discipline debate

Students with disabilities improperly suspended at Newark’s largest charter school network, complaint says

PHOTO: Andrea Chu/Getty Images

Newark’s largest charter-school network suspends students with disabilities at a disproportionately high rate, violating their rights, according to a new complaint filed with the state.

The complaint alleges that North Star Academy gave suspensions to 29 percent of students with disabilities during the 2016-17 school year. The network disputes the complaint’s allegations and says the actual figure was 22 percent.

North Star removed students with disabilities from their classrooms for disciplinary reasons, including suspensions and expulsions, 269 times that school year, according to the complaint filed by an attorney at the Education & Health Law Clinic at Rutgers Law School in Newark. The complaint is based on state data and reports by parents who contacted the clinic.

Those numbers stand in sharp contrast to ones at Newark Public Schools, where students with disabilities were sent out for disciplinary reasons just 87 times that school year, according to state data. Overall, just 1.3 percent of special-education students and 1.1 percent of all students were suspended in 2016-17, according to the attorney’s analysis of state data. Excluding North Star, the city’s charter schools together suspended about 9 percent of students with disabilities, the analysis found.

North Star serves roughly 5,000 students in 13 schools across Newark. Founded in 1997, it is New Jersey’s largest charter-school network and one of its highest performing, with its predominantly low-income students routinely outscoring their peers in the state’s wealthiest districts.

Its students are also suspended more often than their peers at many schools. At North Star, 23 percent of students received suspensions in 2016-17, compared to 6 percent of students statewide, according to publicly available state data.

The complaint, filed on Aug. 17, alleges that North Star does not adequately modify its discipline policies to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities — particularly those with behavioral challenges, who find it hard to follow the schools’ strict rules. As a result, those students are unfairly punished, causing them to miss class and be separated from their general-education peers in violation of federal disability law, the complaint alleges.

“These discipline policies have a disproportionate and discriminatory impact on students with certain disabilities,” according to the filing, which was addressed to the state education department’s Office of Special Education Policy and Procedure.

A state education department spokesman confirmed that the complaint is being investigated.

North Star denies the allegations, saying it properly adjusts its discipline policies based on the needs of students with disabilities.

The allegations add to an ongoing nationwide debate over school discipline and the harmful impact that punitive policies can have on black and Hispanic students and those with disabilities, who tend to be suspended at higher rates. Across the country, many district and charter schools alike have tried to move away from suspensions and toward an approach known as “restorative justice,” which pushes students to try to repair any harm their behavior has caused.

Nationally, students with disabilities are suspended at about twice the rate of their non-disabled peers — a disparity that is slightly higher at charter schools, according to a recent analysis of 2013-14 data. Meanwhile, new research suggests that students do worse academically after being suspended, adding to prior research showing that students who have been suspended are more likely to get caught up in the criminal justice system and drop out of school.

North Star is part of the Uncommon Schools network — one of several large charter-school organizations whose reliance on strict discipline and demanding academics is sometimes called “no excuses.” Some of the schools have softened their discipline policies in recent years, but others have held firm, insisting that their no-nonsense approach to misbehavior creates a safe, orderly environment where students can focus on academics.

According to the complaint, North Star continues to take an exacting approach to managing behavior. Each week, students receive behavior points in the form of “paychecks.” They can lose points for even minor infractions, such as not paying attention in class or violating the school-uniform code. If their points dip below a certain level, they can be sent to detention or suspended, the complaint says.

The complaint alleges that some students with disabilities struggle to follow the rules, and wind up being punished at a higher rate than non-disabled students. Federal data from the 2014-15 school year appear to support that claim. In that year, students with disabilities made up 7.2 percent of North Star’s enrollment, yet they received 16.5 percent of in-school suspensions and 12.9 percent of out-of-school suspensions, according to data compiled by the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

Barbara Martinez, a North Star spokeswoman, said the network’s suspension rates have declined since 2015. She added that network officials “would be surprised to see a meaningful discrepancy” in suspension rates today between students with and without disabilities.

She also said the network believes the suspension rate for North Star students with disabilities cited in the complaint is incorrect. The network has asked the state education department to provide “the underlying data source so that we can understand where any confusion may have arisen,” she added.

She also noted that the department has repeatedly renewed the network’s charter, a process that involves on-site inspections and a review of school data — including data related to special education. She added that North Star students with disabilities perform in the 75th percentile on the state PARCC exams among all New Jersey special-education students.

“We take great pride in the high-quality instruction and support that we provide to all our special education students to meet their individualized learning and behavioral needs,” she said in a statement. “North Star has a 20-year record of success in delivering on its mission of preparing all students to get to and through college — including our special education students.”

The complaint was filed by Deanna Christian, an Education & Health Law Clinic attorney who has represented parents in arbitration cases against North Star. She said she filed the complaint after several parents raised concerns about the network’s discipline policies. (The Education Law Center, a Newark-based advocacy group that has represented parents in lawsuits against North Star, endorsed the complaint, saying that it has received complaints from North Star parents about students with disabilities being “inappropriately” suspended.)

Christian, who is doing a yearlong fellowship focused on the rights of students with disabilities who attend charter schools, requested suspension data from the state for general- and special-education students in district and charter schools. She found that North Star had one of the highest suspension rates in the state for students with disabilities, even though the network’s share of special-education students was far below the state average, according to the complaint.

Federal law requires that students with disabilities be taught alongside non-disabled peers whenever possible. The complaint alleges that North Star violated disabled students’ rights by improperly suspending them, which reduced their learning time and separated them from their peers. It relies on parent reports and North Star’s written policies, saying it is the clinic’s “understanding” that the discipline code is applied “without regard to a student’s disability status” and that the code is rarely modified for students with disabilities.

The complaint calls on the state to investigate North Star’s discipline policies and their effect on students with disabilities, including whether those students are held back more often than non-disabled students. It suggests several remedies, including additional training for teachers and administrators in “positive interventions” to manage the behavior of students with disabilities.

“These exclusionary disciplinary policies are keeping kids out of class,” Christian said in an interview. “And when kids are not in class, they’re not learning.”

North Star made a parent available to interview for this story. The parent, Crystal Williams, has four students at North Star, including Jayson, an eighth-grader at the network’s Valisburg Middle School.

Williams disputed the complaint’s claim that North Star does not modify its discipline code for special-education students. She said school staffers have gone out of their way to accommodate Jayson, who has been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.

For instance, the school allots Jayson extra behavior points at the start of each week and teachers give him three warnings before deducting points, Williams said. A dean has even allowed Jayson to run laps in the school hallway and do pushups in the gym when he is having trouble focusing, she added.

Still, Williams said that Jayson was suspended about 10 times last school year for infractions that included throwing a book and giving the middle finger to a teacher. She also picked him up from school several times after he misbehaved but before he was suspended, she said.

However, Williams defended Jayson’s multiple suspensions, saying they were only for “egregious” violations and that the policy keeps all students safe. She added that he was given work to do whenever he was suspended, and that he was always given a “fresh start” when he returned to school.

“It is a little inconvenient not to have your child in school,” she said. “But the greater lesson is that for us to be a community, your child has to behave correctly.”

'Clarity 2020'

Superintendent León calls on Newarkers to help shape his plan for city’s schools

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León unveiled his strategy to improve the district at Central High School on Wednesday.

Newark Superintendent Roger León unveiled his strategy for transforming the school system at a community forum Wednesday, the first of several meetings where residents will be invited to help shape the plan.

The strategy, dubbed “NPS Clarity 2020,” calls for closer cooperation among schools and between them and the community. The strategy’s premise is that schools must challenge students academically while also attending to their physical and emotional needs.

Over the next few months, officials said, the district will turn the strategy into a detailed, three-year plan with help from families, students, and partner organizations, who will be invited to planning sessions in each of the city’s five wards. The final plan will be released in June.

“How are we going to do this? Everybody in here — all of you,” León said to hundreds of mostly invited guests at Central High School. “There’s a lot of hard work we’re about to do, and we’re not going to be scared about it.”

While Wednesday marked the start of public feedback on the strategy, León has been referencing his plan at meetings for months. Some leaders, including Mayor Ras Baraka and a few board members, have previously urged León to publicly share his plan, along with specific goals he hopes to achieve.

Baraka, who was Central’s principal when León was an assistant superintendent, made a brief appearance at Wednesday’s event to lend his support to León’s vision. He said the two have been working in particular on a plan to get local universities to enroll more Newark Public School graduates.

“I just want people to know that the superintendent and I are on the same page,” said Baraka, who famously clashed with León’s state-appointed predecessor, Cami Anderson. “And it hasn’t been that way for a very long time.”

Baraka is also part of a new advisory committee that will provide input on the plan. The 24-member committee includes teachers, principals, and advocates, along with business, higher-education, and philanthropic leaders.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Newark residents wrote down challenges and opportunities in the district during Wednesday’s forum.

The district hosted a similar series of public forums in 2016 under Superintendent Christopher Cerf, which led to the district’s current three-year roadmap.

The district has hired a Newark-based consultancy, Creed Strategies, to lead the current planning process. The firm’s founder and president, Lauren Wells, is a former advisor to Baraka and previously helped spearhead a high-profile reform effort in Newark called the Global Village School Zone.

Started in 2010, the program lengthened the school day and added extra support services at seven Central Ward schools, including Central High School. It also brought the schools’ teachers together for joint trainings and made sure their courses were in sync so students could easily progress from the elementary schools to Central. However, Anderson abruptly ended the effort in 2012.

Now, Wells is helping incorporate elements of that program’s approach into León’s strategy. At the forum, Wells described some tenets of the strategy: recognizing and addressing poverty’s effects on students; helping schools work together rather than in isolation; taking advantage of the resources that families and local organizations have to offer schools; and measuring student success on a variety of scales.

“They will be risk-takers, they will be sought-after,” she said. “They will pass assessments — and not just the PARCC, but the bar.”

Attendees were also given a document with an elaborate diagram representing the “Clarity 2020” approach, which district employees received at an August conference where León previewed his plans. The diagram features a dozen “keys to 2020,” such as higher education and social services, and six “game changers,” including alumni and internships, but provides no details beyond those broad headings.

The district has not yet posted the document online or announced dates for the forums in each ward. León declined to be interviewed after the event.

Several attendees said they were energized by Wednesday’s forum, which included small-group brainstorming sessions where participants listed challenges and opportunities in the district.

“You don’t usually have a superintendent that asks questions,” said Nitia Preston, the community engagement specialist at Peshine Avenue School. “He’s asking, ‘What change do you want? What strengths do you have?’ I love that.”

six months in

As Newark superintendent makes whirlwind changes, some residents seek ‘clarity’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León has faced calls to share more details of his agenda. On Wednesday, he unveiled his "NPS Clarity 2020" strategy.

A whirlwind of activity. A legion of initiatives. A blitz of meetings. Pick your metaphor — Superintendent Roger León has been busy.

In his first six months as Newark schools chief, León has overhauled the district’s central office; launched a wide-ranging assortment of programs involving high schools, testing, technology, and more; and offered a litany of wildly ambitious promises, including a vow to make Newark “the highest-performing school district in the country.”

León’s maximalist approach has thrilled many residents who find it invigorating to hear a Newark native present a vision of greatness for a school system that, until February, spent two decades under state control. In recent years, the 36,000-student district has attracted national notoriety mainly for its struggles and the pitched battles that erupted when outside reformers tried to reshape the city’s schools.

But León’s jam-packed agenda and sweeping promises have also raised concerns, even among those rooting for him to succeed — an unease that León may be hoping to address Wednesday evening at a community forum on the district’s future.

Observers have privately asked how the new leader’s disparate initiatives fit together, and whether he can pull them all off simultaneously. Occasionally, their frustration has bubbled to the surface, as when some board members refused to approve some of León’s requests until they knew more about his plans or when Mayor Ras Baraka urged León to make those plans public.

Even the name of León’s elaborate strategy — “NPS Clarity 2020” — has baffled some people, who are unsure when it starts and what it entails. They are hoping the forum will address some of those concerns.

As a former Newark Public Schools educator and administrator, León brings a wealth of experience and institutional knowledge to the job, said Antoinette Baskerville Richardson, the mayor’s chief education officer. While León obviously “has a big vision,” she added, it is imperative that he share detailed plans with the public — especially after 22 years of state control, when officials had license to make wholesale changes without locals’ consent.

“I think a lot of stakeholders are looking for more clarity — and it’s up to the superintendent to bring that,” she said. “Folks are looking for substantive plans.”

After a quarter-century working in the district, León started July 1 with strong convictions about what approaches work in schools — and which don’t. But as he’s rushed to reverse policies he considers ineffective and enact alternatives, schools and partner groups have often had to scramble to keep up.

In June, he tried to oust top district officials before informing the school board, which then rejected some of the staffing changes. In September, he axed a program that extended the hours of struggling schools — resulting in scheduling changes just days before classes began. Last month, he cast doubt on a program that brought extra services to several South Ward schools, leaving the schools and their partner organizations uncertain about its future.

At the same time, he has undertaken several efforts of his own. While most new superintendents are eager to start making their mark, León’s aggressive timeline and ambitious agenda have run up against roadblocks.

He is planning a redesign of the city’s high schools, including changes to the admissions process for magnet schools and new career-themed academies inside the traditional schools. However, the new magnet admissions test was recently postponed, and the district has not formally announced the themes and partners of the new academies. Meanwhile, the enrollment period for next school year is already underway.

León has also promised to tackle one of the district’s most dire and long-standing challenges — absenteeism. One in three Newark students missed the equivalent of a month or more of school days last year, qualifying them as “chronically absent.” The crux of León’s plan for getting students to school is to rehire attendance counselors who were laid off by his predecessor. However, labor rules have complicated the rehiring process, leaving many of the counselor positions unfilled five months into the school year.

Other new superintendents might be content with these already ambitious goals: revamping the district’s high schools and combating severe absenteeism. But León has not stopped there. He has personally reviewed student transcripts and conducted teacher trainings; negotiated changes to the city’s enrollment system with charter-school leaders; and ordered comprehensive audits of the district’s teaching materials and facilities.

León has described different parts of his agenda to different audiences at meetings large and small with parents, district employees, students, union leaders, and local philanthropies. However, members of the public who aren’t invited to all of these gatherings and can’t make the public school-board meetings may have a limited view of León’s entire agenda. His administration seldom holds press conferences or posts summaries of his initiatives on the district website, and reporters’ questions often go unanswered. (A spokeswoman did not respond to questions for this story.)

Deborah Smith-Gregory, president of the Newark NAACP and a former district teacher, said she is eager to learn how León will incorporate all of the feedback he has received into a clear plan with measurable goals.

“He’s doing a lot of outreach,” she said. “But after you get all of those opinions, how do you prioritize what you’re going to pay attention to and implement something that can be measured?”

León may begin to answer that question at the forum Wednesday evening at Central High School. A public notice for the event says it will include a discussion of “goals and timelines” for Clarity 2020, along with a 10-year district roadmap León is crafting and various policy reviews he is conducting.

The event will also kick off a series public meetings intended to gather input for a new three-year strategic plan for the district, according to the notice. León’s predecessor, Christopher Cerf, organized a similar planning process in 2016 to create the district’s current strategic plan.

Whether Wednesday’s forum will leave the public with a clearer sense of León’s overarching vision remains to be seen. But some of the superintendent’s most ardent supporters say they already know enough.

“He’s planning to turn this into the most successful district in the state,” said Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon. “What’s obtuse about that?”