As a parent of three school-age children living in New York City it is hard to avoid all the talk about the success of Success Academy. Success Academy is a New York City-based free charter school with some of the highest test scores in the state of New York. As they state on their site, "Our schools are founded on a simple premise: Every child can achieve success when they have access to a high-quality, free public education."
Here in the city, parents chatter about the difficult admissions process and the slim chance of getting in. I have been to orientation meetings where parents cried because their children were on the waiting list. For those living outside New York City, one may wonder what all the fuss is about. As a parent and former teacher as well as play and education advocate, all I can say is, the schools work. As soon as you enter the doors, one senses there is something different. Teachers are on their toes, politely and efficiently directing where you need to go. All are well dressed, well informed and carry themselves with an absolute commitment to providing the best possible education for students in attendance of one of the 14 Success Academies in New York City. This isn't to say one couldn't find this kind of enthusiasm in a different kind of school, but it's rare. Personally, there are only two times I have ever seen it: as a teacher and staff member for Teach for America and walking through the doors of a Success Academy school.
Even with proof of how well her students perform, Eva Moskowitz, founder of Success Academy, has had ongoing opposition to their existence. While the media likes to run story after story about the drama of Success Academy's legal battles, quietly, day after day, in well-maintained and orderly classrooms, kids are learning. That is the story I would like to share.
Recently I had the pleasure of speaking to Ms. Moskowitz about her schools and specifically about the inspiration she instills in her staff and students, as well as her strong belief in the power of play. Yes, this stern, dedicated educator is a huge play advocate. In a time when more and more schools are cutting recess and free play as something frivolous and unnecessary, Ms. Moskowitz believes that play time is as important as math, reading science and social studies. In other words, if a child isn't receiving play time, then we are not educating the whole child.
Students at SA receive recess all the way through eighth grade and in kindergarten twice a day. They also have a block room in which they play imaginatively for fifteen minutes. Students learn chess, play Monopoly and Ms. Moskowitz promotes kids playing with Hot Wheels. Each school as a minimum of one creative learning class, like art or music. More of these classes are added as the school grows. Children participate in sports and P.E. as well.
Rain, snow, cold or warm weather children at SA schools go outside to play. Ms. Moskowitz said there is very little indoor recess for students, even in NYC in the winter. She encourages her staff to bundle up the kids, put on ponchos and rain boots and head outside. As she sees it, most often it is the adults who complain about the weather, not the children. Teachers at SA believe splashing in puddles is valuable learning time too and there is much to be gained about leadership and social skills on the playground. "Games and play are not a waste of time," she says. "Kids learn valuable skills in conflict resolution during this time."
Did I mention that SA has some of the best test scores in the state of New York? I think I did. I don't think this is an accident. Yes, students at SA work hard, much is expected of them. SA staff members don't believe in limiting what a child should learn based on the assumptions of adults. Instead SA starts from an empirical point of view, meaning they base their unit planning on their firsthand experience of what they know works in the classroom. Because of the rigorous academics, paired with the belief that children need to play and learn through sports and games, kids are succeeding far beyond their peers from similar socio-economic backgrounds and schools.
What SA demands of students and parents is nothing short of excellence, but what we must also keep in mind is that what we now consider excellence, is what in the past was considered the norm. Students of SA must get up early to make to school at 7:45am. They don't get out of school until 4pm. In our culture that errs on the side of coddling children, this seems too long, abusive some might say, but how are our schools supposed to fit in rigorous academics, play time and the arts and still get out by 2pm? Our kids can do more. In past generations it was expected of them. Now we feel that what Ms. Moskowitz has created is radical.
Excellence is a word we rarely say in education these days. We criticize, we demoralize, but seldom do we talk about the excellence that we should expect from students. "We have completely underestimated students. There is a total lack of rigor," said Moskowitz . The mediocrity that prevails in modern education is a huge problem, she believes. I can't say that I disagree.
Modern education needs to take on the motto "Work Hard, Play Hard." This embodies the kind of rigor and excellence that is demanded of students in the twenty-first century. It is only with this kind of dedication to both academics and play, that we will rise again to lead our nation and the world in providing quality public education. Ms. Moskowitz provides a powerful example of how the marriage of play and academics benefits our children. How will we begin to restore this balance to schools across our country? How will you take action in your own community to push our children to become strong, successful innovative leaders and thinkers?