Charter schools’ discipline policy under fire

Wesley Nakamura is teaching a sophomore algebra class at Carver Collegiate Academy in New Orleans East. A student near the front of the room raises his hand and asks to go to the restroom. Things go badly from there.

Nakamura prepares to hand over a hall pass but asks the student if he might not want to wait a few minutes. He might miss an important point. The boy, already standing, mumbles something barely audible, and Nakamura straightens. “That’s not how you talk to me,” he says firmly.

The discussion continues for another few moments, and the boy leaves for the restroom in a huff, jerking open the door with a loud thud. He doesn’t even seem to notice that sitting in the back of the room is the school’s principal, Jerel Bryant, who quickly moves to the door and calls him back for a chat.

“I don’t wanna talk!” he yells before Bryant escorts him down the hall and outside for a private discussion.

Though in some ways a typical high school scene, an incident like this encapsulates a lot about the charter school organization that runs Carver — why, by many measures, it has been hugely successful, and also why it is so persistently controversial.

The group, called Collegiate Academies, runs three high schools in New Orleans and has produced some of the best academic results in the city. Its philosophy, as with many charter schools, centers on holding students to a high standard in both academics and classroom behavior.

But this sort of “no excuses” model has also left Collegiate — and other groups like it in New Orleans — open to criticism. Its schools have some of the highest suspension rates in the state. And last month, it was hit with a formal civil rights complaint from a group of students and their families alleging a “harsh and punitive” discipline culture.

Too many students, the families argued, are being taken out of the classroom for “very minor infractions, such as speaking disrespectfully to a teacher.”

In one way, the argument between Collegiate and its critics is a dispute about plain facts. The complaint makes specific accusations, even alleging at one point that a teacher called an autistic student “stupid” and encouraged classmates to throw paper at him.

Sorting out the truth of these claims is difficult for a number of reasons. There are no names given in the complaint; statements are attributed to “Student L” or “Parent J.” And school staff for the most part cannot comment on specific allegations because of federal privacy laws, though broadly speaking they deny most of the complaint’s assertions.

Rethinking zero tolerance

Complicating matters, even allies of the no-excuses approach acknowledge that so-called “zero-tolerance” discipline policies need rethinking. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan joined Attorney General Eric Holder earlier this year in condemning policies that “make students feel unwelcome in their own schools” and often disproportionately target young black men.

Caroline Roemer Shirley, head of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, is of two minds on the issue: Similar complaints have led to useful reforms in New Orleans, including a new centralized process for expulsion hearings. And yet, the complaint against Collegiate strikes her as more of a “PR stunt” orchestrated by familiar opponents.

“Frankly, I think it’s nonsense,” she said. “I think it’s a certain set of folks who are angry that they are not the decision-makers, and I think they’re stirring up trouble.”

The Rev. Willie Calhoun, a longtime critic of the local school district who signed the complaint along with two Loyola University law professors, is unapologetic. A Carver alumnus himself, Calhoun was part of a group that applied several times for a charter to run the school and got turned down by the state.

He sees Collegiate’s discipline policies as part of a broader set of misdeeds perpetrated by the Recovery School District in the years since Hurricane Katrina, starting with the abandonment of neighborhood schools in favor of citywide open enrollment.

“I think some of these acts are criminal,” Calhoun said, “and some of these things need to be litigated.”

A clearer picture

There may be little room for compromise between these two points of view, but a close look inside the schools that Collegiate runs provides at least a clearer picture of what’s being fought over and what’s at stake.

Its campuses have never been outwardly impressive. Its first, Sci Academy, opened in 2008 in a set of trailers near what used to be Abramson High School. The group began a phased takeover of Carver High School, in the Desire neighborhood, in 2012, splitting it into two separate programs with a combined football team and other extracurricular programs. Those schools are housed in trailers too, all of them now temporarily clumped near Sci Academy on Read Boulevard while permanent buildings are under construction.

Like most schools in the Recovery District, the students at Collegiate’s schools are almost entirely African-American, and most qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty.

Whatever the appearances, Collegiate’s approach and philosophy are palpable, starting with the morning meeting, which includes everyone from the principal to the security guard.

There are, indeed, lots of rules, even for the adults. People in the charter movement use the word “intentionality” often; very little is done in a desultory way or left to chance. Teachers and other staff members form a circle, drumming their hands on their thighs as they take turns offering “shout-outs” to colleagues for a job well done.

Just like students, teachers have to wait for Bryant, the principal, to call on them, and then say “thank you” after he does.

One morning last month, a Carver Collegiate teacher slipped up, praising another teacher for embodying not just one of Collegiate’s five “core values,” but two of them at the same time.

A clear faux pas. Teachers around the circle chimed in gleefully, “You’re breaking the rules!”

He started all over again.

Raising expectations

Classrooms have a similar atmosphere. Charters like those run by Collegiate focus intensely on a particular set of classroom skills preached by modern education gurus like Doug Lemov, a former teacher and charter school founder. Lemov’s popular book “Teach Like a Champion” is as good a place as any to begin understanding the approach.

Again, raising expectations is central. “It’s not OK not to try,” Lemov writes, and so letting a student mutter, “I don’t know,” will never pass. There are no “partially right” answers, only “100 percent” correct ones. Certain freedoms are said to be overrated, like the “freedom to take notes on a grubby, torn half-sheet of paper that ultimately becomes buried at the bottom of a backpack.”

All of this attention to detail obviously strikes some families as going too far, especially those used to a more relaxed atmosphere in schools.

In a recent interview, Russell Robinson Jr. and Jherell Johnson, cousins whose families last year pulled them out of Sci Academy and Carver, respectively, described an atmosphere where every infraction was counted against them, adding up to one detention after another.

“You don’t raise your hand straight, that’s a deduction,” Johnson said. “If you’re not sitting up straight, that’s a deduction.”

Still, it is sometimes hard to square what is written in the civil rights complaint with how the school actually appears to operate, unless policies and procedures were turned on their head for a reporter who visited last month, moving from class to class more or less at random.

The complaint speaks of classrooms where students are suspended for “laughing too much,” “hugging a friend” or being “disrespectful,” all of it aimed at enforcing a “military-like uniformity” at “the expense of learning.”

As structured as classes are at Collegiate, most rules do seem aimed at making sure learning is actually going on. As Lemov might put it, there is no “opt out,” no chance for anyone to slump at a desk and sleep through the lesson.

But no one seems to get docked for a less than perfectly straight arm either, or for stepping across the lines that mark which side of the hall to walk down.

Positive feedback seems as prevalent as reminders to follow the rules.

Students who struggle with behavior problems have individual score sheets at their desk and get points for doing things like “following instructions the first time.” Each point helps burn off deductions and stave off detention.

An unhappy student

In Claire Fisher’s class at Sci Academy, a group of juniors is picking its way through a series of algebra equations. The pace is brisk and has a certain rhythm. Students work on their own for a few minutes; then Fisher brings everyone back together with a quick countdown, “3-2-1.”

Every now and then she establishes a new acceptable volume, “Level 0” or “Level 2.”

“I’m really proud of how much risk-taking there is right now in this room,” says Fisher, who more or less matches the stereotype of a post-Katrina, charter school instructor: young, white and Ivy League-educated.

She has most of the class engaged and making progress, except for one boy sitting right in front of her. As class continues, it becomes more and more clear he’s uninterested. Fisher calls on him, but he gives only a one-word answer or no answer at all.

Almost without pausing her lesson, she passes his desk and whispers, “You’ve got to be more engaged.”

Finally, she tells him to go take a walk outside and then come back. He doesn’t budge. A few minutes pass, and she tells him again. He leaves the classroom and stays away until just a few minutes are left in the period.

As class winds to an end, Fisher asks for “philosopher” nominations: “Who asked the best questions?”

And what about that boy in front? Detention?

“I have a pretty good relationship with him, so I think I’m just going to talk to him about what’s going on,” Fisher says, “Morning is tough sometimes. And he needs to be with a really solid buddy. So I think I’m going to rethink the seating chart.”