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.

How I Teach

Interested in classroom technology? This first grade teacher has a wealth of ideas.

PHOTO: Bretta Loeffler
Bretta Loeffler, a first grade teacher in the Adams 12 district, works with students.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Teacher Bretta Loeffler loves mixing technology into her lessons. You might find her first-graders at Hulstrom K-8, a school for gifted and advanced students in the Adams 12 school district north of Denver, producing a newscast about the Liberty Bell or creating an online quiz about dolphins. Soon, she’ll add a 3D printer to the mix.

Loeffler was one of 52 educators nationwide — the only one from Colorado — selected as a 2017 PBS Digital Innovator in April. Winners were picked for integrating digital media and resources into their classrooms.

Loeffler talked to Chalkbeat about her favorite technologies, why she loves the zoo animal unit and how she uses the voice-activated Echo Dot device to get her students’ attention.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I have always wanted to be a teacher because I’ve always had a need to help others. I knew that I loved learning so I wanted to pass on this passion to my students.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a fun, inviting place to learn. I have a mixture of innovative new technology like iPads, interactive whiteboards, QR codes and soon a 3D printer, and also traditional items like a wonderful classroom library with lots of books, posters and items made by the students to support their learning.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
My students’ energy. It is what drives me to work hard each and every day. They fuel what I do.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
I love teaching the students about researching animals. We take virtual and real field trips to zoos. We love watching the animal cams of the different animals. We take our information and write a traditional animal report. Then we mix in new technology. The students find a background that represents their animals’ habitat and make a mask of the animal. Then we greenscreen the report and make a QR code to share our information with the world. We also use the quiz-making application TinyTap that helps us share our information with other students all over the world.

I have many standards that I must cover, including animal research and publishing writing in an innovative way. So, my teammates and I decided on this format.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I think of students who aren’t understanding like a puzzle. I think about what they do know and then think about the roadblocks that are holding them back. Then I put a plan in place. I really believe in blending learning and try having the students learn the concept in different ways like with music or in a more visual format. We use an application called Blendspaces that allows me to create interactive lessons using different kinds of media, including video, audio, games and pdfs.

I love teaching fractions and having all the students watching and interacting with the content in a way that makes sense for them. It is powerful and engaging for the students. I also believe in students teaching students. In our room, students will be showing work using Apple TV or doing gallery walks to showcase learning.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
We have many attention-getting sayings. For example, I say “Hulstrom,” and they say “All-Stars.” My new toy is an Echo Dot. I use it to set timers and get students attention. It really seems to be working. However, the newness will wear off and then I’ll need to look for something new and improved.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them?
The last few years I have used an app called Seesaw. It is a digital portfolio that students can use. I get messages and pictures from students all during the year — during weekends, holidays, trips and other events. This helps me get to know them outside of school and makes learning and community go 24/7. I can also send out videos, pictures and other items to parents as they are happening in our day. This helps build relationships in a fun and meaningful way.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I think that I will always remember a student who came to our class after a traumatic experience at another school. He was shy and a little scared. His mom really wanted to make sure he was safe and in a school he enjoyed. I understood her sense of urgency. I could see it in her face and hear it in her voice. As a mom, I know that you want your child to have the best. I also wanted him to feel safe and happy at school. That year I had a remarkable class that loved learning and each other. They took him in and within a few days he looked and felt a part of our classroom community. I could see the mom start to relax and feel better. We are still in contact and she still reminds me about how as a team we took something bad and turned it into something positive.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I wish I could list books that I am reading, but being a busy teacher doesn’t leave me much time to spend on reading. However, I am always reading blogs and connecting with other teachers to share and build on ideas. Some of my favorite blogs are Free Technology for Teachers, First Grade Fun Times, Seesaw Blog, TinyTap blog, Fearless First Grade Teachers and Education to the Core. I enjoy social media very much. I also love Pinterest.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
I think the best advice I have received is from former teachers and colleagues and that is to find enjoyment in what you do and share that with the students, families and other teachers. When I have that I can pass that along to others. This job is too hard to do without helping each other out.

Music and power

This Detroit teacher uses music to expose students to history, politics and power. ‘They walk in here and they don’t even know who they are.’

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Central High School teacher Quincy Stewart uses music to teach African-American history to his students. "These children have been robbed by this system. ... They’ve been miseducated, undereducated and misused," he said.

As soon as Quincy Stewart started teaching music, he realized that harmonies and melodies would never be enough — not nearly enough for a man determined to connect his students with their history and culture.

“I’m a black man and these are black children,” said Stewart, 59, a music teacher, band leader and choir director at Detroit’s Central High School. “These children have been robbed by this system, from the cradle until right now. They’ve been miseducated, undereducated and misused …. They walk in here and they don’t even know who they are.”

So Stewart’s music classes — whether he’s teaching music theory, music appreciation or the fundamentals of playing piano — take kids on a tour through black history, from the nations of Africa to Black Power and Civil Rights.  

At a time when music classes are seen as a luxury in many schools, with districts cutting arts instruction in favor of math and reading, Stewart’s approach to teaching music demonstrates that it doesn’t have to be one or the other.  The arts can be deeply integrated into core subjects.

Stewart teaches math by walking music theory students through the mathematical details of musical scoring.

He teaches writing by insisting that students write several papers a year on themes covered in class. He cuts them no break on grammar or format, marking up papers with a red pen in a manner more typical of English teachers than of those whose certifications are in instrumental music.

“Some of your papers look like a blood transfusion when I get done,” Stewart told a group of students on a recent morning. “That’s because y’all can’t write.”

But it’s history, power and politics that get the most attention in his classes.

“I found that a majority of my students didn’t know anything about … their own history,” he said.

Students knew about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — but hadn’t gotten the full story.

“They were slaveholders and racists and white supremacists,” Stewart said. “So once we debunk all of the myths … then we get to open up that can of worms about uncovering black history and we use music to do it.”

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Music teacher Quincy Stewart incorporates math, writing and history in his music classes at Detroit’s Central High School

He starts his class with Africa, playing students the music of the Akan and the Ashanti people, the music of Ghana, Mali and Timbuktu.

“We’ve traveled all the way from the west coast of Africa to Jamaica and the islands to Virginia,” Stewart said. “We moved through slavery up until the first part of the 20th century and we get into Rosewood, to Oklahoma, into all those so-called race riots where blacks were slaughtered because they had towns of their own and the corresponding music that goes with it. This is the time of Louis Armstrong. This is the time of Freddie Keppard. This is the time of Bessie Smith. So we play the music from there.”

On a recent morning, he peppered his students with questions about Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. He drilled them on Hampton’s background, the details of the 1969 Chicago police raid that killed him and the FBI COINTELPRO operation that targeted him and other leaders of 1960s-era social movements.

“And what were some of the songs that were playing at the time of the Black Power movement?” he asked his students. “Give me some songs!”

Stewart questioned his class about the ethics of Civil Rights and Black Power leaders who worked as FBI informants and pressed them to say if, during slavery, they would have considered informing on other slaves in a bid to secure their own freedom. (One student volunteered that he’d gladly choose freedom regardless of the consequences to others).

Stewart even used the arrival of a mouse that came scurrying across his classroom as a teaching moment, comparing the rodent’s struggle to the history of African Americans in the United States.

“I’ve tried to kill him but he’s an elusive mouse,” Stewart said. “He knows his rat history. He knows that down through history, human beings don’t like him. He knows that down through history, people have set traps for him. He knows that down through history, people are out to get him. He’s become very crafty at getting away, waiting until my back is turned and then he runs.”

Stewart’s students say the history lessons have been eye-opening.

“When I signed up for this class, I thought I’d be going over Beethoven and classical artists and stuff but I found information about myself, my history,” said student Lamont Hogan. “This class gave me more information about myself than I could even imagine. Things that I never would have known and never would have imagined without Mr. Stewart teaching.”

Teaching at Central hasn’t been easy, Stewart said.

The state-run Education Achievement Authority, which took over Central and 14 other low-performing Detroit schools in 2012, has undergone dramatic changes in recent years and is going through another transition now as its schools return to the main Detroit district next week.

The changes have taken a toll on teachers and students, said Stewart, who came to the school in 2012, the first year of the EAA.

“It’s kind of like being … at the bottom of a latrine,” Stewart said. “The biggest thud from what comes into a latrine lands at the bottom … Us teachers have really felt the thud of the crap.”

He hasn’t been able to get the resources he felt he needed for his classroom. When he took over a music program that had lost most of its musical equipment to theft before he arrived, he used his own money to buy things like drums, keyboards and guitars for his students to use, he said.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Music teacher Quincy Stewart said he used his own money to buy many of the musical instruments his students use at Detroit’s Central High School.

Attendance has also been an issue. His first-hour class on a morning in early June had just eight students — a fraction of the 24 enrolled.

“A lot of kids don’t have transportation,” he said. “Some are catching three and four buses to get here and, I hate to say it, but … some of it is just lack of parental support telling them to get their ass up and get to school. They have the liberty of coming to school, in many cases, when they feel like it.”

Now the latest challenge Stewart is facing is a likely cut to his salary.

He is among EAA teachers bracing for dramatic pay cuts when their schools return to the main district.

But Stewart says he’s looking forward to his first summer off in years. Since EAA teachers were required to work through the summer, the school’s return to the Detroit Public Schools Community District will mean a chance for Stewart to spend the summer playing music and performing. He is a professional musician who says he toured the world before going into teaching in his 40s.

Stewart doesn’t know what will happen next year as Central gets a new principal and as that principal responds to changes from the new Detroit superintendent. He said he plans to keep teaching this way as long as he is permitted to do so.

“I have what I can give them and I’m going to give it to them,” he said. “And if a principal comes in here and tells me I can’t do it, then that’s the day I quit. I leave. Period. Because I’m not here for the money. There is no money.”

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Central High School music teacher Quincy Stewart is a professional musician who got into teaching in his 40s. He played guitar during a choir rehearsal on a recent morning.