My friend e-mailed me the flier to ask what I thought.
On the right-hand corner, her 8-year-old son struck a playful pose, singing into a giant plastic microphone. Beside him, the text read: “J----- deserves a second chance?”
The text continued: “I believe in J-----. Please let my friend back into school.”
The idea was to recruit J.’s second-grade classmates to beg the school’s principal to let him finish the last four weeks of school. My friend Nicole (that’s her middle name) had just moved to D.C. from the West Coast, where her son J., a bright Harry Potter fan, went to a private Montessori school.
But he was adjusting horribly to the D.C. charter school. He had meltdowns during morning meetings, got in fights on the playground and tore posters off the wall. “It’s like he’s a different kid,” she tearfully told me earlier in the year, one of the countless times she was summoned to the school in the middle of her workday.
After a particularly bad spell during standardized testing week, J. pushed over a bookcase. The next day at drop-off, the principal told Nicole to keep her son at home for a while, so “he can understand” that his behavior was not appropriate in the classroom.
Nicole was not expecting that conversation that morning. She wasn’t sure if he would be allowed back. What if she withdrew him instead? The principal said that would mean he would have to go to his neighborhood school. The suspension would not go on his record. “I said OK. That’s fine. Let’s do that. The principal said, ‘Are you sure?’ I said yes. ‘Let’s do it.’ ”
It was a hasty decision that she quickly regretted. J.’s neighborhood school in Southeast Washington was bursting at the seams. The guerrilla marketing campaign to get him back into his old school was Plan B. It was a long shot, of course, but many parents like Nicole are forced to make seemingly unthinkable decisions when negotiating with schools once their child is seemingly out of options.
J. was one of 3,481 kids who left a charter school between October 2011 and June 2012, according to a study recently released by the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education. School officials told The Washington Post that they didn’t know where those children went; they might have dropped out, moved to another jurisdiction, entered a private school or started home schooling. D.C. Public Schools, which enrolls 57 percent of public students, saw a similar number of students — 3,697 — leave their schools. But by the end of the year, neighborhood schools saw a net gain of 338 kids while charter schools saw a net loss of 1,947 students.
Another Post analysis showed that D.C. charter schools expel children at a rate of 72 to 1 compared with neighborhood schools. Add in the kids who were nudged ever so carefully out like J., and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that for some charter operators, expulsions are part of the way they do business.
To many, this is the point of choice: Schools need the “freedom” to boot out “bad” children who are messing up the classroom environment for everyone else. And there’s no question that expulsions are the most expedient way to manage classrooms filled with kids from all over the city, each with dramatically different backgrounds, ability levels and educational histories. Hiring counselors and other support staff for high-needs children (which J.’s school did not have) is expensive. Setting up behavior-modification plans takes time. Everyone is under pressure and on the clock to deliver testing results and keep “good” families from fleeing.
While dumping problem students from your books like a subprime loan is effective business management, it’s also a deeply unethical way to operate a system of public education. Any school operator who comes into D.C. should expect for nearly three of every four children walking through their door to live in poverty and for nearly every two in five to be diagnosed with learning or language challenges. You should expect to serve kids who have been bouncing around multiple schools, often coming from unimaginable home circumstances.
If you accept the challenge and run out of ideas, that is not the child’s failure; it’s yours. And when taxpayers pay for these phantom students that stay just long enough to be counted for their per-pupil allotment paid to the school, it amounts to fraud.
Yes, there is a place for expulsion in extreme cases. But what should be the trigger? What should happen before it comes to that? What rights do kids have in a school? Traditional neighborhood schools have an extensive process. But each charter creates its own process. D.C.’s state education office is reviewing new guidelines that apply to all students, public and charter, but charter leaders are vigorously opposing it, claiming that they are exempt under federal law.
But the real cost of having no system of protection for every D.C. student is not just financial, but in wasted human potential. Expulsions put out the fire in that moment, but the long-term prospects for these discarded children are grim. This is how you get to a high school graduation rate of 59 percent — the lowest in the country. It’s also how we set these idle children on the path to prison.
It’s difficult to find advocates for kids with behavioral challenges because it is a minefield of shame and blame. Nicole blames herself for being so absorbed with the move that she couldn’t volunteer at the school as much as she did out west.
But more often, these families lead messy lives. The children are not miniature versions of Rosa Parks; they are just kids, flawed and learning how to navigate a world in which the rules constantly change.
I felt a surge of emotion when Nicole sent me the flier. I suggested another route. A friend of mine got her a counselor who would come to the school pro bono to develop a behavior-modification plan. She wrote e-mails to the school’s board and public charter board. The school’s board did not respond, and the charter board said it could not require the school to readmit her. “I guess I did them a big favor by withdrawing,” Nicole says.
With three weeks of school left, she convinced her father to move to D.C. to home school her son, which she continued for third grade. J. misses his friends and asks, “When are we going to go back to a real school?”
But Nicole is not ready. “I have a huge fear of putting him in a school, a huge disaster zone. I didn’t know if there would be another school that would put him back on the path socially and emotionally.”
“This kid made a mistake. You are going to make mistakes. Mistakes are just as natural as getting it right.”
Natalie Hopkinson is a contributing editor to The RootDC. E-mail her at NHopkinson@hotmail.com and join her and The Root DC for a discussion on Saturday from 1-3 p.m. at THEARC for “Schools and Discipline: Is it working? Is it fair?” 1901 Mississippi Ave, SE, Washington DC.