State Education Department: Charter schools suspend elementary students twice as much

Charter schools suspend elementary students “almost twice” as often as the districts where they are located, the State Department of Education reported Wednesday.

The five districts with the highest percentage of elementary students being suspended or expelled are all charter schools, department officials told the State Board of Education Wednesday.

And with one in seven students being suspended at charter elementary schools — compared to one in 13 students in the Bridgeport and Hartford public school districts where they are located — the chairman of the State Board of Education said things are about to change.

Chairman Allan B. Taylor said a new system is now being set up to better track suspension data on a regular basis. Additionally, suspension data will be taken into account when charter schools come before the board to renew their contracts to operate in the state or expand enrollment.

“Obviously, you can’t use [such data] for new charters,” said Taylor.

The suspension issue came to light after the state’s child advocate reported that hundreds of kindergarten students are wrongfully being suspended from school each year in both charter and traditional public schools.

“The rates are just too high. They’re just too high,” Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor told the state board, adding that he is working to create a system to routinely track and detect problems.

“We are going to learn a lot more,” said Pryor said. “We cannot lose our sense of alarm and our sense of outrage… For our youngest students there simply has to be another way.”

For non-charter schools with high rates, Pryor said state funding grants will be contingent on plans to fix this problem.

“That is an important lever,” he told reporters Wednesday.

Department officials said that one explanation provided by charter schools for their high rates of suspensions is that some of them deploy “pull out” methods for disruptive students to address the behavior. That “pull out” time lasts on average four hours, the state board was told.

Most of these students suspended from charters — about 80 percent — return to the school from which they were suspended, the department reports.

Responding to an article in the Connecticut Mirror, officials from the Achievement First charter school in Hartford –- which suspended  32.5 percent of its elementary students during the 2011-12 school year -– wrote that they are  working to solve the problem.

“Achievement First recognizes that there were an unacceptable number of suspensions… The number of suspensions rose to an unprecedented level due to the school’s continued high expectations for student behavior in supporting student achievement,” the school system said.

“The suspension policies are in place to preserve a learning environment required for high student achievement. Since the school has kindergarten and first-grade students who enter the school lacking basic readiness skills, it is critical to reduce disruptions in the classroom.”

Pryor, who helped open Amistad Academy in New Haven, which is associated with Achievement First, recused himself from talking about the rates of suspensions at those schools.

Amistad’s suspension rate for elementary students was 13.8 percent during the 2011-12 school year.

A new state law restricting when students can be suspended from school has helped in significantly reducing the number of students being suspended from school, but it has not diminished Connecticut’s racial disparity in use of the disciplinary technique. (See suspension rates by district here and here. )

“There are all kinds of alarms going off in my mind right now,” said Theresa Hopkins-Staten, the vice chairwoman of the state education board. “It is happening at unacceptable rates.” 

Pryor said the department will spend the summer finalizing its research and deciding what next steps to take to address this issue.

“Clearly a lot of kids are being suspended that we need to pay attention to,” said Ajit Gopalakrishnan of the state department of education.

Read the department’s full suspension report here.