Come to Jesus
Effort parties, data walls, reading logs, and “warm/strict” — a look inside Success Academy
For his new book How The Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, And The Battle Over School Choice (Avery, 2019, $27, 384 pages), author Robert Pondiscio spent a year closely observing Success Academy Bronx 1, a charter school in New York City that is part of the Success Academy network. A chapter of the book is excerpted here with the author’s permission.
I catch Carolyn Syskowski’s eye, and she waves me in. Teachers and students at Success Academy are accustomed to a parade of unannounced observers and visitors in their classrooms, but even after six months it’s still my habit to pause at the threshold and wait to be noticed rather than materialize in the back of the room. An orchestral version Frank Sinatra’s “The Way You Look Tonight” is playing softly on the smartboard. Half of her class is at blocks with Ms. Hanania; the rest is working on book reviews—perhaps an aspirational term for the pencil sketches and nascent writing the children labor at, but Syskowski takes their work seriously. She sidles over to a boy who is staring off into space. “Your book review doesn’t make sense,” she says as she takes a seat next to him. I cannot hear the entire conversation, but she makes no attempt to mask her disappointment. She tells the child quietly, “So, tomorrow you can’t go to blocks.”
The boy doesn’t complain or protest, but tears well up in his eyes. “You’re not in trouble; you don’t need to cry,” Syskowski says. Her face remains expressionless; she speaks in an even, matter-of-fact tone. “What were you doing when we did our book reviews? You just sat there.” At no time does she break her direct gaze, which must be uncomfortable, even excruciating, for a five-year-old.
A good teacher can be engaging, nurturing, empathetic, and funny, but must know when it’s time to be exacting and even inflexible. “It’s not ‘I care about you, but you still must serve the consequence for being late,’” explains Doug Lemov, who describes the technique as “warm/strict” in Teach like a Champion, a bible among teachers in urban charter schools, “but ‘Because I care about you, you must serve the consequence for being late.’” Syskowski’s demeanor is warm, but now her voice betrays no more emotion than if she were a postal worker selling stamps. Her expectations have not been met, and there must be a consequence. “It’s OK,” she says matter-of-factly. “You just can’t go to blocks.”
And that’s that. She moves on to another table.
Later, I remark to Syskowski that I lack the capacity not to crumple at the sight of a five-year-old’s tears. She expresses regret that the boy will miss blocks, which is “important for social and emotional learning,” and because her class is learning three-dimensional shapes—she gestures to a poster she created that hangs on her classroom wall featuring prisms, cylinders, cones, cubes, and spheres—but she does not second-guess her decision. “I sat with you. I helped you. And you had one sentence that didn’t make sense,” Syskowski says. “You know the deal.”
I observe that this is the first time I’ve seen a child cry in her room, and she flashes the enormous grin that she regularly beams at the students gathered around her on the rug during read-alouds and number stories. Like every other early-childhood teacher at Success Academy, Syskowski builds classroom culture and strong work habits through the use of rewards, including “effort parties,” to recognize not grades but persistence. After the first effort party in Syskowski’s classroom, which not every child earned the right to attend, “we had no one crying,” she says. “I was telling Olivia [Hanania], ‘This is weird. Usually we have kids crying!’ But they said to me, ‘I didn’t do my best.’ We really don’t have a lot of crying in this class.” Her students know the deal.
Still, not all is well in Hunter College, as the classroom is called after Syskowski’s alma mater and to give students an early idea that college is within their reach. The unusually wide range of academic levels troubles Syskowski. Next to the smartboard is a vertical chart with the large block letters A through D. Clothespins with each child’s name cling alongside each letter, indicating their individual reading level. Success Academy follows the “leveled reading” system developed by reading researchers Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, which starts at Level A early in kindergarten and reaches Level Z, usually by the end of eighth grade. It’s the end of January, and the majority of her students are stuck on Level B. “I usually have way more Cs by this time,” Syskowski says, frowning. There’s a creeping concern that something is just “off” this year. Lateness is up and attendance is down in all three kindergarten classrooms. Parent engagement is not as focused or energetic as the other teachers would like and have grown accustomed to; parents haven’t been taking advantage of the open-door policy either. “I’m used to parents calling me nonstop. I’m used to parents coming in and setting up meetings, and I’ve only had a handful this year,” Syskowski says. The teachers have called a “Come to Jesus” meeting for all the kindergarten parents this afternoon.
At the end of the school day, Syskowski and Matt Carnaghi empty their classrooms of their kindergarten-size chairs and arrange them in three rows in the open area adjacent to Liz Vandlik’s office. The children are held for dismissal, forcing parents to come upstairs and listen to the teachers before picking them up. At 3:45 p.m. sharp, Syskowski launches in. “The reason we’re having a meeting together is because there’s a lot of work to be done. We need to come together as a Bronx 1 community and figure out what’s going on and set goals.” She scans the thirty adults seated before her in chairs meant for five-year-olds. “As you can see, right now we have a meeting for ninety children and this is the parent turnout. It’s not good.”
Syskowski walks them through the reading benchmarks for kindergarten. “It’s January. A number of our children are still Level A or pre-A, which means they don’t know how to read.” The kindergarteners will be tested again in February, by which time they’re all expected to be at Level C. If the point is lost, Syskowski lays it out plainly. If their children are not at Level C by the end of February, they are unlikely to reach Level D by the end of the school year. “If they do not reach D, they do not go to first grade,” she says, “Do not. Period.” She pauses to let the message sink in, then repeats it. “They will not go to first grade if they’re not a Level D. That has been said before, and I’m just restating it.”
Now that she has the parents’ full attention, Syskowski pivots from reading levels to school culture and expectations—for adults. “A lot of you are brand new to Success Academy. We know it’s a new world,” she tells them. “We want you to ask questions. We know what we teach here is a little different. It’s different than the way you learned and the way we learned. We received a lot of training and we know this is the best way that children learn. If there are things that you need, you need to ask. So, this is us reaching out, having that parent meeting and saying, ‘Here we are. This is our space. And we need to talk because we’re not meeting benchmarks.’”
The benchmarks Syskowski is referring to are not only the reading-level chart in her classroom but achievement levels of the kindergarteners relative to dozens of other Success Academy schools. “Other schools within our network over in Brooklyn, in Manhattan and Queens, their children are reading at benchmarks,” she says pointedly. “All of us in this room are not doing enough for our kids. The children in Brooklyn and Queens and Manhattan can do it, and our kids can’t, even though we all have the same curriculum, we all have the same training.”
There are no secrets in a Success Academy school. Classrooms and hallway “data walls” leave little to no doubt which children—by name—are at, above, or below academic standards. This can be off-putting to some parents and has been attacked by critics outside the network. On the other hand, it is the rare student in any school who isn’t aware of who the standouts and strugglers are in class. Success Academy puts it on the wall for all to see. Syskowski begins to spin a sobering tale of the trajectory children can find themselves on in the absence of energetic efforts. “First grade is a huuuuge literacy year,” she says. “If we don’t set them up in kindergarten, they will drown.” The parents sit silently. “We need to step it up.”
Carnaghi has been standing alongside Syskowski, nodding stoically. He introduces himself as a “first-year LT,” or lead teacher, then adds almost apologetically, “I’m pretty resourceful and here for you guys.” But it’s Syskowski’s intervention, and she’s just getting started. Her tone is unfailingly warm and encouraging—she wants to win the parents over and make common cause, not alienate or antagonize them—but her words are unsparing. Standing behind the rows, I cannot see all the parents’ faces, but most appear to be nodding along. If there’s discontent with Syskowski’s brand of tough love, there’s no sign of it. “If your children are late or they’re not here, we can’t teach them,” she says. “We really need you to get your children here by 7:45 if not 7:30.” The first moments of each day, kindergarteners have breakfast with their class, and teachers do a “re-teach,” working with individual children on skills in which they’ve fallen behind. “If they are not here on time or not here at all, we can’t do that,” she says. “We have some children in this grade who’ve already been absent eleven times. Anytime I’m sick, I come here. I can’t afford to lose that day with your children. At the same time, your child cannot miss that day with any of us. We’re here, we need to be here, we want to be here, and every second is really . . .”
A toddler starts crying loudly, drowning her out, and without breaking pace, Syskowski orders the toddler’s sister, Rama B., one of her students with a serious, almost adult face, to take her into a nearby classroom. Syskowski is rolling now and doesn’t want to lose her audience, which now fills all the chairs and spills down the hall. “You want your child to go to college. You sent them here to a college-bound school. Our philosophy is that every single child goes to college and it starts when they’re five. I know that you want that for them, because that’s why you brought them to Success Academy. At the same time, it’s a daily grind. You need to put that work in to get them there.”
Syskowski asks for a show of hands. “Whose child is reading at a Level A right now?” A few hands go up. If the parents are aware of their child’s reading level, many more hands should be in the air. Carnaghi scans the room and jumps in. “There’s one,” he points and calls out. “Two. Anyone else? There are plenty here.” It is impossible to tell if the parents don’t know, don’t want to reveal that their child is below benchmarks, or are feeling called out and embarrassed. “We want to get it out there. You’re not alone!” Syskowski implores, trying to encourage more parents to own up and join in.
“Level B?” More hands go up. “There’s three, four, five,” Carnaghi counts off. By the time she gets to Level D, only one hand is up. “So that means out of everyone here, we have one child who is ready for first grade,” Syskowski says, growing quiet. “We’re a community of parents. Use each other to help each other. I know you guys have daily struggles as parents. I’m not a parent, so I don’t know that struggle. I know that struggle as a classroom teacher when I’m with your scholar and really pushing them, and they’re like, ‘Ms. Syskowski, this is hard,’” she says plaintively. “And yeah, it’s hard.”
Syskowski’s urgency is not misplaced. By January, the children should be learning to read. Midway through kindergarten, they should recognize and be able to name and write upper- and lowercase letters. They are acquiring those “print concepts,” such as understanding the basic structures of a book and that text moves from left to right, even if they are not fully able to decode the printed word. Five-year-olds are also developing phonological awareness, such as recognizing syllables, rhymes, and “phonemes,” the forty-four units of sound that make up every word in the English language. An essential literacy building block at this age is beginning “sound-symbol relationships” and the ability to read consonant-vowel-consonant words like “cat” and “dog.” Syskowski and her colleagues do not expect parents to be surrogate reading teachers or to have a nuanced understanding of these skills or progressions. But they nonetheless put a heavy lift on parents to read nightly with their children and to monitor and ensure that they are reading at home—something affluent parents tend to do reflexively, often without even knowing why.
“We’re seeing two really big issues,” Syskowski says. “Your reading logs still have your scholars’ books on them. They can read those books by themselves. Those are not the books that go on the reading logs,” she instructs. The reading logs are for books that parents read aloud. Very young children can understand even sophisticated texts when they are read aloud, which, research indicates, helps them develop as readers by exposing them to new vocabulary and allowing them to hear mature readers’ fluent pronunciation and expression. Kindergarteners should also spend twenty minutes reading independently at home each night. “That doesn’t mean they read on their own, you go do laundry. It. Is. Challenging. I hear you. We need that patience and excitement to tell them, ‘You know what? You are a great reader, and you can do this.”
Carnaghi has been largely silent, but now it’s his turn to take the lead. Reading logs must be completed 100 percent of the time. “If we look cross grade right now? Ninety percent. Ninety-two percent. Eighty-six percent,” he says, indicating the compliance rate in each of the kindergarten classrooms. “It’s not getting done.” If any other elementary schools in the neighborhood asked parents to maintain reading logs, 90 percent compliance would be a cause for celebration. Here it’s a crisis. “The reason we’re so on you about these reading logs is because it sets up routines, right?” he continues. “These routines help build up memory skills, problem-solving skills. These are all cognitive skills. If you’re not at home constantly building those, your child will not be successful.” There is a long pause as Carnaghi and the parents stare at one another. “Really cold, hard fact. You really need to listen. You need to hear it. Like hear it.”
This is one of the first times I’ve seen Carnaghi “on.” While few restrictions have been placed on my observations, Vandlik asked early in the school year that I “give Mr. Carnaghi some room.” As a new teacher who expected to be an associate, not lead, teacher, it seemed an undue burden to be under an outsider’s microscope, unhelpful to him and a distraction to his students. As a result, I’ve barely set foot in his classroom. Like so many of his colleagues, he radiates earnestness, even as he tries to play bad cop to Syskowski’s good. “One in six children in our community who are not proficient readers, by third grade—forget about college. They’re going to have a really hard time passing high school,” he says.
It’s suddenly hard to hear over the delighted squeals of kindergarteners playing in the classroom behind me, unaware of the high-stakes conversation we are having about them. But the grim urgency Carnaghi is trying to communicate is not misplaced. Failure starts early in communities like Mott Haven. Nearly 90 percent of U.S. first graders who struggle in reading are still struggling in fourth grade; three out of four third-grade readers who are below grade level are still below grade level in ninth grade; and one in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade do not graduate from high school on time—a failure rate four times greater than among proficient readers. If the ninety-odd kindergarteners of Bronx 1 steer clear of this grim vortex of failure that has been all but inevitable for children in this community for generations, it will be in no small part due to what Syskowski, Carnaghi, and the rest of the kindergarten teachers are doing this year—aided and abetted by fully engaged parents.
“I assume right now that every single parent in this room knows exactly how to teach that kid because nobody comes up to me and asks me, ‘What can I do? How can I help my child? Is there anything else I can do?’” Carnaghi is making demands, almost hectoring, but his tone is plaintive, nearly pleading. “We’re here for your kids. But you’re not showing us that you’re here for your kids right now, because these routines are not getting set up. If you need to know what to do, raise your hand now.”
Syskowski takes up the call. “Any question at all!”
Now there are lots of hands. Parents ask about how to handle behavior problems at home. One says she has a hard time getting her child to focus. Another mother expresses frustration at how poorly her child is performing on sight-word quizzes. “When he’s in the house, he does the work perfectly fine. But when he comes here, I guess he gets a little bit scared. Whenever we do words in the house—‘they,’ ‘were,’ ‘was’—he does it perfect. When he gets here, he usually gets one right or two right. Sometimes he gets all three right. So, I’m a little bit . . .” She trails off.
“Think about environment, right?” Carnaghi replies. “At home, your child is in such a relaxed environment. Do you time him?” Mom says no. “Start timing him. Get him used to timing in both environments. When he’s at home, he gets all the time in the world, he’s relaxed. That’s not a problem. But if you really want to see something different, put on a timer.” In other school settings, the suggestion that parents time their children, conduct weekly tests of sight words at home, or be forced to sit and listen to their child’s teacher lecturing them that they’re not living up to their parental responsibilities would cause an insurrection. But none of the parents raise an eyebrow, whether out of deference, intimidation, a shared sense of urgency, a reluctance to make waves, or some combination of these factors. Carnaghi adds, “Being timed makes anybody anxious, right?” He turns to the crowd. “Silent thumbs-up if that’s what makes it anxious for you?” and many turn their thumbs up while several chuckle audibly. “It’s not easy!”
“We have an open-door policy here,” Syskowski reminds them, returning to her main theme. “Tell us the time you’re scheduled to be off from work. Tell us the time you want to come in. Schedule some time. Please!”
Syskowski calls on a mother who is having trouble keeping her child’s frustrations in check. “Nyelle has that same problem. If she doesn’t know a word like ‘what,’ she actually gets angry. She cries and then we have to end it,” she explains. “I feel like she’s a little behind. I know she’s got a C, but I feel like she should already be at D. But the last, maybe, two weeks, we had to shut down early because she gets so emotional.” Syskowski senses a teachable moment. “You said something really awesome I wanted to get out in the open. Nyelle is very much a high-flier in my class. It’s very hard for me to challenge her, because she gets it in a snap,” she explains, pointing at the mother, but directing her comments to the whole group. “Right now, Nyelle’s mom is saying she’s really not doing her best. Yes, a C is past where we need to be right now, but knowing your child and saying, ‘That’s not good enough,’ keeps that bar high. Yes, it is going to be frustrating, and we will give you strategies to handle that frustration. They totally get frustrated here.”
“We had a visitor in our class today, and he was like, ‘That’s the first time I saw tears’ today,’” Syskowski adds, and I realize she’s talking about me. She tells the parents what happened with the little boy who won’t be going to blocks tomorrow. “That was really tough for him to hear. At the same time, did I say, ‘It’s OK if you don’t finish your book review?’” Now it’s Syskowski who starts to tear up. “No. It’s not OK. Because why would I let him fail when other kids are surpassing it and they’ll go to first grade? You would not want me as your child’s classroom teacher. You would not want Mr. Carnaghi or Ms. Skinner to be your child’s teacher if we were like, ‘You know what? You’re right. It is really hard. Let’s just let them be a B.’” How about if they get two out of the four sight words correct? ‘That’s good enough.’ Where are they going to be in thirteen years? Then we won’t talk about college. And that’s something that . . .” Syskowski lowers her gaze to the floor. “I get chills. That’s something that’s really hard for me to . . .”
Syskowski doesn’t finish the thought. She can’t. She’s crying. “I do get emotional. Because your children are amazing. They are absolutely amazing. I try to . . .” She quickly gathers herself. “We will never lower that bar because it’s too hard. We will figure out other paths to get to the destination.” She hammers every word—“Other. Paths. To get to the destination.” She adds, “We will not lower it.”
Syskowski is spent. The meeting breaks up with a smattering of applause from the parents, who pull on their coats, collect their kids, and begin to melt away down the hallway. Vandlik emerges from her office and shoots me a smile as she heads down the hall toward the main office. It’s the biggest tell of the afternoon. In most schools, this kind of whole-grade, all-hands-on-deck meeting would be a major event. At Bronx 1, the principal didn’t even participate.
As I join the crowd heading down the stairs and out into the lengthening late-afternoon shadows on Morris Avenue, it occurs to me that what I have just witnessed was not a parent-teacher meeting, but a Rorschach test, one that reinforces whatever preconceived notions people have about Success Academy, charter schools, and even the entire testing-and-data-driven education reform movement. If you’re so inclined, you can see a pair of privileged white teachers spending thirty minutes dressing down parents, many their own age, and all of them low-income people of color whose lives they can understand only in the abstract. If you take a dim view of all this, you see children reduced to data points and the pitiless transparency of it all—the data walls, the immutable trajectories of five-year-old lives based on their kindergarten reading level. You see warning and rebuke, delivered like the Ghost of Christmas Future, with a wagging finger—the shadow of things to come if parents don’t wake the hell up, step up, and get with the program.
Or you can see Carolyn Syskowski, with her giant heart and Pez-dispenser grin, who calls every student “love bug” and spends hours each day on the floor with other people’s children, wipes their noses, pulls on their coats, sends them home, and then worries into the night about their reading and math scores. You can see, if you are so inclined, an unusually gifted and competent teacher, with emotional gears you cannot fathom, who can issue a consequence to a five-year-old like a bank examiner rejecting a loan, then an hour later bring herself to tears in front of a hundred strangers when for a single moment she catches herself weighing the cost of not doing so.