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.”

To and Through

Newark’s post-grad paradox: More students are entering college, but few earn degrees

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka wants 25 percent of residents to have college degrees by 2025, up from 19 percent today.

When it comes to college, Newark faces a good news-bad news paradox.

More students than ever are graduating high school and enrolling in college, according to a new report. Yet fewer than one in four Newark students earns a college degree within six years of graduating high school — leaving many with limited job prospects in a city where an estimated one-third of jobs require a four-year college degree.

Now, city officials are promising to build on the report. They want to ramp up the rigor of high-school classes and create more early-college programs to increase the odds of students entering college and leaving with a degree.  

“How do we teach our children to perform — to graduate?” Mayor Ras Baraka asked at a press conference Wednesday to mark the official release of the report of Newark students’ college outcomes. “We got them in the door,” he said of students who attend college. “Now how do we make them stay?”

The city’s plans, to which Superintendent Roger León is lending his support, reflect a growing recognition that simply getting students into college is not sufficient — and can even backfire if they drop out before graduation, leaving them with college debt but no degree.

Until recently, the charge given to high schools in Newark and across the country was to foster “college-going cultures.” And these efforts showed promising results: On average, 51 percent of Newark Public School students who graduated high school between 2011 and 2016 immediately enrolled in college, up from 39 percent who did so between 2004 and 2010, according to the report by the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, or NCLC, and Rutgers University-Newark’s School of Public Affairs and Administration.

But entering college didn’t guarantee its completion. Of those students who started college straight after high school, only 39 percent earned a degree within six years, the report found.

As a result, educators and policymakers have begun to think harder about how to help students “to and through” college — to ensure they actually earn degrees. Toward that end, Baraka and the NCLC — which includes roughly 40 colleges, schools, nonprofits, and corporations — has set a goal of 25 percent of Newark residents earning college degrees or comparable credentials by 2025.

Today, just 19 percent of Newark adults have associate degrees or higher — compared to 45 percent of adults across New Jersey and 40 percent nationally.

Superintendent León, who began overseeing the city’s schools on July 1, said his main strategy for supporting these efforts will be to expose students to challenging work early on.

“If we don’t do something dramatically in classrooms to improve instruction and make it rigorous,” León said after Wednesday’s event, then students are “getting into college but they’re not completing it.”

Source: “Post-Secondary Outcomes of Newark High School Graduates (2011-2016)” report. Note: The four-year rate is an average of the classes of 2011 to 2013. The six-year rate is from the class of 2011. Graphic: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

For starters, León said he wants high schools to offer more college-level classes. In the 2016-17 school year, just 21 percent of Newark students were enrolled in one or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes — compared to 42 percent of students statewide.

He also vowed to raise the quality of instruction in the district’s traditional high schools. Only 14 percent of their graduates earn college degrees within six years, compared to 42 percent of graduates from the city’s selective magnet schools, the report found.

To do that, León said he will create specialized academies within the traditional schools modeled on the magnets, which have specialized themes such as science, technology, or the arts. The academies, which will partner with colleges, will most likely feature admissions criteria similar to those of magnet schools, which select students based on their academic and attendance records, León added.

And, for the first time, all ninth-grade students this academic year will take the Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, León said Wednesday. An additional 1,100 eighth-graders who passed at least one of their seventh-grade PARCC exams will also take the PSAT when it’s administered on Oct. 10.

Since 2016, the district has provided the PSAT to all 10th and 11th-grade students. But León said that giving the test to younger students will focus their attention on college and help identity those who are ready for advanced classes. The PSAT is designed to help students prepare for the SAT, which is used in college admissions, and to qualify for National Merit Scholarships.

The district, which was under state control for 22 years until February, is getting some assistance in its effort to improve students’ college outcomes.

For instance, KIPP, the national charter-school network with eight schools in Newark, is sharing its strategies for helping students choose the right college with guidance counselors at three district high schools.

And the higher-education institutions in the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, including Essex County College and Rutgers University-Newark, plan to create more “dual-enrollment” programs that allow high-school students to earn college credits, said NCLC Executive Director Reginald Lewis.

“We’re all going to do a better job,” Lewis said, “of making sure that once Newark residents get in our doors, that we help them persist.”

Time crunch

In victory for teachers union, Newark superintendent scraps longer hours for low-performing schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León at Hawkins Street School, one of the schools that will lose its extended hours.

Newark’s new superintendent is eliminating a program that extended the hours of struggling schools, which the teachers union has long attacked as ineffective and unfair to educators.

Teachers at roughly 30 schools will no longer receive $3,000 annual stipends for the extra hours, a provision written into the current teachers contract, which extends to 2019. Instead, all 64 district schools will get extra funding for before and after-school programs, Superintendent Roger León said in an email to employees on Tuesday.

The changes will go into effect Monday, Sept. 10, resulting in new hours for the affected schools just days after the new school year began. The district is still working to adjust pickup times for students who are bused to school, according to León’s email. A few of the schools will phase out their extended hours later in the year, the email said.

“We will not continue to do the same things as before and be surprised when the results do not change,” León wrote, adding that cutting the extra hours would save the district $5 million.

In an interview with Chalkbeat Thursday, León said the move is intended to create more uniformity among schools and the services they provide. Now, all schools will get additional money to pay for programs outside of the regular school day, which schools can tailor to their individual needs, though students who are struggling academically will continue to receive “intensive” support, he said.

“Ultimately, the idea would be by October having completely different after-school and before-school programming that meets the needs of each respective school,” León said.

The extended time was first included in the teachers contract in 2012 as part of a larger improvement plan for the targeted schools, which was developed by Cami Anderson, Newark’s former state-appointed superintendent. The plan also designated some low-performing schools as “renew” schools, where teachers had to reapply for their positions and work longer hours.

Anderson also closed some schools and gave principals new hiring authority. Both actions left dozens of tenured teachers without positions, so Anderson created a fund to pay those teachers to perform support duties in schools. In 2014, that fund for “employees without placement” cost the district $35 million out of its nearly $1 billion budget, though by last year the fund had shrunk to $8 million for about 100 unassigned teachers, according to officials.

León said in Tuesday’s email that he was also eliminating the fund, which he said would save the district another $6 million. The teachers union president said he believed all the unassigned teachers now have placements, but the district did not respond to a request to confirm that.

León is also removing the “renew” and “turnaround” labels from low-performing schools, citing their “progress and student achievement,” according to the email.

“I applaud everyone’s efforts at renew or turnaround schools and acknowledge what has been accomplished,” he wrote.

Now that León has abolished his predecessors’ school-improvement program, he will be expected to create his own. Many schools remain mired in poor performance, even as the district overall has made strides in recent years.

When the teachers union agreed to the extended hours in its 2012 contract with the district, it was hailed nationally as a major breakthrough in efforts to revamp troubled schools. But even as the union agreed last year to keep the provision in its current contract, union officials have assailed the turnaround effort as a failure.

NTU President John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the program had been a “scam” and “nothing more than extended childcare.” He added that the stipend teachers received amounted to about $7 per hour for the extra time they worked.

In 2016, a district-commissioned survey of 787 teachers at schools with extended hours found that two-thirds of teachers at schools where the extra time was spent on student instruction said the time was valuable. But in a survey the union conducted in April, the 278 teachers who responded gave the extended hours low ratings for effectiveness in boosting student achievement.

Some teachers in the union survey praised the longer hours, saying their schools used them effectively to lengthen class periods, run after-school clubs, or allow teachers to plan lessons or review student data. But others said the extra time was squandered, leaving staff and students exhausted with little evidence of improved student outcomes to show for it. (Students’ pass rates on state tests stayed flat or declined at most “renew” schools in the first years of the program.)

The union also has complained that many teachers felt compelled to work the extra hours because those who refused to could be transferred to different schools. Under the terms of the original extended-day agreement, teachers were required to work an extra hour per day and attend trainings during the summer and some weekends.

In León’s email to employees, he said every extended-day school had set different work requirements and “none are consistent with the original design.” The longer days may also be contributing to high teacher turnover in those schools, he wrote, adding that principals of schools with regular hours told him they did not want to extend their hours.

Abeigon, the union president, applauded León’s decision to scrap the extra work hours.

“He came to the conclusion that we expected any true educator to reach: that the program was not working and was never going to work,” he said.

León said Thursday that he is now working on a new turnaround program. Once it’s ready, he promised to share the details with affected families before publicly announcing which schools are part of it — an effort to avoid the student protests that erupted when Anderson identified her “turnaround” schools.

He also said he was still considering whether he would ever close schools that fail to improve or to reverse their declining enrollments. Anderson’s decision to shutter nearly a dozen long-struggling schools continues to fuel resentment among her critics even years later.

“I think the whole idea of how much time does a school get to correct itself is a very important one and I’m going to need to be really reflective on it,” León said. “I’ve seen what closing schools does with people who do not feel that they were aware of it or a part of fixing it.”