Success Academy is the largest and most controversial charter chain in New York. By one measure — state test scores — it is the most successful. But over the years they have been embroiled in several significant scandals. The two most prominent was the ‘rip and redo’ incident, where a teacher was caught on tape screaming at and ripping up a paper of a very well behaved young child, and the ‘got to go’ list where a principal created a list of students he planned to either expel or otherwise compel to leave.
But beyond these two high profile scandals, there are thousands of unreported mini-scandals that are just as harmful to the students who suffer them. Over the years hundreds, if not thousands, of families have suffered from the way that Success Academy gets those families to transfer their children out of the school. One trick they use a lot is threatening to leave back — or actually leaving back — students who are passing their classes and the state tests. This was documented nicely in a podcast about them last year. But the most heartless way they get parents to ‘voluntarily’ switch to another school is through coordinated harassment. When Success Academy has students who do not respond to their strict disciplinary code, what they do is start calling the parents day after day and demand that the parents come get their children. Sometimes the phone calls start at 8:00 AM. If the parents are at work and they are not able to come and get the child, Success Academy threatens to call Administration for Child Services (ACS) on them and, in some cases, actually does call ACS or the police or has the child picked up by an ambulance and brought to the emergency room. Even with all this, Success Academy is still the darling of the education reform movement since, I guess, the ends (high state test scores) justify the means (abusing — in my opinion — families and children).
In December 2015, five families of Success Academy students filed a civil suit against them. The five families had similar complaints about how Success Academy created what the lawsuit called a ‘hostile learning environment.’ Many of the children had various disabilities, like ADHD. Some of the court filings that I have read describe how Success Academy did not modify their protocols to address these disabilities. Also in the documents the families filed, we learn that Success Academy was not cooperative during the five year trial.
I had read about this case a few years ago, but had not heard any resolution. But according to a document that was filed about a month ago, I have learned that Success Academy decided to settle the lawsuit with the families by paying them $1.1 million plus legal fees which seem like they might add up to another few hundred thousand.
Something that is significant about this, I think, is that this opens the door to hundreds if not thousands of other families who have had similar treatment by Success Academy. The things that these families suffered were not unusual for Success Academy. It was all the sorts of things I hear about all the time there. Especially with this legal precedent of the ‘hostile learning environment’ I would not be surprised to see a larger class action lawsuit once news about this $1.1 million payout spreads.
We always hear about how charter schools get more flexibility in exchange for greater accountability. But as this lawsuit and settlement show, accountability doesn’t just mean getting high state test scores.