LISA: This past June, dozens of Success Academy students flooded out of their school onto a sidewalk in Midtown Manhattan. They had ditched their Success uniforms and were dressed all in black. They were here to send a message to their school’s leadership, and to the founder and CEO of Success Academy, Eva Moskowitz.
STUDENTS: Say our names, not our test scores. Say our names, not our test scores. Say our names, not our test scores. Say our names, not our test scores.
LISA: These students grew up at Success Academy. Many of them have been with Success for a decade. And now, they’re in high school, and they're mad.
STUDENT: Eva Moskowitz, Eva moskowitz, has brainwashed us into thinking what she’s doing will better our opportunities in being successful.
LISA: They’re mad about new policies that their school enacted, policies that Success Academy believes will prepare them for college. A young woman stands on a concrete ledge, speaking into a red and white bullhorn.
ANOTHER STUDENT: I live very very very far. I have to wake up at 5:30. And I have five other people living in my house. So when I wake up in the morning I try to hurry everyone out of my house so I can be at school on time and I don't have any problems.
LISA: The student says that Success Academy had threatened to hold her back a grade because she’d been late several times and had broken the dress code. But she was doing well in school.
ANOTHER STUDENT If I have a 92% as a GPA, what is the reason for holding me back? There is no legitimate reason. Now is the time to stand together more than ever because we have a common enemy. Against this group of, I am not trying to be racist, but against a group of white people who don't know that they are doing. I need black teachers, I need black principals, and I need black deans who understand what I am going through.
LISA: Welcome to StartUp, I’m Lisa Chow.
That protest, it took place at the end of the last school year, a very tumultuous one at Success Academy’s high school. It had been 12 years since the first batch of students enrolled in Success Academy where they learned to read and write and sit in magic five with their backs straight, hands folded, voices off. Those kids, they’re teenagers now and magic five isn’t working the way it used to.
Everything that Eva has built culminates at the high school, where the stakes are highest. That’s because high school is the final step to college — and, back in 2006, Eva promised parents she'd get their kids into college. The high school is also the newest part of Success' network — Eva calls it the startup within the startup. This is Success' first run at high school and so far, things are pretty chaotic. Speaking of which, there are a few bad words in this episode.
In this past year, the high school has experienced some unlikely victories, with its first graduating class, as well as some serious challenges, as students, parents and teachers confront the charter network’s leaders.
Over the course of the season, we’ve seen families come to Success looking for a brighter future. Some have struggled, some have thrived, and some have left. Today, in the final episode of the series, we’re going to hear from the kids and families who have stayed at Success and we’ll find out from them what it means to be successful at Success.
One of those students chanting and clapping at that protest was Bintou Cisse. She started in kindergarten at Success 11 years ago. Back then, Success was just one school in Harlem, and Eva Moskowitz was its principal. She told our producer Heather Rogers about her earliest memory of Eva.
BINTOU: I was walking into a science classroom in kindergarten and I saw her walking down the hallway and she fixed my book bag. I had it on, it was a little messed up, she fixed it and she kept walking. So I was cool, Principal Moskowitz just fixed my thing, I was like we are friends.
HEATHER: So you liked it?
BINTOU: Yeah it was a good encounter.
HEATHER: Did you feel like she's sort of taking care of you.
BINTOU: Yeah I think that's why.
LISA: Over her time at the school Bintou has seen Eva working to build Success. She’s cheered her on and later fought on her side.
BINTOU: Everybody is like oh Ms. Moskowitz is working so hard to open other schools. She's fighting the mayor of New York City doing this that and the third. And we were like go Ms. Moskowitz. We were like, Mommy Ms. Moskowitz is having another rally to like open up this school, let’s go to the rally. You know just doing stuff, trying to help Success Academy build as a school empire whatever.
LISA: In fifth grade, Bintou joined the debate team at Success. One topic up for debate was education reform. She realized those rallies she’d been going to for Eva, were actually part of a larger a movement.
BINTOU: I was like hmm education reform, this is cool. So many articles about Ms. Moskowitz and the school kept popping up and I really didn't understand or know that Success Academy was that popular at that time. So when I saw so many articles I was like, Oh so we got clout. That's cute.
LISA: But then Bintou started reading these articles more closely...
BINTOU: I just started seeing so many of these like articles and then like comments under it from like X teachers that just had such terrible experiences working at the school and just like parents and stuff and I was like, yo I was like this is so relatable.
LISA:T he articles and the comments readers left were about things like how much test prep students at Success did, the strict discipline, and the pressure on teachers… things that Bintou had been living through but not fully seeing. Now, she was starting to have problems with the school that she used to fight for.
Last year, Bintou got to 10th grade, and she started running into her old principal again.
BINTOU: I think my worst moment at Success was when… no disrespect to Dr. Moskowitz, it was kids when she entered into the high school, not going to lie.…
LISA: Last fall, Eva Moskowitz had started visiting the high school more often. Its first senior class was applying to college, and Eva was involved in that process.
As she spent more time at the high school, Eva started noticing things about the culture there. It was a lot looser than the lower grades at Success. The high school principal had been trying to give the students more freedom to get them ready to be more independent in college. But that led to things that concerned Eva. Kids were showing up late, or with uniforms that weren’t quite right. If students missed assignments, teachers would give them a lot of chances to make it up, and Eva didn’t like that.
EVA: A kid would be sent 10 emails. Reminder, sweetie you got a fed, sweetie sweetie sweetie. They believe in like second and third and tenth chances and 20th chances… and frankly they had gotten that. And it's done with the best of intentions right that they're doing that because they love the kids and they don't want to see the kid fail but it actually can have negative consequences if you don't teach the kids to be responsible.
LISA: To Eva, this was particularly important because these kids were getting ready to go off to college. She thought rules should actually be clarified and tightened so kids left the high school with good work habits. There’d be no one in college who’d give them 20 chances to turn in their homework.
And at this moment, there was pressure on Eva to get the high school right. Because Success has opened new elementary schools almost every year since it started 12 years ago, every year it has more kids in the pipeline, headed for high school. She had only 16 kids in this first senior class,16 to get into college. The next year, about 30. The year after that, over a hundred. Eva plans to open nine high schools in the next decade to keep up with this growth. So she needs to figure out how to scale the high school and their college admissions process, so they can deliver results on a much bigger scale. One weekend we were at her house talking to Eva and her son Culver asked her about this pressure…
CULVER: How many students do you have now?
CULVER: How many in 5 years, 2000, 3000?
EVA: Yeah. I’m worried. It’s a lot.
LISA: So Eva decided she needed to be there on the ground in the high school as all this growth was ramping up.
LISA: In January, Eva, the CEO of the organization, set up a desk in the hallway just outside the principal’s office and made herself Dean of Operations. And she gathered her staff and announced new harsh penalties for what seemed like minor infractions. For the next few weeks, four missing assignments or four absences or tardies could result in a student being sent back to the previous grade in the middle of the school year. That means 9th graders could be moved back to the middle school for being late 4 times.
NATASHA: The penalties were brand new. Mid year holdover. I had never heard of such a thing.
LISA: Natasha Venner was a teacher at the high school last year, and she was at the meeting when the new policy was announced. She’d taught at high schools for 10 years before coming to Success Academy, and these penalties seemed crazy ...
NATASHA: And I was like wait wait wait, you're going to academically hold them over? If you're talking about kids who could literally have a 90 GPA and be held over for this. People were speechless.
LISA: Eva’s approach was basically a broken-windows theory of education. If you start letting the small stuff slip, you end up with bigger issues. Missing homework and being late to school leads to not getting into a college, not getting out of poverty. The policies started being enforced, and some of Bintou Cisse’s classmates felt the effects...
BINTOU: And everybody was getting in trouble, suspended. And I think seeing that was like dang that’s really a wake up call. Like, yo, this is crazy.
LISA: And Eva kept shifting the school's policies — tightening enforcement, changing the punishment. She added dress code violations and misbehavior at dismissal to the list of offenses that were punishable with a holdover. Kids and teachers, their heads were spinning. As more and more students were told that they might have to go back to the previous grade, the student body grew increasingly frustrated...
BINTOU: People just stopped doing homework at a certain point, people just started talking so much smack on Snapchat, people started arguing with their teachers...
LISA: Then one morning, Bintou was in her homeroom and the teacher put up a powerpoint about yet another policy. A policy that Success says was already in place, but just wasn’t being enforced. As the teacher took the class through the slides, Bintou stared back in disbelief. The policy banned non-religious head wraps, the kind that lots of students wore.
BINTOU: It was like it was a they put it on the slides and literally just didn't know how racist it was.
LISA: Bintou was especially frustrated by the explanation her teacher gave for this new policy.
BINTOU: Like, Oh these headscarves are so distracting. We think that they are becoming a very big problem. Blah, blah, blah. It's just like To who? Literally to who? You need to know how important headscarves are to black women and just black people. The durags the headscarves. Like that's how we preserve our hair and all that. If my hair not done, you ain't going to see this hair. You ain't going to see it. It's not done, I ain't put no eco styler on it, it's not in a bun no nothing, you ain't seeing it. It's going under a bonnet. You have to respect that. And If you don't understand how culturally significant those things are and you just want to ban it because you deem it unprofessional. What is so unprofessional about headscarves? What is so unprofessional about durags? Because white people don't wear it in professional environments. Like, we're not white people. Stop trying to force us to be like it.
LISA: For Bintou, this headscarf policy reinforced something that she’d been feeling more and more during her years at Success. She and her classmates, almost all black and brown, would sit in classrooms, while mostly white staff routinely corrected the way they were dressing, sitting, moving, speaking.
BINTOU: Oh my god I hate when leadership comes into the room while you're learning. You don't look professional and they are just like sit up, blah blah blah. Fix your clothes. This is like oh my god can we just learn?
LISA: For Bintou, it wasn’t just that the correcting got in the way of the learning. It felt like her school had a very narrow view of what success looks like.
BINTOU: I don't come from a community where I had to change myself or like assimilate to anybody else's culture. So to come to a school that says that success looks like something different than who I am I feel like is weird. I really, I think there's like another way around it. Like not being too optimistic saying that I could go around being as ghetto as I want, but like I don't know if I got to become a completely assimilated.
LISA: We asked Eva about this feeling Bintou was experiencing.
LISA: Some of the students have expressed this feeling like they're being taught to act white. And I'm wondering what your response to that is.
EVA: I reject that. I mean my kids are white and they're in the school
LISA: Eva’s two younger children have been at Success since kindergarten. They’re now in the high school.
EVA: And everybody's the same. It's a uniform school. We've been uniform since kindergarten, we’re uniform now. No matter what constituents we serve. If we opened up a school in Chinatown, if we decided to open up a school in Iowa, it would be it would be a uniform school… it’s a school design.
LISA: Even though Eva didn’t think that race was a factor in the headscarf policy, Success did respond to the students complaints. They announced that students could wear navy or grey non-religious scarves, but they continued to crack down on missing assignments, tardies, and other uniform infractions.
LISA: By late January, a few weeks after Eva had moved into the school, the students decided they had to do something. And in fact, they took their inspiration from Eva...
BINTOU: Ms. Moskowitz doesn't like something, you gonna hear about it. She gonna have an interview with the New York Times, she gonna talk her smack. She going to go to Albany. She going to tell the politicians right to their face, ‘This is how I want and I am not going to leave until you tell me where and how to go.’ And that's exactly what has worked in the past. If she asks me who I learned it from, I'm going to be like, You Ms. Moskowitz’.
LISA: Bintou and her friends started organizing, planning logistics during lunch, writing emails to the student body...
BINTOU: We were like the revolutions coming. And then we were like nahh the revolution can't be coming, this is Success Academy, ain't no democracy, we just got to follow what they do. I'm not gonna lie I was really skeptical about doing it. I was like, ‘Yo year 10 years of just following what she does and we're about to go against Eva Moskowitz. Like how bold did we get?’
LISA: How bold? We find out after the break.
LISA: Welcome back to StartUp. Bintou Cisse got to school, one Friday morning, late last January. It had been a few weeks since Eva had set up shop in the high school and enacted those holdover policies. That morning, Bintou realized that something was up. Her classmates were treating her differently, like they were expecting something from her.
BINTOU: I walk into the school building, people are just looking at me funny. I’ml like, ‘Yes, what's the problem?’ And so people come up to me and are like, yo are you ready? I'm like, ready for what? People are like Bintou yo, that email was really powerful. I'm just I didn't send an email. And then so I check my email and it says, Success Academy anonymous.
LISA: The previous evening, an email had been sent to the entire student body from an anonymous email account.
BINTOU: ‘Dear Success Academy scholars, as you all know the school has recently implemented several strict and unfair rules that most if not all of us disagree with…’
LISA: The email goes on to warn students against silence in the face of oppression… and tells everyone that it’s within their first amendment rights to protest. It calls for all students to meet on the 3rd floor of the high school at 8:30.
LISA: Students went to their homerooms. But their eyes were not fixed on their teachers, they were staring at the clock. As soon as it hit 8:30 the kids were out the door…
BINTOU: We just went downstairs. And like everybody went downstairs.
LISA: The students gathered on the 3rd floor like the email had said... Then, well, they didn’t know what to do next. The email hadn’t said anything about that. So the crowd made a game-time decision.
BINTOU: literally just hear a bunch of people saying Bintou, Bintou....
LISA: The crowd started chanting Bintou’s name. She had a reputation for not being afraid to speak her mind; now they were looking to her as a leader. Plus, they knew she had debate skills.
BINTOU: And I'm like daaang, y'all just throwing me under the bus. At first I was like nah I'm just gonna act like I don't hear it. But at a certain point, I couldn't act like I didn't hear it. It was just mad people yelling. So I got up, and then people started cheering. And I was like, look man, hopefully these debate skills are going good because I don't know how I am going to finesse this speech I am about to give.
LISA: One of the school administrators came up to Bintou and asked her tell the kids to go back to class.
BINTOU: And then people were just like, so you are going to let him talk to you like that? And I was like... we are not leaving till we speak to Ms. Moskowitz.
EVA: Two kids came down in that little office that I was working out of and said would I come up and speak to the protesters. I said 'Of course I'm not afraid of protest, I'm not afraid of kids. I'm not. Of course.'
BINTOU: you know you hear that click of the heels, walking down the hallways. Imagine if you just close your eyes and you just hear that CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK.
LISA: Eva Moskowitz walked around the corner, wearing her signature stiletto heels.
BINTOU: It kind of felt like you know Nicki Minaj when she's kind of like the queen is here. Like that's the kind of the vibe that Ms. Moskowitz was giving me. but kind of the queen is here kind of what do you want? Where are you walking?... everything got so serious.
HEATHER: What did you see when you got there?
EVA: I mean it was a large number of kids sort of sitting on the floor. It seemed fine. It looked like an assembly.
LISA: The crowd got quiet, waiting for Bintou to speak. Which normally isn't hard for her. But given the circumstances, she was feeling nervous.
BINTOU: Talking to the CEO on face to face about the next dance performance whatever cool. But like talking to the CEO about how you hate her policies and how you think she should run her school is something that's like on a whole other level.
LISA: Bintou took a moment, gathered herself, and then went for it. She said these new policies were hurting kids, they seemed contrary to the goals of lifting up students and making sure they had bright futures. Students cheered and clapped. When Bintou finished talking, everyone turned to Eva.
BINTOU: It's kind of like the moment of truth, what are you going to say now Eva? Cause it's not even your press anymore, it's your own students. So its like what are you going to say now?
EVA: I said generally, and I explain that look I actually do have a lot of experience protesting and I don't just go and protest Bill de Blasio. I have many many communications where I say you know please Mr. Mayor, I would really like space for the children. And here's what you promised us. And there's not ... You don't generally go from zero to 180 and that maybe the order could have been a little different.
BINTOU: When she started the seniors were just looking around like, is she serious? Like even some of them started whispering in my ear, yo Bintou, just cut her off. Because I was like yes we need to cut her off because what are you talking about?
LISA: The students didn’t want protesting advice, they wanted a real response to their complaints. Things started to get personal... students brought up Eva's kids and how they were not affected by the policies in the same way.
BINTOU: It really started turning into like a hate fest for Ms. Moskowitz. After we got our points across, it kinda just started being like we’re about to take shots at her, who is speaking next? And I was just like we are OD’ing right now, we are just such brats. Are we really just ignore everything she's done?
LISA: Seeing things getting out of hand, a few students went upstairs to ask the teacher, Natasha Venner, to intervene.
NATASHA: I came out of the stairwell and I was like, guys this is not the way that... y'all are shouting at this point in time. You are not being clear in what you actually want. And she doesn’t know what to address. This is not the way to handle this. You guys got to go to class.
LISA: The kids trusted Natasha, so they took her advice … they ended the protest. While most of them went back to class, a handful stayed and worked on a list of demands. They sent those to the administration.
LISA: Two weeks later, Success sent out an email with new rules… It would take a lot more tardies and uniform infractions to get in trouble. And the punishment would be a lot less severe, suspended for a day instead held back a grade. Also, Success allowed students to wear any color headscarves again Eva didn’t see things the way the kids did on the headscarf issue, but she also didn’t feel it was worth the fight..
EVA: If the kids feel it's racially insensitive I don't think it was or is... You know you could say girls need headbands regardless of race or ethnicity. We made the decision that if kids were interpreting it that way, even though we didn't think it was, and it was that important to them we should let them wear it.
LISA: These concessions were big — the kids got a lot of what they asked for. On paper, it seemed like things should be better. But in the weeks and months following the protest, kids were still unhappy. They felt like all these changes in policy were part of a larger cultural change at the high school. Before, they’d felt a level of freedom, of trust. They felt heard. Many thought of the principal as their friend. Now, school seemed more about following rules, and the protest hadn’t changed that.
Our producer Sindhu Gnanasambandan asked Bintou Cisse about this.
SINDHU: What happened to the revolution?
BINTOU: The revolution is gone.
SINDHU: It just fizzled out or what?
BINTOU: It fizzled out people couldn’t do it no more we have deliverables. We have responsibilities. The revolution is getting in the way of that.
LISA: In the months following the protest, Eva shifted her attention from the behavioral policies to the academic requirements. She started a class in which kids had to write their personal statements for college. We heard from three former staff from the high school that if students failed that one class, they were told they could be held back a grade.
And Eva was changing graduation requirements, like specifying minimum scores kids had to get on standardized tests. Eva thought those scores would help them get into better colleges.
But to students, it felt like every week the school was expecting something different from them. They were living in the chaos of a startup. Those rules that were constantly changing, in Silicon Valley, they call that iterating. But in this case, the iterating is affecting kids’ lives in pretty profound ways …
BINTOU: They change everything every five seconds. Whether you're changing academic requirements, expectations, policies, everything is constantly changing. It really make you want to break down. People literally walk around the hallway crying. Like at a certain point, you have the smartest students being like... I'm out.
LISA: Bintou says everyone was depressed. She searches her phone for texts with the word “depression”.
BINTOU: Hold-on, let me try to command F depression. 180 matches. Next time I go see the school, I am going to have depression. I need to go, I'm depressed, bye. So fucking depressed. My anxiety start lifting up this assignment followed by depression. Severe depression. Do you have a cure for depression? Everyone is depressed. Back to being depressed. Depressed.
LISA: Bintou says she has a lot of friends who want to leave, to get out.
BINTOU: When you sat down to have a conversation with them, it's like yo I fucking hate this school. It's just like damn.... I am like Yo Bro why don't you leave? I was like I don't get a choice. We don't got money like that.
BINTOU: And that's the thing that people don't understand like it's not as easy to leave Success Academy is like we really have nothing beyond this school. But the tradeoffs are terrible.
LISA: We’ve spoken with several teachers who told us they are concerned about the emotional wellbeing of students at the high school. Here’s Natasha Venner again.
NATASHA: I had never seen that amount of stress in a building before. Kids were crying hysterically. I can't do it. I'm overwhelmed. You know, I called parents in the middle of the day when kids were hyperventilating.
LISA: She says she would love to see Eva succeed, create a pipeline getting students of color to great colleges. Her problem is that she thinks Success celebrates its students’ academic performance, but doesn’t acknowledge that they might also be struggling emotionally.
NATASHA: I think that people keep writing these kids off because they're like 'Oh my God they're doing well. Get over it.' Would they tell white kids who are doing well they get over it? I don't think so. I know this. I taught in the suburbs I taught at one. I've taught at a high school where the kids were on MTV Cribs and My Sweet 16 Party and low income like poor is a hundred thousand dollars salary. ‘Oh god your mom only makes one hundred thousand dollars a year?’ I've taught at that school…. If any of those white kids at that school had said they had problems all hell broke loose right. The PTA would not have allowed it. There's no way that my admin team could do the things that happened at Success Academy. Wow. This couldn’t have happened in my rich white affluent school but it can happen at my title one, high performing minority school in New York City? That's crazy.
LISA: So Natasha took her concerns to Success Academy’s Board of Directors.
NATASHA: When I filed a complaint with the network, I said that it was a civil rights issue and I sincerely still believe that it is a civil rights issue. You would not have done this to white kids. You wouldn't have.
LISA: The board said they would look into it.
We brought some of these concerns to Eva … that the chaos at the high school is making kids stressed out, unhappy. Did she see any of that?
EVA: I think it's very stressful when the rules change. Having said that, junior year of high school it's it's a stress ball. You know getting ready for college and handing in that application and getting the Common App, it is somewhat stressful. I think our kids don't have much of a comparison. If you go to any elite private school the kids are working pretty hard. Our kids are actually working less hard than those kids but that's the only thing that those kids.
LISA: Wouldn’t you say also don’t those kids have lives outside of school that are less stressful.
EVA: Well I don't know teenage... teenage...
LISA: you just I mean in terms of poverty…
EVA: I think our kids, though, get a lot of opportunities to... They do have lives outside of school both. You know they're in theater and they're playing sports and they're in dance performances and you know I don't. Look I've got two teenagers at home and they both go to the same school and one is more stressed than the others are different kids react differently.
LISA: Back when Eva started Success she told her teachers and school leaders, don’t expect any less from our kids than you would from rich white kids. Our kids can do anything those kids can. It’s an empowering kind of idealism. That same kind of idealism though can also make you blind to people’s realities.
LISA: Realities like Bintou Cisse’s. She lives with her mom and two siblings in public housing. She says her mom has had serious health issues, almost died when Bintou was in 6th grade. By the time she got to high school, Bintou felt like Success ignored the challenges that many students face outside of school. At the same time, Bintou has excelled at Success, this place of high expectations. She’s had access to some amazing resources. A debate program she loved. College counseling. Summer programs at Ivy league schools. And that has shaped the way she looks at her future.
BINTOU: I want to go to Harvard and major in political science and hopefully minor in African or Africana studies. I want to go to law school after that, probably at Yale University and then join law firm be a lawyer the congresswoman, mayor, governor hopefully President one day. You know I always wanted to be the youngest Congresswoman but people keep just doing it. Like currently, I forget who's in Congress now but she's like the youngest Congresswoman and she's 28, and I am like yo, like why? Like now I have to be younger than that. And I don't think that's possible... but anything is possible though. That's what Ms. Moskowitz told us.
LISA: If you didn’t catch that, Bintou just said “anything is possible… that’s what Ms. Moskowitz told us”. This dream of going to a top college, pursuing a career, lifting your family up, this was Eva's original mission. And this is also why Bintou is willing to make these tradeoffs. Can Success deliver on its promise, to help students like Bintou get into great colleges? That’s after the break.
LISA: Welcome back to Startup. A couple of months before Bintou Cisse confronted Eva Moskowitz at the protest, Success' very first senior class was applying to college. Moctar Fall started at Success Academy back in 2006, in the school’s very first year. He became a senior at Success last year and according to his principal Andy Malone, he wasn’t just any senior.
AM: Moctar is the best human being alive. He's just one of those kids that gives so much of himself and you know he deserves everything that comes his way unquestionably.
LISA: Moctar and his classmates were encouraged to aim high, to shoot for the very best universities. Moctar decided to apply early to MIT because, as he told our producer Molly Messick, he knows exactly what he wants to do with his life.
MOCTAR: I want to become an engineer. I know I want to do something around planes because I also love planes. If I really, really, really love Boeing or Lockheed then I'd go into core 16 or aeronautical engineering after.
MOLLY: That's pretty specific... you've got a pretty clear idea of what you're interested in.
LISA: Andy Malone says Moctar was a model student at Success. He had great grades, but also gave a lot of himself to the Success community. He was kind to everyone from his teachers to the custodial staff. When he arrived at school in the morning, Andy says he’d wave with both hands, and a big grin on his face.
ANDY: You know if he didn't get in wherever he wanted to go it just really felt like there was no justice in the world. I think it was that big for so many of us. Truly, like it really, it really felt like it hinged on him in some ways, because if he couldn't get in, like it would just be so unfair. And of course his dream was MIT with its like 4 percent admission rate. And it's MIT like you know...
LISA: The chances of getting into a school like MIT are already slim. And Moctar is not the typical MIT candidate. He’s black, he grew up poor, he was raised by a single immigrant mom. But Success thinks kids like Moctar should be able to go to MIT. That kids like Bintou should be able to go to Harvard. Moctar getting in would be proof that Success' bold experiment was working, and it would also be a dream come true for his mother, Ndimou Ndiaye .
Ndimou moved to New York City when she was 23. She’s originally from Senegal, in West Africa. Our producer Heather Rogers talked to her about growing up there.
HEATHER: What what do you miss about it?
NDIMOU: I miss everything. My life was beautiful there. I didn't come here to stay here long time. I just came to study and I met my husband here. I have kids. And I stay. The way they say, if you make your bed, you have to lay down on it. That's what happened to me.
LISA: Ndimou’s life in the U.S. has been hard. She had to quit school to work. And she left her husband, so she had to support Moctar and his two younger sisters by herself. Money has been tight. At one point, the family ended up homeless, and lived in shelters for two years.
NDIMOU: I don't have nothing here. I just have my kids and I try to survive like everybody.
LISA: Ndimou wanted her children to do more than survive, which meant finding a good school for them to go to, one that would get them into college. And she trusted Eva Moskowitz to do this.
NDIMOU: I know this lady when she say something she going to do it... because this lady she's a fighter. I love people who fight. You fight for what you believe in, I'm behind you 100 percent. And I just believe on her.
LISA: Over these past 12 years, Ndimou has tied her hopes for her son’s future to Eva’s startup school.
HEATHER: The education that Moctar has gotten, what do you think that's going to bring to him and his life?
NDIMOU: It’s not only him. Him, his family, and people who need help outside. That's the way that stuff has to go. It’s like a circle. He’s going to help himself. He will help me and my family. And if somebody need help around somewhere he will do it. I know my kid.
LISA: Moctar was supposed to hear back from MIT on December 14th. That morning his mom could barely hold herself together.
NDIMOU: All day I didn't eat, all day I didn't go nowhere. I wasn't busy that day, I just sat there and wait.
MOLLY: Did you know that she was as nervous or maybe more nervous than you were about finding out about MIT?
MOCTAR: Yeah. I was also like really nervous throughout. But like I put it in the back of my head.
NDIMOU: He doesn't show it to me, I am the one who shows everything. Moctar, did you get something?? No mommy. Moctar?
LISA: Moctar went to school that day, stomach turning. He got through his classes, and then headed to his principal Andy’s office…
ANDY: A lot of the kids wanted to find out in my office, that was like the popular spot. And so a lot of us were in there for this moment and we knew he was finding out at 6, I think. The portal was going to be updated. And so we're in the office hunched over the laptop. You know I remember saying to him, whatever happens you're still the best. That's exactly what I said actually. You’re still the best.
LISA: Were you feeling nervous?
ANDY: I was so nervous. I was especially nervous cause so many people were there. You know that was going to make it if it was bad it was going to be worse for that reason. But it was great it was going to be better for that reason. There was a click and there was another page before the decision.... so we were all geared up, and it was nonsense. he clicked. It said congratulations.
ANDY: Big guttural scream, yes. We cheered. And everyone just went crazy. It was really big.
NDIMOU: When the phone rang, he say mommy, mommy, I'm in. And I was screaming. I couldn't stop myself. He worked for it. I couldn't. It look like I'm the one who got in. I couldn't, even when walk outside, it looks like I walk on the air, I don't walk on the... I was like you gotta put your stuff down and just be humble like your son. But I was so proud. I was so happy.
LISA: This was a huge win for Eva, for Success Academy. Every teacher, staff member, student was ecstatic.
BINTOU: Somebody had come into the classroom and yelled so loud Moctar got into M.I.T. and the whole class and just started cheering.
LISA: Bintou Cisse told producer Sindhu Gnanasambandan about that day.
BINTOU: Teacher didn't really care. We were just all so happy.
SINDHU: How did you feel?
BINTOU: Like I felt like my brother was going to college. It felt like a family, like my brother was actually going to college.
LISA: It wasn’t just Moctar who got into his dream school... is classmate Kelvin got into Tulane. Another, Suneil, got into Emory.. Michael... Tufts. Noumoutche, Skidmore. Elyjah got into USC. Hazel, Grinnell. Aida, Wake Forest. Every single one of the graduating seniors got into college and all of them got scholarships. Some got a lot of money, like Moctar, who got a full ride to MIT.
LISA: The good news of these college acceptances could keep some of the kids going, but for a lot of the adults who’d worked at the high school, the celebratory moment didn’t wipe away their stress. At the end of the school year, the entire college counseling team quit. The principal Andy Malone announced he was leaving and many teachers including Natasha Venner followed suit.
NATASHA: I couldn't hack it. I mean when it's all said and done, hacking it at Success would mean not caring so much about the kids.
LISA: She said, she couldn’t reconcile caring about the kids with enforcing policies she believed were wrong.
NATASHA: What are we doing? I don't want to have grit about being at a school that's becoming the obstacle to the kids. And that's why I think the teachers left.
BINTOU: All our teachers left. literally every single teacher left except for like four and then like even more of them left this year. So now we only have like three OG teachers and them like an entirely new staff.
LISA: Bintou is exaggerating, but there was a lot of turnover. According to the Wall Street Journal, out of 67 staff, only 20 returned to the high school this year.
HEATHER: What do you think about that?
BINTOU: Bro... literally we were like yo who we've go to you to apply for colleges and we need letters of recommendation. Like I can go to my economics teacher but I've only known him for two weeks.
LISA: Eva attributed many of the teachers leaving to a change in school leadership.
Eva had faced criticism from students in the form of protest, teachers in the form of resignations, and now parents wanted to be heard too. A lot of these parents had been with Success for a decade. They’d fought battles for Eva, gone to protests and rallies. Defended the school and followed the rules. But after this chaotic year some of them had questions, and wondered if all of this anxiety their kids were experiencing was worth it. They met with Eva one morning, in the high school auditorium. We have a recording from someone who attended the meeting. Parents took turns telling Eva how worried they were about what was happening with their kids.
PARENT: We feel guilty. We are alarmed. We don't know what to do. We push our kids, we do. We are going to follow course. I’m a conformist. What is my kids responsibility? And I am going to do it. But our kids are getting embarrassed. Our kids are freaking out.
LISA: The parent points to the harsh way she’s seen teachers talk to kids, and she worries about the emotional impact it may have. She says what’s at the heart of these issues is the culture at Success.
PARENT: There is this mean culture. It's not always the teachers. But it is in the fabric of our school system.
LISA: The mother says she’s tried to talk to teachers about this...
PARENT: Let me tell you what our teachers say. The ones that you employ. The ones that we trust. If you don't like it... leave.
LISA: If you don’t like it leave. The parents say it together in unison…
Eva responds by saying she see lots of loving and nurturing relationships, but of course, she’s the CEO and isn’t in schools all the time.
EVA: I cannot be in every room, and it is true that rookie teachers have challenges to know the difference between meanness and firmness. To me those are two different things.
LISA: A few more parents bring up the mental health of their kids. One mom says that her stepson has no nails because he has chewed them down to the bed, and her daughter has had four breakdowns.
Eva admits there are problems. She says in all her years at Success, she have never seen a school in the network that was more disorganized as the high school. She also says part of the angst is typical teenage adolescence.
The parents say, No Eva, this is not normal.
PARENT: You can correct the kid. But you got to correct the culture. That’s what I think we’re saying. There’s something in our culture.
LISA: The parents also say that the academic expectations on their kids are a black box. The requirements keep changing on the kids. Eva has and answer for this... she says it’s because she’s never done this before.
EVA: We are a startup. And I feel like I have been transparent about that... We were making it up, yes. I’m not pretending to know how to do it…
LISA: Eva didn’t come into this knowing how to get kids into top universities.
EVA: I didn’t know the college game. I didn’t know that there were 66 colleges that met financial need. I didn’t know the SAT scores were that the kids had to get.
LISA: You can hear the pleading in Eva’s voice. Yes things are a mess, but it’s because Success is a start up. She has the best of intention, and she’s working really hard to fix it. And this is what a startup does. It experiments, it screws up, it tries new things, it iterates over and over again. With time, Eva believes she can fix these problems.
But the parents, whose kids are in the middle of all this experimentation, they believe this is a culture problem... a problem with Success' norms, expectations, and personality. And you can’t iterate out of a culture problem. No matter how many times you iterate, your DNA is always the same.
At the beginning of June, Success’ very first class of students graduated from high school.
LISA: The ceremony was held in an elegant concert hall at Lincoln Center. Eva is standing on stage wearing a bright floral dress and black patent leather stilettos. The 16 graduating seniors have blue caps and gowns, with orange tassels, the school colors. School leaders, including the outgoing high school principal Andy Malone, sit on the stage behind her, beaming. The crowd is going wild.
EVA: Please take your seats. Thank you for joining us on this momentous occasion celebrating our first graduating class from Success Academy high school of the liberal arts.
LISA: Eva addresses her founding parents.
EVA: Parents and families, you entrusted us with your children. Andy and I have a contest of how long we can go without crying. It’s a little challenging. You entrusted us with your children twelve years ago. We had no school building and we had no principals. We had not hired any teachers and I frankly don't know what I was doing. But I had a vision for an excellent school that could be achieved where every single kid not only learned to read but loved reading.
LISA: This was Eva’s dream, and she built it. She created a school system from scratch. In just 12 years, she’s grown from zero to 47 schools serving 17,000 kids, a school system with unprecedented performance on state tests. And there is something incredible about that.
After Eva’s speech, the seniors begin walking across the stage…
ANNOUNCER: Aida T. Bathily. Sunil Josephine Jeeter. Moctar N. Fall.
LISA: For these 16 graduating seniors, they’ve beaten the odds, and will be entering a world filled with opportunities that they likely wouldn't have had without Success Academy.
The last time we spoke with Eva Moskowitz, I asked her, was all of this worth it? The 12 years of battling unions, politicians, the media. Work days that never end. She said you’d have to ask the parents and kids. They’re the ultimate judges.
And, over the year we’ve worked on this story, we have.
One mother told us Success has given her daughter an incredibly strong academic foundation and rich learning experiences outside of the classroom. But she says her daughter now asks teachers for permission to do basic things. When she left Success and started going to a regular public school this fall, she wouldn’t eat her snack, or speak in class, unless her teacher said it was OK.
Another mother whose son is currently in middle school at Success says she loves all the care and attention his teachers give him, and their regular communication with her, but she also thinks school becomes boring during test prep and she’s worried about him being held back. These are two of the of the dozens of stories we’ve heard. Every family has to weigh the tradeoffs for themselves. Maybe these emotional and social costs that families are paying. Maybe those are the costs of catapulting over the vast achievement gap.
Success Academy is an escape route for a lot of families whose options are grim. Given the inequity in schools and society more generally, it does feel important that families have an escape route. It also feels important that if they use it, they go in with their eyes wide open.
LISA: StartUp is hosted by me, Lisa Chow. This episode was produced by Sindhu Gnanasambandan, with Heather Rogers, Bruce Wallace, and Molly
Messick. Editing by Emanuele Berry, Sara Sarasohn, and Caitlin Kenney, with help from Kareem Maddox, Wallace Mack, and Jorge Just. Fact checking by Michelle Harris.
Special thanks to Seth Andrew, Emily Weiss, Sammy Politziner, Nathan Peereboom, Leopold Rogers, Ivona Stamatoska, Alyssa Weeks, DaSean and Dominique Weeks, Nazir Jones, Leisette Leizan, Jake Hererra, Rob Szypko, Paul McIntosh, and Elitia Mattox.
Our theme song is by Mark Phillips. Build Buildings wrote and performed our special ad music. Cedric Wilson mixed the episode, and Peter Leonard composed original music for the series. For full music credits, visit our website, GimletMedia.com/startup.
Thanks for listening.