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D.C. charter schools expel students at far higher rates than traditional public schools

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The District’s public charter schools have expelled students at a far higher rate than the city’s traditional public schools in recent years, according to school data, highlighting a key difference between two sectors that compete for the District’s students and taxpayer dollars.

D.C. charter schools expelled 676 students in the past three years, while the city’s traditional public schools expelled 24, according to a Washington Post review of school data. During the 2011-12 school year, when charters enrolled 41 percent of the city’s students, they removed 227 children for discipline violations and had an expulsion rate of 72 per 10,000 students; the District school system removed three and had an expulsion rate of less than 1 per 10,000 students.

The discrepancy underscores the freedom that charters — publicly funded schools that operate independently of the traditional school system — have from school system policies. That autonomy defines the charter movement and gives its schools considerable latitude to decide what student behavior they will — and won’t — tolerate.

Parents and activists say some charters expel excessively and with little oversight, shedding disruptive students who then end up enrolling mid-year in the traditional school system, which is legally bound to take them.

The D.C. school system can compel students to transfer from one school to another. But unlike charters, the school system cannot truly expel anyone because of its mandate to serve all students. “Expelled” students are sent to an alternative middle school or high school for one year. The school system does not expel elementary students, officials said.

Many charter schools — 60 out of 97 campuses — did not expel students in 2011-12. That same school year, seven expelled at least 10 students.

YouthBuild, a school that targets high school dropouts and students older than 16, expelled 30 that year, nearly one-third of its enrollment. Friendship’s Collegiate Academy expelled 56 students, or 5 percent of its student body.

Charter advocates deny that the schools are trying to push out challenging students. They point out that D.C. charters enroll a higher proportion of poor children than the traditional public schools and that poor children often come to class with greater needs than their middle-class peers. Charters are open to all students across the city, with admission by lottery if there is more demand than space available.

“My goal is zero” expulsions, said Shawn Hardnett, an administrator for Friendship Public Charter School, which last year expelled 70 students across its six campuses, which are located in some of the city’s neediest neighborhoods.

“At the same time, I have to be reasonable and wise about the fact that there are kids who are coming to our schools with behaviors that are very simply unacceptable and unsafe,” Hardnett said.

The District’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education in August proposed rules that would govern discipline policies at all public schools, including charters. They called for minimizing suspension and expulsion of children 13 and younger and outlined due process rights for students. Charter leaders mounted a vigorous opposition, saying the federal law that established D.C. charters frees them from such local mandates.

City officials are now reviewing the proposed rules and may revise them.

The school system adopted a discipline code in 2009 that allows for expulsion only when a student brings a gun or drugs to school, commits arson, attacks a fellow student or staff member, or does something similarly egregious and illegal.

Leaders of charter schools with high expulsion rates argue that they remove students only when necessary, to keep their buildings safe and their classrooms conducive to learning.

Some charter schools have policies that differ little from the school system’s; others have “zero tolerance” policies that allow expulsion for nonviolent offenses, such as skipping class, or for repeated minor infractions, such as violating dress codes.

The discipline debate is part of a larger discussion about the rise of charter schools in Washington and across the country.

Charter advocates see a movement that — without the rules and red tape that bog down traditional schools — has attracted parents in droves and lifted achievement in some of the most stubbornly poor and disadvantaged corners of America.

“These high-performing charter schools . . . are going to dramatically increase the number of minority students on our elite college campuses and in higher education as a whole,” said Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a pro-charter think tank in Washington. “We should not have a policy that says that schools’ hands are tied if they have kids who are disrupting the learning environment, that there’s nothing they can do about it.”

Critics see schools that don’t have the same legal obligation as the traditional school system to serve all students.

Charter schools can write and enforce discipline policies that make it possible to remove students who are needy or challenging, said Suzanne Greenfield of Advocates for Justice and Education, an organization that offers free legal assistance to students facing expulsion.

And, under current city rules, schools that expel students after Oct. 5 — the city’s official school census date — get to keep the thousands of dollars in funding they receive for each student.

“It’s saying, if we decide your behavior is inappropriate for our school, we don’t have to take you anymore,” Greenfield said. “If you’re taking taxpayer money, why should you be able to do that? That’s the part that seems fundamentally skewed.”

Long-term suspensions

Greenfield said the D.C. school system is far from perfect and too often relies on suspensions, including long-term suspensions of up to 90 days, to deal with bad behavior.

The city’s traditional public schools use long-term suspensions more often than charter schools, imposing nearly twice as many in the past academic year, according to school data. That year, 2011-12, 601 students were suspended from traditional schools for more than 10 days as punishment for a single incident; 327 charter school students received similarly long suspensions.

But unlike expulsion, suspension does not allow a school to give up responsibility for a difficult child, Greenfield said.

She pointed to the case of a homeless 6-year-old her organization represents. He attended three D.C. public schools in preschool and kindergarten before enrolling this academic year in first grade at a KIPP DC elementary campus, part of one of the highest-performing charter organizations in the city. He was expelled in September.

(Donald E. Graham, chief executive of the Washington Post Co., is a member of KIPP DC’s board of trustees.)

School records show that the boy was suspended for a day after throwing a kicking-and-hitting tantrum. His mother met with school staff members to devise a behavior-management plan for the child.

A few days after returning to school, he ran into trouble again— curling up on the floor, wetting himself accidentally and throwing another tantrum. Records show that the episode began in a classroom, where he scratched a child, and ended hours later in the principal’s office, where he threw objects, punched, spit and screamed.

Over the summer, the child had been found to have an adjustment disorder related to the stress and instability of living in poverty, his mother said in interviews with The Post, a diagnosis she divulged to school officials after the second tantrum. The Post is not identifying the family to protect the young boy.

“Our appeal to them was to basically not make this another school’s problem, and get the student some help within this system,” said the family’s attorney, Timothy Riveria of Advocates for Justice and Education.

The principal expelled the boy, and a panel of KIPP DC administrators upheld that recommendation, according to school records. The boy then enrolled at Payne Elementary in Southeast, the school closest to the homeless shelter where he lived. He attended that school until the family moved to Florida in late November.

KIPP DC’s chief executive, Susan Schaeffler, declined to comment on the case because of privacy concerns. She said it is extremely rare for the charter network to expel an elementary-school child, with an elementary expulsion rate last year of one-tenth of one percent.

“When expulsions occur, it’s safe to assume that’s a serious incident that we had to take action on because it was endangering the lives of other students or the student themselves,” Schaeffler said. “The parents are expecting us to do that, and that’s what we need to do.”

Kenya King, a parent of four current KIPP DC students and one alumna, now at Penn State University, agreed. “As a parent, when I send my children to school, when I walk off and I wave goodbye and I hug them and I look back at them, I want to know that my child is safe,” she said.

KIPP DC College Prep, a high school, expelled 17 students last year — or 5 percent of its enrollment, the second-highest expulsion rate in the city. The school tweaked its discipline policy in response and started meeting weekly with students to discuss behavior and celebrate successes. College Prep has expelled no students so far this year.

It’s not clear how many students expelled from charter schools then enroll in traditional D.C. schools in the middle of the year; school system officials said they could not provide that information. D.C. officials said they track only expulsions that they are required to report to the federal government, which include those due to violence, weapons, alcohol or drugs.

In the 2010-11 school year, the latest year for which that information was available, about one-quarter of charter school expulsions — 68 of 263 — fell into those categories, according to Jeffrey Noel, director of data management for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. The data do not explain why the other 195 students were expelled from charter schools, Noel said, just that the expulsions were for other reasons.

Of the 68 students expelled from charter schools that year for violence, weapons, alcohol or drugs, Noel said nearly half enrolled in a traditional public school, about one-fifth enrolled in a charter school and one-third did not immediately re-enroll in any public school.

Adele Fabrikant, deputy chief in the school system’s office of youth engagement, said it sometimes appears as if the system serves as a safety net for students who can’t make it elsewhere.

“In some ways, it feels like we will always have to have a set of district schools, regardless of how successful charters are, because charters will always expel their students,” Fabrikant said. “There will have to be some network of schools that will serve those students.”

Fabrikant also commented on why the school system does not expel children from elementary schools. “Research has shown that that kind of disciplinary response for children who are that young is actually ineffective,” Fabrikant said. “It doesn’t work to teach students to learn the valuable lessons that they can learn.”

‘Cause for concern’

Altogether, city charter schools expelled students at a rate of nearly 1 out of 140 last year — or more than three times the national average, according to 2006 data, the latest available from the National Center for Education Statistics.

“That for me is a cause for concern,” said Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board.

But Pearson doesn’t think charters need a slew of regulations to change their habits. He hopes sunlight will do the trick: A few weeks after taking the charter board’s helm, Pearson released two years of discipline data. In August, the charter board published an additional year’s worth of numbers.

It already has had a “profound effect,” with charter expulsion rates dropping 25 to 30 percent so far this school year, Pearson said.

Schools are “taking a new look at their discipline procedures, and in many cases have modified their discipline procedures significantly to reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions,” he said.

Pearson said he doesn’t think charters should aim to match the D.C. school system’s expulsion rate, which is significantly lower than the national average.

Such a low rate implies a philosophy, Pearson said, “that there is essentially no behavior that is so egregious, so disruptive to the school environment that it shouldn’t be handled through expulsion.”

Increased restraint

The District’s traditional school system has tightened its use of expulsion in recent years as concern has grown across the country that pushing children out of school too often pushes them into the criminal justice system.

A principal seeking to expel a student or suspend the student for more than 10 days has to convince an administrative law judge that due process rights have been observed and that the expulsion is warranted. If unconvinced, a judge can throw the case out altogether or recommend a reduced punishment.

The District’s expulsion numbers do not take into account students who are not expelled but who are compelled to change schools for other reasons. They include students who fail to meet the academic standards of selective high schools or who return to neighborhood schools because of excessive attendance problems at out-of-boundary schools. School system officials said they don’t track such transfers.

The school system’s numbers also do not include “involuntary transfers” prompted by safety concerns such as fighting. Like expulsions, involuntary transfer cases are heard by an administrative judge. The school system said involuntary transfers are not tracked at the elementary level and were not tracked centrally at the secondary level until this year; there have been 12 so far this school year.

Charter school leaders said they don’t have the same ability to transfer students to another school or an alternative setting, which might be one reason for their elevated expulsion rates.

Ramona Edelin, executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools, said charter leaders should consider working together to establish an alternative school for students who have been expelled from charters.

Students could “continue to be worked with, be cared for by professionals who understand their needs and can help manage the issues that they’re dealing with,” Edelin said. “I would be an advocate for such an alternative setting.”

It’s impossible to know the total number of students who end up leaving charter schools in midyear because of disciplinary issues.Official expulsion figures do not tell the whole story, according to parents, activists and former teachers, because they don’t include students who are offered the chance to withdraw before they are officially expelled.

Elsie Mayo, now 18, underwent expulsion proceedings from Thurgood Marshall Academy, a high-performing charter high school in Southeast, in December 2011.

The school had put Mayo on disciplinary probation for going to school intoxicated, according to school records obtained from the family’s attorney. Then she talked back to a teacher and set off a false fire alarm. After a discipline hearing, it was recommended that she be expelled, records show.

Her mother, Marsha Mayo, said she fought the expulsion to no avail. When officials offered her the option of withdrawing her daughter, she jumped at the chance. It was the middle of Elsie’s senior year, and expulsion would have affected her chances of winning scholarships and being admitted to good universities.

Elsie finished the year at Anacostia High School and secured $70,000 in scholarships, her mother said. She is now a student at Simmons College in Boston, where she’s studying math and computer science.

Thurgood Marshall officials declined to comment on Elsie’s case because of privacy concerns, but the school’s data show no expulsions for the 2011-12 year.

Pearson said charter leaders recognize that midyear withdrawals are a concern and need more examination.

“I would consider that sort of the next frontier of our efforts,” Pearson said. “It’s definitely something that happens, and it’s something that we need to understand.”

© The Washington Post Company