Achievement First had an important wake-up call last week when a state report included several of our public charter schools because of their high suspension rates — posing a direct challenge to our promise to provide an excellent education to all our students. The last few days have been tough as we work to reconcile our values and our practices. We recognize that our suspension numbers are simply too high, and we are committed to significantly reducing the numbers.
It's important to clarify what is meant by a "suspension." Although we have an unacceptably high number of suspensions at many Achievement First schools, the technical definition of suspension (which we hold to) is a removal from class or other activity for more than 90 minutes. Many of the in-school suspensions last year (for example, 88 percent of them at Achievement First Hartford Academy Elementary) were less than three hours long.
Typically a student engages in disruptive or disrespectful behavior and does not respond to the teacher's intervention. The student is then removed from class to call his or her parent, talk with a counselor or dean, and complete a reflection sheet. If this takes more than 90 minutes, it's an in-school suspension.
That said, the suspension data reveals how much class time students are missing — especially the students who struggle the most with repeated in-school and out-of-school suspensions. More than 91 percent of suspensions at Achievement First Hartford Academy Elementary involved just 20 percent of the students. This pattern speaks to the need to have more supports and interventions for these students.
With better in-classroom academic and behavior supports, we will prevent these students from being removed from class in the first place. We will also improve what happens when these students are removed or even suspended so that patterns of poor behavior are broken by more effective counseling, family engagement and other individualized supports.
One of our schools, Achievement First Bridgeport Academy Elementary, implemented many of these strategies and cut its suspension rate by 64 percent from the last school year to this year, with only 4 percent of students receiving suspensions.
We also need to find more alternatives to suspension. The typical model — which our policies follow — is that students who misbehave are then excluded from class for part or all of a school day. To be sure, there are some behaviors that we think will continue to merit suspension, such as fighting or other serious bullying. We take these issues seriously and are proud to have schools that 93.4 percent of our parents say are "safe for children."
For minor misbehavior, however, we need to flip this paradigm — instead of receiving less class time, these students need more class time. If a student is seriously disrupting the learning environment and making it so that others cannot learn, then we should provide that student with extra support after school or on Saturday.
We welcome this statewide conversation about suspension practices. Going forward, our principals and regional superintendents will set clear goals around suspension data, make plans for their schools as a whole and for individual students, and regularly review progress. Our deans of students will receive additional training this summer and throughout the year on appropriate suspension practices and what's working across and outside our network.
Our primary goal remains the long-term success of our students. Achievement First's urban public schools continue to post gap-closing student results, and, for the fourth year in a row, 100 percent of our high school graduates are headed to college. Our elementary schools are also the No. 1 choice for families in Hartford and New Haven.
We do not want to lower expectations, erode the success our students have achieved or compromise the strong learning environment that parents so clearly want. Just as with our students, we are limited only by the expectations we set for ourselves.
Doug McCurry and Dacia Toll are the co-CEOs of Achievement First, a nonprofit operator of public charter schools in New York and Connecticut.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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