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Charter schools swap ‘no excuses’ for a gentler approach to discipline

Susan Walsh/AP/File
Students line up for lunch at the KIPP DC KEY Academy in Washington in 2008. Educators in charter schools, including some in the KIPP network, are moving away from tough-nosed disciplinary tactics – mirroring a similar trend in mainstream public schools.
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One Denver middle school knew it had a problem two years ago when it led the city in the number of students suspended. Since then, what’s happened at this charter school is a journey from a punitive, “no-excuses” style of discipline toward giving positive support to students who are misbehaving or struggling with attendance.

The shift there is echoed in other charter and traditional schools around the country. It’s grounded in recent research on what’s most helpful to kids. That school in Denver, part of the nationwide KIPP network of charter schools, expects about 30 suspensions this academic year, down from 160 in 2016-17. “In academic circles, there’s probably consensus that it’s not beneficial to shame and humiliate kids,” says sociologist Joanne Golann.

In Denver, Maria Peña is a mom whose son was one of those suspended two years ago. This year when the eighth-grader got in an argument, the response was to bring parents and students in to talk. “At the end,” says Ms. Peña, “I was like, wow, I think that was way better.” 

Why We Wrote This

For years many charter schools embraced toughness on infractions small or large. But a shift is under way toward the idea that it's possible to combine high expectations with the nurturing so many students need.

Two years ago, a charter school in Denver topped the charts in something no school aims to excel at: suspensions. More than 1 in 3 students at the Knowledge Is Power Program’s Northeast Denver Middle School were suspended from school in 2016-17. The KIPP school’s total, 160, was higher than in any of Denver’s public schools that school year.

“It was pretty obvious that there was a need for change,” says Dave Vaale, a longtime counselor to at-risk youth who was brought in to transform the school’s approach to discipline.

His mandate: to move the school away from a “no-excuses” style of discipline, not just for the sake of reducing suspensions but to improve overall outcomes for students.

Why We Wrote This

For years many charter schools embraced toughness on infractions small or large. But a shift is under way toward the idea that it's possible to combine high expectations with the nurturing so many students need.

It’s part of a significant about-face nationwide in charter schools, including those in the KIPP network of free college-prep schools. Educators are moving away from tough-nosed disciplinary tactics, mirroring a similar trend in mainstream public schools, and going even further recently to ensure their tactical shifts are effective.

The changes can provoke pushback from teachers and even some parents who grew up believing sparing the rod means spoiling the child. But leaders in education say they are finding that it’s possible to combine high expectations with a supportive culture that acknowledges the stresses that children often face at home.

“In the classrooms where this was first happening, it made a huge difference, in terms of classroom management, the culture of the classrooms and in terms of kids’ academic capabilities,” says Kimberlee Sia, chief executive officer of KIPP Colorado. “There wasn’t that nitpicking of all the previous things kids had been disciplined for.”

Mr. Vaale says the Northeast Denver Middle School, where he is now the director of culture, will likely suspend closer to 30 students this year. The changed approach has also coincided with improved attendance and better student morale.

And across the nation in recent years, a growing number of public schools from Los Angeles to Raleigh, N.C., have reduced expulsions or are considering that step. Some districts have eliminated them entirely. In Lansing, Mich., expulsions dropped from 107 district-wide in 2013-14 to zero in 2017-18, for example.

In Denver, the school board began moving in the spring of 2017 to change the district’s strict disciplinary policy to eliminate suspensions of students in Grades 3 and younger, except in instances required by law.

The reason: a growing body of research shows strict approaches are ineffective, potentially discriminatory, and can damage children's futures. Its roots are in the once exalted but now less accepted “broken windows” theory, an approach to crime that spawned zero-tolerance policing in the 1990s. Leaders on both sides of the political aisle now argue these approaches contributed to mass incarceration, now widely seen as one of the nation’s biggest problems.

It’s no secret that KIPP, serving largely students of color, was part of the no-excuses educational movement for years. The program’s leaders believed that sweating the small stuff, even whether kids showed up to school with matching socks, ensured both order and classroom success. Indeed, conformity in the form of uniforms and punishment for not adhering to inflexible rules were the norm at many charter schools nationwide for years.

Dueling models

Debate over the best approach isn’t over. Recently the Trump administration scrapped guidelines cautioning educators against harsher disciplines.

KIPP’s national leadership stated publicly in January that it supported the prior Obama-era guidelines. But KIPP’s 200-plus schools are free to move at their own pace, meaning they are at various stages of completely rethinking how severely kids are punished, as well as how often they are rewarded.

All this comes as researchers generally embrace the idea that gentler tactics lead to improved results.

“In academic circles, there’s probably consensus that it’s not beneficial to shame and humiliate kids,” says Joanne Golann, a sociologist and assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

“You still see a lot of people replicating a lot of these harsher approaches, because it’s perceived to work,” adds Dr. Golann, who published a 2018 study on charter school practices along with Chris Torres of Michigan State University. Both she and Dr. Torres observe some charter networks moving toward positive approaches to discipline.

For teachers or parents used to an old-school style of discipline, removing the ability to kick a child out of class can feel like taking a tool out of the toolbox. Teachers balked when Denver’s schools began reducing suspensions several years ago. In Los Angeles, some teachers felt it was leading to unruly classes.

“There’s still pushback” from teachers who miss the clear guidelines of old, says Vaale in Denver, “but as we’ve adapted and seen progress and seen better results, our teachers buy in more and more.”

'I think that was way better.'

Many parents are also buying in.

Maria Peña, a medical assistant and mother of two who lives with her husband in northeast Denver, has seen the changes in KIPP Colorado Schools. Her son Sergio, an eighth-grader, was one of the 160 kids suspended by a KIPP middle school two years ago. To his mom, the suspension meant he might fall behind in his classes and mistakenly get rewarded with a vacation for acting out.

This year, when he got into an argument with another child, both parents and children were brought in for a conversation about the causes of the argument and likely consequences instead.

“At the end, I was like, wow, I think that was way better,” Ms. Peña says.

In interviews focused on six charter school programs that are shedding the no-excuses philosophy, many educators and parents say that despite the challenges associated with institutional change, the benefits outweigh the costs. The new holistic approaches take into account that a student may be acting out because they are traumatized due to a lack of housing, or due to living in close proximity to violence, rather than because of willful defiance.

Ric Zappa is credited with leading KIPP’s Bay Area network of schools away from no-excuses disciplinary practices. He now serves as chief schools officer for Caliber Schools in California.

Caliber doesn’t suspend any of its 1,600 elementary school pupils, 99 percent of whom are students of color. Its schools in Richmond and Vallejo, Calif., each include social and emotional learning, offer access to mental-health clinicians, and have restorative-justice practices that can help students recover from troubles.

“These things are foundational at Caliber. That’s one of the main reasons why I went there,” says Mr. Zappa.

Still keeping expectations high

In Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., Mastery Charter Schools opened in 2001 and now serves 14,000 students.

“We adopted a very traditional school disciplinary model” early on, “rooted in broken windows,” says Scott Gordon, Mastery’s CEO. The belief was “if you sweat little things, bigger things won’t come up, so very clear roles, very clear consequences, lots of consistency.”

Mastery has revamped its approach by embracing the idea of school being “a loving place where kids feel loved and supported” and “high expectations” of students, both in terms of academic performance and discipline, says Mr. Gordon. The changes “felt right and resonated with our kids and with our parents,” but created less clarity for both kids and teachers, he says.

Accelerating its changes in the past year and a half, Mastery set up systems for staff to track data about students in real time. By knowing in minutes rather than days, a ride can sometimes be offered if a student isn’t in school, for instance.

“We’ve learned that it’s not magic and it’s not just believing in the right philosophy. There’s a tree of training support systems and practices that require ... a big lift for schools to deliver on,” says Saliyah Cruz, who was hired by Mastery 18 months ago for a newly created role overseeing student development. “One big lesson learned for us is that it’s a journey that requires real expertise and real execution, follow up, and training.”

[Editor's note: One sentence in this story has been corrected to give an updated estimate of the number of suspensions that will occur at KIPP's Northeast Denver Middle School during the current school year.]

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