Success Academy under fire from state probe, multiple lawsuits

Ft Greene-area district wants ban on new Success charter schools
Photo by Louise Wateridge

The State University of New York has launched an investigation into the discipline policies at controversial charter school network Success Academy, following reports and a lawsuit alleging faculty at its Fort Greene location have used heavy-handed punishment to push difficult and disabled students out.

News of the inquiry also comes a month after the school district’s parental advisory board demanded the university’s Charter School Institute — which licenses the Success schools — probe the outpost, claiming it too had heard troubling reports. The institute’s director says the numerous allegations were too serious to ignore.

“The investigation is taking place because SUNY Charter Schools Institute has received a lot of community input from multiple sources,” said Mahati Tonk. “Given the nature of concerns raised, it is our responsibility as a charter school authorizer to investigate these concerns.”

The charter network — which prides itself on high test scores and standards of student conduct — has been under heavy public scrutiny since a New York Times report in October revealed the principal of the Fort Greene branch once kept a “got-to-go” list singling out high-maintenance tykes, and claimed the school used frequent suspensions and repeated phone calls home to push parents to take such kids elsewhere.

Success honchos have consistently denied those claims, and say they put a stop to the list just days after it was created, then reprimanded the principal responsible — which is exactly what they believe the state probe will find.

“We are confident SUNY will find that Success Academy acted quickly and decisively to the list at Fort Greene and that our discipline policy provides for safe learning environments similar to what parents in Park Slope or the Upper East Side expect from their schools,” said Success founder and former Manhattan Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz.

But the school won’t just come under the microscope from regulators — four parents whose offspring were on the list also filed a suit against the charter school network, state, and now-former principal for $2 million last month, with several claiming their kids have special needs, but the taxpayer-funded institution didn’t make enough effort to accommodate them, as is required by law.

One of the parents suing — who was also profiled in the Times piece — says she is happy to see the university is responding to their gripes, but doesn’t think the inquiry will yield damning results because charter schools are such big business.

“I think it’s a great effort, but I’m a realist,” said Folake Ogundiran, who withdrew her then 6-year-old daughter from the school in 2014 after she claims faculty asked her to pick her up early multiple times a week when her daughter misbehaved. “I believe that SUNY will do what it needs to do so they were able to say that they did launch an investigation and they found ‘x,y,z,’ but I think they will probably side with Success.”

The Fort Greene school isn’t the only Success school in the borough under fire — a separate group of parents and Public Advocate Letitia James filed a federal civil complaint on Jan. 20, also alleging the network’s schools failed to accommodate their special-needs kids, and also dealt with them via frequent suspensions and calls home.

Two of the 13 students in the complaint attend or attended Brooklyn schools — one in Crown Heights and one in Cobble Hill.

The charters of three Success schools across the city are up for renewal this year, including one in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Mahati said the investigation will wrap up before the university must make a decision.

Reach reporter Lauren Gill at lgill@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2511. Follow her on Twitter @laurenk_gill