“My special child, pushed out of Kindergarten at a NYC charter school"

Here is the story of Karen Sprowal and her son Matthew, that Mike Winerip of the NY Times writes about here. While charter schools have advertised themselves as open to all students through random lotteries, many have been shown to enroll relatively few numbers of special needs children and English language learners, and to have high rates of student attrition.  The charter school described below is a member of the Success Academy chain, the fastest growing chain in NYC.  Its rapid expansion has been enthusiastically supported by the DOE, and by their authorizer, the NY State University Board of Trustees, whose charter committee is headed  by Prof. Pedro Noguera.  There are currently seven Success Academies, all co-located in NYC public school buildings, with two more planned for the fall, and three more authorized by SUNY to open in NYC in 2012. 
If you have had similar experiences with a charter school as this parent, and would like to share them either on or off the record, please contact Karen at katherine_sprowal_cucs@yahoo.com and/or Leonie at leonie@classsizematters.org
This is a mother’s personal story about having child with different needs “counseled out” of a NYC charter school. It’s also testimony of how inclusion, a smaller class size, and the supportive attitude of a great public school made an astounding difference in my son’s life. My name is Katherine Sprowal and I’m the mother of a delightfully spirited and rambunctious son whose name is Matthew. Like most children his age, he’s a vision of pure joy and enthusiasm: often bursting with energy to play all day, every day! 

We live in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan. Back in 2008, both of our zoned schools were listed as “failing.” About a year prior to Matthew entering Kindergarten, we embarked upon a journey of securing an elementary school placement for him. I began my search with help from Early Steps, an organization that assist minority parents through the private schools admission and application process. As suggested we applied to about ten different private schools. To my dismay, Matthew was not accepted to any of the schools and was placed on the wait list for only two of them. 

I had no backup plan for school options except the neighborhood “failing” schools. I then recalled meeting a woman a year prior at a “School Choice” fair in a Harlem church. Her name was Eva Moskowitz. Not knowing who she was or her political background, we engaged in a conversation, as two parents expressing our thoughts about the lack of quality school choices. She then began to promote the charter school she founded, Harlem Success Academy. She explained how it came out of her own personal frustration as mother with no quality public school choices for her own children. She was most impressive in her presentation and argued that minorities need public school choices.  She went on to convincingly state how HSA and other charter schools were  filling that gap. She then asked if I would mind being interviewed by a media crew present at this fair and I happily agreed. 

My neighborhood was saturated with mailings, bus ads and pamphlets about Harlem Success Academy. I applied just in time for her lottery deadline. Matthew won the lottery and was accepted to Harlem Success Academy #4.  We learned of this news with great fanfare at the lottery drawing event held at the Armory on 142nd street.  This lottery received huge attention; both then-Gov. Paterson and much of the media were there. I ran into Eva at the event and she remembered us, we embraced in a hug and she shared in our pleasure from Matthew’s win. Matthew and I continued to be videotaped straight through to the August parent HSA orientation.

Shortly after this, we attended a mandated orientation and signed all required contract agreements, which included provisions stating that that parents had to respond within 24 hours to any request from the school, they had to purchase costly school uniforms, and children had to complete summer homework assignments. At the meeting, Eva also told us that because all the local elected officials were against charter schools, parents would be expected to attend hearings in support of the school.

Matthew and I couldn’t wait for the first day of school. One day prior, we were given a choice to attend Harlem Success Academy #3 as another Kindergarten class was being added, so it would be a smaller class size. So we changed schools to HSA#3.  On August 28, 2008, Matthew attended his first day of school, gleaming with excitement. Yet on the very first day, he was held back in detention for not walking through the halls in an orderly manner. I thought this was a bit harsh for a five year old, but understood that self-discipline was a major part of HSA model. 

During the first week of school, I noticed immediately how HSA classes were fully stocked with educational supplies and how nice and shiny their classrooms were in comparison to the existing public school space, which appeared dingy and dark. I thought to myself that it seemed a bit odd for HSA to share a building with another school, but never common areas of the building at the same time. The students didn’t eat, play in the yard or even use the same stairs together. I wondered what negative psychological effects this could have on students at both schools. I felt privileged to have my son in HSA and embarrassed all at once. I was anxious to meet the HSA and co-located parent reps to discuss these issues. I was also curious as to why parents didn’t appear to be welcome beyond the HSA entrance doors during drop off and pick-up. I had to literally force myself into the HSA school area during school hours the first couple of days of school. 

When I did, I noticed that the HSA school staff and children didn’t seem to laugh or smile much. I couldn’t help notice there were none of the typical sounds of laughter one would expect to hear in an elementary school. The atmosphere appeared sterile, militaristic and robotic, as the children walked the halls in silence. There were many other things that raised an eyebrow and gnawed at my gut as “not right,” but I quickly dismissed them because “We won the HSA lottery.” I was reassured that the physical appearance of the school and academic mode seemed to resemble a few of the prestigious private schools we had previously visited.  Additionally, Eva and other faculty enrolled their own children along with Matthew. I was certain all my concerns had reasonable explanations and my questions would be answered by Eva directly or by the PTA at a later time. 

Unfortunately, I would soon learn there were no HSA PTA and no meetings with parents at the co-located school. It became clear that parental input was not welcome, supported or encouraged in any meaningful manner. I would later observe students at the existing school taunting and teasing the HSA students whenever they briefly crossed paths. How could they not target the HSA students to express their opposition to the “separate and unequal” practices they internalized and witnessed daily? 

Matthew continued to be held in detention frequently for one reason or another over the next few days. I wasn’t too concerned about it until it was apparent he was no longer excited about attending HSA. He began to have frequent emotional meltdowns before going to school and complained of stomachaches. He became increasingly anxious about school work and not being able to behave as his teachers wanted him to.  This was known as going “Beyond Z.”,   a widely used HSA motto meaning that students should behave like little soldiers, work hard and keep quiet. After about a week of this, the principal blatantly stated my son was “not performing at the school’s social expectations.” She said he had poor interpersonal skills, was un-focused and disruptive to the teacher and the entire class. 

In response, I pointed out that he was only five years old, and had spent the last three years in a nursery with a Montessori philosophy – a very different setting. I asked for her patience and time for him to make the transition. I then offered to shadow him in class for a few days.  She was reluctant, but agreed to my request. My presence helped provide Matthew with some of the emotional support and the security he was seeking. But by mid-day he often became fidgety, agitated and just wanted to move around and play. The school psychologist told me she had to fight to have them put a tiny play area and provide play time in the Kindergarten classrooms.

There were three other children exhibiting the same behaviors as Matthew, all African-American boys. They were assigned seats together, separate from the rest of the class as though they were contagious. By the second week, additional HSA staff began coming into the class in shifts to observe my son and the other boys in his group. The staff sat quietly in the back of the room and wrote notes. One by one, all these other boys left the school, without any explanation, over a period of two weeks. I have no idea if their parents fought for them to remain as I continued to do with Matthew, but within a few days from the beginning of school, they had already been marked as not HSA material. 

By the third week, it became apparent that the school had deemed Matthew as defective and unapologetically wanted him gone. I outright refused to comply with the principal’s request for me to transfer my son to another school.   I told her it was not an option for us. I said that Matthew and I both felt threatened, unwelcome and that were being unfairly forced out of the school.  The following day I was told that I could no longer shadow my son in school. She stated that if his behavior was not corrected within a few days he would be suspended. Not knowing what my rights were as a parent, or if indeed Matthew required additional support, I continued as best I could to work with him to avoid any further disciplinary action from the school. I suggested half days for him through this transition, which they agreed to.

They proceeded to call home for him to be picked up within an hour of being dropped off at school over the next few days. On the third day of one of these pick up calls, the principal informed me that he was being suspended for disruptive behavior and not respecting another student’s personal space. The principal then scheduled Matthew for psychological testing, without any prior discussion, or my input, notice or consent. I only found out when a message was left on my voicemail to pick him up later than the regular dismissal time that school officials had scheduled him for psychological testing that day. 

In response, I sent a written complaint to the principal that challenged his suspension and for scheduling this testing without my consent. I sent copies to Eva Moskowitz and the HSA board of directorsEva responded to my complaint directly via email and assigned her administrative assistant to sit in meetings with myself, the principal and school psychologist. We had two formal meetings and HSA remained consistent and adamant that Matthew must leave the school. They insisted he was incapable of learning and behaving appropriately in a HSA school setting. I remained adamant in my position as well, and that transferring him to another school would not be an option. I explained that the way that they had dealt with us was insensitive and dismissive. I was not going to permit any further negative consequences due to their failure to follow the appropriate procedures.   

Yet Matthew’s awareness of not being wanted in the school and being scapegoat as the “bad kid” perpetuated his challenging behaviors. The HSA school psychologist wrote on September 22 that "Matthew has the intelligence and desire to learn. However, he is beginning to develop a negative sense of himself and is in danger of seeing himself as bad and a failure. It is very important that Matthew enter a school situation where he feels supported and successful…Matthew may need a smaller classroom than his current school has available.”

On the day of my third planned meeting with HSA, on the ride to school Matthew looked up at me and asked Mommy, is today the day that HSA is going fire me?” He recently learned the definition of this word as I had recently been laid off from a job I’d had for ten years. I realized at that moment the only real successful outcome had to be for Matthew to feel good about school and good about himself again. His emotional well being and happiness was the most important issue. 

I attended that final meeting and negotiated that HSA would transfer him to a public school of my choice that day. They eagerly accommodated me to the extent of arranging that he would be placed in a school outside his zone, at PS 75 in District 3, on the Upper West Side. Despite my best effort to advocate and protect my son, Matthew left HSA crushed, thinking he was an unwanted “bad child.”  A milestone period that should have laid the foundation to foster a lifetime of learning had the complete opposite effect. The ugly truth that our personal experience at HSA revealed is that this charter school is purposely designed to exclude!   

Matthew now attends the inclusive Emily Dickinson Public School 75. The principal, the guidance counselor, teachers, schools aides and support staff took the time to go above and beyond to make learning fun again for Matthew. They embraced his imagination and need to be active completely!  On his most difficult days they showed him more love and gave “us” increased support. They do this each and every day with every child, no matter how they learn or where they come from.  The principal Mr. O’Brien personally spent hours with my son and me, because he wanted to know who we were and what I thought would be needed for Matthew to thrive. They encouraged and welcomed my partnership, to ensure that my son would be happy and could achieve his full academic potential.

After a rough second year, they recognized that a smaller CTT class setting of 18 students with two teachers might be more conducive for his temperament and style of learning. And they were right!!!  Matthew will be entering the third grade in the fall with academic evidence that inclusion and class size does matter. He has done exceptionally well this year and has exceeded all academic expectations. 

In addition, the school has provided us with helpful referrals like the Boys Scouts of America and St Luke’s family services, for on-going comprehensive support. This is a school that unites communities rather than divides them and has opened their arms to me and my son.  With the help of P.S. 75 principal, teachers and support staff, Matthew and I have moved forward. But I have not forgotten about this awful start to his academic career.  I also hope that those other little boys who were separated from the rest of the class the first few days of school along with Matthew were as lucky as we were in finding a public school that would help them succeed.     
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