Implement “Joyful Learning” in Virginia’s Poorest Performing Elementary Schools

Eva Moskowitz

by James C. Sherlock

I wrote in a previous post of the astonishing record of New York City’s Success Academies in achieving the highest scores in the state of New York on that state’s standardized tests with some of the most economically disadvantaged students.  

I write this time with the great news that there is absolutely no impediment to implementing the Success Academy model in Virginia schools.

I will also offer a very straightforward way to get there.

Virginia’s regs based on achieving standards, not how

I have reviewed the Virginia’s Board of Education’s Regulations Establishing Standards for Accrediting Public Schools in Virginia.    

The methodologies for achieving the SOL-based standards are left by the state to each individual school. 

Virginia Schools that Need Help

I have from VDOE databases identified elementary schools that both draw from similar urban demographic populations as New York City’s Success Academy and are failing their students based on SOL results. 

They are clustered in Danville, Norfolk, Richmond and Newport News.

I suggest these schools form a coalition through their districts and pursue together conversion to the Success Academy model with the assistance of Success Academy itself, which generously offers largely free assistance to such efforts.  

There is no reason in Virginia for these failing elementary schools to seek designation as charter schools or permission from the VDOE to make the conversion.

I also suggest that any funding necessary for the effort can be successfully requested from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation  or similar foundations.  Success Academy can be consulted on that matter as well.  

The Success Academy Education Institute  welcomes teachers and administrators to share its processes and results.

The worst performing elementary schools on at least one of 2019 SOL tests in English Reading, History and Social Sciences, Science and Math, the VBOE’s  standard of achievement, are in Alexandria (1), Arlington (1), Danville (4), Fairfax County (1), Harrisonburg (1), Henrico (3), Newport News (4), Norfolk (5), Petersburg (2), Portsmouth (1), and Richmond (6).  

Of those, the schools that had lowest grades in two of the tests were:

  • Edwin A. Gibson Elementary Danville
  • Horace H. Epes Elementary Newport News
  • Lindenwood Elementary, Norfolk
  • Southside STEM Academy at Campostella , Norfolk

Of those, the schools that had the lowest grades in at least 3 of the 4 testing categories were:

  • Woodrow Wilson (Danville), 
  • Jacox Elementary (Norfolk), 
  • James Monroe Elementary (Norfolk), 
  • St. Helena Elementary (Norfolk), 
  • Blackwell Elementary (Richmond), 
  • Fairfield Court Elementary (Richmond), 
  • George W. Carver Elementary (Richmond) and 
  • Woodville Elementary (Richmond).

I urge them all to make the change for next year.  Twelve schools is a large enough number for the results to be statistically significant in a pilot program and they will not skewed by a badly implemented plan in one or two schools.

The Success Academy Model

Get a welcome from the scholars of Success Academy.

Go to and click on the virtual school video to see Eva Moskowitz  discuss her schools and the philosophies that guide them.

Close that video on the website and see  “Our Culture, How We Operate, Literacy, Math, Critical Thinking, The Whole Child and Beyond our Walls” by clicking on each in the scale along the top.

See Lessons in Action Videos Read Aloud, Number Stories, Aerodynamics and Soccer Practice

See what they are doing with remote learning at SA Remote 2.0.   

The Success Academy Education Institute  welcomes teachers and administrators to share their process and its results.

See Success Academy Robertson Center teacher training academy.

See K-12 Remote Learning Resources

Read curriculum guides for Elementary school, Middle school and High school

Just Do It

For the School Boards and Superintendents of Danville, Norfolk, Richmond and Newport News schools, there is everything to gain and no excuses available. 

I recommend they do it in preparation for next year.

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31 responses to “Implement “Joyful Learning” in Virginia’s Poorest Performing Elementary Schools”

  1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    James, I am a little confused. In an earlier post, you offered E.D. Hirsch as a model for education. He stressed imparting a body of knowledge and rejected the John Dewey emphasis on experiential learning. However, in the Success Academy, “We capture our scholars’ imaginations by introducing them to fascinating subject matter and pressing them to do the intellectual heavy lifting, constantly asking them “why?” “how can you prove that?” and “what is the evidence?” We want our scholars to recognize and embrace the power of their own ideas, so teachers limit direct instruction and focus on encouraging independent thinking and problem solving in their classrooms.” That certainly sounds child-centered and experiential.

    The lesson I draw from this is that there is not necessarily one, magic model.

    As for educational models, especially for younger children, I am a great fan of Montessori schools. Maria Montessori was teaching poor children in Italy when she developed her approach and was enormously successful. Our daughter attended a Montessori school during her pre-K and kindergarten years and thrived. I have long thought that Virginia should use this model for early children, but it will not happen because one needs special training to do it right and the education schools do not include this training in their curricula.

    1. sherlockj Avatar

      Her courses are very much based on Hirsch’s Common Core, which she credits for inspiring her efforts. If you look a her classes, they are very disciplined, but also joyful.

      So it starts with that, and then has branched from that base to provide the most advanced education to poor Black and Hispanic children ever seen in America. She calls her students scholars and treats them as such, and they respond in kind.

      She has also been very generous with her assistance to any one else who wants to follow. I didn’t provide the links, but individual lesson plans are available online.

      Under Virginia law and regulation the Norfolk, Richmond, Danville and Newport News Schools don’t need to ask permission, which is huge.

      They can likely also do it without a lot of funding support because Success Academy will give them so much help for free.

      Even there, financial support is available from the foundations if they need it without asking the state for money.

  2. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Hirsch and Dewey struggle with the idea of knowledge and experience. Both are sequential thinkers who believe one or the other must come first. But the truth is knowledge and experience must occur at the same time in a conflicted yet symbiotic relationship. I can think of one guy who achieved this. Elliot Wigginton and his Foxfire program down in North Georgia. Wigginton sent students into the backwoods of southern Appalachia to interview the mountain people. What those students accomplished is remarkable. They were able to record, learn, do hands on work with the old time traditions, and then expand the knowledge base. Wigginton did a good job of prepping the kids with a strong background before students ventured out for the interviews and experiences. When they returned he expanded the knowledge base by showing students how to do something with what was just acquired.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      This recalls the US military educational experience. Parris Island was the finishing school of many high school graduates who did not go to college or complete it. And also, in times of depression, think of the Civilian Conservation Corps of 1930s. The St. Michael’s Maritime Museum in Talbot County Md. is also building on this work and learn concept as to boat building. These sorts of programs get many kids back on, or on, track for their entire lives.

      1. sherlockj Avatar

        The modern military offers not only the initial training of which you write, but also both advanced skills training in their almost innumerable technical fields and formal education from high school completion to doctorates, all paid for by the services and the modernized GI Bill.

  3. Jim’s idea of bringing Success Academies to Virginia is a wonderful one. It makes me wonder why it hasn’t been done already. The obvious answer is that any effort was (or would be) met by overwhelming resistance from the educational status quo.

    It would be interesting to know if any such efforts have been made before, and what the result was.

    The common assumption is that the number one priority of educators and school boards is to do what’s best for the children. That, of course, is a ludicrous proposition. It might have been true once, but it no longer is. The state educational bureaucracy and many school districts have become test beds for left-wing ideologues to put their social-justice theories into practice. Inviting Success Academies to Virginia would constitute an admission of failure and, even worse, a loss of power and a reversal of the ideologies and practices behind that failure.

    Jim’s proposal is likely to encounter bitter resistance. But it’s worth a try.

    1. sherlockj Avatar

      I think the school boards try to do the right thing. Sometimes they get bad advice and sometimes make decisions with which I don’t agree, but I can’t say that they don’t care.

      I have sent the appropriate letter today by email to the superintendents of the four school districts listed in the post. They need not ask permission from anyone but their school boards. I feel confident they will give it serious consideration.

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead V

        Most school board members lack institutional knowledge and are forced to rely on the expertise of the superintendent and education bureaucracy. They really are at a severe disadvantage.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      There are actually some school boards in Virginia that have Conservatives on them. In my county, we’ve seen them get elected at the last election and they have asserted their views – not a majority yet. Most parents that are middle and higher income actually want as many more programs in the schools that they can successfully lobby for.

      So what would it actually take if a local school board was supportive of doing that?

      I’ve always supported competition to public schools. I don’t agree with all the right wing stuff but as I have said before, as long as these competitors are as transparent and accountable as public schools – I’d totally support their creation – and if they actually do demonstrate more “success” for economically disadvantaged kids, then it’s a win-win.

      But to also point out that existing public school systems like Fairfax and Henrico actually have some of the best educated kids in the state – but at the same time in their own school districts – they have schools with terrible SOL scores and it’s somewhat inexplicable how that can be if they’re using a standard curricula and equivalently qualified teachers, etc.

      So far, no one in BR has really given an explanation for why the SOL scores in the larger systems like Henrico are so disparete but that is part of the reason I support competition. I don’t know exactly what the problem is but suspect that economically disadvantaged kids are much harder to educate and there simply is not enough money to staff to that need in the schools that are located in low-income zip codes.

    3. sherlockj Avatar

      Larry, my suggestion does not have to be implemented by Success Academy. In fact, there is no reason that it has to be implemented as a charter school. There is no reason that the superintendents, should they choose to do so, could not implement it in an existing elementary school or schools one grade per year at a time starting at kindergarten. There is nothing about the method that precludes public school teachers from implementing it.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Okay, so you’re looking for the existing public schools to re-make their elementaries by modelling the Success Academies design and process.

        I’m not opposed to that at all but a little skeptical that the same school system that some criticize for various reasons and called “leftist” is actually going to support that. The best chance of that would be for a School Board in a more conservative region probably.

        When I see a system like Fairfax and Henrico with top notch SOL at some of their schools and really terrible SOLs at other schools – something needs to change – even if it is “disruptive”.

        I have to say that Pre-K is important for this. My teacher friends tell me that economically-disadvantaged start out behind and never catch up unless teachers stick with them all them K-6 and get them into middle school with acceptable reading and literacy skills.

        1. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
          James Wyatt Whitehead V

          “When I see a system like Fairfax and Henrico with top notch SOL at some of their schools and really terrible SOLs at other schools – something needs to change – even if it is “disruptive”.

          Mr. Larry that is exactly what George Allen attempted to do when SOLS were implemented. Create a disruptive force and a system of accountability to lurch outcomes forward. The fallacy of Allen’s program was the resources. Cash and the best teachers were needed at the failing schools. Year round schooling was needed at the feeling schools. Before and after remedial programs and Saturday school were needed. Allen simply made rigorous demands on school districts and they had to do it with the same PRE SOL resources. That is why nothing has changed in 20 plus years.

        2. sherlockj Avatar

          I am not “looking” for any particular mode of implementation. That is why owe have school superintendents. I don’t care whether they invite Success Academy to open schools in their districts, create charter schools with local people on the Success Academy model, or implement the process in an existing elementary school.

          The key thing is leadership. That leadership – principals, AP’s, counselors and teachers, will need to be trained at Success Academy Education Institute and spend some time in SA classrooms to prepare.

          They may be able to do all of that virtually, but it will likely cost money, and I recommend the source of money be the foundations like Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation rather than the state.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    I was under the impression that Success Academies do enrollment by lottery.

    Folks support that (lottery) for having that kind of academy in Virginia?

    Also… how would we assure that they would not become infested with leftists also?


  5. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    The idea driving the success of the Success Academies has nothing to do with politics. The idea driving the Success Academies is teaching children how how succeed and be successful in life. This includes teaching children how to, and giving children the tools they need to, be highly functional and productive members of their community, society, and families.

    1. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead V

      Mr. Reed I couldn’t agree with you more. I dived into Captain Sherlock’s link. Success Academies is impressive. One person can still make a difference.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    Well… is it a realistic path to success type academies through the existing public school system? How should Success Academies be instituted?

    The better chance is rural but they have much smaller school systems and don’t seem to have the types of problems the bigger school districts have with some schools top notch SOL-wise and others just terrible.

    If it is felt that the public school systems are mostly opposed to charters and “success” academcies… is there a realistic path with those systems?

    Let me point out once again – that Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun, Henrico produce some of the highest academically performing kids in the state and many of them go onto Colleges/Universities that have good reputations and tougher academic standards.

    So, we’re talking about kids on the other end – kids in the 3rd grade who are getting SOL Reading scores of 50 or worse….

  7. sherlockj Avatar

    For those of you interested in the next level of detail in how Success Academy does what it does using the elementary school example go to and play the videos.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      SOLs came from the No Child Left Behind law if not mistaken and the Every Student Succeeds Act followed it. But the thing they both did was mandate a standard and transparent way to measure academic performance.

      And the thing to be aware of is that right now, today, we would not know the situations of the economically-disadvantaged kids (nor the success of the Asian kids) if we did not have that law that mandated the tests and the public release of the testing data.

      For years, decades prior to that law we (Virginia) really did not seem to have such a standard publically available as far as I know (perhaps James knows different?)

      And now, we take it for granted and use it as the basis to condemn the performance of the Virginia public school system, but if we did not ALSO require that transparent standard for schools that will challenge the public schools, we will not accomplish much other than to essentially hide the academic performance – once again – and thus actually go backward.

      Retaining that mandated testing and transparency would be an adantage of trying to do this through the existing public school system and a disadvantage of trying to do it outside the public school system unless those challengers were also required to test and provide results.

      So Success Academies DO use standardized testing (not SOLs) to transparentlly demonstrate that they are successful.

      For me, any such endeavor in Virginia would also have to do that .

      But I don’t see the public schools doing it and to be honest, a lot of the commentary here in BR about public schools makes me wonder if those critics would even want public schools to do “success academies” since they’ve been acused of being leftists who want to indoctrinate with CRT and such.

      Kind of a dual message… Condemn public education but then expect them to stand up Success Academies..

      Who knows, stranger things have happened?

      1. sherlockj Avatar

        You’ve gone too far. You wrote:

        “a lot of the commentary here in BR about public schools makes me wonder if those critics would even want public schools to do “success academies” since they’ve been accused of being leftists who want to indoctrinate with CRT and such.”

        If you spent some time on the website and understood the pedagogy of Success Academy, you would understand that it is not political.

        If you understood CRT, you would understand that the spectacular results of Success Academy students on New York State’s standardized tests given the demographics of the test takers is the ultimate rebuke to CRT in general and Virginia’s Secretary of Education in particular. Those results prove that he is not only wrong to want to eliminate standardized tests, but a moron for not knowing that there is a better course of action.

        Finally, if you know anyone who posts or comments on this blog that you think does not want the best education possible for Virginia school children, state their names. If not, ball is in your court.

        Get it together.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          Probably talking past each other again. Let’s assume that Success Academies are totally apolitical, I’ll accept that they are.

          We’re NOT saying that about the public schools. We’re saying they are, instead, leftist and indoctrianting with CRT, etc. Correct?

          WHY would we think the public schools that are now teaching CRT – would agree to support Success Academics as separate from their policies? What makes us think the public schools would want anything to do with Success Academy much less support them?

          So yes, we all support the best for kids – but not the same way.

          And the critics here have been pretty critical of the public schools, no?

          If we think the public schools are hard over on stuff like CRT – why would they want to support schools their most severe critics want?

          I’m NOT arguing against them. I support them – with caveats – but I just don’t see the public schools supporting them if they are being advocated by their critics…


      2. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead V

        SOLS were first. 1997. The first state wide attempt at measuring student achievement was Doug Wilder’s Literacy Passport Test. 1994 I believe.
        Supposedly you could not go to high school until 8th graders passed the test. It was a well intended idea but impossible to work for the same reasons as SOLS.

    2. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead V

      Captain Sherlock those were some good videos. One thing that jumped out. Uniforms. It should be a statewide mandate. It would make a teachers day so much smoother not having to worry about dress code violations. Uniforms help create a sense of purpose and structure that is absent from the modern classroom.

  8. sherlockj Avatar

    Stop trying to outguess it, Larry.

    Every school district in the state has a superintendent. Some of those school districts are rich enough to do anything they wish. If they want to do this, they certainly can.

    Others are poor, some so small that they have only one elementary school. Those can also do it, but would need financial help to get started, and probably to pay for continuing support from Success Academy Education Institute.

    Some are relatively large urban districts with poor performing schools, with demographics on the model of some parts of some of the boroughs in New York City served by Success Academy. It is those district superintendents to whom I wrote, suggesting they take a look, because they can directly relate to the problem.

    I would not bother to write the superintendents of Fairfax or Loudon Counties. If they haven’t figured it out already, they won’t be likely to make any changes because of a note from me – or you.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      I’m basically fairly pragmatic. I try to think how some externally-suggested thing like this would be received by most school districts, superintindents, school boards, etc.

      Strangely enough, I can see quite a few BOS supporting it but they would run into virtual buzzsaws… on some of the school districts – at least the ones I’m familiar with.

      So this would be a “beach-head” type thing where you try to get one or two districts to do it then build on that success.

      And there is a risk – because if these alternative schools walk and talk like the schools during massive resistance, it will blow up big time.

  9. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    I wrote this about Success Academy in June of this year on this blog at The Post-COVID World: More Home Schooling:

    “In reply to WayneS.

    WayneS says:
    “I know it’s not scientific, I know it’s not scientific, but have you ever tried to take an important test while someone else in the room was shouting, talking, running around, slapping you in the back of the head, or smoking a joint directly behind you and blowing the smoke over your shoulder?”

    Actually, your point about discipline in classroom is Absolutely Essential to student learning and achievement. This is beyond any doubt. See my comments here on Success Academy classrooms for one of endless examples.

    The corollary rule here is the absolute essential need for parent(s), (plus school and teachers) support that demand their child’s (student) disciplined behavior, learning, and achievement in and outside school. Without these ingredients, working together in support of the child, the child’s chances of success at school and in life drop drastically, often to near zero. And, in this mix the parents roll is the most critical to the child’s chances of success. Without responsible parents, we will continue ruining children by the millions no matter how much money, wailing, and scapegoating is thrown at problem.

    In reply to Tom Banford.

    Well, instead of complaining about tests, why don’t you and your colleagues learn from highly competent schools and teachers who actually teach their kids successfully, turning them all into scholars who ace their tests, scoring at the highest achievement levels city and state wide, proving without doubt that all of America’s kids, including those most disadvantaged, can be great learners and scholars if given a fair chance by caring, accomplished and competent teachers, and a school system whose quality has been proven time & again.

    That way, learning from the proven success of others, the Virginia’s public schools, and its school systems, will stop grossly failing their kids, and many Virginia public schools with stop ruining the futures of the vast majority of disadvantaged kids who now sit and suffer year after year after year in the failed and collapsing public schools in Virginia.

    You can start right here:
    Those methods and reasoning behind the success of the Success Academies are described in Robert Pondiscio’s book How The Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, And The Battle Over School Choice after he spent a year closely observing Success Academy Bronx 1.

    To quote Mr. Pondiscio:

    “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 kindergartnerers 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.” End Quote.

    For more of this fine book on how a serious and highly successful school for mostly all disadvantaged kids in the Bronx teaches kids extraordinary learning and success, please read How The Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, And The Battle Over School Choice (Avery, 2019, $27, 384 pages), by Robert Pondiscio.

    Note that at end of 2018-2019 school year, the students at Success Academy Bronx 1, 100% percent black or Hispanic and 84% economically disadvantaged, and all chosen by lottery, earned proficiency rates of 89.9% in English Language Arts and 98% in Math. Of these, 41% scored at the highest level in English Language Arts , as did 83% in Math. Thus these kids exceeded the performance of two of New York State’s highest preforming schools, Scarsdale and Bronxville where no students are disadvantaged and most are from highly affluent families.

    Also see 2015 article “What Explains Success at Success Academy” wherein, among many things, one finds:

    “Elementary students complete two “project-based learning” units in each grade, where students read and write about a particular subject for six weeks. In 4th grade, for example, children learn about the American Revolution. This year, Success is piloting two additional two-week “mini Core Knowledge” project-based learning units. “We love [Core Knowledge founder] E. D. Hirsch,” says Michele Caracappa, Success’s director of literacy.

    In middle school, Success adds independent reading time and includes a literature class. Students receive iPads loaded with books. Middle-school students must read seven key texts, typically comprising four novels, two nonfiction books, and one of poetry. (I saw middle-school students in Harlem reading The Block, which combines poetry of Langston Hughes with paintings of Harlem Renaissance artist Romare Bearden.)

    Writing skills are emphasized in daily workshops from kindergarten through 8th grade. In later grades, students produce longer pieces across several genres, going through the entire writing process. Much focus is on revision; teachers are trained to give targeted feedback.

    Success’s children’s literature expert, Sara Yu, fills the schools with rich, engaging books at all levels. Yu worked for many years at the highly regarded bookstore affiliated with the Bank Street College of Education. She notes that books aren’t selected only to produce competent readers, but also to expose children to “relevant, important, beautiful material … diverse cultures, economic backgrounds, settings, and characters.”

    This devotion to content pays off. At the Success Academy in Bedford-Stuyvesant (one block the public housing complex where Jay Z grew up—still a tough neighborhood), 81 percent of 3rd graders were proficient in ELA last year (98 percent in math!). A 4th-grade English class dissects How My Parents Learned to Eat, the story of an American sailor learning to use chopsticks to impress his Japanese girlfriend. …” End Quote.


    1. sherlockj Avatar

      Reed, like I hope me, you are an activist to get young children to succeed, not an observer. I have saved since you first posted it in June the link to the article you cite for my reply to any response I may get from the four superintendents. It shows the next level of work that needs to be done. First they need to be interested, then we and Success Academy can help them.

  10. LarrytheG Avatar

    Looks like SOLs came along (mid to late 90’s) just prior to NCLB (2002).

    and contrary to some thinking – Va schools were worse back then:

    AHistorical Overview of the Standards of Learning Program

    ” SOL testing began in 1998 as students in grades 3, 5, 8 and in high school took assessments in reading, writing, mathematics, history and science. Results from the 1998 tests were used to establish proficiency standards for students. The following year, schools were assigned accreditation ratings based on student achievement on the SOL tests. In 1999, only 116, or 6.5 percent, of the Commonwealth’s 1,791 schools met the accreditation standard, although achievement increased on all tests.”

    I strongly support measuring academic performance and release of that info to the public – for all schools – public and private and for any “success academies”. We cannot have real competition if we don’t do that.

    I do not support high-stakes testing as currently done. I think the assessments can be taken – already are – without high stakes testing.

    But all of that aside – the reason we know of the dismal academic performance of some kids in public scools is precisely because of government rules requiring that assessment and releasing it to the public. Without those government rules, what would we really know?

    I hear James on the uniforms. I know some support them. I also know that even though we have some terrible problems with economically disadvantaged, we also have very high scoring kids – and no uniforms. And we do have some schools in Virginia that do quite well with economically disadvantaged without uniforms.

    I wore uniforms.

    I went to a bunch of different schools because my father was in the Marines and it seemed like we got transferred every 2-3 years. So I went to school in Virgina, Texas, North Carolina, Florida, and to some Catholic schools where I had to wear a uniform and the nuns wielded super thick yard sticks to mete out whacks to the non-compliant and smart asses. I don’t think I learned all that much at the Catholic School other than their religious beliefs and that you better do what the nuns said or else do it out of sight of the nuns…. 😉

    1. sherlockj Avatar

      Your focus on standardized testing is crucial for parents to know, really, how their kids are progressing. Your argument is with Virginia’s Secretary of Education, not me.

      I had a different experience than you did. I went to Catholic schools from first grade through high school, and thank them at every opportunity for educating me to be the man I am today. The University of Virginia contributed, but was not foundational.

      BTW, I checked, and Fairfax County has something like 8 Doctors of Education on the Superintendent’s staff alone. You can’t tell them anything.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        I’m of the view that standardized testing is how to get competitors to conventional public schools – to get supporters and to convince superintendents, get support from the General Assembly for funding.

        That’s also the key to the Success Academies. They would be irrelevant and closed, if they did not produce high performing students.

        That’s the essential bargain that wins over folks like me.

        1. sherlockj Avatar

          A start would be to ban doctoral graduates of the ex-Curry School of Education and Storm Door Repair and its fellow travelers from having any jobs in the school system, ever.

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