Four Key Elements of Excellence
Eva Moskowitz, Founder & CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools
Success Academy is a New York City charter school network that, with 47 K–12 schools, is the seventh largest school system in New York State. Before I opened my first school in Harlem in 2006, I had never run a school before. To figure out what I wanted for my students, and to develop a school design that incorporated both my own beliefs about education as well as effective practices, I visited dozens of schools across the country — public charter, district, and private. Today, as the highest performing school system in the state (98% of our scholars meet state standards in math, and 93% do so in ELA), I continue to visits schools each year to learn from my peers and inform ongoing refinements and adjustments to our model.
I firmly believe that while there are many different ways to achieve excellence in schooling — great schools can be single sex, or traditional, or progressive, or arts focused — having an explicit school design that is informed by a clear standard of excellence is essential. At Success Academy, our school design consists of several core elements:
SUCCESS ACADEMY EDUCATION INSTITUTE
Launched in 2017, the Success Academy Education Institute is a digital platform that gives teachers and school leaders instant access to the building blocks of Success Academy’s approach to schooling — on demand, and at no cost. This includes our complete K–8 reading curriculum, virtual tours, and blueprints of our elementary, middle, and high school models, and a growing catalog of professional development e-courses for educators.
THE ROBERTSON CENTER
Located in New York’s Hudson Yards neighborhood, the Robertson Center serves as the headquarters for the Success Academy Education Institute. Bringing together a dynamic digital platform, state-of-the-art training facility, and Success Academy’s first K–8 lab school, the Center provides free and open access to the building blocks of our approach to schooling. With a robust calendar of professional development offerings and public programming, the Center offers a one-of-a-kind setting to accelerate the pursuit of outstanding public schools.
1. Academic rigor: We believe that this country severely underestimates the intellectual capabilities of children and that great schools should pitch high so that students experience the benefits of intellectual struggle. For this to happen, strong content and curriculum are critical. We have put enormous effort into filling our curriculum with sophisticated, content-rich texts, fascinating and complex math problems, illuminating science experiments, and questions that provoke deep, analytical thought. As we have developed these materials, we have worked backwards from what we want our kids to know and be able to do when they enter college, and in this regard, having schools that span K–12 helps immensely. When we discover that our high schoolers or middle school students have gaps in necessary knowledge and skills, we make adjustments to our curriculum to ensure they are addressed. Because all our schools share the same curriculum, we can learn from teachers and schools that are delivering the materials with the greatest impact, and incorporate this learning into teacher training.
2. An intensive focus on the adults. We have a saying at Success Academy that while education is for children, it is about the adults. We spend an enormous amount of time and resources on developing our educators, based on the assumption that when our kids aren’t learning, it is adult practice that must change. Our teachers receive 450 hours of training each year (equivalent to 13 weeks). They also receive daily feedback and coaching from instructional leaders, and participate in intensive pre-lesson preparation under the guidance of instructional leaders. Teacher training is deeply embedded in our content and curriculum rather than abstract pedagogy: We believe that in order to facilitate deep understanding and mastery of the content among scholars, teachers themselves must understand the content inside and out.
3. Parent engagement. In my travels across the country, I never saw an excellent school without strong parent investment and the primacy of active parental engagement is an essential component of our school design. We have a few, clear expectations for our families and we staff our schools in a way that allows us to consistently communicate and follow up on these expectations. We ask our families to get their children to school every day, on time, and in uniform, to ensure independent reading and homework is completed, and to respond promptly to teachers, school leaders, and staff members when they are contacted. Our school staff works tirelessly with parents to help them meet these expectations and provides support if parents are facing challenges that make it difficult to follow through. Members of our operations teams do everything from arranging automated wake up calls, to collecting food and clothing donations for parents going through tough times, to helping homeless families navigate the city bureaucracy to receive housing closer to the school!
4. Strong school management. I have never seen a high-performing organization without a theory of management, and at Success Academy, we believe in tight and effective management, of both instruction and school operations. All of our principals know the metrics and benchmarks they must meet and receive support from the central office — data analytics, curriculum, and teacher training teams, as well as school managers — to help them achieve these outcomes. For us, the most important source of data is student work, and we study student work along with our principals and teachers to identify trends and inform adjustments across classrooms and schools that build on successes and address weaknesses. We apply similarly high levels of accountability and support to school operations. Virtually every task that is not related to teaching and learning is handled by operations teams at our schools. These teams have concrete goals and benchmarks and receive support from our network office. Both teams work in tandem to build strong relationships with children and families.
While these components are foundational to our vision of excellence, there are many other vital pieces that we believe contribute to great student outcomes at our schools. We prioritize play for example, with choice time and blocks, recess, board games, field trips, and numerous celebrations and dress up days. We invest enormously in developing our scholars’ passions and talents with chess, debate, sports, arts, and robotics. And we work to build character by modeling and celebrating clearly articulated values.
Ultimately, no one approach to schooling will work for every child, which is why I believe passionately in parent choice. In developing Success Academy’s particular model, which has proven effective for thousands of New York City children, I benefited immensely from my visits to successful schools. Sharing what works and learning from our fellow educators is our best hope for solving the education crisis this country faces, and we hope to similarly support educators by sharing our curriculum and training through our recently launched Success Academy Education Institute and Robertson Center. Only by drawing on the lessons and achievements of successful schools across the country and the globe can we quickly deliver the outstanding education that all our children need and deserve. #