Charter School Group Gears Up To Lower Suspension Rate
By KATHLEEN MEGAN
July 08, 2013
BRIDGEPORT — Six-year-old Christopher Tate is fidgeting in his chair and looking around — but not at the teacher — when Brandon Clark, a behavior interventionist, sidles up to him at Achievement First Bridgeport Academy.
Squatting beside Chris, Clark gently redirects his attention to his work and his teacher.
This is how behavior issues are often handled at the public charter elementary school, which has cut its rate of out-of-school suspensions by 64 percent in a single year and has never had in-school suspensions.
It's also the kind of transformation that Achievement First leaders hope to make in their other schools.
The charter school organization, which has 10 schools in Connecticut, has come under scrutiny with the recent release of state reports that show that most of its schools have among the highest suspension and expulsion rates in the state, even for children in kindergarten and first grade.
The report showed, for example, that at Achievement First Hartford Academy Middle School, almost half the students were suspended or expelled at least once during the 2011-12 school year — the highest rate in the state.
This comes after settlement in late May of a complaint by parents filed with the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education that said the middle school was discriminating against children with disabilities by suspending them excessively.
The civil rights complaint also mentioned a punishment that required students who broke lesser rules to wear a white shirt over their blue uniform shirt and forbade them any interaction with other kids — a measure that an attorney in the case said felt like "school-sanctioned ostracism."
At a recent State Board of Education meeting where the charter for the Hartford school was up for renewal, Dacia Toll, president of Achievement First, pledged to cut the suspension rate at the middle school by 50 percent or more next year. The school also plans to review its disciplinary procedures.
"With a level of embarrassment, I admit to you, we were not focused on this," Toll said. "You have my unambiguous, personal commitment that we will significantly reduce these numbers."
Estela Lopez, a State Board of Education member, was not so sure that would be easy.
"When 50 percent of the middle school students go to suspensions, that's a culture," Lopez said. "Changing cultures is usually the hardest part. It's harder, perhaps, than improving students' performance."
The state board approved the charter renewal for the Hartford academy, but for three years instead of five. Achievement First must also submit a plan for reducing suspensions by the end of July.
The Reflection Room
There is an urgency in the tenor of the classrooms at Achievement First schools; a sense that every second must be used for learning. Even on the last day of school at the Hartford middle school, a history teacher has a tightly structured lesson that students are clearly enjoying. She uses a timer to ensure that small tasks — like moving the desks into a U-shape for discussion — don't take longer then necessary.
The schools also have a language of their own that expedites communication and students, for the most part, respond like a precision team. A teacher at Bridgeport elementary schools tells her students to: "SLANT, fold your hands and make a bubble." Translation: Sit up straight, listen, ask and answer questions, nod to signal engagement and track the teacher with your eyes. And the bubble? Purse your lips and fill your cheeks with air — a move that ensures quiet.
For years, the Achievement First students in Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport, have outperformed their peers on state tests in almost all grades and subjects. On a recent visit to Achievement First's middle school in Hartford, a strict disciplinary code was evident.
In a large lecture hall with stadium seating — the "reflection room" — two or three students who had been removed from class for behavioral reasons sit quietly under the supervision of a staff member.
At the front of the room, the consequences of breaking the rules and the rewards of not doing so are spelled out on large posters that proclaim, "You're not a born winner, you're not a born loser. You're a born chooser. Make the Right Choice!"
And in most classrooms, two or three students wear a white shirt over their blue school uniform, signaling that they are in "re-orientation" — a disciplinary measure that permits them to stay in academic classes but forbids interaction with peers and removes them from special classes like music or physical education.
To shed the white shirt, students need to get signatures from all their teachers certifying their good behavior and write an apology, which they present to their class. The students then may vote on whether to accept the offender back into class.
Prinicipal Jeff House readily agrees that the rate of suspensions is too high at his school and he is taking steps to bring it down, including revising the disciplinary code, but he also talks about the need to maintain order.
"It's different trying to be a college prep school in the North End of Hartford," said House. "It doesn't look like the school we went to. But in the end it's so they can have the same experience: They can go off to college."
His students often arrive in in the fifth grade about two years below grade level if they've attended an ordinary neighborhood school.
"There's a level of challenge and adversity that some of our students face, so we have to do more as a school," said House. "The school has to be more structured, more stable, more predictable more safe."
House sees disruptive behavior as "perhaps the No. 1 issue" holding back many urban public schools, including those in Hartford, and he draws a "direct connection between dramatically higher achievement and the dramatically higher expectations for behavior at our school."
"Where is the outcry about schools that aren't teaching kids to read?" House said. "We agree that we should be held accountable for reducing our suspensions, but all schools should be held accountable for educating our kids."
As it now stands, the middle school's disciplinary code is a complicated, compounding system that includes demerits, detentions, suspension, expulsion, and re-orientation.
For Johanna Rodriguez's son, Emanuel, who just completed eighth grade at Achievement First and has attention deficit disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, it was nearly impossible to stay out of trouble.
Rodriguez said she got called "just about every day" and told that her son, who was included in the civil rights complaint, was being removed from class because he had been fidgeting, not promptly carrying out directions, talking to himself or humming.
Most of Emanuel's seventh-grade year was spent at home suspended, Rodriguez said, while he spent much of eighth grade in the reflection room. For lesser offenses, Rodriguez spent time wearing the white shirt associated with re-orientation.
House said that re-orientation reminds students of their first week at the school, when they are in orientation and wear a white shirt. Most students are voted back into class by their peers on their first try, House said, and "that's really actually a moment of celebration. A way to welcome them back, a way for students to be both held accountable and supported by their peers."
But Maria-Morelli Wolfe, the Greater Hartford Legal Aid, Inc.lawyer for the parents in the civil rights complaint, said of re-orientation: "To me, it sort of felt like school-sanctioned ostracism. Your teammates can't speak with you if you're in the wrong color shirt."
Still, Rodriguez sees a lot that's right at Achievement First schools and Emanuel will be attending Achievement First's high school next year with a promise that better services will be in place for him. Rodriguez also has two other children in Achievement First. "It's good for regular kids," she said.
While the disciplinary system appeared to be damaging for Rodriguez's son, Antonio Rendon, who just completed fifth grade, said it helped him, although he earned his share of demerits and detentions as well as two re-orientation experiences.
His transgressions included not following a teacher's directions, talking out of turn, and slipping out his own personal book to read when he had finished his work.
"I was kind of upset," said Antonio when he got in trouble over the book. "Because I did all my work and I finished my whole packet and I didn't have anything better to do."
But he said, he realizes now, he shouldn't have been reading unless he had permission. "I think it's a really good system for kids," Antonio said. "It teaches us discipline and teaches you can't always act like this."
His father, Jose Rendon, said he is very pleased with the school and the progress Antonio is making. The school communicates closely with parents, Rendon said, reporting the good and the bad each day.
"I love the calls," Rendon said. "The calls let me know they are doing what they said they were going to do. They are going to stay on him. They are going to hold him accountable for his actions."
A 'Culture Team' That Meets Daily
"Track me. Track me. Track me," Kim Feigin, a teacher at Achievement First Bridgeport Academy Elementary School said as she pointed to each student in her group of struggling readers, instructing them to make eye contact. "When I say go, you are going to pick up your clipboard. Track me!"
This is the reading group in which Brandon Clark is working with Christopher Tate. By now, Christopher is more focused and following along on his clipboard.
Across the classroom from the reading group, another intervention is underway. Laura Kabel, dean of culture, is working with a first-grade girl who has torn up her homework. Together they are taping it together.
"This looks like you felt angry to me," Kabel said she told the little girl. Kabel helped her do the work and then they discussed how the incident made the little girl, her teachers and classmates feel. Within about 20 minutes, the first-grader was ready to return to her class and apologize to her teacher.
Katherine Baker, principal of the school, said that in 2011, she and other school leaders decided they wanted to bring down the school's suspension rate. Twenty-one students had been given out-of-school suspensions 49 times during the 2011-12 academic year.
So Baker created a "culture team" that meets every afternoon to look for patterns among students removed from class. "If anyone's behavior plan is not working, if anyone's safety plan is not working … [we ask] is there another way."
Strategies are considered for managing behaviors. "Is there a time of day? Is there a certain situation? And then we try to tweak what we're doing to make sure that student is more successful."
The suspension numbers dropped during this past year — 11 children suspended 21 times — driving the percentage of children suspended down from 11 percent in 2011-12 to 4 percent during the past year.
Baker said she thinks that reviewing the data day by day and adjusting behavioral strategies has been at the core of their success.
"We saw it as a problem that we had kids out of class and we had students receiving suspensions," she said. "The framework was: We need to tackle this problem with the same urgency that we would tackle an academic problem."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at