of efforts to close the achievement gap, it is rare to hear education reformers and charter-school executives arguing any more that schools alone can end poverty. But what has replaced that conviction is a belief that poor academic outcomes are largely an effect of racism, particularly an implicit bias against children of color, revealed in things like higher suspension rates among black boys. 

No matter how compelling the data, there is little discussion of marriage and child-rearing norms in schools, even if the leaders of those schools have tightly followed the norms of the Success Sequence in their own lives, and would be deeply disappointed if their own children failed to follow suit. 

Turning families from problems into assets

Robust accumulations of research show that a parent’s involvement in a child’s education correlates strongly with academic outcomes. Educators, however, often interpret “parental engagement” narrowly, using simple acts like whether a parent attends teacher conferences, or has a designated place for a child to do homework, as their indicator.

Recent studies suggest a more sophisticated view of parental involvement is needed. William Jeynes, a professor of education at California State University, Long Beach, points to the importance of “subtle social variables” such as a parent’s expectations of her child’s academic performance, and the quality of parent-child communication. Any school’s success will be linked to its ability to enhance these forms of close parental involvement. 

High levels of mother/father involvement in education “are more easily achieved when parents have chosen a particular school for their child,” Jeynes reports. This is common sense. The very act of being allowed to select one school instead of another fosters parent awareness and discernment. High levels of participation are required and reinforced by educators like Success, from the very start of the school selection process.

Jeynes’s meta-studies also indicate that parental involvement is higher in two-parent homes. This too is unsurprising: parental bandwidth is thereby doubled. Additional benefits accrue, Jeynes has found, when families have strong religious values.

Education reformers and charter-school advocates are often loathe to discuss these kinds of influences for fear of stigmatizing children who come from single-parent homes or those without involvement in a faith community. But that doesn’t make the evidence disappear. “Family factors are even more important than school factors in terms of determining achievement. That’s just a reality,” says Jeynes. His research has demonstrated, for instance, that the achievement gap “mostly goes away” among African-American and Latino students if they can draw on intact families and religious supports.

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At Success Academy, family stability appears to be a significant contributor to student outcomes. While there is no empirical data to prove the point, the phenomenon is observable every morning at the Morris Avenue drop-off in front of Bronx 1, where fathers are present in observably high numbers. Reading to children nightly, staying on top of homework and reading logs, and managing transportation to and from school are more easily achieved when there is family support and unity. Elements of the Success Sequence are honored for practical reasons.

The very thing that Success Academy’s critics most often deride—the perception that the schools are too strict with misbehavior—is often the thing praised most enthusiastically by parents. I lost track of how many moms and dads lauded the school rules, telling me “that’s how I raise my child at home.” For parents who stick with Success Academy, the constant contact, the ceaseless messaging about academic goals, and the steady expectations of compliance with school norms are refreshing and invigorating—and a sharp contrast to the neighborhood public schools, which these parents often see as indifferent to their children.Moskowitz says that her biggest fear is that her school leaders might apply a different set of standards to children just because they are poor.

The focused and uncompromising school culture that Success Academy works so hard to maintain is hardly unprecedented. It is a standard feature at many excellent private schools, gifted and talented programs, and public schools in affluent communities. What’s unusual is simply that Success establishes and vigorously enforces this culture in our poorest neighborhoods. Eva Moskowitz is nearly alone among inner-city educators today in having the backbone and social standing to rally students, parents, donors, and political allies on behalf of safe schools, strict discipline, and high demands for disadvantaged children.

In a meeting with a potential board member, Moskowitz stated that her biggest fear is that her school leaders and teachers might apply a different set of standards to students just because they are poor. “There are a lot of sensibilities around the fragileness of children,” she said. “And I think to myself, ‘You’re a white girl from Long Island; you’re the fragile one. These kids have actually been through a lot. Don’t impose your issues on the kid.”

Teach me!

The most vivid demonstration of how Success Academy parents and students feel about their schools came at the network’s mid-winter “Festival of the Arts.” Featuring theatre, dance, and musical performances from about a dozen Success Academy schools, it was held at Washington Irving High School—which used to be one of New York City’s most notoriously low-performing and persistently unsafe campuses, with a graduation rate below 50 percent, and periodic melees that included stabbings and even one student’s death. The city finally closed the school in 2015. Success Academy Union Square opened in the same building that same year to serve children from the same neighborhoods—producing vastly better results.

Midway through the evening in Washington Irving’s cavernous auditorium the lights come up on stage, revealing a line of six hard-backed wooden chairs and six students wearing identical black hoodies. Two girls stand on the chairs and dance to hip-hop music, while four other children chase one another around. A school bell rings, and the six youngsters (middle schoolers from Success Academy Bronx 2) take their seats. They raise their hands and plead for the attention of an unseen teacher, calling out, “Pick me!” “I’ve got it!” and “I know the answer!” The instructor hisses, “Shhhhh!” and the kids fall silent and sullen. After a moment, one boy rises and starts to speak.

Just so you know, I am not in that percentage of kids that you automatically think drop out of school and head directly to the streets. No! You will not catch me doing that classic nod, drive by, handshake, money in narcotics trade. That is not me. Contrary to your belief, I actually have a desire to go to school and get an education!

The auditorium breaks into murmurs. A few people spontaneously applaud, catching the next student off guard. She pauses before adding her voice:

But you see, the problem is when the condition of the school that I attend is determined by the neighborhood.

Somewhere in the darkened auditorium, a woman lets out a shout. A third girl starts to speak. Feeding off the rising energy in the room, she spits out her monologue angrily, her head bobbing in dagger-like thrusts.

The problem is when my teachers already have preconceived notions on the rate in which I will learn, because they don’t think kids of my social class can retain information as quickly as other kids that attend school in the wealthier part of the city. Therefore, I am not challenged.

Shouts of encouragement from the audience grow louder as the kids recite their lines, one after another.

Because they know that I am already dealing with problems at home, they don’t want to give me a heavier load. And in their eyes they’re helping me. But what they don’t realize is that they are crippling me, making me dependent…. This is not okay with me!

Several voices shout from the audience, “Yes!” and “That’s right!”

Regardless of what you think of me, my destiny is not tied to being in prison or on the streets. I was told the key to a better life is education. So give me the opportunity to obtain it!

All six kids shout in unison: Teach me!

Now the cheers and applause are so loud and sustained that someone backstage mistakenly assumes the piece is over; the stage lights go out. After a few seconds they come back on.

Teach me! Because I have a desire to learn. Because the only way we can successfully lead is if you teach. So teach! Teach me!

At the final “Teach me!” the kids peel off their hoodies and throw them defiantly at their feet, leaving them standing in their Success Academy school uniforms.

A dam bursts. The parents in the auditorium lose their collective minds. Several dozen take up a chant: Teach! Teach! Teach!

The ovation goes on and on.

This is adapted by the editors from the new book How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice by Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

 

How Donors Created Success Academy

The cover of Eva Moskowitz’s 2017 memoir The Education of Eva Moskowitz describes her as the “founder of Success Academy Charter Schools.” Actually, it was a pair of New York hedge-fund managers who dreamed up, tested, and funded the creation of Success. Joel Greenblatt and John Petry then hired Moskowitz. Both men remain members of the Success Academy board of directors today.

The origin story begins in 2002. Greenblatt—a legendary “value investor” who ferrets out companies unappreciated by others—had been riding a nearly two-decade winning streak. Starting with money put up by financier Michael Milken he had grown his fund from $7 million in assets to well over $1 billion, through annual returns averaging 40 percent.

As he grew wealthy, Greenblatt became fascinated with finding what he called “leveraged ways of giving back.” He began looking for teach-a-man-to-fish strategies that could be expanded to help thousands of poor people. “I’m a capitalist,” he told me in his Madison Avenue office in Manhattan. “And the system works as long as everyone has a fair chance. Education is the most efficient way to give everyone a good shot in life. But education is the least fair thing.” 

Greenblatt became convinced that one way to make education fairer might be a school curriculum called “Success for All,” developed by Johns Hopkins professor Robert Slavin. The program was used in 1,700 schools at the time and having some success with poor children. “I gave him a call and said, ‘I’ve looked at your results and you’re getting 40 or 50 percent of kids reading.’” A good start, Greenblatt suggested, but hardly “success for all.” He asked: Is it just money that’s lacking to reach the other half of the students?

Yes, replied Slavin, it’s just money—if it’s spent in the right way. But at most public schools it’s very difficult to maintain tight control and be sure funds are spent usefully. The two agreed to seek a school where they could put “Success for All on steroids,” as Greenblatt called it. 

It proved difficult, and quite frustrating, to find a nimble public school willing to cash the investor’s checks. Eventually Greenblatt ended up at P.S. 65, not far from Kennedy Airport. He recalls telling principal Iris Nelson, “I want to keep spending money until all the kids can read. Not because I’m an idiot. I just want to see how much it would take.”

His investment equaled a thousand dollars per student for five years to cover the cost of Success for All’s curriculum, a cadre of outside tutors, and an aggressive system of assessments and data collection (while common today, data-driven instruction was still novel circa 2002). “Success for All on steroids” led to P.S. 65 winning a state prize for improved performance. Nearly every child who had been at the school for three years or more was reading and doing math on grade level—even special-education students. 

About the same time these results came in, Greenblatt was introduced to New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. He recalls that “the first thing out of Joel Klein’s mouth was ‘You oughta do a charter school.’” By then, Greenblatt’s business partner, John Petry, had become involved in supporting charter schools, and was increasingly interested in starting one. So Greenblatt phoned him over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2004. “You want to open a charter school. I want to replicate P.S. 65,” he pitched. “How about we start a charter school together?” 

The two intensely practical men were seeking a formula that could be replicated, one that didn’t depend on finding saints and superstars as teachers. This became a non-negotiable requirement after Greenblatt and Petry visited some high-performing New York City charters like KIPP Infinity middle school in Harlem. “We were watching this amazing English lesson. I elbowed the assistant teacher and said, ‘Just for my interest, what’s the background of that teacher?’” Greenblatt recalls. She replied that he had been a writer for the television sitcom “Frasier” for five years. “It would be wonderful if everyone could have that teacher,” concludes Greenblatt, “but everyone can’t.” This reinforced his determination to avoid a model built entirely on gifted instructors impossible to duplicate on a large scale. 

The hallways of today’s Success Academy schools show that the Greenblatt and Petry impulse was taken seriously. It has become standard practice for “no-excuses” charter schools to identify classes not by room numbers but by the name of the college the teacher attended. When the Success founders were doing their school visits they saw classroom after classroom named “Harvard,” “Princeton,” or “Tufts” because teachers from those elite schools—typically bright, polished Teach For America corps members—were holding forth inside. 

Today, if you visit a Success Academy you are likely to find children working in classrooms named SUNY Oneonta, Brooklyn College, or Rutgers. At Bronx 1, classrooms bear the names Marist, Fordham, and Iona. One of the most impressive kindergarten teachers I observed was a graduate of Hunter College. Another kindergarten classroom bears the name “BMCC” for Borough of Manhattan Community College. However Success Academy is achieving its results, it has nothing to do with cherry-picking Ivy League grads to enter urban classrooms. 

Petry and Greenblatt insisted that Success Academy schools should eventually run solely on the public funds allotted to charters. “If we spend $40,000 per kid, we’re a private school,” Petry said. Though they were advised not to mention it in their original charter application, they planned from the beginning to go way beyond a single boutique school, or handful of schools. They wanted a formula they could spin up into at least 40 identically successful schools. They thought if they could triumph 40 times, no critic would be able to say Success was just an anomaly.

Eva Moskowitz entered the picture when Petry and Greenblatt were working on their charter application. Her husband Eric Grannis was an attorney they hired to help with the processing. Grannis visited P.S. 65 to see their experiment on the ground. He was barely off the campus, Petry recalls, when “he called Eva and said, ‘You have to see this school.’” 

The former Education Committee chair of the New York City Council, Moskowitz had become a tenacious reformer and frequent jouster with the school bureaucracy and teacher unions. She was running for Manhattan Borough President at the time her husband tipped her off to the P.S. 65 model. “Fortunately for us, she came in second,” smiles Petry. 

Moskowitz found herself talking to Greenblatt and Petry about a possible job. While their charter application was still awaiting approval from the State University of New York, she came in for an interview. “When she walked out of the room,” Greenblatt recalls, “both John and I looked at each other and said, ‘We need to get her to do this.’” They asked her to become the CEO of what would eventually be known as Success Academy. Moskowitz hesitated, telling the two she wasn’t sure that a start-up school could pay the salary of $175,000 she was looking for in her first job out of politics. But Greenblatt, the value investor, had already determined with Petry what the position was worth. “We don’t usually negotiate this badly,” he replied. “How about 250?”

Academy Angels

At crucial points in its development, Success Academy has relied on some of America’s most prominent philanthropists. Angel funders provided the resources to create the original model, develop its curriculum and teaching methods, initiate new schools, expand the model to the middle- and high-school levels, renovate buildings, train new teachers and leaders, defend charter schools from political attacks, and share the lessons of Success with other educators.

Before Success launched, Joel Greenblatt put up $3 million to prove out the general curriculum at P.S. 65. He and John Petry then provided resources to get the first charter up and running in Harlem. The earliest substantial outside philanthropic contribution came from San Franciscan Don Fisher (the prince of school-reform donors, and founder of The Gap retail chain). After his death, wife Doris and son John Fisher continued to be  loyal supporters.

Eli and Edythe Broad (more new-schools royalty) were also early backers. And the first eight-figure gift to Success came from a third California couple, John and Regina Scully. They paid for a rapid expansion that would bring the benefits of Success to as many poor children as possible. Chicago investor Ken Griffin put up $10 million to create new middle schools in Queens and Brooklyn. By 2019 there were 45 Success Academy campuses serving 17,000 children. The network’s goal is to operate 100 schools by 2030.

Some of New York City’s most innovative and generous philanthropists not only make regular gifts to Success but serve on its boards, recruit other donors, and acquaint politicians and opinion leaders with the school’s achievements. Financier Daniel Loeb was particularly important in backing advocacy and lobbying efforts that protected the academy after newly elected mayor Bill de Blasio declared war on charter schools in general and Success in particular. Loeb was an active funder of Families for Excellent Schools—which launched a multimillion-dollar TV ad campaign explaining charters, and organized rallies in Albany and across the Brooklyn Bridge where tens of thousands of parents warned politicians not to strangle these new schools. When Loeb stepped down after serving as Success’s board chair for five years, he and his wife Margaret made a special $15 million benefaction to support Success. Eva Moskowitz described him in her autobiography as “really our Chief Advocacy Officer for children.”

New Yorkers John and Jenny Paulson gave Success $8.5 million to open two middle schools and a high school. The Mercer family became million-dollar donors. Ravenel Curry agreed to serve on the board. And fellow board member Tali Farhadian Weinstein made gifts to open new elementary schools. 

Board member Suzie Kovner and her husband Bruce Kovner have particularly fueled the Success Academy Education Institute, which shares the network’s curriculum, teaching techniques, school design, and financial advice with as many educators as are interested. Roger and Susan Hertog, the Kern Family Foundation, and the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation are also major boosters of that work. Julian Robertson is the Education Institute’s biggest backer. His founding gift was followed by a $25 million grant in 2016, and another of $20 million announced in 2017—all aimed at replicating the brilliant results of Success across the country. Already, tens of thousands of teachers and principals from every state of the union have visited the Institute’s Robertson Center to see how Success Academy achieves its results.  —the editors

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