in focus

Suspensions at city charter schools far outpace those at district schools, data show

Updated — New York City charter schools suspended students at almost three times the rate of traditional public schools during the 2011-12 school year, according to a Chalkbeat analysis, though some charter schools have since begun to reduce the use of suspensions for minor infractions.

Overall, charter schools suspended at least 11 percent of their students that year, while district schools suspended 4.2 percent of their students. The charter-school suspension rate is likely an underestimate because charter schools don’t have to report suspensions that students serve in school.

Not all schools had high suspension rates. One-third of charter schools reported suspending fewer than 5 percent of their students, and many schools said they did not give out any out-of-school suspensions. But 11 charter schools suspended more than 30 percent of their students — a figure likely to draw added scrutiny amid a nationwide push to reduce suspensions and a debate over allowing more charter schools to open statewide.

Chalkbeat’s analysis is based on data that charter schools report to the state education department and the more detailed reports of suspensions in district schools. It includes data from 130 city charter schools open in 2011-12, the last year for which data is publicly available. [More on our analysis here.]

The analysis offers a clearer picture of how out-of-school suspensions are used to deal with misbehavior in the city’s growing charter-school sector, which now serves more than 83,000 students, most of whom are black or Hispanic.

Meanwhile, some of the city’s charter-school networks that have long championed “sweat-the-small-stuff” discipline practices say they have been moved to change their policies.

“When you make the numbers visible, when you hold up a mirror, you’re able to see your actions,” said Ron Chaluisan, who oversees the charter schools run by New Visions for Public Schools network. “When you’re able to see your actions, you’re able to change your behaviors.”

An ongoing debate

Unlike traditional district schools, charter schools are free to craft their own discipline policies, and some have used that autonomy to establish strict behavior codes. Escalating consequences for misdeeds like chewing gum, tardiness, talking out of turn, and dress-code violations are standard, and students who break rules repeatedly can find themselves suspended quickly.

Schools say suspensions maintain order, keep children safe, and allow teachers to focus on instruction by removing the most distracting students. Strict discipline has long been a cornerstone of the charter-school movement, and supporters argue that those policies have led to better academic outcomes for a majority of their students.

“Many families are flocking to charter schools, and one reason is that they believe in stricter discipline,” said Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, whose nine schools in 2011-12 suspended 17 percent of their students at least once. “Having some kids miss a day of instruction here and there for a suspension is far outweighed by the benefits of learning in an orderly environment all of the other days, as our academic results prove.”

Nationwide, charter and district schools are moving in a different direction. Los Angeles and San Francisco have barred suspensions of some or all students for nonviolent offenses, spurred by the findings of researchers like Robert Balfanz of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education linking middle-school suspensions to high school dropout rates.

“The theory is, [suspensions] are the equivalent of an adolescent time-out period and perhaps a means to teach the lesson that good behavior is expected in schools,” said Balfanz. But far too often, he says, students interpret suspension as being shunned and “get the message that they are not wanted in school.”

“Overreliance on suspension is an issue that needs to be addressed for all public schools, including charter schools,” said Paulina Davis, a staff attorney at Advocates for Children who represents charter-school students in disciplinary cases.

New York City’s 1,650 district schools also offer a range of suspension rates. About 40 percent gave few or no suspensions, while nearly 200 others doled out more than 100 suspensions in the 2011-12 school year, according to city data.

City officials have heeded the call for reducing suspensions in recent years, and the de Blasio administration has proposed further discipline code changes toward that end. The changes will not affect charter schools.

A parent’s experience

At Excellence Boys Charter School, part of the Uncommon Schools network, students’ small sins add up. (Full disclosure: The reporter of this article is married to an employee at another Uncommon school.)

In 2011-12, the all-boys elementary and middle school suspended 40 percent of its students, the second-highest rate among the city’s charter schools. For some students, missing school for a suspension can become routine.

Shirley Paulino with her son Emanuel
PHOTO: Shirley Paulino
Shirley Paulino with her son.

Shirley Paulino said her son’s experience at the Bedford-Stuyvesant school changed when he entered the fifth grade. There were more teachers, larger classes and a new rigid discipline policy called the “Scoreboard System.” Under the system, students are docked a certain number of points if they break one of the school’s many rules: two points for chewing gum, five points for lateness, and 10 points for disrespecting an adult or classmate.

Paulino’s son often ended the week with a 50-point deficit — and an automatic out-of-school suspension. All told, Paulino said her son missed 23 days due to suspensions last year.

“There was never a fight, he was never a danger,” said Paulino, who said her son, now in a district middle school, was diagnosed with ADHD earlier this year. “He just doesn’t know when to be quiet.”

Chalkbeat’s analysis of out-of-school suspension numbers found that Uncommon Schools’ network-wide suspension rate in 2011-12 was 22 percent, making it one of five charter networks that suspended more than 20 percent of their students that year. The others were New Visions (25 percent), Ascend Learning (24 percent), Achievement First (22 percent), and Democracy Prep (21 percent).

Uncommon Schools is reviewing its discipline policies, a spokesman said. “We believe that we are making steps in the right direction towards a reduction in suspensions,” said the spokesman, Jon Reinish.

One well-known network, Icahn Charter Schools, did not report suspending a single student in any of its three schools open that year. Two other small networks, Public Prep and Harlem Children’s Zone, had suspension rates in the low single digits. (Charter schools do not have to report their in-school suspension numbers, though district schools do. Charter schools also aren’t required to report expulsions.)

The highest single charter-school suspension rate, 51 percent, belonged to Broome Street Academy, which opened in 2011 and serves a large number of students who are homeless or in foster care.

Broome Street had a rocky first year, according to an early evaluation, but seems to have turned a corner under a new principal, Barbara McKeon, who came on in 2013. After a visit to the school in March, Chancellor Carmen Fariña praised its school culture and selected it to help other schools improve their own. A spokeswoman for the school said 20 percent of students were suspended in 2013-14.

The rise of suspensions 

The “zero-tolerance” approach to discipline that is linked to high suspension rates has its roots not in charter schools, but in the 1994 Gun Free Schools Act, which mandated harsh punishments for students who brought firearms or drugs to schools across the country. Suspensions increased nationally and continued to climb in New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. A school safety plan established under Bloomberg expedited the removal of students who got in trouble repeatedly.

In the later years of Bloomberg’s tenure, the city’s strategies changed. The City Council passed a transparency bill that regularly publicizes school suspensions and arrests. The discipline code underwent rounds of changes meant to restrict suspensions, and suspensions and arrests began trending downward.

Charter schools have largely been left out of public debates about discipline, in part because of their autonomy and also because the state doesn’t release charter-school suspension statistics until they are nearly three years out of date.

But as Gov. Andrew Cuomo looks to increase the state’s charter school cap by 200 schools, the numbers are coming under more scrutiny. A report released by Advocates for Children this month found that a large portion of the city’s charter schools had discipline policies that violated state and federal laws, prompting calls for more thorough reporting of discipline data.

“To deal with the sky-high suspension rates that characterize too many charters, the schools should be required to follow the same suspension laws, regulations and reporting requirements as district schools,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, whose union has lost ground to charter schools over the last decade, told state lawmakers last month.

A work in progress

Some charter schools that had the highest suspension rates three years ago say they’ve since made changes.

The Achievement First and Ascend Learning networks have seen significant drops in their suspension rates in the last three years, according to data provided by the networks. Democracy Prep saw a more modest decrease, while New Vision’s suspensions had actually increased. Uncommon declined to provide updated data.

“We recognized that the suspension numbers at some of our schools were simply too high, and we’ve worked hard to reduce them,” said Amanda Pinto, a spokeswoman for Achievement First, who said the network’s suspension rate dropped from 22 percent in 2011-12 to 13.9 percent last year. The decrease followed changes to their suspension policies and a closer tracking of suspension statistics, she said.

And despite Moskowitz’s public defense of suspensions, Success Academy’s suspension rates have fallen from 17 percent to 11 percent last year, according to spokeswoman Ann Powell.

But at the two charter high schools opened by New Visions in 2011, the problem got worse before getting better. Suspension rates peaked last year at 43 percent at New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science and and 21 percent at New Visions High School for the Humanities.

“Pretty much everyone on my team was a bit taken aback” when they saw how high their suspension rates were, said Chaluisan, the New Visions vice president. This year, both schools’ rates were on pace to drop, he said.

Chaluisan attributed the high rates to the fact that the school is still new and said he had hired someone with experience in restorative justice who is working with guidance counselors to come up with alternative consequences for misbehavior. Providing monthly updates to each schools’ board has also put more attention on the issue, he said.

Ascend has also decreased its suspension rates. In 2011-12, it had the highest suspension rate of any network, suspending 26 percent of its students. CEO Steven Wilson hired a new dean, Janna Genzlinger, now a managing director at one of the schools, who has rolled out a new discipline model that emphasizes “logical consequences” to fit a student’s misbehavior. If a child draws on a desk, she has to stay after school to clean it, for example.

Suspension rates at Ascend’s elementary schools halfway through this school year range from 2 percent to 6 percent, an Ascend spokeswoman said.

“This is kind of the next generation innovation in charter schooling,” said Wilson. With the old policies, “There was real progress. But it came at the cost of not serving a large number of students.”

View the database we created to analyze suspension rates at city charter schools here.

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Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.