in focus

Suspensions at city charter schools far outpace those at district schools, data show

Updated — New York City charter schools suspended students at almost three times the rate of traditional public schools during the 2011-12 school year, according to a Chalkbeat analysis, though some charter schools have since begun to reduce the use of suspensions for minor infractions.

Overall, charter schools suspended at least 11 percent of their students that year, while district schools suspended 4.2 percent of their students. The charter-school suspension rate is likely an underestimate because charter schools don’t have to report suspensions that students serve in school.

Not all schools had high suspension rates. One-third of charter schools reported suspending fewer than 5 percent of their students, and many schools said they did not give out any out-of-school suspensions. But 11 charter schools suspended more than 30 percent of their students — a figure likely to draw added scrutiny amid a nationwide push to reduce suspensions and a debate over allowing more charter schools to open statewide.

Chalkbeat’s analysis is based on data that charter schools report to the state education department and the more detailed reports of suspensions in district schools. It includes data from 130 city charter schools open in 2011-12, the last year for which data is publicly available. [More on our analysis here.]

The analysis offers a clearer picture of how out-of-school suspensions are used to deal with misbehavior in the city’s growing charter-school sector, which now serves more than 83,000 students, most of whom are black or Hispanic.

Meanwhile, some of the city’s charter-school networks that have long championed “sweat-the-small-stuff” discipline practices say they have been moved to change their policies.

“When you make the numbers visible, when you hold up a mirror, you’re able to see your actions,” said Ron Chaluisan, who oversees the charter schools run by New Visions for Public Schools network. “When you’re able to see your actions, you’re able to change your behaviors.”

An ongoing debate

Unlike traditional district schools, charter schools are free to craft their own discipline policies, and some have used that autonomy to establish strict behavior codes. Escalating consequences for misdeeds like chewing gum, tardiness, talking out of turn, and dress-code violations are standard, and students who break rules repeatedly can find themselves suspended quickly.

Schools say suspensions maintain order, keep children safe, and allow teachers to focus on instruction by removing the most distracting students. Strict discipline has long been a cornerstone of the charter-school movement, and supporters argue that those policies have led to better academic outcomes for a majority of their students.

“Many families are flocking to charter schools, and one reason is that they believe in stricter discipline,” said Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, whose nine schools in 2011-12 suspended 17 percent of their students at least once. “Having some kids miss a day of instruction here and there for a suspension is far outweighed by the benefits of learning in an orderly environment all of the other days, as our academic results prove.”

Nationwide, charter and district schools are moving in a different direction. Los Angeles and San Francisco have barred suspensions of some or all students for nonviolent offenses, spurred by the findings of researchers like Robert Balfanz of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education linking middle-school suspensions to high school dropout rates.

“The theory is, [suspensions] are the equivalent of an adolescent time-out period and perhaps a means to teach the lesson that good behavior is expected in schools,” said Balfanz. But far too often, he says, students interpret suspension as being shunned and “get the message that they are not wanted in school.”

“Overreliance on suspension is an issue that needs to be addressed for all public schools, including charter schools,” said Paulina Davis, a staff attorney at Advocates for Children who represents charter-school students in disciplinary cases.

New York City’s 1,650 district schools also offer a range of suspension rates. About 40 percent gave few or no suspensions, while nearly 200 others doled out more than 100 suspensions in the 2011-12 school year, according to city data.

City officials have heeded the call for reducing suspensions in recent years, and the de Blasio administration has proposed further discipline code changes toward that end. The changes will not affect charter schools.

A parent’s experience

At Excellence Boys Charter School, part of the Uncommon Schools network, students’ small sins add up. (Full disclosure: The reporter of this article is married to an employee at another Uncommon school.)

In 2011-12, the all-boys elementary and middle school suspended 40 percent of its students, the second-highest rate among the city’s charter schools. For some students, missing school for a suspension can become routine.

Shirley Paulino with her son Emanuel
PHOTO: Shirley Paulino
Shirley Paulino with her son.

Shirley Paulino said her son’s experience at the Bedford-Stuyvesant school changed when he entered the fifth grade. There were more teachers, larger classes and a new rigid discipline policy called the “Scoreboard System.” Under the system, students are docked a certain number of points if they break one of the school’s many rules: two points for chewing gum, five points for lateness, and 10 points for disrespecting an adult or classmate.

Paulino’s son often ended the week with a 50-point deficit — and an automatic out-of-school suspension. All told, Paulino said her son missed 23 days due to suspensions last year.

“There was never a fight, he was never a danger,” said Paulino, who said her son, now in a district middle school, was diagnosed with ADHD earlier this year. “He just doesn’t know when to be quiet.”

Chalkbeat’s analysis of out-of-school suspension numbers found that Uncommon Schools’ network-wide suspension rate in 2011-12 was 22 percent, making it one of five charter networks that suspended more than 20 percent of their students that year. The others were New Visions (25 percent), Ascend Learning (24 percent), Achievement First (22 percent), and Democracy Prep (21 percent).

Uncommon Schools is reviewing its discipline policies, a spokesman said. “We believe that we are making steps in the right direction towards a reduction in suspensions,” said the spokesman, Jon Reinish.

One well-known network, Icahn Charter Schools, did not report suspending a single student in any of its three schools open that year. Two other small networks, Public Prep and Harlem Children’s Zone, had suspension rates in the low single digits. (Charter schools do not have to report their in-school suspension numbers, though district schools do. Charter schools also aren’t required to report expulsions.)

The highest single charter-school suspension rate, 51 percent, belonged to Broome Street Academy, which opened in 2011 and serves a large number of students who are homeless or in foster care.

Broome Street had a rocky first year, according to an early evaluation, but seems to have turned a corner under a new principal, Barbara McKeon, who came on in 2013. After a visit to the school in March, Chancellor Carmen Fariña praised its school culture and selected it to help other schools improve their own. A spokeswoman for the school said 20 percent of students were suspended in 2013-14.

The rise of suspensions 

The “zero-tolerance” approach to discipline that is linked to high suspension rates has its roots not in charter schools, but in the 1994 Gun Free Schools Act, which mandated harsh punishments for students who brought firearms or drugs to schools across the country. Suspensions increased nationally and continued to climb in New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. A school safety plan established under Bloomberg expedited the removal of students who got in trouble repeatedly.

In the later years of Bloomberg’s tenure, the city’s strategies changed. The City Council passed a transparency bill that regularly publicizes school suspensions and arrests. The discipline code underwent rounds of changes meant to restrict suspensions, and suspensions and arrests began trending downward.

Charter schools have largely been left out of public debates about discipline, in part because of their autonomy and also because the state doesn’t release charter-school suspension statistics until they are nearly three years out of date.

But as Gov. Andrew Cuomo looks to increase the state’s charter school cap by 200 schools, the numbers are coming under more scrutiny. A report released by Advocates for Children this month found that a large portion of the city’s charter schools had discipline policies that violated state and federal laws, prompting calls for more thorough reporting of discipline data.

“To deal with the sky-high suspension rates that characterize too many charters, the schools should be required to follow the same suspension laws, regulations and reporting requirements as district schools,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, whose union has lost ground to charter schools over the last decade, told state lawmakers last month.

A work in progress

Some charter schools that had the highest suspension rates three years ago say they’ve since made changes.

The Achievement First and Ascend Learning networks have seen significant drops in their suspension rates in the last three years, according to data provided by the networks. Democracy Prep saw a more modest decrease, while New Vision’s suspensions had actually increased. Uncommon declined to provide updated data.

“We recognized that the suspension numbers at some of our schools were simply too high, and we’ve worked hard to reduce them,” said Amanda Pinto, a spokeswoman for Achievement First, who said the network’s suspension rate dropped from 22 percent in 2011-12 to 13.9 percent last year. The decrease followed changes to their suspension policies and a closer tracking of suspension statistics, she said.

And despite Moskowitz’s public defense of suspensions, Success Academy’s suspension rates have fallen from 17 percent to 11 percent last year, according to spokeswoman Ann Powell.

But at the two charter high schools opened by New Visions in 2011, the problem got worse before getting better. Suspension rates peaked last year at 43 percent at New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science and and 21 percent at New Visions High School for the Humanities.

“Pretty much everyone on my team was a bit taken aback” when they saw how high their suspension rates were, said Chaluisan, the New Visions vice president. This year, both schools’ rates were on pace to drop, he said.

Chaluisan attributed the high rates to the fact that the school is still new and said he had hired someone with experience in restorative justice who is working with guidance counselors to come up with alternative consequences for misbehavior. Providing monthly updates to each schools’ board has also put more attention on the issue, he said.

Ascend has also decreased its suspension rates. In 2011-12, it had the highest suspension rate of any network, suspending 26 percent of its students. CEO Steven Wilson hired a new dean, Janna Genzlinger, now a managing director at one of the schools, who has rolled out a new discipline model that emphasizes “logical consequences” to fit a student’s misbehavior. If a child draws on a desk, she has to stay after school to clean it, for example.

Suspension rates at Ascend’s elementary schools halfway through this school year range from 2 percent to 6 percent, an Ascend spokeswoman said.

“This is kind of the next generation innovation in charter schooling,” said Wilson. With the old policies, “There was real progress. But it came at the cost of not serving a large number of students.”

View the database we created to analyze suspension rates at city charter schools here.

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School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede