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

An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain

PHOTO: File Photo

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.

Cheryl Mosier’s favorite lesson about the properties of light waves is one that her students enjoy, too. Some spend all day Snapchatting about it.

But the lesson also brings up painful memories for the Columbine High School earth science teacher because she was teaching it the day of the deadly shooting there in 1999.

Mosier stopped teaching the lesson for a few years, but ultimately brought it back into the mix. In fact, a video of that lesson was part of the package that earned her the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching in 2007.

Mosier shared her thoughts on how she builds relationships with students, why she’s always nice to custodians and secretaries, and what she reads for fun.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I first taught when I volunteered at my local swimming pool during swim lessons. I knew then that teaching fit my personality as I had the ability to have fun and teach content. During high school, I was inspired by my math and science teachers (Ms. Finnegan and Ms. Chaloupka) as they were able to make math and science accessible for all students.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ___________Why?

My husband. He teaches literally next door to me, and teaches earth science. We collaborate on everything and help each other solve problems as they arise. We are each other’s sounding boards and he keeps me sane and I keep him thinking outside the box. He hates it when I attend a conference or meeting because I make him change something else.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

Fingerprints of Light — on spectroscopy — is honestly my favorite, but also my most dreaded. I was teaching that lesson on April 20, 1999, so it took me a couple of years to do it again with students.

During the 2007 school year, I applied for the Presidential Award of Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, and this lesson was the one my husband filmed for the application. I found out a year later that I was the awardee, so this lesson holds a special place in my heart.

Another reason I love this lesson is seeing the excitement of my students. We use the diffraction grating in “Rainbow Peepholes” — small disks with the grating in the middle to look through — which act as tiny prisms splitting the light into the basic wavelengths. This is the one lesson that is Snapchatted all day long – they love taking pictures of the different lights and make some amazing stories.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

Students typically collaborate in class and have the opportunity to retake quizzes and tests in an effort to help them learn the content rather than just do the work. When they don’t understand they ask someone – a friend or me to help them figure it out.

My students have to adjust to my style, though, as I make them tell me where in their work their understanding broke down. They have to be able to specifically state where they are stuck, rather than just saying “I don’t get it” because I will ask them “What don’t you get? Show me where you got stuck.” Larger issues of learning styles are managed on an individual basis as I know that not every student can learn from watching videos. So those get addressed as needed and as students recognize what does and doesn’t work for them.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task? To a casual observer, my students are constantly off task in my room, because they are working collaboratively. Freshmen are very social creatures, and need to be able to interact with each other. At the beginning of the year, I train them in the major tasks for each class, so they know what to expect each block.

If I need to, I’ll put a phone in “phone jail” if they are being distracted by it, but this isn’t very often. One trick I use at the beginning to refocus them is to raise my hand, as they raise their hand, they close their mouth and pass the message to others. Sounds cheesy, but it’s super effective as they are learning how to manage my class.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

Every fall, students fill out a Who Am I form that I stole from Pinterest. They get to see my responses and ask me questions, allowing them to get to know me as a human being.

I also have them write down anything I might need to know as a teacher about them, past what is in their school records, similar to the #Iwishmyteacherknew campaign. This opportunity gives me perspective on their individual needs and helps me understand what they might get overwhelmed by each year, or what they might need differently for science learning. As each class is mostly work time, this allows me to interact with my students answering questions, clarifying directions and listening to their conversations.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

One of the main reasons I do my own version of #Iwishmyteacherknew is because of an interaction I had with a family in May last year. I had struggled with a particular student all year long, his behavior was obnoxious daily and he constantly was off task, pulling others off task with him and generally working towards being removed from his peers every block as he just couldn’t handle being in the room.

In May, the family requested a meeting with teachers and the counselor, where we found out that this student has Aspergers. Had I known that, our interactions would have been different because I would have known more about him and his needs as a learner and human in society. Once I heard this, we were able to work with each other each day, instead of constantly playing tug-of-war.

What are you reading for enjoyment? I tend to read teen dystopian novels, because they are fun and fast reads with a bit of science fiction mixed in. I also like to read books that my son might enjoy, even if it takes him months to try one, only to realize Mom was right and the book is lots of fun to read!

What’s the best advice you ever received? In my first teaching job, I was told to never make the custodian or secretary mad at you as they can make your life miserable. This has stayed with me, because it’s so amazingly true. My room is typically cleaner than others because I smile and talk with the custodian. I can talk my way into “favors” with the office staff because I know our school would quickly fall apart without them. Schools wouldn’t and couldn’t run day to day without our educational support colleagues!

Black girls and trauma

Here’s how one Memphis school is changing the way it disciplines girls of color

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students at Aspire Coleman listen during a sixth-grade math class. The Memphis charter school has changed its disciplinary practices in recent years to be more informed about the effects of emotional trauma, especially among female black students.

When a 12-year-old girl entered her fifth elementary school in five years, she arrived with a lengthy suspension record — and a past filled with sexual violence and neglect.

Chronic conflict at home had made it hard for her to listen in class and avoid fights with peers. But at Aspire Coleman, a state-run charter school in Memphis, she felt heard by her teachers for the first time. The seventh-grader is poised to finish her first full school year suspension-free.

“I used to get into more drama and fights at school,” said the girl, whose name is withheld to protect her identity. “I was just really angry, and then I’d get embarrassed when teachers yelled at me. But here, I don’t get yelled at like that. We just talk.”

Leaders at Aspire Coleman, whose 525 students are mostly black and poor, have been revamping their disciplinary practices based on gender, with a special focus on girls of color who have experienced trauma. They now offer separate advisory classes to support girls and boys, and have trained staff on how to work with students who have been abused or neglected.

After three years, suspensions are down by two-thirds school-wide, and are well below the national rate for girls of color.

“Education can never be a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Principal Owen Ricciardi, “so why would we treat discipline any different?”

Researchers increasingly point to emotional trauma as the root of disciplinary problems that lead black girls, as a group, to be suspended or expelled six times more frequently than girls of any other race — more often than white boys, too. Trauma can range from abuse and neglect to homelessness and family dysfunction.

The data has school leaders across the nation rethinking their disciplinary policies. Last fall, the White House co-hosted a conference on the issue that drew representatives of at least 22 school systems from 15 states, including Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which oversees Aspire Coleman. The collective goal was to learn how to build more supportive climates that help black girls overcome childhood trauma and focus on academics, leading to fewer disciplinary infractions.

“The trauma a student experiences is often silent or invisible when that student is at school,” explains Rebecca Epstein, executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, which helped to spearhead the conference. “It’s harder for teachers to recognize and it requires training if you want to shift a school climate. Everyone in a school, from the bus driver to the principal, needs to be educated on signs of trauma, on the background of childhood trauma, and the trauma that can be unique to girls of color.”

Black girls comprise only 8 percent of the nation’s students, but represent 14 percent of those who receive one or more out-of-school suspensions, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection.

And researchers say time missed from school due to suspensions increases the odds of more disciplinary issues, dropping out of school, unwanted pregnancies, or being caught in the juvenile justice system.

The challenges hit home in Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which takes over the state’s lowest-performing schools and assigns them to charter operators like Aspire. Among the ASD’s 33 schools, most of which are in Memphis, more than 15 percent of female students have been suspended during the last three years. The vast majority of those girls are black.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Aspire Coleman mixes genders in academic classes but separates them in advisory support sessions.

At Aspire Coleman, almost 97 percent of the student body is black, and 48 percent are girls of color. During its first year as a charter school beginning in 2014, administrators suspended 15 percent of the school’s students, equating to a lot of missed instruction time. Ricciardi vowed to reduce that rate to zero and started out by developing gender-based approaches to discipline. Teachers were trained about the challenges that black girls face in poor neighborhoods, often causing them to act out. Next they learned about restorative justice approaches that build a positive school climate by emphasizing conversation, empathy and reconciliation.

“We’re trying to get educators to buy into the ‘why’ behind how kids act,” said Queria Nunnley, the assistant principal who has shepherded the new approach. “We don’t want them to see a student as acting bad. We want them to ask, ‘Why is this student acting out? What supports do they need?’”

While research on the academic effects of separating students by gender is mixed, educators at Aspire Coleman say gender-based disciplinary tactics have helped in one crucial way.

“We’ve found that girls are much more likely to open up about what’s going on if they are broken off into a group of their own gender,” said Breonna Ponder, who helps provide gender-based programs through Communities in Schools. “We can get deep with struggles that girls in this school disproportionately deal with — like how to be appropriate on social media, how to say no when a boy pressures them, or how to resolve conflict when they have two friends fighting.”

Chantavia Burton, chief of student equity and access for the state-run district, hopes the school’s lessons can be extrapolated to the ASD’s other schools.

“We’ve seen on a national scale the focus on school-to-prison pipelines, and that’s led to a focus on disparities in discipline practices for men of color,” Burton said. “We’re glad those conversations are happening, but we recognize there hasn’t been as big of a focus on the women in our schools. We want to change that. … Women in these communities bear burdens silently. It’s not talked about openly; girls internalize. We in education have to recognize that and realize that just suspending girls who are angry or acting out might not help them on the road to rehabilitation.”

Schools can start, Epstein said, simply by asking students what they are struggling with and what they need. Sometimes the difference is as simple as knowing that girls who have been abused by men would do better in a female teacher’s classroom.

Such was the case for the 12-year-old student who arrived at Aspire Coleman with a history of sexual abuse. Administrators asked her if she’d prefer a male or female teacher.

“It can be difficult for me with male teachers,” the girl acknowledged. “I feel like those personal things about me, the things that have made school hard for me, those get paid attention to here.”