Book Excerpt: Inside the ‘Purgatory’ of Success Academy’s Waitlist Where Only the Most Committed Parents Find Their Way Out

Sep 12, 2019 by

Bronx 1 students in February with an art project they created for Black History Month (Success Academy/Facebook)

Adapted from How the Other Half Learns by Robert Pondiscio, copyright © 2019. Published by Avery, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.

Chapter 24: The Likely List

The metal detector was the first thing Ayan Wilson noticed. It made an indelible impression on her when she visited the neighborhood school where she was supposed to send her children. Born in Somalia and raised in Canada, Wilson came to the United States in 2003 with her husband. A few years later, when her first child, her daughter, Leah, was approaching school age, Wilson visited P.S. 29, her zoned DOE school a few blocks from her home. It left her shaken and unnerved. “Cops. Security. Metal detectors. Like you’re going to the airport,” she recalls. Her voice goes up an octave. “I’m like, Who goes here? Jeffrey Dahmer?” Wilson had never seen anything like it in Canada. “I was like, ‘No.’ I don’t even know what their test scores were. I didn’t even care.” We’re sitting at the kitchen table in her basement apartment on Melrose Avenue, halfway between Bronx 1 and Yankee Stadium. Wilson grows even more agitated. “Do you know what the security lady told me? She said, ‘Don’t put your kid here. Don’t you dare!’”

Wilson had attended Catholic school, so she enrolled Leah in Saints Peter and Paul, a nearby K-8 Catholic school. “It was hor­rendous,” she said. “It had no metal detectors, but they really didn’t do anything for her.” Leah had difficulty sitting still and paying attention; she ended up spending a lot of time out of the classroom. “They would just put her in a corner or send her to the adminis­trative office. She’d just sit there while everybody else was learning,” Wilson says. Worse, she didn’t even find out her daughter was missing class time because of behavior problems until the end of the year, when the school staff told Wilson they wanted her daughter to repeat kindergarten. She enrolled her in Bronx Global Learning In­stitute for Girls, a charter school down the block, where Leah, now in middle school, began doing much better once they suggested that she be evaluated for attention deficit disorder. Wilson faults herself for not being more aware of her daughter’s early struggles. “She was my first, so I didn’t really know about hyperactivity or attention deficit disorder or anything. I didn’t ask the right questions, and I didn’t know the right course of action,” she says. Wilson enrolled Leah most summers in a supplementary reading program at Fordham University. She is still about a half year behind but has closed the gap considerably. “I just want her to keep improving,” she says. “She’s a work in progress, but she’s doing very good.”

Lesson learned. Her daughter’s rocky start prompted Wilson to do her homework when her son, Darren, approached school age. She entered the lotteries for KIPP and Success Academy. “I didn’t care which one. I just knew that they were the top schools.” She re­searched both. “I know they had a lot of positives and negatives, especially Success,” she tells me. Darren ended up on the “likely” list for Bronx 1, and his mother ended up in the audience at Shea Reeder’s welcome meeting.

Reeder’s talk left her excited about Success but also appre­hensive. “Just sitting and listening to them, you can clearly see that they’re really strict,” Wilson said. Darren is a bright, active, and talkative little boy. He climbs all over his mom while we talk. Reeder, she admits, “scared me a little bit. Because every child is not …” She doesn’t complete the thought, but her meaning is clear. Would her son even fit in? She describes both her children as “inde­pendent” and “hardheaded.” Even though she worries about how Darren would adapt, she likes what she heard. “I like structure. Just like everybody else — any normal parent, anyway,” she says. “I want them to sleep at this time, I want them to get up at this time.”

Wilson opens her laptop and shows me her “enrollment dash­board,” where she tracks Darren’s progress through the admissions process. “Step one is look at my account. Step two, lottery results. Step three, welcome meeting,” she reads from left to right across the top of the screen. “Step four is ‘confirm your interest.’” A check mark indicates that she’s completed each of the required steps and that her application remains active and up to date. The next step is a mandatory uniform fitting, at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday at Bronx 1. A large orange-and-blue “Reschedule My Meeting” button gives her the option to choose an alternative date if she can’t make the one she’s been assigned. Below that is a long list of the documents she needs to provide before Darren can enroll. “It’s part of the steps. If you don’t do these, you will not be called,” Wilson explains. “Birth certificate, proof of address, health exam? All those things had to be done prior.” To be clear: Wilson’s son has not even been offered a seat; he remains on the “likely” list. But she’s still required to com­plete all the steps and bring her son to the uniform fitting to maintain her “active” status.

After a decade managing the front desk at a Starwood hotel in Manhattan, Wilson recently gave her notice. She’s opening up a day care facility in her home. She already has half a dozen parents signed up. Compared with the paperwork and regulatory hurdles she has to clear to become a licensed day care provider, Success Academy’s enrollment process does not feel burdensome to Wilson, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Monroe College in the Bronx and worked as an executive secretary for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene before entering the hospitality industry 10 years ago.

She shows me the rest of the dashboard. Parents on the “likely” list are instructed to check regularly for updated lottery results. And even though their children have not been admitted, they are told to “read at least one book with your child every night and record it on his/her reading log.”

It’s getting late. Darren has had his bath and exhausted his big sister’s patience; he is eager for his mother’s attention. He has been accepted in other local charter schools, but after looking at test scores and reading online reviews, Wilson decided against all of them. “Some of the ones where he got accepted were either starting this year or new. I don’t want him to be a guinea pig,” she explains. If he doesn’t get off the waitlist for Bronx 1, she will enroll Darren in a neighborhood public school in the same building as his sister’s charter school, Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls. There are no metal detectors. “It’s actually a really good school. The only problem is that it only goes up to fifth grade,” she says. “So I don’t want to be stuck after fifth grade and not know where he needs to go next. If I get Success, I will put him in Success.” She admits, “I’m scared, but I will put him in Success.”

Darren is number 17 on the “likely” list. There’s no way of knowing how realistic his chances are, which Wilson finds frus­trating, but she remains hopeful. “It’s almost like they’re dangling something in front of you. You know what I mean?” I tell Wilson that I’ll see if I can find out what “likely” actually means.

continue: Book Excerpt: Inside the ‘Purgatory’ of Success Academy’s Waitlist Where Only the Most Committed Parents Find Their Way Out | The 74

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