(Update: Eva Moskowitz responds, taking issue with Merrow report)
Most of the 3 million or so students who get out-of-school suspensions are in high school. But increasingly kids in preschool and kindergarten are getting sent home as punishment, and for reasons that you might not expect.
In this PBS NewsHour video, John Merrow reports about suspensions in the Success charter school network in New York City, which began in 2006 with one school and now has 34, most of them elementary. The Success network is a prime example of the “no excuses” model of schooling, which essentially means that teachers are responsible for student achievement and that there are no excuses — not hunger or sickness or violent home lives — for students not doing well. Joan Goodman, a professor in the Graduate School of Education University of Pennsylvania and director of the school’s Teach For America program, recently described them this way:
“These schools start with the belief that there’s no reason for the large academic gaps that exist between poor minority students and more privileged children. They argue that if we just used better methods, demanded more, had higher expectations, enforced these higher expectations through very rigorous and uniform teaching methods and a very uniform and scripted curriculum geared to being successful on high-stakes tests, we can minimize or even eradicate these large gaps, high rates of drop outs and the academic failures of these children. To reach these objectives, these schools have developed very elaborate behavioral regimes that they insist all children follow, starting in kindergarten. Submission, obedience, and self-control are very large values. They want kids to submit. You can’t really do this kind of instruction if you don’t have very submissive children who are capable of high levels of inhibition and do whatever they’re told.”
That provides background for Merrow’s video on the Success Academy Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, which is housed in the same building as P.S. 138 in Brooklyn, a traditional public school that doesn’t suspend its students. The contrast in philosophy is striking.
At Success Academy Prospect Heights, students are required to avoid committing any one of 65 infractions that take six pages to explain. The code of conduct, Merrow says, labels as infractions everything from “bullying and gambling to littering and failing to be in a ready-for-success position.” Getting out of a seat without permission or calling out an answer are infractions as well, and it doesn’t take many to get suspended.
Merrow said that at Success Academy Prospect Heights, which enrolled 203 kindergartners and first graders last year, Principal Monica Komery issued 44 suspensions — all to 11 students. One child, Merrow said, was suspended 12 times before his family withdrew him. Komery was quoted as saying: “We do have a zero-tolerance policy around certain behaviors but I don’t suspend children as a first course of action. It’s well thought out.”
In another Success school, 101 suspensions last year went to 32 students. The Success network’s suspension rate is three times higher the New York City’s public schools, Merrow reported.
Merrow interviewed Eva Moskowitz, the founder and director of the Success academy, who defended using out-of-school suspension as an appropriate disciplinary response to misbehavior. She told Merrow: “If you get it right in the early years, you actually have to suspend far less when the kids are older, because they understand what is expected of them.”
She said that students who use sexually explicit language can be suspended on the first offense. Shouting out an answer once is considered a Level 1 offense, but doing it again is a Level 2 offense — as is getting out of a seat without permission — which could lead to a suspension. When Merrow asked Moskowitz to explain why this could be grounds for suspension, she said:
“It could be but it’s not. … I mean, that’s not the context. A disciplinary code is written to give maximum freedom. And we believe it’s preparing children for life.”
Still, critics of Moskowitz and her charter network — including parents and at least one former employee — say that the school uses suspensions to drive out students who may be considered difficult and/or who might perform low on standardized tests, dragging down the school and network’s test averages. Moskowitz denied it, saying that Success schools don’t suspend students to boost their academic records. “That’s just crazy talk,” she said. Merrow noted, however, that of 100 new students every year, at least 10 leave, most in the first few months.
Merrow also visited P.S. 138 in Brooklyn, a traditional public school where Principal Marie Chauvet-Monchik explained why she doesn’t believe in out-of-school suspensions for young children:
” When you send a child home, the child is missing instruction. So I’m actually robbing the child of an education if I suspend the child.”
Eva Moskowitz issued a response to the Merrow report, saying that it was inaccurate and asking for an apology. Her response includes a letter she wrote to Judy Woodruff, the host of the show on which the Merrow report was aired, which says in part:
Dear Ms. Woodruff,
I write concerning John Merrow’s recent PBS NewsHour report about Success Academies’ suspension policy. It was both factually inaccurate and the product of dishonest and unethical journalism. We demand a correction and an apology.
We allowed Mr. Merrow and his team to spend many hours videotaping our school as well as interviewing me on camera. We answered every question he had. However, towards the end of this process, it came to our attention that he intended to cover the allegations of a parent whom we knew to be unreliable, but he refused to give us any opportunity to address those allegations….
Her response continues, with letters back and forth to and from Merrow and some discussion of the behavior of a student in the video. You can read the entire Moskowitz response here.
The transcript of the video:
Judy Woodruff: With more than three million students suspended from public schools each year, President Obama and the federal Department of Education want schools to find alternatives to sending kids home.
Studies show that students who are suspended are more likely to be held back a grade, to drop out of school, or end up in trouble with the law. Most suspended students are in high school or, less often, middle school.
But in some schools, children as young as 5 or 6 are being disciplined this way.
NewsHour special correspondent for education John Merrow looks at high-profile charter schools network in New York City.
John Merrow [talking to students at P.S. 138 in Brooklyn]: If you have ever been sent home from school, what they call suspended, if that ever happened to you, raise your hand. No hands at all.
Do you use out-of-school suspension for kindergartners and first graders?
Marie Chauvet-Monchik, Principal, PS-138 Brooklyn: No, I can’t. I can’t see it. I don’t see the benefit of it.
When you send a child home, the child is missing instruction. So, I’m actually robbing the child of an education if I suspend the child.
John Merrow: This is PS-138, a public school in Brooklyn, New York. It reports zero suspensions in kindergarten and first grade. But at the public charter school in the same building, things are different.
Success Academy Educator: So, here at Success Academy, we do have a very structured environment, and we do have very high academic and behavioral expectations for our scholars. And we do suspend children.
John Merrow: Quite a few. Last year, principal Monica Komery issued 44 out-of-school suspensions to her 203 kindergartners and first graders. Her school is part of Success Academies, the largest charter network in New York City. Like all charter schools, they’re publicly funded, but privately run.
The network’s founder and CEO, Eva Moskowitz, believes behavior sets the stage for learning.
Eva Moskowitz, CEO, Success Academy Charter Schools: If you get it right in the early years, you actually have to suspend far less when the kids are older, because they understand what is expected of them.
John Merrow: Moskowitz opened her first Success Academy in 2006. Since then, the network has grown to 34 schools, nearly all of them elementary. They emphasize science and the arts and are wildly popular among parents, with 10 applicants for every seat.
Parent Lucrishah St. Clair: I was ecstatic when we got into Success Academy. Great school, I tell all my friends and family, if you can, do it.
John Merrow: And what else do they find appealing?
Lucrishah St. Clair: For us, the learning, to me, and the discipline as well.
Success Academy Educator: We do have a zero-tolerance policy around certain behaviors. But I don’t just suspend children as the first course of action. It’s well-thought-out. It’s a process, and there are systems in place.
John Merrow: The code of conduct runs six pages and identifies 65 infractions, from bullying and gambling to littering and failing to be in a ready-to-succeed position.
Former Success Academy student Jamir Geidi told me about some of the other rules.
Jamir Geidi, Former student, Success Academy Upper West: I would always have to keep my shirt tucked in. And let’s say I wasn’t wearing black shoes, and I was wearing red shoes. Then that would be an infraction.
John Merrow: These infractions, if repeated, could trigger an out-of-school suspension, at the discretion of the principal. By contrast, principals at traditional public schools have to have district approval before suspending any K-through-third-grade student.
Suspension rates at Success Academies are almost three times higher than the city’s K-12 public schools, even though 70 percent of Success Academies are elementary schools.
What does a 5-year-old do that warrants an out-of-school suspension of one day or multiple days?
Eva Moskowitz: Well, using sexually explicit language. It’s very upsetting.
JOHN MERROW: First time?
Eva Moskowitz: First time, yes.
JOHN MERROW: But your code of conduct calls for out-of-school suspension for a lot of other things, not just sexually — I mean, for example, calling out the right answer twice without being called on.
Eva Moskowitz: That’s not…
John Merrow: The first time you do it is at level one infraction. The second time is a level two. And one consequence of level two is out-of-school suspension. Or getting out of your seat without permission…
Eva Moskowitz: Yes.
John Merrow: … is a level two, which could be out-of-school, or even having …
Eva Moskowitz: But it — it could be, but it’s not.
John Merrow: I’m sorry?
Eva Moskowitz: We haven’t.
John Merrow: It’s there, but you don’t — you haven’t done it?
Eva Moskowitz: I mean, that’s not the context. A disciplinary code is written to give maximum freedom. And we believe it’s preparing children for life.
John Merrow: Success Academies are obviously doing something right. Last year, 93 percent of Success Academy students passed the state’s math test, compared to just 35 percent in the city’s traditional public schools.
Could out-of-school suspensions be a factor in the network’s academic success? Eva Moskowitz’s critics think so. They accuse her of suspending very young children over and over to persuade parents to change schools before state testing begins in third grade. Could that be true? We do know that some Success Academy students are suspended over and over.
The 44 suspensions at this school were issued to just 11 kindergartners and first graders. One child was suspended 12 times. Eventually, the family withdrew the child. At another Success Academy, 101 suspensions went to just 32 students.
Jamir Geidi: I was suspended so many times, it was just like — it was just — it was like, why do I even come here every day if I just know that I’m going to get suspended?
John Merrow: Jamir’s mother told us he was suspended three or four times his first year for losing his temper. She said she was also called two or three times a week to pick him up early.
Other parents told us their young children were sent home multiple times for infractions like not paying attention or for getting out of their seats to look at the bulletin board.
Why do we hear so many stories, and why do we keep meeting these parents who say, early on, we were counseled out; our kid was, like, sent home because he would get up and go look at the bulletin board, a 5-year-old?
Eva Moskowitz: First of all, anecdotes don’t make for statistical trends.
But, in my experience, you know, parents often have a different interpretation of what happened. I often have parents say to me, my child never punched the teacher. I say, well, but you weren’t there.
John Merrow: Jamir’s mother withdrew him from Success Academy after two-and-a-half years. Now 10, he just began his third year at a public school that approaches discipline differently.
FATIMA GEIDI, Parent: Yes, Jamir has had meltdowns. Yes, he has anxiety. Yes, he’s cried. Yes, he’s had outbursts. But guess what? The school says, fine, you need a break. You’re going to go help one of the secretaries in the office. You are going to shred paper. You are going to go water the plants. You are going to do something helpful. When you are ready, you will come back. And guess what? He is getting his education.
John Merrow: Do you ever use out-of-school suspension as a way to persuade parents that…
Eva Moskowitz: No. No. We don’t suspend in order to boost our academics. Like, that’s just crazy talk.
John Merrow: But our sources, including several public school principals, quite a few former Success Academy parents, and one person inside her organization, charge that is exactly what she does, repeatedly suspend certain kids to push them out. However, none of these critics were willing to publicly confront Moskowitz.
Eva Moskowitz: Well, the numbers just don’t support that, John. I mean, what you get is what you see, which is suspending kids doesn’t lead to high attrition rate. That is what the data shows.
John Merrow: In fact, the attrition rate is at least twice that of another major charter network, KIPP. A Success Academy representative told thaws for every 100 new students, at least 10 leave before the year’s out, most of them in the first few months. They are then replaced by students chosen from the waiting list.
In the end, how charter schools conduct their business is basically their own business. New York could demand detailed information about out-of-school suspensions, but they allow all charter schools, not just Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies, to set their own rules.