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.

Transition plan

Two state-run schools sharing a Memphis building will now share a principal, too

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A moving van sits outside of Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School. The state-run school relocated to a different ASD school because of roof damage, and the two schools will now share a principal.

When a state-run school had to relocate at the beginning of the school year because of a leaky roof, officials with the Achievement School District hoped students would soon be back.

That’s not going to happen, though. Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School will stay at its temporary home at nearby Frayser Achievement Elementary through the school year. And besides sharing a building, they will share a principal.

ASD officials announced this week that Yolanda Dandridge will take the lead of Frayser Elementary, in addition to her role as principal at Georgian Hills.

Verna Ruffin, chief of academics for the ASD, said the decision was made after Jessica Tang resigned as principal of Frayser Elementary. Assistant principals at both schools will now report to Dandridge.

Georgian Hills relocated to Frayser Elementary, two miles away, in August. Ruffin said the goal is still for Georgian Hills’ 258 students to move back into their original building after the school year ends and the building is fully repaired. At that point, the ASD either will promote the assistant principal already serving at the 207-student Frayser or bring in a new leader.

Georgian Hills, under Dandridge’s leadership, recently came off of Tennessee’s list of lowest-performing “priority schools.” That success was a deciding factor, Ruffin said, in asking Dandridge to take responsibility temporarily for both schools.

“This is not how we originally planned it, of course, but it’s an example of taking something that could be a big challenge, putting our heads together, and creating a plan that benefits two schools,” Ruffin said. “Frayser teachers will get to collaborate with an outstanding principal.”

Both schools, like most in the ASD, have struggled with enrollment. Early this school year, the student count at Georgian Hills was down by 20 percent and Frayser’s had fallen 30 percent.

But Ruffin said there have since been enrollment gains and that, in the case of Georgian Hills, a dip was expected with an abrupt change in location.

“It’s a matter of adjusting to put two schools in one location,” she said. “The opportunity to unify around one school leader in the building will hopefully make it a smoother rest of the year for everyone.”

How I Teach

‘All our dreams are on his shoulders.’ The stories that motivate a bilingual teacher

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

It had been a tiring day of parent-teacher conferences for Amanda Duncan, a sixth-grade dual language literacy teacher at Foster Elementary in Arvada. Then the last family of the evening snapped things back into perspective.

The mother had walked two miles through the snow with her sixth-grade son, pushing the baby in a stroller. She told Duncan that she and her husband hadn’t been able to pursue their education, but wanted something different for their son.

“Will you make sure he stays successful?” the mother asked Duncan. “All our dreams are on his shoulders.”

Duncan, who was named the 2017 Bilingual Teacher of the Year by the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, talked to Chalkbeat about why that conversation was a valuable reminder about the role teachers play in shaping the future.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Amanda Duncan

Why did you become a teacher?
I really didn’t set out to become a teacher. I was always interested in other cultures and languages, and in college I considered majoring in anthropology, then public health. Finally, I settled on Latin American Studies. During my last semester, we had to write a mini-thesis about any topic that interested us, and I chose bilingual education — a controversial political topic at that time (still is!).

After graduating, I began working in a middle school English as a Second Language classroom as a paraprofessional, and realized that it felt right being in a school in a diverse setting. I enrolled in a one-year program to get a teaching license and haven’t looked back. I love how teaching makes you an integral part of the community. It allows you to create change in the world by helping students realize how valuable and unique they are.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom has charts made by the students or me in English and Spanish. There is a lot of intentional use of color to denote important language frames or highlight vocabulary. Since everyone in the room is a second language-learner at some point during the day, I try to provide lots of visual support both with pictures and key words so they have something to latch on to if they are unsure of some word meanings.

For years I was always saying, “It’s Spanish time, I don’t want to hear English right now!” But over time, I had to accept that there is no way to turn off the other language in your brain. So as long as we are using one language as a springboard for understanding or creating in the other, I find value in letting kids use both languages at the same time. It is a natural thing our brains do anyway!

It is a fine line, though. Since we are an immersion program, it is vital that we really hold students to a high standard of production in their second language. But each child builds their second language differently, just like any type of learning. Some need to rely more heavily on their first language to avoid being overwhelmed by the second language. Others are very bilingual already and need to be reminded to continually use Spanish in an academic setting. Even the youngest students know that English is the language of power, and it can easily dominate even in a Spanish immersion classroom. The teachers at my school work tirelessly to constantly lift up the value and beauty of Spanish, so that students will undertake the extra effort of learning through two languages.

I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Students. Hahaha! No, but really, the students are what keep me coming back day after day. Even after 20 years of working with children, they continue to surprise me with their creativity and initiative. I am constantly inspired by the stories they and their families share with me, their daily struggles and perseverance.

At times I feel exhausted by this job, but then I think of how hard many of our families work and the obstacles they are facing, and I am humbled. Teachers have a tremendous responsibility to give our students the best preparation possible so they can be successful in this country. Our community is counting on us and we cannot let them down.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite units to teach is the personal narrative. I love helping students see that their regular lives contain incredible stories. Sometimes they are heartbreakingly sad. Other times they are ridiculously funny. I love helping them learn techniques to take a seemingly regular moment and create a terrific piece of writing. We do this by studying mentor texts (including those by former students) and I demonstrate my own thinking as I write my own story in front of them. I also incorporate drama into the writing process. and we have learned techniques to help students really immerse themselves in their memories. It is powerful to watch students create a “freeze” of their memory — making themselves into a statue that shows the feelings and the moment — then write. They also interview each other to dig even deeper into that moment in time. Their writing improves exponentially and they are so proud of the results.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
When a student doesn’t understand, I first have to figure out why. Were they listening? Is there a misconception? Was my lesson confusing? Did it not meet their learning style? Are they distracted by other things going on in their life? My response depends on what the root cause is for not understanding.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
Any time a teacher redirects a class or a student, it’s a million times more powerful if she gives the reason why they are being redirected. For example, “Table 3, please focus your talk on the lesson. If you talk about other things right now, you will lose your train of thought about the lesson and you won’t produce your best quality of work when it’s time to write.” or “So-and-so, if you are talking while I am giving directions you will not know what to do, and if you don’t know what to do you will not learn this critical skill that will help you be successful in middle school and beyond.” Kids need to know that the rules are not about the teacher having control. Rules are there to protect and enhance the learning environment for everyone’s benefit.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I think the first step to building relationships with your students is having a genuine curiosity for who each one really is. You need to laugh at the annoying traits that kids exhibit at different stages of life, maybe roll your eyes about it with colleagues later, but also just enjoy watching the kids figure out who they are and who they want to be. My favorite strategy is paraphrasing what students say. It’s helpful when they are upset, or when the problem they are having is confusing or convoluted (No! Not in 6th grade!). It lets students know you “get them”. I also think it’s super helpful to tell them about a time you struggled with a similar issue, and explain how you learned to deal with it. It helps them feel connected. And if you haven’t experienced something like they have, just really saying with your whole heart, “Wow, that sounds so hard to deal with. I am not even sure what to say, but know that I am with you and I am thinking good thoughts for you.” It helps kids feel less alone.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
One story that sticks with me is from a couple of years ago. It was the second night of parent teacher conferences, near the end of the evening. I was tired, feeling good because conferences had gone well, but also feeling overworked and exhausted. It’s easy to feel a little sorry for yourself.

It was a February evening in Colorado, so it was very cold and snowy. I just wanted to be home and curl up on the couch with my family. I peeked into the hall to see if my 7:30 p.m. appointment had arrived, and there was my student Oscar with his mom and his baby sister in the stroller. Their cheeks were rosy-pink and they were unwrapping themselves from their many jackets. They had walked to conferences from their home about two miles away in snowy 20 degree weather.

Oscar’s mom and I introduced ourselves, and she apologized for missing the fall conference, but that was right when her daughter was born.

“Ms. Amanda,” she began in Spanish, “I just want to know if Oscar is doing well in school. Is he respectful to you and his classmates? Does he work hard?” I assured her that Oscar was a model student. “You see, Ms. Amanda, Oscar is the hope of our family. My husband and I weren’t able to study as much as we would have liked to. And now, we work so hard. I work all day and my husband cares for the baby, then I come home and he takes our one car to work at night. But we want a different life for Oscar. Will you make sure he stays successful? All our dreams are on his shoulders.”

This particular story sticks with me because of the cold night, because of the baby, and because I was feeling sorry for myself right before this conversation. But we all hear stories like this all the time. They remind us that we hold in our hands the future of many families, generations even. We cannot let our community down.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry” by Fredrik Backman

What’s the best advice you ever received?
My mom was also a teacher and she always reminds me to take time for myself and my family. There is always more that you can do as a teacher. Don’t get too bogged down in trying to make every single lesson perfect. You need to say, “That is enough for today,” and let it go. Guess what? The sun will come up tomorrow and your students will still learn plenty. Especially if you are able to come back fresh and be willing to give your heart to them.