State education board to review Achievement First’s discipline policies

The State Board of Education plans to review the suspension and discipline policies of two charter schools run by Acheivement First — which manages the majority of charters in the state — and decide this month whether to renew the contract for the schools in Hartford.

This follows disclosure that the discipline procedures Achievement First Hartford Academy outlined in the manual for their charter schools — “If in doubt, send them out” — have led to twice the rate of suspension of elementary and middle school students than for students attending traditional public schools. It also follows its Hartford middle school settling a complaint with Greater Hartford Legal Aid that addresses the impact its policies have on students with disabilities and special education needs.

“I imagine [discipline policies] will play a significant role in our decision,” said Allan B. Taylor, chairman of the state education board. Achievement First “really had a high rate [of suspensions]. It is something the board should be, and will be, concerned about.”

The State Department of Education reports that one in two students who attend the middle school in Hartford will be suspended at some point during the year, the highest rate in the state.

Of the 6,500 students enrolled in charter schools across the state, the majority attends one of the nine schools operated by Achievement First in Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven.

Stefan Pryor, the state’s education commissioner, who opened the first Achievement First charter school in the state, said Wednesday that because of his past involvement, he does not comment on situations related to the network.

Dacia Toll, the co-president of Achievement First, said that while each of her schools in the network have individual discipline strategies, it has become apparent that changes are necessary at many of her schools to curb suspensions.

“We believe in high levels of expectations and high levels of support, but what has happened is there are high expectations and uneven levels of support,” she said during an interview. “We admit suspension rates are too high. That’s the bottom line.”

But the Hartford attorney who represents a handful of students affected by the schools’ policies think the problem may be statewide.

“Based on information and belief, the network utilizes a consistent discipline policy, with minor variations across all of its charter schools,” the complaint reads.

“We’ve heard that it’s really an issue,” said Lynn Cochrane, one of the Hartford attorneys.

In New Haven, where hundreds of students attend Achievement First charter schools, a lawyer representing students from low-income families says these discipline issues exist there, too.

“They are very strict,” said Erin Shaffer, an attorney with New Haven Legal Assistance, who has represented some students attending the schools. “I have been told, ‘We can’t change our discipline policy for one student’… I see parents being told the school is not appropriate for their student and hope they withdraw from the school.”

The school system denies this.

“Our schools do not encourage struggling students to leave,” reads a brief by Achievement First on the system’s use of discipline.

After it became clear that the Hartford school would not be changing anytime soon, Cochrane said she was left with no option but to file a complaint with the federal Office of Civil Rights.

“It was an ongoing tango. After waiting a year it just seemed like we weren’t making any headway. We weren’t changing anyone’s mind over there… They wanted their policies to apply to the disabled students the same way,” Cochrane said of the school’s “no excuses” motto.

The filing of the complaint led the Hartford middle school to voluntarily enter into an agreement that lays out steps for the school to change its approach. The federal office will oversee those changes over the next nine months.

Toll said the complaint and state department report putting several Achievement First schools at the top of the list for rates of suspensions was a wake-up call.

“We need to look at alternatives for suspension. If a kid misbehaves they should get more class time, not less class time,” she said. Suspension rates “will be lower a year from now.”

A discipline policy on display

After not completing his homework, Cochrane’s client “B” was disciplined. After putting his head down on his desk in class after he fell behind with no help from the school, he was again disciplined.

The problem, his lawyer said, is that the homework was not modified to accommodate his special education needs, as required by his education plan.

“B grew increasingly anxious and depressed over the difficulty of work at [Achievement First], and the constant fear of earning demerits,” the complaint reads.

This student was subsequently suspended for multiple days and failed every one of his classes during the 2011-12 school year.

The complaint details four other instances of similar “discriminatory practices” involving other students at the middle school.

Achievement First’s discipline policies are based on the use of “demerits” and pulling students out of class into “Isolation” or suspending students from school for nonviolent, non-safety-related issues.

The network’s School Culture Manual reads, “We trust your gut, better to refer than to ignore. If unsure, please refer. If in doubt, send them out.”

The complaint says that once a student is pulled out of class into “isolation,” there is no proof that any instruction is provided. State law significantly limits when school officials are able to suspend students from school, and the lawyers at Greater Hartford Legal Aid think the charter schools rely too heavily on this method of discipline.

In a statement, Jeff House, the principal of the middle school, said, “We recognize that during the founding years of our school we have struggled at times to develop services to best support some of our most challenged students. We have worked to support all of our students, with and without disabilities, in good faith, but nonetheless we recognize that there are times where we have fallen short and students’ academic experience has suffered as a result.”

Part of the agreement the school entered into with the Hartford lawyers includes training staff on educating special needs students and obligations the school has. The school also agreed to better track the use of discipline given to students.

Finding a state solution

Several members of the State Board of Education last week said they were “alarmed” by the rate of suspensions of the state’s youngest students, including kindergarten students. In an attempt to curb unnecessary suspensions, the board decided that discipline policies would be a key factor when determining whether to renew a charter school’s five-year contract.

Aside from Hartford’s charter, which is set to expire before the end of the month, many charters have years before their contract will need to be renewed by the state board. (See renewal calendar).  Achievement First’s schools in Bridgeport and New Haven won’t need to be renewed until 2017.

Toll said she welcomes a more regular review of the network’s suspension rates.

“The department could raise this with us at any time,” she said.

Pryor, the state’s education commissioner, during a board meeting last week when disscussing the issue of suspensions broadly he said he is working to create a sysem to routinely track and detect problems.

“We cannot lose our sense of alarm and our sense of outrage,” he said, adding that a tracking system will be developed over the summer.

Read Achievement First’s contract that is up for renewal (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4)