A recent report by the New York Civil Liberties Union exposed the escalating number of students who have been suspended since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took control of the city’s schools more than a decade ago. Some believe one contributing factor may lie in the growing number of the public charter schools created during his tenure that develop their own discipline codes and have higher than average suspension rates.
Advocates for Children, a nonprofit that represents the legal rights of public school children, believe that the rise in charters (77 in 2008 and 135 in 2012) has gone hand in hand with the fact that a number of them exclude children–particularly those with special needs–at higher than average rates.
“One thing that’s great about charters is that they have access to resources others may not have, and said Paulina Davis, an attorney with Advocates for Children, who works specifically on the organization’s Charter School Initiative. “We want them to use them for benefit, not for exclusion.”
Some, not all, of the more well-established charter networks known for their “No Excuses” curriculum suspend kids at some of the highest rates in the city. Two Brooklyn Collegiate Charter Schools in the UnCommon Schools network suspend students at 35 and 40 percent rates. Achievement First, another charter network with strict behavior codes suspends 4 to 18 percent of its students at its five city schools, higher than the city’s average.
Democracy Preparatory Charter High School in Harlem suspended 22 percent of its students. Its other four locations did not list suspension data. Others ranged from lower to higher-than-average suspension rates. The Harlem Success Academy suspended 5 to 12 percent of its students at its four locations. The city’s four Knowledge is Power Program charters, which are part of a national network of “no excuses” schools, suspended between 6 and 14 percent of its students. For the 2008-09 data, the average suspension rate for the city’s 77 charter schools at the time was 7.6 percent. All numbers are based on the 2008-09 school year, the most recent data available.
Dixon Deutsch, director of the Special Education Collaborative at the New York Charter School Center said there are two sides to the charter suspensions debate, and that schools that use the “no excuses” model believe in trying to ensure a productive and safe environment for all students, Deutsch said.
“I think it’s important to have a discipline policy that is rigorous and also fair,” said Deutsch. “My particular plan is to believe in high expectations for kids, but also sweat the small stuff, because small stuff builds up over time and becomes very large stuff very quickly.”
Many public charters do provide better than average environments for special needs children, Deutsch said. But it’s tricky to create a productive environment for all children that does not compromise the rights of students with behavioral and learning needs. Some teachers feel the pressure to clear behavior problems from their classrooms in order to boost test scores. Others simply are unaware of the proper procedures for handling behavior and learning issues.
As of 2012, about 125 of the city’s current 135 charters belong to the Special Education Collaborative that just recently began providing behavioral specialists to charter schools, Deutsch said.
One kindergarten girl, Brianna Pena, 5, was recently pushed out of her strict disciplinary school, the Harriet Tubman Charter in the Bronx, after throwing a tantrum on her first day of school. Brianna’s mother, Milagros Lopez, had transferred her from another similar charter, South Bronx Classical, in October, after she felt the rules and standards for behavior were too strict. The experience was no different at the Harriet Tubman Charter, however, where Brianna spent less than a day there before the school suspended her and demanded she be psychologically evaluated before she be able to return.
“Her first day of school at Tubman, they didn’t even let her stay, she wasn’t even there for an hour,” Lopez said.
The school reported Brianna had been “yelling and throwing chairs,” a school document of the incident stated. Video footage taken by a teacher shows a small girl crying on the floor of a classroom.
“If there was an issue, they should have called me into the office,” Lopez said. “Obviously, she was just having adjustment issues, it was her first day there.”
Lopez has since placed Brianna at Girls Prep, an all-girls charter in the Bronx, where she said that though Brianna has had minor behavior and adjustment issues, the school has made an effort to work with her and she is now doing much better, even winning a ”student of the week” award for her behavior.
The principal of the Harriet Tubman Charter School declined to comment.
Even charter schools that employ less rigid discipline codes have been known to suspend young children over and over again, which can end up pushing them out of the school.
One 10-year-old Brooklyn boy was given a 30-day suspension with little explanation from his Fort Greene charter school that blends a traditional and progressive curriculum. His mother believes that her son was unfairly pushed out this past December, when he was 9.
At first, Zacharyita Brown was thrilled when she got word that her son, Kihlill, had been chosen by lottery to attend the Community Partnership Charter, a small charter in Brooklyn with an extended school day that strives to prepare its students for “academically rigorous high schools.”
However, within weeks after he started fifth grade this September, Brown said he began getting suspended. By December, Kihlill had been suspended four times for arguing with other classmates and leaving the classroom without permission.
Then on December 21, Brown received a letter from the school’s dean saying that her 9-year-old would be suspended for 30 days. “It didn’t really indicate why he was being suspended,” Brown said. “I was getting the feeling they didn’t want him in the school, so I just took it upon myself to put him somewhere else.”
In 2009-2010, the year of Kihlill’s troubles, Community Partnership’s suspension rate was only 1 percent, far lower than the city average. The year before, however, it was much higher, at 13 percent.
Though Community Partnership does not employ the curriculum of the “No Excuses” models, it does have a code of conduct that is in line with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Bullet points include, “Take responsibility for your choices and actions” and “Be respectful of yourself and others.” Its code states that the rules are posted around the school.
Kihlill, now 10 years old, is a small boy with a wide grin and a gap between his two front teeth. Sitting at his family dinner table over a school workbook one Wednesday evening in April, Kihlill talked a mile a minute about his love of drawing and his desire to become a scientist or a fashion designer.
He was identified as a special needs student with a behavioral disorder in his previous school, but had never before been suspended. His mother said that Community Partnership was aware of his special needs before accepting him, and provided a counselor. Brown said that she did not receive any feedback from the counselor about his behavior or his progress.
Kihlill showed some insight beyond his years. “I can’t deal with being bullied,” he explained about his situation at Community Partnership. “I was very scared at my old school [Community Partnership]. I was scared I was going to get bullied.”
Brown understands that her son’s behavior is far from perfect. One symptom of his disorder, she said, was to walk out of the classroom when he was upset, which cost Kihlill several minor suspensions at Community Partnership. Still, she felt the school could have done more to work with him rather than push him out.
“He talks a lot, he likes to socialize, he’s not a really out of control person. If you make him feel comfortable, he’s not a fighter,” Brown said. “It’s hard when the school isn’t working with you, but just saying your child did this, your child did that, and never saying they tried to work it out.”
Brown said that her final straw when she found out that Kihlill would be suspended for 30 days. When she arrived at the school to pick him up, she was instructed to go to the dean’s office.
Dean Gerilyn Wright handed Brown a letter that read, “Kihlill pushed an adult, kicked two adults, scratched an adult and made inappropriate comments to other adults in the building.” It also stated that the 30-day suspension would be effective the following day. No negotiations were allowed.
Tara Foster, an attorney at Queens Legal Services who has been representing Kihlill, said it was not possible to challenge the allegations since they were not specific, and because there was no hearing. Since the charter had no alternate suspension center to place Kihlill while he was serving out his suspension, he would be allowed to come to school, but only between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. Charters, unlike public schools, are not required to have a network of in-school or out-of-school suspension centers for children to serve their long-term punishments.
Foster insisted that charter operators are not intentionally violating regulations on handling behavior problems. Instead, she said many do not realize what the laws and proper practices are. “I do think there’s a lot more charters can do about following federal laws in working with kids with special needs,” she said.
“Kids misbehave for a variety of reasons,” said Foster. “I believe that as a kid with an emotional disturbance, when you grab him it’ll impact how he responds. Sometimes it’s just easier if the kid is being disruptive in some way, to get them out of there,” she said.
Community Partnership’s dean and principal declined to comment on the case, citing that they would not disclose any information regarding a student. At other charters with similar discipline policies, such as those in the Achievement First network, teachers said they felt pressured to control their students in order to boost test scores and internal ranking data.
“Charters are reviewed on data on a very tight system, and your ranking has a lot to do with it,” said Ryan Mullally. “There are things you can do to create short term data gains.” Mulally taught elementary students at Achievement First East New York from 2006 to 2010.
“If I make all my kids silent all day, every day, go overboard on consequences, the short term data will be very good,” Mulally said. “However, in the long term, they didn’t learn any independence or problem solving or deep understanding of concepts.”
Mulally, who now teaches at a more progressive charter called The Ethical Community Charter School, believes that suspending children at young ages is counterproductive in the long run. “I think if you do that to kids in third grade,” he said, “by the time they get to ninth grade, they’ll hate you and be totally incapable of dealing with the pressures of life with any grace or dignity.”
There is some evidence to suggest that charters have been trying to learn how to better handle special needs children. Deutsch said that suspension rates in charters were particularly high in 2008 because many were still trying to figure out the culture of their schools. He believed that at this point, many of those rates have stabilized.
The “No Excuses” models may have at first been too extreme, but the pendulum is swinging back to the middle, “based on internal data I’ve seen,” Deutsch said. “Yes, the school has expectations, but how can the school individualize those expectations?”
Even so, Brown said she will not be bringing her son back to a charter in the near future. At the suggestion of behavioral specialists and Community Partnership, Kihlill now attends P.S. 308 in Brooklyn, a district school recommended to her because of its smaller class sizes. Kihlill has been doing well there, since January.
“I didn’t want him to keep getting suspended for things that were so small, but he got accepted over the summer and I thought it was a good school for him to be,” she continued. “Charters have too many qualifications and their standards are just too high. If you do one thing wrong, just forget it, you’re out and that’s it.”
Davis at Advocates for Children added that she believed charters should be making more of an effort to work with their students rather than exclude them.
“It’s a hard-won seat when a child gets into a charter,” said Davis. “And a parent wants to know that everything that can be done to keep their child in school is being done. All parents want their child to get the best education they can.”