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

In divisive political times, an East Harlem government teacher strives for nuance

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/Skylyn Torres
Steven Serling, wearing a New York University shirt, poses with seniors wearing gear to represent the colleges they've committed to attending.

Some teachers might prefer to avoid politics in the classroom. Not Steven Serling.

As a government teacher at Park East High School in East Harlem, it seemed impossible to ignore the polarized debates that bombard his students on social media and the nightly news. So, along with a fellow teacher, Serling came up with a series of lessons to help students search for nuance in a world of bombastic soundbites and firey tweets.

“The media and politicians, they’ve been very partisan, and we want to lump things into ‘this-or-that, black-or-white,’” Serling said. “We wanted our students to understand we are human beings who live on a spectrum.”

In class discussions, students explored how they felt about issues such as the death penalty or abortion, and researched the stances of candidates and political parties. When an online quiz revealed many of his students were politically aligned with the presidential candidate Jill Stein, some were surprised to learn there were parties outside of Democrats and Republicans — which led to a lesson on the Green Party and Libertarians.

Along the way, Serling hopes his students solidify their own principles — and gather practical knowledge about how government affects their lives.

“I try to make it as practical and real life as possible,” he said.

In an email interview, Serling explained why he has students write their opinions before discussing them, how he turns the city into a classroom, and what he learned by dropping a former student off at college.

His responses have been edited for length and clarity.

How has the current political climate affected how you teach?

As the political climate has become more polarized, it is easier to take one side or another without actually investigating or understanding the nuance. It is important for me now more than ever to make sure that I check my own political beliefs at my classroom door and engage in discussions and lessons which explore those nuances for my students to grapple with and explore their own political beliefs.

What tips do you have for encouraging and leading productive class discussions, especially when the topics you’re covering can be so polarizing?

A good academic discussion takes time to build. It starts with building a classroom community in which there is trust and respect from the start of the year.

[One]strategy that helps is having them write their response first before engaging in a verbal discussion. It allows students time to think through their beliefs, what evidence they could present, and grapple with the nuance prior to the discussion. It gives them more confidence to speak, knowing they have thought it through in writing, and they can refer to their paper if needed while they are speaking.

What’s the hardest part about getting teenagers engaged in government and politics?

Teenagers have opinions on everything, but they seem to have a ‘that’s just the way it is’ mentality and often choose not to engage in government and politics outside the classroom. It is important to me to keep my lesson as relevant as possible to their lives and present examples of government and politics at work within their community.

I have taken my students to two “Ethics in Action” forums sponsored by New York Society for Ethical Culture. The first was on climate change and the second was on police-community relations [and featured] Police Commissioner James O’Neill.

We have in the past partnered with New York Supreme Court Judge Fernando Tapia and brought the 12th grade government students to engage with the many [professionals] who help make the Bronx Court run. After the trip, many students who admitted they get tense walking past the building felt more at ease.

I will say that an unintended consequence of the recent political scene is that, the more polarized it has become, the more engaged our students have become. Students, more than ever, have been asking questions about things they have seen in the news or on their social media feeds. Many alumni have messaged me with pictures of them attending the Bernie Sanders rally in the Bronx or different protests this past year.

What does your classroom look like?

I like to think of my classroom as NYC. When we can’t go outside for a particular experience, I try and bring that experience into the physical classroom. When learning about the first amendment, we have had a former Young Lord member Iris Morales come in and speak about her experience in the 70’s organizing in East Harlem on issues around economic and social justice.When exploring the workings of criminal and civil trials, we have had an exoneree from the Innocence Project come and speak.

I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

YouTube. I often use YouTube to show quick visual or auditory clips to help provide context to a lesson. It brings a snapshot of the outside world into the classroom.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are off task?

I do try and be cognizant if the student is off task because they are unclear of the directions or material, if they are being distracted, or if they just need a break as they have been sitting through multiple classes with only a three minute passing.

If… I notice they need a quick break from the content, I often use YouTube to play a clip of a song that I like, which they then call “old people” music (which is sad, because I don’t think music from the 90s is old). It generates a laugh and a quick discussion about the song or artist and then we can go back to the lesson.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them?

It starts with having a welcoming classroom where everyone is recognized in some way. Be it a high five at the start, a quick check-in, or a general shout-out. I make a point to listen and ask follow-up questions when students speak.

Also, I am okay with allowing them to hear my opinion on certain government topics and current events when asked. It is humanizing and builds trust when you can hear the teacher’s opinions, personal accolades, and struggles.

I also build relationships by being involved outside of the classroom. I coach bowling, I make a point to go to at least one of each sporting event, chaperone trips, dress up during theme days and generally keep my office door open for drop-in conversations. Over time, these experiences build relationships.

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

I offered to take an alum up to college his freshman year. When I went to pick him up, his entire family including grandmother and little siblings came out to help pack the car. They hugged and we left.

His mother called me the next day to express how thankful she was for taking her son up, who was the first to go to college. She went on to express how ashamed she was that she couldn’t do it, listing numerous reasons, from her not having her drivers license and to taking care of her mother and younger siblings. She went on to say that is one of the reasons she wanted him to stay in the city for college.

This experience helped me approach our seniors a bit more empathetically, while being able to ask some questions to get answers that students may not want to express upfront to help have a more honest conversation with themselves and their parents.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Never forget to listen and learn from your students; they are the best teachers.

getting in

Detroit district moves beyond test scores for admittance to elite high schools like Cass Tech and Renaissance

The Detroit school district is changing its application process for students hoping for a spot at selective high schools like Cass Technical High School.

Detroit’s main school district is changing the way it decides which students gain entry to the city’s elite high schools.

Students applying to Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School and two other selective high schools will no longer be judged primarily on the results of a single exam.

Instead, an admissions team comprised of teachers and staff from the schools, as well as administrators in the district’s central office, will use a score card that gives students points in various categories.

Students can get up to 40 points for their score on the district’s high school placement exam, up to 30 points for their grades and transcripts, up to 20 points for an essay and up to 10 points for a letter of recommendation. Students already enrolled in the district will also get 10 bonus points that will give them an edge over students applying from charter and suburban schools.

That is a change over past years when  students with the highest test scores largely got automatic admissions to their top-choice schools. Other factors like grades, essays, student interviews, and letters of recommendations were typically only considered during an appeals process for students who didn’t make the first-round cut.

“You can imagine that there was a great deal of subjectivity to that, and if you’re a student who might not be a good test taker, you were at a disadvantage,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who, as a dyslexic, said he was not a strong test-taker in school.

“I can empathize with that gifted student whose intelligence is not always identified by a standardized test,” he said.

Vitti said he hopes the new process “will have more of a quality control … It’s a consistent process to ensure that we’re being equitable and fair when students are being enrolled in these schools.”

The district’s decision to reduce the role of testing in admission decisions mirrors a trend across the country where college admissions offices are increasingly moving beyond SAT and ACT scores to give more weight to grades and other factors in admissions decisions.

Cities like New York and Boston are reviewing their use of test-based admissions for their elite high schools in the face of an onslaught of criticism that the tests discriminate against students of color and students who come from poor families and reinforce already prevalent segregation in the districts.

“Tests tend to favor kids who come from backgrounds and whose families have the wherewithal to focus on test prep,” said Bob Schaeffer, the public education director at FairTest, an organization critical of schools’ reliance on test scores to make crucial decisions.

In addition to changing the admission criteria for Detroit’s selective high schools, the district is also for the first time requiring all district 8th-graders to take the exam. In the past, only students who applied to the top schools took those tests.

“Not every school emphasized the exam application process, so it would be dependent on an individual parent’s ability to navigate the system,” Vitti said.

Only about half of the district’s 8th graders took the exam last year. Data provided by the district show that several schools had just a handful of students take the test while others had dozens of test-takers. (See the full list of test-takers from district schools here.)

Vitti hopes that requiring 8th graders to take the test and encouraging more of them to write essays and gather letters of recommendation to apply will help prepare them to apply to college four years later.

“We’re creating a culture of college readiness,” he said.

The district is also using the exam to survey students about their career ambitions and plans to make high school programming decisions based on their answers, Vitti said, adding that high schools will also use the exam results to determine which students could benefit from advanced classes and which ones need more help.

Some parents and educators say they welcome efforts to make the application process more equitable.

Hope Gibson, the dean of students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School on the city’s west side, said students were excited when the school encouraged them to apply to the selective schools.

“They feel like we believe in them,” she said.

The changes, however, have put some families on edge as they worry about how the new approach will affect students’ chances at landing a spot in their first-choice school.

Aliya Moore, a parent leader at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, a K-8 school that typically sends roughly half of its graduates to Cass and Renaissance, said parents had trouble getting information about the process and have been frustrated with Vitti and the school officials he brought to Detroit with him from his last job running schools in Jacksonville, Florida.

“I don’t like these new people coming here and criticizing our old ways,” said Moore, who graduated from Cass Tech in 1998 and has a daughter enrolled there now. “The district is now full of changes. Some are good, but some are like, if something is not broken, why are you trying to fix it? We support Dr. Vitti. We have nothing negative to say. But when you come in and you just totally dismantle what was, even if it was working, we don’t understand that.”

Among Moore’s concerns is the district’s use of  a new test this year, which makes it more difficult for the school to help students prepare. Also, this year’s test is being administered online while prior tests were on paper.

Vitti said the district is using a new test this year because last year’s exam wasn’t an option.

“The license expired years ago and the district was illegally using it,” he said.

The new test will be online, he said, though students with disabilities and other students whose parents request it will be allowed to take the test on paper.

The Detroit district now has four examination schools including Cass, Renaissance and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. The district this year converted Southeastern High School into an exam school after Southeastern returned to the district from five years in the Education Achievement Authority, a now-dissolved state-run recovery district.