School Reform and the Suspension Trap; Charters Learn the Lesson

Summary: High profile charters in New Orleans learn the lesson good public high schools have known for a while. Suspension often has to take a back seat to more nuanced and humanly intensive interventions in the lives of the kids we aim to include in our academic communities.
With a history as a public high school counselor in the Seattle area, I have to admit to a certain amount of smug, misplaced satisfaction at the struggles of some high profile charter high schools to suspend minimally yet educate to the max all students. It ain’t so easy, no it ain’t.
Despite various reports of success in the charter school movement in specific locales, even one of the most apparently promising networks, the KIPP ensemble, has run onto rocky shoals when one of their high schools in New Orleans has debuted with an uber strict disciplinary code.
The assumption has been (and supported by black constituent parents at the get go) that immersion in a strictly demanding culture would imbue students living in a more chaotic community environment with the self-discipline necessary for academic success.
In three high school level charter programs in New Orleans, as reported by Sarah Carr in the Atlantic, strict regimens outlined not only behavioral expectations, but inviolable dress codes and minutia down to posture, intricate classroom conduct, and how to walk through the halls. Astronomical suspension and attrition rates have resulted, which in turn have been challenged by the parent community that originally supported the get tough policies. To one parent Carr quotes, the disciplinary practices have seemed only a “blind application of rules.”
A couple of the New Orleans schools in the first year suspended over 60 percent of students at least once; in one school 35% were suspended three times or more, a large highly at risk category. Once a kid has been suspended that much, inevitably academic progress lags to the point a strong percentage just give up, though honestly most of this group need help with academic perseverance in the first place. Much soul searching, to the charters’ credit, has ensued, and they seem to have arrived at a more flexible set of guidelines that have seen suspension rates drop dramatically. Students have been given voice, for example, in dress code issues, and administrators have adopted what seems to be a more nuanced set of responses to the wide variety of disciplinary issues typical in a high school community.
So, fewer kids kicked out means more kids still in the game, and exposed on a daily basis to the efforts of school personnel to ensnare them in a constructive cycle.
The newly entered flexible era in high school charter culture sounds very familiar to the struggles of good public high schools throughout the country, certainly in my own neck of the woods. The Seattle Times’ Education Lab reportage on school discipline and suspension, by Claudia Rowe, focused recently on the suburban Kent School District, where I once worked. Kent is an inner ring suburb that has beckoned urban low income residents, including African Americans, due to its lower rental fees and property values as nearby Seattle home prices have skyrocketed.
Warts and all, I always felt the Kent school community nonetheless willing to innovate as required by the student population it served. Suspension rates were higher than we liked, and like many districts nationwide, from eighth grade on the student population gradually suffered attrition so that the senior classes were markedly less robust than the cohort of the same age kids that left seventh grade for eighth grade. Unusually candidly it seemed to me, the Kent superintendent ordered a quality study of the problem, which revealed in facts and figures for public scrutiny what we had known in the schools for some time. We just failed to hold too many kids, though not without trying to do so.
We too went through a zero tolerance period, with results similar to those in New Orleans, only not so pronounced. An older school culture that reached out to kids and offered them relationship in various ways moderated any suspension extremes such as those the New Orleans schools created.
The dilemmas posed by the suspension issue are only the most visible end of a spectrum which includes the slow and stealthy drop out of the unengaged, a diminished graduation rate and the partial readiness of many of those who do graduate for either the collegiate or the work a day world.
No doubt the strict approach does salvage some kids, just not nearly enough, particularly teenagers struggling with a variety of issues in their personal heavens.
Single parent household, divorce, substance abuse whether the student or a family member, financial woes, homelessness, lack of an educated model in the home – the list is an old and numbing one. Individual kids, acting out in the classroom or school corridors, need a response to their misbehavior that is contoured to who they are and what their situation is, by human beings who will be sympathetic, who know the kid as an individual, and who will act the adult structuring role with those factors in play. The kid whose mother drinks too much and who was truant requires a different approach than the son of single mother who works two jobs to put food on the table and who mouthed off at his second period teacher when challenged about his homework.
The administrator might seek the help of a football coach that knows the first student and for the second enlist the help of the teacher the student seeks out after school. Flexible administration of discipline should have a variety of mechanisms available, from mediation to mentoring to community service to counseling to in school suspension to maybe even a referral for social service support.
While disciplinary challenges span a spectrum as wide as a teenager’s imagination, “defiance” and other ill-defined synonyms are notable for their frequency as well as for the opportunity to teach rather than apply the iron fist. One instance might be failure to surrender a cell phone on teacher request. Or skipping a class. Or repeated instances of talking off topic in a classroom or other minor but disruptive behavior.
With perspective, much discipline I have seen stems from what most would identify as minor issues, but which are still significantly disruptive in the management of a classroom or in the maintenance of school house order. The classroom teacher needs a modicum of decorum to have a chance to teach thirty staunchly hormoned adolescents English.
In the case of black students in particular, who are disciplined beyond their proportion in the student body, the dynamics I think are complex. In groups I have worked with, there have been individuals who play to neighborhood buddies, to one up them, and to demonstrate their wit for their friends to appreciate. In the same breath I think they display anxiety about their ability to measure up academically, and their distrust of white instructors, self-styled comics telling the truth. Trust with black students can become an ally for all staff white and otherwise, but hard won, elusive.
Deepening one such dilemma, I felt to exclude a couple of disruptors would be to lose leaders and a significant share of the group vitality, and was wary to boot them for fear of giving a message that the individuals did not belong. Teachers too have to step down from their lectern and engage kids in inquiry, in which case the wayward liveliness can enhance the classroom dynamics. It ain’t easy, it ain’t. Like most staff I myself was simply trying to find my way.
Both of the leader/disruptors, good hearted kids, could have been suspended many times over in a more rigid environment, and may have been briefly on isolated occasions. But at each crux point there were adults in the school paying attention who engaged each kid in conversation. Both guys graduated, and graduated on time.
Hang with ‘em, that’s the clue. Coaches, teachers, counselors, administrators, security guards. Multiple relationships, caring focused. Where we had success with at risk kids, it was often through such multiple relationships. Kids know when someone cares about them and they listen, skin color aside. The New Orleans charters seem to be learning.
This kind of supplemental parenting is human intensive. While many, including myself, looked askance at a recent Washington state ballot initiative (I-1351) which called for a large increase in non-teaching staff in Washington state schools, at least some of the folks intended by the measure could be dedicated to building out of classroom relationships that in the end promote success in the classroom. More administrators, counselors and security guards, not to mention teachers hired for their interpersonal warmth and skills will be necessary to establish effective alternatives to suspension. Current staffing along these lines is simply insufficient.
For example, Kent once had an option called “In School Suspension”, or ISSP, for low level student misdemeanors. The idea was to isolate the student from the school community while still encouraging academics. The practice drew staff out of the teacher pool and increased class sizes modestly, but the game of keeping the kids at their school work proved difficult. Eventually instructional aides took over the monitoring of ISSP. The intervention finally was discontinued, but could be revived as an intensive way to mentor carefully chosen kids among the wayward.
In another example, there is merit in schemas proposed in Richard DuFour’s Whatever It Takes: How Professional Learning Communities Respond When Kids Don’t Learn. The authors tell the tale of a suburban Chicago school district that developed several tiers of successively more staff intensive interventions, groups, and small classroom settings that addressed increasingly more entrenched levels of student dysfunction, both academic and behavioral.
Some students may require alternative settings, either within the school district purvey or without. For example, the kid lost in substance abuse, or the kid who pushes enough buttons that a return to the classroom in the immediate future is not an option; the student who falls well behind his classmates in credits earned, or whose personal problems are so intensive that full time schooling has to take a back seat to psychiatric and counseling interventions.
It ain’t easy, no it ain’t, to bring our disciplinary endangered students into full responsibility for their academic lives. The key is human intervention, which is expensive because it is time intensive, but much cheaper than the costs in social services and incarceration down the road that are the alternatives. Pay now or pay more later.

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