The Washington Post

Charters quick to suspend, expel, council told

Public charter school officials pushed rarely seen suspension and expulsion data into public view at Friday’s D.C. Council oversight hearing, some of it astonishing if accurate--and some school leaders contend that it is not.

Perhaps the most alarming stat comes from Friendship Collegiate Academy-Woodson, the Ward 7 high school, which expelled eight percent (102 of 1,231) of its students in 2010-11, according to numbers compiled by the D.C. Public Charter School Board.

“How do you expel eight percent of your total population?” asked an incredulous Council Chairman Kwame Brown, who requested the data from the board. At Tech Prep, a Friendship middle school in Ward 8, 35 percent of the student body (35 of 100) was suspended for ten days or more in 2009-10, officials reported.

No one from Friendship, which educates 8,000 District students on 7 campuses (including Anacostia High School), was around to respond. Friendship chairman Donald Hense said in an e-mail that he was traveling but that there would be some comment soon.

The discipline numbers are kind of a muddle. Figures reported to the charter board often conflict with those collected internally by the schools, according to the spreadsheet supplied to the council. Friendship Collegiate, for example, claims only 67 expulsions (5.4 percent) in 2010-11.

We’re still getting comfortable with the data,” said charter board executive director Scott Pearson, a benign way of saying that the exact figures are still in doubt.

While the numbers are in dispute, they will likely stimulate more debate about whether charter schools — which are free to frame their own disciplinary policies-- “dump” challenging kids who then wind up in DCPS. The board also reported to the Council Friday that charters shed 1,223 students between Oct. 5, 2010 and May 1 2011, about four percent of total enrollment during that period.

Pearson said that about a third moved to DCPS and a third left the city. Poor coding of data, he said, has so far made it impossible to determine what happened to the other third. Pearson added that it’s not clear that all 400 left because of academic or discipline problems.

He also said his staff was still working identifying the specific schools where attrition occurred, but that it was likely concentrated in lower-ranked schools. But he said the numbers don’t support the notion that charters push students out in large groups after the Oct. 5 enrollment count. The attrition is steady across the academic year, Pearson said.

Other data suggests that charters are pretty quick to lower the disciplinary hammer on their smallest students. Officials reported 434 “suspension incidences” at the Pre-K (76) Kindergarten (112) and first grade (246) at public charter schools in 2010-11

“Incidences” means the total includes kids who drew multiple suspensions for offenses that included biting and hitting teachers and classmates. Some other suspensions were in response to chronic tardiness, officials said.

Even allowing for multiple offenders, Brown said the situation was alarming. :"That’s an incredible set of numbers,” he said.

Pearson, on the job for all of five weeks, didn’t have much of an explanation.

“I share your concern,” he said.

The statistics dovetail with reporting by my colleague Donna St. George, whose story last Sunday described suspensions of kindergartners in school systems across the region. Comparisons between charters and DCPS are problematic because the charter data may contain duplications. But for what it’s worth, DCPS suspended 192 small children in 2010-11: in preschool (5), preK (16) Kindergarten (21) and first grade (121).

Unlike traditional public schools, charters enjoy broad latitude when it comes to instructional methods and internal policies covering matters such as discipline. But Pearson said the charter laws give the board more than enough power to intervene, and that he intended to investigate. Still, he said he did not anticipate setting citywide guidelines.

“I don’t think this problem has to be solved by creating a uniform discipline policy,” he said.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.


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