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Staffing Challenges Could Await $100M Bloomberg Gift to Build Success Academy School in the South Bronx

By Asher Lehrer-Small | May 4, 2022

Success Academy Founder Eva Moskowitz presents to an audience in 2014. (Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images)

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A recently announced $100 million donation to Success Academy charter schools by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg will allow the network to move ahead with building a massive K-12 school in the South Bronx, but staffing shortages could prove a major hurdle.

The gift, which roughly matches the entire budget of the Poughkeepsie City School District, will fund a 300,000-square-foot campus, making it the largest charter school in New York City history. The facility will create an additional 2,400 seats for Success Academy students and will become one of only a few schools to span all grades from kindergarten through high school in the city. The network does not expect the school to begin enrolling until the 2025-26 academic year, said spokesperson Ann Powell, and will only accept K-4 students unless they are transferring from another Success Academy school.

Success Academy already owns the land, previously a warehouse holding storage units, where they plan to build the new facility. The designs are pending approval from the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals before the network can break ground. Success Academy, whose 47 schools educate roughly 20,000 students, already has a charter for the new school so it will not run into an issue with the existing state-mandated cap that limits charter expansion in NYC. 

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But finding — and keeping — teachers to staff the new school may be the bigger deterrent.

A current and a former Success Academy teacher in the Bronx both said that staffing shortages and poor retention had reached dire levels.

Shannon Russo said that at his former Bronx school it sometimes took weeks to replace departed teachers, especially in science and math. While positions were empty, students would sometimes have study hall rather than their regularly scheduled lessons, he said.

“The biggest problem is just how unstable it was as a result,” Russo told The 74. “Kids couldn’t reliably believe, ‘I’m always gonna go to science class.’”

He himself left in February after being moved from associate teacher into a lead teaching role that he felt unprepared to fill. With the school’s operations staff seemingly moving in and out through a revolving door, he said he felt unsupported in the classroom and in over his head.

His campus has lost 16 of its 58 faculty members since the fall, the network told The 74.

Young readers at Harlem Success Academy with founder Eva Moskowitz. (Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images)

Another Bronx teacher, who asked that her name not be used for fear of repercussions at work, said her students regularly come up to her and ask, ‘Are you going to stay with us or are you leaving?’ 

The teacher, who does plan to depart in June along with several colleagues, called the Bloomberg donation “tone deaf,” saying it should be used to help already-struggling Bronx schools, not to build a new one. 

The charter network says the new campus will deliver sorely needed learning opportunities to the borough with the lowest high school graduation rate and highest poverty rate in the city. Success Academy schools in the Bronx receive roughly eight applications for every available seat, according to the network.

“We believe now and have always believed that it was our moral obligation to open more schools given the many children assigned to failing schools in New York City. It might be easier and more convenient for us just to focus on our existing schools, but we don’t believe in that,” Powell wrote in an email to The 74. 

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The $100 million gift to Success Academy, paired with a donation of the same amount to the Harlem Children’s Zone, represents some of Bloomberg’s first contributions toward a $750 million initiative to grow the charter sector nationwide announced in 2021. In mid-April, the billionaire pledged $50 million to NYC charter schools to create their own summer learning programs, which he said was separate from the $750 million.

“Over the past two years of school closures and remote instruction, the crisis in public education has grown even worse, especially for low-income students who were already falling behind. Expanding access to high-quality charter schools has never been more important,” Bloomberg said in a press release announcing the gifts to Success Academy and Harlem Children’s Zone.

Michael Bloomberg at New York City’s Lincoln Center in 2019. (Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)

Bronx families seeking a Success Academy education frequently are forced to enroll their children in schools in other boroughs, spelling long, tiresome commutes. Koomson Kyere, who lives in the Fordham Heights section of the Bronx, said that until his daughter got a seat in a nearby school, his wife used to get on the train with their little girl before 6 a.m. to budget time for the trip to her Manhattan school.

Should the network open a Bronx K-12 campus, its first high school option in the borough, Kyere has no doubts about whether to send his children there, he told The 74.

“If I have the chance I will enroll them 100%,” he said, explaining that the family would be grateful to eliminate the otherwise inevitable commute into Manhattan. 

Their experience with the charter network has been “excellent” he said. His younger daughter is a kindergartener and his elder, now in fifth grade, is at the top of her class and has joined the chess club. Citywide, Success Academy scholars outperform their public school peers on state tests.

The father did note, however, that multiple teachers with whom his older daughter started the year have not stuck around, though said the network has been quick to find replacements.

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Staffing woes have plagued schools across the country, with some states mobilizing the National Guard to fill gaps. Schools serving high shares of low-income learners, like the Success Academy campuses in the Bronx, have faced disproportionate challenges.

To remedy the situation, other New York City charter networks, such as Achievement First, are offering a retention bonus for educators who continue through the 2022-23 year. Success Academy has no similar incentive in place for its staff. It does, however, compensate employees who refer job candidates who are hired and stay at least 30 days.

Achievement First is offering a retention bonus for educators who continue through the 2022-23 year. Success Academy is not, despite staffing woes at multiple campuses. 

The charter network acknowledged the staffing struggles, but said that the Bloomberg donation is slated specifically for the purpose of opening a K-12 Bronx campus.

“It’s not that we don’t care about retention,” said Powell. “But it wasn’t that the gift was for that.”

Andrés Anderson spent his early years in the Bronx and now works as a biology teacher at a Success Academy campus in Harlem. His school has seen several employees leave this year, he said, but resources have not been scarce. His classes recently have been dissecting frogs, and he’s grateful the network allows for the expense. To him, the Bloomberg gift and the new Bronx campus are welcome news.

“These kids need a school,” he said. “Let’s try to at least get one of our nice and shiny and amazing schools into the Bronx.”

Charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run, for years have been a matter of fierce debate nationwide and in the country’s largest district. Bloomberg oversaw an explosion of charter school enrollment as mayor, and the sector now serves 143,000 youth, compared to 938,000 in NYC district schools. Charter enrollment rose in the 2021-22 academic year while district enrollment fell, and charter schools serve a higher share of Black, Hispanic and low-income students than NYC Department of Education schools.

Proponents cheer the trend as evidence that families long underserved by their traditional public schools are voting with their feet. Opponents fear that pulling enrollment away from district schools, where the majority of students still attend, drains much-needed resources from the system, which funds campuses on a per-pupil basis.

Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center Law Professor David Bloomfield said the former mayor’s tactics are the wrong remedy.

Bloomberg’s gift “privileges” an already prosperous charter school network, he said, while lowering his taxes through donations to a nonprofit organization. “This is the former mayor of the city of New York who seems to have abandoned the public schools.”

Mayor Eric Adams, Bloomfield predicts, will continue to “have it both ways” by keeping support for charters “on a low boil” while also seeking to improve district schools — though “it’s not clear how [long] he can keep that game going.”

To Bronx parent Selena Carrion, there appears to be a concerning pro-charter consensus emerging among the school system’s key power players. A longtime special educator in the borough, she has watched numerous families switch to charter schools, including Success, only to be disappointed, she said, with a lack of services and what they perceived to be a “militaristic” culture of behavior and discipline.

“It worries me that Bloomberg as well as the current mayor and chancellor all seem to be on board with charter school expansion,” Carrion told The 74.

Disclosure: Campbell Brown sits on Success Academy’s board of directors. Brown co-founded The 74 and sits on its board of directors.

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