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Aaron Regunberg: The Story Achievement First Doesn’t Want You to Hear

Friday, February 03, 2012


As I’m sure many have already heard, yesterday the Board of Regents voted to approve Achievement First’s application to establish a franchise network of “no excuses” charter schools in Providence. I’ve been pretty outspoken on this issue already, and there’s a lot more I’d like to talk about (for example, how can a proposal that will drain so much money from Providence be given the thumbs up just hours after the city announced that it might not have enough money to finish out the year?).

But my voice has already been heard enough in this debate. Now that the Board’s decision has been made, my only hope is that the parents of Providence learn exactly what they are getting themselves into when Achievement First’s well-financed PR campaign turns towards recruitment and its glossy posters and inspirational videos start appearing. Towards that end, I want to share a letter recently written by a former Achievement First parent who felt the need to warn families in Rhode Island about the damage an Achievement First education has the potential to inflict on their children.

The letter is from May Taliaferrow-Mosleh, who served as the parent representative on the board of Achievement First Endeavor for four years. She writes from a place of extensive first-hand experience and has a deeper understanding of the workings of this organization than anyone in this state can pretend to have, so I think her perspective is worth taking seriously. Here are her thoughts, shortened a bit with ellipses—as they would be too long for this column in their original form—but otherwise taken straight from her letter.

February 1, 2012

I, May Taliaferrow-Mosleh, was on the board of Achievement First Endeavor as the Parent Representative for 4 years and worked closely with the school leadership team. I now understand the mentality that is expected from a Parent Leadership Committee board member, which is to represent the school and its interests, not the parents…As an early supporter of Achievement First, my views and direction of support changed in September 2009, when Achievement First Endeavor no longer made academics the priority, but rather discipline. Dacia Toll [the founder of Achievement First] and I had many conversations as this new disciplinary process was evolving.

She pretended to agree and listen but actually pushed the behavior reform agenda without naming it as such. The school evolved into a behavioral reform school, not an academic institution preparing children for college. The social behavior that was taught does not prepare a child to attend or survive in college. Basic social skills on how to communicate and interact socially with peers were intentionally prevented, with silent lunches and no recesses. Children were punished for “false excitement” if they raised their hands too eagerly; open discourse and critical thinking were not encouraged. The school had a surreal silence in the halls, more like a behavioral institute. There was no laughter.

When questions and concerns were brought to the founder, Dacia Toll, I learned that she will agree to almost anything in parent meetings and even offer nonsense concessions; but it does not change what she tells her staff. Dacia will effectually double talk around the meaty matters that actually help the kids. She solicits the parent leaders to help harness the support of parents,sothose parent leaders will become the ready answer for the school’s shortcomings. Time after time Achievement First leaders will apologize after the fact about things that “could have been handled differently,” but continue to do it to other children when they think parent advocates will not find out.

The children continue to be the brunt of these purposeful errors…The children are made to feel helpless as there is no recourse or ability to disagree with staff or explain why a situation happened. If a child’s parent is not a strong advocate then the child suffers. I have seen previously very smart children sink into depression or begin acting out with negative behavior because they were notever allowed to explain situations.

Parents were looked upon as inferior by teachers that had one year of teaching experience and no parental experience and situations would arise because parents felt insulted. It was made clear that educated middle class parents were not the targeted population. Children left the school in droves as parents realized it was not getting better. Dacia Toll’s Achievement First model disenfranchises parents, and all supporters of this zero tolerance model are willing bystanders to the next unprecedented American tragedy.

Children will have lost the love of learning and no longer have dreams, and instead are constantly worrying about not being disciplined for every minor infraction. The discipline code was so strict that to prove it at a board meeting, I pointed out to each board member how their posture and stance and responses would have earned them a disciplinary infraction. For example: arm supporting your head while listening, not tracking the speaker with your eyes, feet crossed while sitting, laughing too loud, false enthusiasm (subjective) and your shoe squeaking as you walk across the floor (‘you did that intentionally’). To bolster test scores before a NYS exam, children in mass were sent home with letters to take to the doctor’s office, and get a letter requesting extra test time. This was done without any evaluation of the child or discussion with the parent about the child having a test taking problem. (My grandson got one, which was rescinded once I questioned how and why was he given this letter.)

And then there were the many subliminal messages that the children were given to support their inferior status as people. Here is an example of a lesson that was taught in one literature class.
It was taught by a white male teacher to a room full of brown children in the 5th grade. He told the class that if they would be more like the successful group (whites), that they too could read as well as his nephew, who is in 3rd grade and reads at a level Z. He didn't tell them about slavery or the civil and human rights violations against people of color that help generate these statistics…I learned about this lesson plan because my friend’s normally very subdued child came home angry and said “I know I'm a Christian, and I'm not supposed to hurt anybody, but I really wanted to just punch him in his face.”

I understand that human nature doesn't easily understand caring without personal gain, as there is no significant self-serving reason for my level of participation at this school. But I stayed…I saw a need to advocate for the children whose parents were just struggling to earn enough to survive. I considered it a moral obligation to advocate for all of the children, all the while coaching my son and getting him outside tutoring for academics, ensuring that his self-esteem was bolstered at home and by his participation in outside activities, and becoming his staunchest advocate whenever there was a problem at school.

But I learned the only way to truly help your child was to remove them from this environment and get them into a school that is in the business of education, not profit building. This is a multibillion-dollar business that is very strongly tied to developing discipline systems, and if you think they are going to let parents come between them and their growth and funding you are naïve.

This disciplinary system is what they originally submitted to the NYC Chancellor with their charter application. This charter was originally rejected because of this disciplinary system. They had to revise and resubmit. And now without any public hearing or application of amendment to the Charter Office, they began in 2009 implementing the very system that was denied in 2003. This is a matter of public record.

For now I will leave you with the ever prophetic words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” Do not do an injustice to your children; I have apologized to my son.

May Taliaferrow-Mosleh

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