no excuses

‘No excuses’ no more? Charter schools rethink discipline after focus on tough consequences

A fourth-grade student does test-prep in his English class at Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in Brooklyn.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
A fourth-grade student does test-prep in his English class at Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in Brooklyn.

A few years ago, if a student arrived at an Ascend elementary school wearing the wrong color socks, she was sent to the dean’s office to stay until a family member brought a new pair.

Now, the school office is stocked with extra socks. Students without them can pick up a spare pair before heading to class.

It’s a simple shift, but part of a revolution in the culture at Ascend, which oversees five charter elementary schools, three middle schools, and a high school in Brooklyn. Making sure students and parents were sweating the small stuff, once integral to the network’s philosophy, was simply producing “too many unhappy children,” Ascend’s CEO Steve Wilson explained recently.

“We’ve moved sharply away from a zero tolerance discipline approach,” Wilson said. “We believe a warm and supportive environment produces the greatest long-term social effects.”

Parallel shifts are happening across New York City, as some charter school leaders take a second look at discipline policies they put in place when they opened. Those policies, connected to a broader set of ideas referred to as “no excuses,” combine teachers’ high academic expectations for students with strict behavior rules meant to ensure an orderly learning environment.

Some schools have tweaked those policies after seeing the effects on students, particularly as they exit their charter schools for more lenient environments. Others aim to distance themselves from the harsh practices that have grabbed headlines and generated fears that they could erode crucial political and parental support for charter schools. And some have changed simply because the charter sector’s swift growth has made faithful implementation of original practices impossible.

The schools often reject labels like zero tolerance or no excuses. But they generally have firm guidelines for everything from how students walk down hallways to what they wear.

While some charter schools never subscribed to a similar theory, those ideas still form the backbone of the culture at the charter schools that belong to networks like Achievement First, KIPP, and Ascend. Teachers say they’re key to allowing students to focus in class and net high scores on state tests. But as the sector grows — and issues of school discipline make national headlines — many schools are pulling back slightly as they search for the right balance.

“There is a broad movement away from no excuses discipline policies,” said Mary Wells, the co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit that advises charter schools. “I’m not privy to all [charter management organizations’] conversations, but I would say most are having conversations about how and how much should we adjust our culture.”

The no excuses theory

At the start of a ninth-grade physics class at Achievement First Brooklyn High School last month, students sat in silence as they worked on a problem. They had less than a minute to scribble an answer on their whiteboards.

“Twenty-four seconds,” Alexis Riley warned the class. When her timer went off, students held up their answers and the teacher scanned the room. “85 percent mastery,” she said.

The leaders at Achievement First, a network of schools in Brooklyn, see a rigorous, rule-based school culture as key to allowing students to be as focused as they were at the beginning of physics that day. They also see it as part of a strategy for ensuring that students in poverty do not fall behind more affluent peers.

After all, if students are not required to pay attention, how will they learn the concepts they need to succeed in college-level science classes? If they are not ready to learn within 60 seconds of entering class, when will they catch up?

John Huber teaches a class at Achievement First Brooklyn High School.
PHOTO: Monica Disare
John Huber teaches a class at Achievement First Brooklyn High School.

LA Block, a first-grade teacher at Achievement First Endeavor Elementary School, noted that students sit in silence at lunch for the first six weeks of school. In the hallways, students are asked to walk with attention to the acronym “HALLS”: hands at your sides, lips locked, safely walking.

The idea is that strict guidelines for how students should behave in and out of class, enforced consistently over time, provide the basis for academic progress and can help close the achievement gap. Without them, schools become chaotic — the environment that the founders of Achievement First and other charter school networks set out to create alternatives to.

The threat of that environment, which charter leaders say remains common in district schools, is a reason to stay the course.

“People have understandably expressed concern that some students may have particular trouble meeting our behavioral expectations and ask why we can’t simply relax them,” Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last year. “The answer is that Success Academy’s 34 principals and I deeply believe that if we lessened our standards for student comportment, the education of the 11,000 children in our schools would profoundly suffer.”

The limits of a philosophy

The former leader of Brooklyn Ascend Lower School remembers a moment when he realized the school’s focus on rigor and discipline had gone too far.

“It was horrible for me to walk out to dismissal and the first conversation I would hear parents having with their children is, ‘What color are you on?’” said Brandon Sorlie, now the chief academic officer at Ascend, referring to a tool used to track students’ behavior. The conversations were always about behavior as opposed to learning, he said.

Achievement First now has 17 schools in the city; Uncommon has 21. Success Academy, the largest network in New York City, has 34 different schools. The growth of the networks has made it difficult to strike the delicate balance between rigor and warmth in every charter classroom.

Tatiana Piskula teaches math to fourth-grade students at Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in Brooklyn.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Tatiana Piskula teaches math to fourth-grade students at Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in Brooklyn.

“Look at D.C.,” New York City Charter Center CEO James Merriman said, referring to the roughly 45 percent of students in the nation’s capital who attend charter schools. “Size has made these conversations about how the sector deals with discipline impossible to avoid.”

Harsh discipline practices at some schools have also made headlines, providing fodder for critics and concerned parents. A Chalkbeat analysis found that charter schools suspended students in 2011-12 at a rate of almost three times the rate of traditional public schools. Critics have long held that strict discipline prevents these charter schools from educating the highest-needs students, since they implicitly encourage unruly students to leave the school.

That shift comes as charter schools face more pressure than ever to serve high-needs students. A “Got to Go” list of student names at a Success Academy school sparked widespread outrage last year. The teachers union has made it a legislative priority to pressure charter schools to do more. Even the governor, a longtime supporter of charter schools, has made reference to “troubling practices.” Plus, both Achievement First and Success Academy face lawsuits for their treatment of students with disabilities.

An Achievement First school in Hartford made students wear a white shirt over their uniform signaling they were in “re-orientation” as a discipline tool, according to a 2013 Hartford Courant article. The shirt forbade students from interacting with their peers or participating in music and special physical classes. (A spokeswoman from Achievement First said the practice has changed.)

At KIPP Star Washington Elementary School, students were placed in a “calm-down” room, a padded room about the size of a walk-in closet, according to a 2013 New York Daily News story. A spokesman for KIPP said that as of January 2014, KIPP stopped referring students to the calm-down room.

Individual teachers have also occasionally crossed lines. Recently, the New York Times published a video of a Success Academy teacher harshly criticizing a student who answered a math question incorrectly.

Network leaders have said that cases like these do not represent their overall school culture. But behind the scenes, some leaders also began to question whether, in their quest to balance joy and academic rigor, the scale was too often weighted towards rigor.

"Size has made these conversations about how the sector deals with discipline impossible to avoid."New York City Charter Center CEO James Merriman

“You’ve got to get them all right like it’s a symphony,” said Doug McCurry, co-CEO and superintendent of Achievement First, about the principles at the core of Achievement First. “I think, over the last few years, we’ve been playing the focus and rigor notes maybe more loudly than the investment and thinking notes.”

One former Uncommon administrator explained the struggle of those at her school to balance enforcing consequences for small offenses without allowing rules to become the end goal. (She did not want to be named in order to maintain relationships with those at Uncommon.)

“When you carry a weight of anger with talking in the hallway, a child interprets that [as] being universally wrong,” she said.

Others have raised questions about whether the tight control of student behavior actually sets all students up for success, especially before heading off to college, where few people will be making sure students do their work.

If students are confined to a tight structure in elementary and high school, it is no wonder they might find college “unfamiliar and overwhelming,” Wilson said.

What’s actually changed

Some of the changes at schools are easy to see. The color boards that used to hang in Ascend elementary schools to designate students by behavior are no longer there. At its high school, Ascend has begun experimenting with restorative justice, an approach to discipline meant to focus on problem-solving instead of punishment. (A number of district schools are experimenting with those ideas, too.)

On a recent afternoon, one student addressed his peers for putting an inappropriate image on the desktop of student computers. His peers were then given the opportunity to ask why he would do that.

“It’s one of those things where in another school that had a different philosophy, he could have been suspended,” said Shannon Ortiz-Wong, an English teacher at Brooklyn Ascend High School, who previously worked at Achievement First Brooklyn High School and a district high school. Instead, his family members were brought in for a meeting, he apologized to his peers, and wrote a reflection.

Ninth-grade students listen to their peers present a project in their literature class at Brooklyn Ascend High School.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Ninth-grade students listen to their peers present a project in their literature class at Brooklyn Ascend High School.

When Dakarai Venson, a ninth-grader at Brooklyn Ascend High School was in middle school, he said he would be sent to the dean’s office for reading in class. Now, the teachers would not respond in the same way.

“I’ve gotten older, so I know it’s not the time to be reading. But also, teachers — they wouldn’t just overreact now,” Venson said.

Years ago, KIPP schools used to have students eat lunch in silence, but that practice is gone. The paycheck system used to track student behavior and progress toward character goals has “dramatically increased” the number of ways students can earn dollars for positive dollars, through showing character traits like curiosity and zest, said Allison Willis Holley, the principal at KIPP Infinity in Harlem.

Explore, a network of four charter schools, still has “soar sticks” in some elementary schools, which have student names on clothespins that move up and down based on a student’s behavior. But the practice is only used sporadically and schools are trying to find ways to eliminate extrinsic reward and consequence systems, chief academic officer Sam Fragomeni said in an email.

Still, across most networks, schools look and feel about the same as they did a few years ago.

Students still learn in rigorous classroom environments, adhere to strict uniform codes, and are held accountable for their behavior using rigid merit and demerit systems. An untucked shirt can still earn a demerit at Achievement First. Success Academy gives students infractions for slouching. Chewing gum means the loss of paycheck dollars at KIPP.

What has changed, many say, is how these rules are emphasized and applied.

Schools have taken steps to give more positive feedback, deemphasize the tiniest behavior infractions, differentiate how they treat student misbehavior, and ensure students are learning from their consequences.

In short, it’s about working within the network’s original framework to improve the balance between a “warm and demanding” learning environment, KIPP’s Dave Levin said.

"There’s time for kids to be kids and to wiggle and to have time to talk and have social interactions and do all those things which contributes to a happier place."Allison Willis Holley, principal of KIPP Infinity

In terms of discipline, that means students are now taught to learn from their mistakes instead of simply receiving a consequence, KIPP principal Holley said.

Before, a student at KIPP might get a zero for failing to complete an assignment and that is still the reality today, Holley said. But now, teachers are more deliberate about following up with students and helping them learn from their mistakes, she explained.

KIPP schools also run their own advisory groups now called KIPP circles. Students are tasked with setting character and behavior goals — and also with having a little fun.

“There’s time for kids to be kids and to wiggle and to have time to talk and have social interactions and do all those things which contributes to a happier place,” Holley said.

At Achievement First, one change is that if students are off-task, teachers are now trained to tell students exactly how to fix the problem instead of simply scolding them, said Cristina Lopez del Castillo-De La Cruz, a dean at Achievement First Brooklyn High School.

“A lot of that shift is about helping [students] feel like we’re on the same team and we have the same goals,” said Chris Bostock, the principal at Achievement First Brooklyn High School.

Comments and concerns

It’s unclear whether rethinking these policies will lead to a total reboot of school culture or a series of small tweaks. The answer will likely vary at each network and within each school and classroom.

But some worry the high-pressure environment created both externally and internally at charter schools schools leaves little wiggle room for a seismic shift. Charter school renewal is based on academic results. Few charters leaders are interested in sweeping changes, either.

“I think that networks will continue that practice as long as they see it producing the outcomes that they are supposed to produce,” said Steve Zimmerman, the founder of two charter schools in Queens and the co-director of the Coalition for Community Charter Schools, which represents many smaller, independent schools.

"Networks will continue that practice as long as they see it producing the outcomes that they are supposed to produce."Steve Zimmerman, co-director of the Coalition for Community Charter Schools

Success Academy, for its part, has not changed its discipline philosophy and does not plan to, according to a spokesman. Far from reforming the discipline code, Eva Moskowitz, the founder and CEO of Success Academy said it should serve as a model.

“The city could learn from Success’s code of conduct and provide the same safe, engaging learning environments that children need — and parents want,” she said.

Anthony Bush, who teaches special education, algebra, and dance at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, said he understands the practical problems with changing discipline policies. He said he would like to solve behavioral issues as the school suggests, hours after the fact in a calm and collaborative discussion with his students, but that can be challenging in the middle of a lesson.

It is especially difficult during state testing season, when the pressure to help students master the rigorous Common Core learning standards allows even less time to have conversations about discipline, he said.

“In the moment it’s very difficult to put into action because we’re human,” Bush said.

Stephanie Snyder and Fabiola Cineas contributed reporting.

Teens Take Charge

New York City students and podcasters team up to share stories of inequity in schools

PHOTO: Brett Rawson
Teens Take Charge is a student-led organization that hopes to spark change in schools.

If you ask Sherard Stephens, a senior at Hostos-Lincoln Academy of Science in the Bronx, there are two different types of schools in New York City: There are schools where resources are plentiful and students feel challenged academically. But there are dozens of others that barely provide the basics, and those largely cater to black, Hispanic and poor students.

Stephens and other students like him think it’s time to talk about that, which is why they’ve launched Teens Take Charge. The new group, which includes students from almost every borough, wants to give young people a voice when it comes to issues they know well: what goes on in their own schools.

“It’s all about us talking about the fact that we don’t have the resources to reach the same level of success,” he said.

On Friday, Teens Take Charge will host their first event at the Bronx Library Center. Through letters, storytelling and poetry, students will tackle issues such as segregation and standardized testing. They hope their stories, along with student-moderated discussions, will spark change within their schools.

Called “To Whom it Should Concern,” the event will also feature art work and a photo booth, and will be completely led by students. But they’ve had help along the way from Handwritten, an organization that focuses on the art of writing by hand, along with The Bell, a new podcast created by Taylor McGraw and Adrian Uribarri to highlight student voices.

McGraw teaches writing at Achievement First University Prep High School in Brooklyn and Uribarri works in communications. Their podcast, which launched this month, focuses on school segregation in New York City — more than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that separate schools for black and white students are inherently unequal.

The podcast was inspired by just a few lines in Chief Justice Earl Warren’s opinion in that case, in which he wrote that segregation “generates a feeling of inferiority” for minority students “that may affect their hearts and minds.”

McGraw wanted to explore the impact that segregation has on students by letting them speak for themselves.

“I want to know: How does it make them think about themselves? How does it make them think about society and their place in it? And then, what’s their response to it?” McGraw said. “So many of the other inequities that we talk about and hear about stem from segregation.”

He hopes to share clips from Friday’s event in an upcoming podcast episode.

For more information about To Whom it Should Concern, click here. To listen to the first episode of The Bell or read more about Teens Take Charge, click here.

First Person

How I stopped wishing for ‘seventh-period flu’ and came to love my first year teaching

PHOTO: Richard Delmendo
The author, Autumn Jones, in her classroom.

Ubaldo and I had a rough start.

Ubaldo is a lanky eighth-grade boy. He prides himself on baseball, basketball and disrupting classes.

He also refused to do any work in my journalism class. He ditched one day, was tardy the next two. He asked to go to the bathroom constantly. We went up the “discipline ladder” daily.

I struggled big time with Ubaldo and his entire class. We dealt with plagiarism, disruptions, and an overall lack of participation. In anything. At all. I started calling them my “dead fish” class. Actually, I think dead fish would have been better.

Every day, I walked out of that class defeated. I thought about finding a weeks-long movie and playing it for the rest of class. I desperately wanted to come down with the seventh-period flu.

One morning, Ubaldo was due in my room for a follow-up conversation about his latest blowup. He shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes when I asked him what was going on in class. The only thing he could land on was that he was bored and didn’t want to be a journalist. He wanted to be in gym.

At that point, I stopped. I turned the conversation to my initial stories as a writer. I pulled up the first list of obituaries I wrote for the Gonzaga Quarterly (now Gonzaga Magazine) and I showed him those short little blurbs  —  someone’s name, date of birth, date of death, location and not a whole lot else. They weren’t the most exciting thing to write, I told him, but they helped me learn the structure of storytelling and AP Style.

Next, I pulled up some feature obituaries  —  stories that told more about a person’s life, their family, their hobbies, their impact on the world  —  at which point Ubaldo said, “You only wrote stories about dead people?”

After we both laughed, I told him, “No, but this is how I got my start as a writer.”

We went on to have a conversation about how things start out  —  in sports, in academics and in life  —  and how those things, like the first obituaries, provide the structure we can later expand from. I told him that we have to know the rules before we can break them. He liked that part.

We had a much longer conversation that morning. We didn’t spend much time on his outburst in class the day before. Instead, we talked about his pending high school acceptance, his family and his fears of being deported. His sister, a senior in high school, is a part of the government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. In the current climate, that feels like it poses a huge risk for their entire family. He is afraid. Many of his friends are, too.

At the time, Ubaldo didn’t know where he was going to high school. (Denver allows students to apply to their choice of high school.) Getting into a good high school could be the ticket to higher education and a ticket to a better life for himself and his family. At 13 years old, Ubaldo faces far more uncertainty in his daily life than many of us face in the entirety of life.

That conversation changed how I approached my classroom. Ubaldo wasn’t causing chaos out of spite. Quite the opposite actually. Ubaldo, like every other student at my school, needs someone to listen, someone to care, someone to respond to the difficulties he is facing.

I wish I could say that particular classroom dynamic got better overnight. Or that, in an instant, some of my kids decided they were going to be journalists in their future careers. That didn’t happen.

It was a struggle until the end with that class, but Ubaldo bought in. More importantly, I bought in, too.

I showed up and I continued to teach. I pumped that class full of goofy activities and relationship-building exercises, despite the eye rolls. I shared more of my life story, even when it felt like there wasn’t an ounce of empathy anywhere in those four walls.

I now have a new group of seventh and eighth graders in my journalism class, a group that is talkative, friendly, excited and enthusiastic about the material and each other. That’s given me another insight: There are students  —  maybe entire classes  —  who are not going to love the content of my classes. There are also students who are going to buy in to such an extent you can see them working in media production, coding the next great news website or becoming a future New York Times columnist.

Regardless, my classroom will regularly be a space where preteens are looking for affirmation, assurance and love. That I can give.

A few weeks ago, in front of about 200 families, teachers and kids, Ubaldo presented a sports broadcast video he created for my class. He was one of two students to select the most difficult option for a project-based learning assignment. And Ubaldo got into one of the best high schools in Denver.

I know it doesn’t always work out that way. Not everyone gets to experience such a quick turnaround in behavior, attitude or academics. But it did this time, and, whether it happens one or 100 more times, it’s what will keep me coming back to the classroom.

Autumn Jones is a teacher at Marie L. Greenwood Academy, a 1st-8th grade school in Denver Public Schools where she teaches journalism, digital media and online safety. She previously worked in marketing, public relations and journalism and volunteered with CU Boulder’s Public Achievement program.