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.

Go to detention, pay $5

Strict discipline is part of the “secret sauce” at the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago, which runs 10 high-performing high schools in low-income areas. That includes charging students $5 for the cost of detention if they’re caught in minor violations: Carrying energy drinks or chips, chewing gum, failing to tuck in a shirt or tie shoelaces when asked, carrying a permanent marker or sleeping in class can lead to a three-hour detention, reports the Chicago Tribune.

Noble’s 10 high schools in the city raised nearly $200,000 from the disciplinary fees last year, according to  parent and student advocacy groups who protested the policy.

“It’s nickel-and-diming kids for literally nothing that really matters,” said Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education.

Noble Network CEO Michael Milkie said enforcing rules creates an orderly atmosphere that discourages the violence that plagues many Chicago public schools.

“We maybe have one fight per year, per campus. It’s an incredibly safe environment from a physical and emotional standpoint, and part of it comes from sweating the small things.”

And he said students who behave poorly should be forced to pay.

“For far too long in the city, students who behave well have had their education diverted to address students who behave improperly,” Milkie said. “We have set that fee to offset the cost to administer detention.”

Schools offer waivers and payment plans for low-income students and take disabilities into account, Milkie said. The network’s 91.3 percent retention rate is better than the district’s, he added. There are 10,000 students on wait lists to get into a Noble high school.

Parents must like Noble’s policies because they keep signing up their kids, responds Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who’s praised the schools for their high graduation rate, nearly double the rate at other public schools, and the high college-going rate.