Honor student expelled for science project

A chemistry-loving, cello-playing honor student was expelled and charged with two felonies for her science project. Kiera Wilmot wanted to demonstrate a chemical reaction simulating a volcanic eruption. The Florida girl was charged with bringing an explosive device to school and discharging it.

She is a good kid,” said Bartow High School principal Ron Pritchard. “She has never been in trouble before. Ever.”

Kiera was sent to an “opportunity center” with easy classes and no homework, she wrote in the Huffington Post.

Prosecutors dropped the charges, but it will take five years to clear her record. That could interfere with her dreams of earning a degree “in technology design and engineering.” She wants “a career building robots that can do tasks like surgeries or driving cars.”

Opposition to “zero tolerance” policies continues to grow, reports Reason. The School Discipline Consensus Report  by the Council of State Governments Justice Center recommends scaling back suspensions and expulsions “handed down by school administrators over minor and even accidental rule infractions.”

Expulsion is ‘heartbreaking but necessary’

Chicago charter schools expel 6 of every 1,000 students compared to .5 for public schools, the district reported. “At three campuses in the Noble Network of Charter Schools, which has faced backlash over its disciplinary approach, anywhere from 2 percent to nearly 5 percent of students were expelled in the last school year,” reports the Chicago Tribune.

Expulsion is heartbreaking but necessary, argues Michael Milkie, founder and superintendent of the Noble schools, in a Chicago Sun-Times commentary.

Milkie and his wife taught in Chicago public schools before starting Noble 15 years ago. They saw a disruptive minority make it difficult to teach and learn. Their 14 charter schools are known for strict discipline.  

We believed that the best way to support students’ success in college, career and life was to run schools with a culture of high expectations and personal accountability. 

. . . We’ve made a promise to our parents that their children will learn in a safe, calm and focused environment. We promise that our classrooms and halls will be free from violence and disruptive behavior. We promise that we will socially and academically support our students while holding high expectations for them despite the many social issues they face.

Noble schools don’t have metal detectors, police, bullying or fighting, Milkie writes. Attendance and graduation rates are high and 90 percent of graduates go on to college.

Students “who threaten the safety and environment of others” are expelled, he writes. The network’s expulsion rate is about 1 percent per year.  Noble will not “compromise the culture and learning environment of the 99 percent of students for the disruptive 1 percent.”

The well-meaning campaign to reduce suspensions and expulsions may backfire, writes Michael Goldstein on Puzzl_Ed, the Match Education blog. If a school environment is “crazy,” teachers will leave. “Kids in the most troubled schools typically lack choice.”

Goldstein remembers heartbreaking expulsion decisions in Match High‘s early years.

Fritz was carrying a weapon which he said . . . was to protect him from gang members in his neighborhood, and he would never use it in our school community. We believed him. We had a clear rule, though, and he was expelled. . . . You end up thinking crazy things like “Should our students be able to check their weapons at the door, like a saloon in the Wild West, and pick them up on the way home, because the police in Boston are utterly unable to protect (minority) kids from gangs?”

. . . There’s part of an educator that thinks “Hey if that was my kid, and he had to live in that unsafe neighborhood, and the reality was that yes, carrying a weapon poses obvious risks (of escalation, of arrest), but also genuinely also serves as a deterrent so he can go to and from school without humiliation, what would I tell my kid to do?” It’s not always an easy question.

Schools should be clear about rules and consequences, Goldstein concludes. Let parents decide whether they want a strict or lax regime.

Many Chicago and suburban public schools aren’t reporting campus violence, despite a state law, reports NBC.

Suspended learning

Reformers should support the Obama administration’s effort to “reduce the overuse of suspensions and expulsions,” argues RiShawn Biddle in a Dropout Nation podcast. Harsh discipline pushes troubled kids out of school, he argues. And it doesn’t work.

Setting racial quotas for discipline will have a “disparate impact” on disruptive students’ classmates, writes Hans Bader. Their classroom safety and learning time will be sacrificed. 

Like crime rates, student misconduct rates aren’t the same across racial categories, Bader writes.

 The Supreme Court ruled many years ago that such racial disparities don’t prove racism or unconstitutional discrimination. But in guidance released last week by the Education and Justice Departments, the Obama administration signaled that it will hold school districts liable for such racial disparities under federal Title VI regulations. In the long run, the only practical way for school districts to comply with this guidance is to tacitly adopt unconstitutional racial quotas in school discipline.

Schools can be held liable for “racially disparate impact” for non-racist policies that unintentionally lead to more minority suspensions, writes Bader.

Many schools adopted zero-common-sense policies to avoid charges of racial bias. The new policy opposes zero-tolerance policies that mandate suspension or expulsion. It also discourages calling the police for school misbehavior, a growing trend.

The feds have no authority to set school discipline policies — unless they’re protecting minority or disabled students from discrimination. Of course, they could recommend more sensible and flexible discipline policies without bringing race into it, but they want to do more.

Los Angeles Unified is relaxing its zero-tolerance discipline policy, reports NPR. The district won’t issue “school police citations and court appearances for minor offenses such as fighting, loitering, underage drinking, and defacing desks and walls.” Instead, schools will try “restorative justice.”

Wisconsin town fines parents for kids’ bullying

In a small Wisconsin town, parents will be held liable if their children repeatedly bully or harass others, reports the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Parents could face a $114 fine.

Linda Lee, president of Greendale Against Bullying, doesn’t think “a punitive approach” will work.

The advocacy group was formed after a high-profile bullying case in which a 17-year-old Greendale High School student scrawled a bomb threat on a bathroom wall. Prosecutors recommended a misdemeanor instead of a felony charge because the student had been repeatedly teased and bullied.

Often by the time parents learn of the bullying, it has already escalated to a serious situation, Lee said. The group has prioritized training peer ambassadors — teens who spread the anti-bullying message to their fellow students.

“Our focus and emphasis is on taking positive, constructive approach,” she said.

Before a parent or guardian can be ticketed, police officers must inform them in writing of a prior bullying offense within the past 90 days.

Schools choose not to expel a bully aren’t liable for the bully’s actions, a divided appeals court ruled in Pittsburgh.

A student who bullied and assaulted the Morrow sisters was suspended, adjudicated delinquent and repeatedly told to stay away from them, but wasn’t expelled. She continued to bully the Morrow sisters till they switched schools. The Morrows argued their equal protection rights were violated. The court majority said the school didn’t create the danger; dissenters said the school contributed to the danger by not expelling the bully.

Teachers: Suspensions are down, but so is safety

Denver schools have cut suspensions and expulsions dramatically, but some teachers say their schools aren’t safe, reports Jenny Brundin on Colorado Public Radio.

“Students have threatened to follow teachers home and jump them,” says Greg Ahrnsbrak, who teaches at Bruce Randolph, a 6th-12th grade school in north Denver.

 We’ve had students who have threatened to bring a gun and kill teachers. We’ve had students who’ve threatened to kill all of us with a bomb. Our administrators have tried to expel some of them and they’re told they can’t.

“Our schools are safe,” says Assistant Superintendent Antwan Wilson.

But, nearly all of the staff at Denver’s Morey Middle School, Bruce Randolph and Munroe Elementary schools signed a letter complaining there are no consequences for fighting or cursing at a teacher.

A local parent and youth activist group Padres y Jovenes Unidos, pushed for the new discipline policy. “We had thousands of students being referred to the police for minor discipline issues, like being disruptive in class,” says Lalo Montoya.

Now the discipline process is complex, writes Brundin. “In order to get a belligerent kid removed from school or even class, it takes multiple steps, and sometimes weeks of documentation that teachers say cuts into teaching time. Kids know that and push boundaries.”

A teacher, who didn’t want to use her name, says she used to be able to ask a disruptive student to leave the classroom, knowing the student would leave.

And now they won’t. They refuse. So you’ve got to call security. Actually,  just yesterday, I had a student who was using horrible language, just yelling these awful, awful things. I asked him to stop. He said he would and he didn’t. And then he started laying hands on some of the other students, kicking, hitting, pushing. Just very violent. So I called for security. Security comes out and says, “I will ask him to come with me, but I can tell you right now, he’s not going to come.”

Students can be sent to an in-school-suspension room, where they’re supposed to get counseling. But schools don’t have enough counselors.

Student: When kids get real angry, they just be cussin’ at the teachers, and the teachers really don’t even do nothin’. They just send us to the SI office. You just sit down, do your work and just wait until the next period and get your stuff and go!

Students can be suspended or expelled for bringing guns or knives to school, Wilson says. He concedes schools need more support to make the new discipline policy work. An extra $1.5 million is budgeted for mental health specialists next year, targeting mainly middle schools.

Via Education Week.

Learning irresponsibility

Managing classroom misbehavior takes up way too much time, writes Ilana Garon, who teaches English in a Bronx high school. Students know they can get away with talking in class, hitting each other, walking around the classroom and then talking back to the teacher.

. . . these kids are 16, not six. At some point, no matter how difficult their upbringing, how uninvolved their parents, or how dry the material . . . high school students have to be held accountable for their own behavior. . . .  many times the kids can’t be engaged by even the most fascinating lesson–and, with virtually no consequences for non-violent infractions, teachers’ hands are tied.

New York City’s new discipline code will make it harder to suspend students for “disorderly behavior,” such as swearing and lying to teachers. Instead, principals will use reprimands, parent conferences and lunchtime detentions.

Calling home sometimes helps, but not for long, Garon writes. The school can’t afford supervised detention. Suspension “is often treated as a vacation by the kids.”

Immigrants from Jamaica and Ghana are “often appalled at the behaviors of American-born kids,” who take  education for granted. High school is free in the U.S., so it’s not valued, a Jamaican told her.

Garon dreams of “hard detention” (cleaning the school), suspension and “the threat of expulsion for the toughest repeat offenders.” If there are no consequences, students are taught that “even in their teenage years, they are not responsible for their own behavior.” That’s a dangerous message that will undermine their academic future and their employment prospects, Garon writes.

Teaching students to control their impulses and take responsibility for their actions should start in elementary school.

Teaching math to 11th and 12th graders who’ve failed the seventh-grade-level graduation exam, Michele Kerr has to manage “vortex” and “driftwood” students.

The quintessential disruptive vortex, Deon could single-handledly destroy half the class’s productivity if left undisturbed; his absence or isolation always left most of my “driftwood” students open to the idea of getting some work done.

(Yet) Deon was a math-solving machine who worked fiendishly once I isolated him from all other entertainment.

“Good” kids and “bad” kids “aren’t useful distinctions,” she writes on Larry Cuban’s blog.

Charter discipline: Too strict?

Charter schools in some cities are being pushed to relax strict discipline policies, reports Ed Week.

Charters expel students at the same rate as traditional public schools and have lower suspension rates, according to an Ed Week analysis of 2009-10 federal data. “But in a few urban districts where high discipline rates at charter schools have drawn scrutiny, school officials have recently taken steps aimed at ensuring that students in both charter and other public schools are treated fairly,” reports Ed Week. 

New Orleans’ Recovery School District centralized admissions, transfer and expulsion for its charter and non-charter schools last year.

“Many parents choose charters because they offer safe havens” from violence and disorder, say charter supporters.

In A Tale of Two Students, Ed Week looks at the Noble Network of Charter Schools, which runs 12 schools in Chicago.

. . . its mission is to “prepare low-income students with the scholarship, discipline, and honor necessary to succeed in college and lead exemplary lives, and serve as a catalyst for education reform in Chicago.”

Its academic record is impressive: Noble students’ average ACT score, 20.7, is more than 3 points higher than the average score for Chicago’s regular public schools.

Discipline is strict. Ronda Coleman, whose daughter Janell, 17, is a Noble senior, says “the rules create a safe environment, and that parents and students are well aware of what they’re signing up for.”

Michael Milkie, the superintendent and a co-founder of the Noble charter school system, said he and his wife were inspired to create a school with a stricter code of conduct after teaching in the Chicago school system.

“One of the things we looked to implement right away was a structured, strong discipline code that teaches students proper behavior and allows teachers to teach and students to learn,” Mr. Milkie said. At Noble, students receive demerits for certain offenses, including dress-code violations or possessing a permanent marker. Racking up four demerits means serving detention for three hours on Friday and paying a $5 fee.

“Students get an average of 12 detentions freshman year, and only two by senior year,” said Milkie.

Donna Moore thinks discipline is too rigid. Her son, Joshua, 17, spent two years as a freshman at Gary Comer High School, a Noble charter school, drawing hundreds of detentions and dozens of suspensions. He now attends an alternative high school.

How charters get motivated students

Some charter schools screen students for motivation by requiring lengthy applications, essays or interview, writes Stephanie Simon on Reuters.

Five states – Florida, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Ohio and Texas – let some charter schools screen applicants by academic performance, Simon writes. Alaska, Delaware and North Carolina let charter schools give admissions preference to students who demonstrate interest in the school’s educational focus, such as technology or performing arts. Most are required to admit students by lottery. But first students have to apply.

Roseland Accelerated Middle School, a charter school in Santa Rosa, California, won’t even enter applicants into the lottery until they have proved their mettle by writing a five-page autobiography (with no errors in grammar or spelling, the form warns), as well as a long essay and six short essays. Applicants also must provide recommendations, report cards and statements from their parents or guardians and submit a medical history, including a list of all medications they take.

Gail Ahlas, superintendent of the public school district that oversees the charter, says the process isn’t meant to exclude anyone, but to “set the tone” for the school as a rigorous college-prep environment.

Many charters specialize in serving low-income and minority children, Reuters concedes. These use simple application forms. Most for-profit charter school chains also make it easy to apply. But some charters ask for more.

No

rthland Preparatory Academy in Flagstaff, Arizona requires parents to attend one of three information sessions to pick up an application form. “It’s kind of like a time share (pitch),” said Bob Lombardi, the superintendent. “You have to come and listen.” (The arts middle school — a district-run magnet — in Portland, Oregon has the same policy.)

Some charter principals told Reuters they use the application to ensure students really want to be at their school.

Hawthorne Math and Science Academy, a top-rated charter school outside of Los Angeles, uses a multistep application that requires assessment exams in math and English and a family interview.

Principal Esau Berumen said he does not screen prospective students for academic ability. But, he said, the process is demanding enough that about 10 percent drop out before the lottery – leaving him with a pool of kids he knows are motivated to embrace the rigors of his curriculum.

“If there’s any skimming off the top, it’s on effort and drive,” Berumen said.

Heather Davis-Jones tells Reuters it was a challenge to enroll her eight-year-old daughter, Shakia, in a charter school in Philadelphia. “But I felt like I needed to do whatever it took to get her into a better school. If they want me to stand on my hands for 10 days, I’ll do it.” Her daughter got into one of the charter schools and loves it.

The Preuss School at the University of California, San Diego serves only low-income students who parents aren’t college graduates. But Preuss wants low-income, first-generation students with “aptitude, drive and parental support,” writes Simon.

The 23-page application requires students to hand-write a long essay and several short-answer questions. They must submit a graded writing sample from their old school, and then explain what they learned from the assignment and how they could have done better. They must provide three recommendations.

And their parents must respond to a page of questions, including: “Describe what type of service you will contribute to this school. Please be specific.” If they don’t speak English, parents are asked to secure help from a translator.

Principal Scott Barton said students’ writing skill doesn’t matter. The application is designed to screen out students who lack “the motivation and the potential to succeed.”

Even when charters use simple applications, they’re enrolling students whose parents care enough to find an alternative to the neighborhood school, says Mike Petrilli of Fordham, a charter advocate.

That’s true. Parents who choose a school — charter, magnet or whatever — are showing extra motivation that may be passed on to their children. If their children’s classmates also have parents who care about education, even better. I wish school districts would create more of their own schools of choice to give parents more chances to find a “right fit” with similarly inclined classmates.

Nationwide, charter schools “enroll a greater percentage of low-income students than traditional public schools (46 percent versus 41 percent), black and Latino students (27 percent versus 15 percent and 26 percent versus 22 percent, respectively), and students who perform lower on standardized tests before transferring to public charter schools,” responds the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Charters aren’t creaming the best students, responds the Center for Education Reform, which charges the story distorted its school lunch data. While 40 percent of charters don’t participate in the federal lunch program — the rules are too burdensome — most “feed all of their students,” CER data reports. The story also mischaracterizes state policy on charter admissions, CER charges.

Nationwide, suspension and expulsion rates are lower for charter schools than for traditional public schools, according to federal data published in Ed Week. However, the rates vary in different cities and the data is not complete. Charters in New Orleans are standardizing discipline policies. All expelled students in the city are sent to the same alternative charter school.

Safety first: Schools where kids can learn

Student learning requires a positive school climate and effective discipline policies, concludes Ed Week‘s Quality Counts 2013.

National initiatives to improve schools tend to focus heavily on curriculum, testing, and personnel. But a growing consensus also recognizes that the elements that make up school climate—including peer relationships, students’ sense of safety and security, and the disciplinary policies and practices they confront each day—play a crucial part in laying the groundwork for academic success.

I agree that a safe, orderly school environment is the first step to learning — though not the whole journey.

Ed Week looks at “zero tolerance” discipline policies, now mercifully falling out of favor, and “promising alternative models that seek to reduce conflict and ensure schoolhouse safety without resorting to expulsion or out-of-school suspension.”

In the classroom arena, they document ways in which educators are working to bolster students’ ability to cope with academic and personal pressures that can interfere with learning and lead to peer conflict and bullying.

. . . Finally, this package examines factors often left out of the school climate discussion: the role of parents and community groups—and even of a school’s physical design and layout—in the learning environment.

In addition, there’s a survey of teachers’ and administrators’ views on school climate, safety and discipline. 

Expulsion, transfer or … ?

D.C. Charter Schools Expel Students at Far Higher Rates than Traditional Public Schools, reported the Washington Post‘s Emma Brown. District-run schools rarely expel disruptive or dangerous students, instead using long-term suspensions, involuntary transfers and assignment to alternative schools.

The “culture of compliance” in district offices “has crippled their ability to maintain safe and orderly schools,” writes John Thompson on This Week In Education. It’s easier to transfer a belligerent student to a new school than to fill out reams of paperwork to document “students’ patterns of misbehavior” and “the resulting interventions.”

In D.C., a student cannot be suspended for more than ten days without the approval of an administrative law judge.  When everyone involved – principals, teachers, families and, above all, students – know that it is virtually impossible to follow through with longterm suspensions, then it is harder to draw the line regarding smaller infractions.  It becomes far more difficult to teach challenging kids how to become students.  Consequently, shuttling discipline problems to other schools becomes a rational response.

Troubled schools should focus on “improving learning climates” as the first step to improving learning, Thompson writes.

It’s not fair to charge that charters “push out” troubled students, he concludes. Charter educators sincerely believe they’re doing what’s best for their students by enforcing discipline.

As Brown reports, some charters with “zero tolerance” policies allow expulsion for repeated, minor nonviolent offenses, such as skipping class, or violating dress codes. I oppose those policies. . . . Having experience with the anarchy that often comes from the refusal of systems to enforce their codes of conduct, however, I can understand why some charters have gone too far the other way.

Some charter supporters have slandered educators in traditional schools. They should stop implying that it is “low expectations” that causes the disorder which undermines teaching and learning. But if we do unto them what has been done unto neighborhood school teachers, and charge charters with intentionally pushing out students, we will lose the opportunity to discuss better ways of building respectful learning climates. We will reinforce the impression that neighborhood schools will never become serious about raising behavioral standards, and hasten the day when traditional urban schools are merely the alternative schools for the students who could not make it in charters, magnets, or low-poverty schools.

By refusing to tolerate disruptive students, charters provide an opportunity for strivers, “high-potential low-income students . . . who are committed to using education to escape poverty and are often supported in that effort by supportive parents,” writes Mike Petrilli on Flypaper.

. . .  the traditional system has been downright hostile to the needs of such striving children and families—as have been many charter critics. Magnet “exam schools,” such as those recently profiled by Checker Finn and Jessica Hockett, are viewed with suspicion; tracking or ability grouping is seen as elitist; any effort to provide special classes, environments, or challenges for motivated or high-achieving kids is cast as perpetuating inequality—even when all the kids are poor, and even though there’s a ton of evidence that high achievers do best around other high achievers.

And now these “social justice” types want to berate schools for asking disruptive students to leave.

For sure, there should be checks on pushing kids out willy-nilly. Thankfully, charter officials in D.C. are already on the case, publicizing discipline data and prodding the handful of schools with sky-high expulsion and suspension rates to find better approaches.

But let’s not forget about the needs (even rights) of the other kids to learn.

Parents like strict discipline policies, adds Eduwonk. That’s why 41 percent of D.C.’s public students now attend charter schools.

The problem is that too little attention is paid to what to do for students who need an alternative learning environment rather than a traditional school and there are too few learning environments like that – and too often alternative schools become the place where you put all the people who struggle in the regular system, adults and kids.

Washington D.C. charter schools are considering getting together to create an alternative school where disruptive students could be transferred instead of expelled. That could be great for troubled kids — or another dumping ground.