Schools use centralized discipline
By Charles Lussier
Advocate staff writer
October 23, 2012
New Orleans — School autonomy is at the heart of New Orleans’ 7-year-old experiment with public school reform, so it’s a bit surprising how many of these schools are relinquishing some of their independence, especially when it comes to student discipline.
In August, almost every public school in New Orleans started using a centralized expulsion process, no small feat in a city where eight of 10 schools is an independent charter school, the highest concentration of charter schools in the nation.
Just 13 offenses — ranging from safety-threatening acts to sexual assault to bringing a firearm to school — can justify an expulsion. And every one of these recommended expulsions is adjudicated by a hearing officer employed by the state-run Recovery School District; the charter schools pay $5 for every child expelled.
Very few students have gone through the new process during the first weeks of the 2012-13 school year.
As of Thursday, RSD reported expelling only 23 children. Because the system was so decentralized before, no one appears to know how many students were expelled in New Orleans at the same time a year ago.
Damekia Morgan, statewide educational policy director for the advocacy group Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, said the expulsion process is a long-needed improvement, but it’s too early to tell how it’s working. She also said it doesn’t go far enough — all things connected with student discipline should be centralized.
“I feel that’s one thing that charter schools should not have autonomy over,” Morgan said.
Ben Kleban, founder and director of the charter school group New Orleans College Prep, which had more than 800 students last year, said he has had four students participate in RSD expulsion hearings so far and is satisfied with how the process is working.
“I thought it was fair and productive,” Kleban said.
Kleban helped bring about the new expulsion process. He recalled raising the idea of having centralized expulsions about a year ago at an RSD meeting with leaders of other charter management organizations, often referred to as CMOs.
Kleban said while most of the student disciplinary moves that schools make affect just them, expulsions don’t work that way.
“That lack of consistency creates a situation where one school is putting students out of school more than others, and other schools are taking in more of the harder-to-teach kids, and it creates an inequity,” Kleban said.
Adam Hawf, an RSD deputy superintendent who was present at the meeting, was skeptical the idea would fly with the other charter schools, who guard their autonomy closely.
“My initial reaction was, ‘You’ve got to be crazy,’” Hawf said.
But as the discussion developed, other charter schools came on board.
“I was shocked that pretty much from day 1, there was support for the process,” Hawf said.
Over the course of the year, the schools hashed out common rules.
“There were some compromises,” Hawf said. “There were a lot of meetings where we had debates about crazy things.”
The final expulsion list focuses primarily on “things that threaten the safety and wellbeing of people in schools,” Hawf said.
The policy is also notable for what it disallows. For instance, willful disobedience and uniform violations can’t lead to an expulsion.
Another change is that all expelled students are referred to a new alternative school called Crescent Leadership Academy.
The new school is replacing the old Schwarz Alternative School and is being run by Rite of Passage, a Minden, Nev.-based company that runs a range of programs across the country for troubled and at-risk youth.
Crescent City Leadership Academy is not just for expelled students. Some students also go there by choice. Funded in part by a $1 million federal school innovation grant, the new school has class sizes of no more than 10 students to one adult. Children are in grades seven to 12.
Another change is that is that expelled children sent to Crescent take with them the per-pupil funding for every day that child is educated at Crescent. So, if a school year lasts 180 days, and a charter school expels a child after 60 days, Crescent will receive the remaining 120 days worth of per-pupil funding.
Normally, public schools receive funding based on twice a year student enrollment snapshots, taken on Oct. 1 and Feb. 1.
In the end, all of the RSD-overseen schools in New Orleans, including RSD charter schools, are participating in the new expulsion process, which for those schools is now part of state policy. Also joining in voluntarily are schools overseen by the Orleans Parish School Board, in which schools can opt out if they don’t like it. All but one of the independent Type 2 charter schools signed on, too; the only holdout was International High School, Hawf said.
RSD had already been moving toward more centralization. In 2011-12, the district ran a citywide enrollment process. In addition to the new expulsion policy, RSD recently instituted new rules for admissions and re-admissions for students who are expelled, suspended or who transfer from one school to the next.
“We felt that part of our role as government is ensuring the equitable treatment of children,” RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard said.
Dobard said the new expulsion process has gone well, saying he’s heard several good comments and no bad ones about it so far.
“Charter leaders and CMOs, they want to police themselves,” he said. “They want to prevent bad actors. It hurts parents and children, and it hurts the operators themselves.”
Dobard said he is considering more centralization when it comes to the treatment of special education students, transportation, as well as common rules for suspensions.
As far as suspensions, Dobard said he is looking for common definitions of infractions such as willful disobedience, uniform violations and tardiness. He said he’d like new rules in place for the 2013-14 school year.
“What we do have control over and want to help manage are things that allow our schools to work better as a collective, as a system of schools, not as a school system,” Dobard said.
Morgan, with Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, supports closer examination of suspensions as well as other ways schools push children out. The organization documented problems RSD had in its early years with widespread pushouts in a 2010 report called “Pushed Out.”
According to statistics collected by Morgan’s group, suspensions have declined. In 2007-08, 28.8 percent of RSD students were given an out-of-school suspension. By 2011-12, that had declined to 20.5 percent. Louisiana’s rate is 9.6 percent and its in-school suspension rate is 11.6 percent. The national average, out-of-school and in-school combined, is 6.8 percent.
And those numbers don’t count children who are counseled to leave, Morgan said.
“If the school is like, ‘Just don’t come back,’ a centralized expulsion process is not going to stop that,” Morgan said.
The RSD’s potential move into suspensions, though, gives Kleban pause.
“I’m a little more skeptical of how helpful that would be,” he said.
Kleban noted that most school suspension data is unverified and not subject to an audit, so it’s difficult to use it to determine best practices.
“The data we have on suspensions is pretty primitive,” he said.
Kleban also defended suspensions as an occasional, but limited tool.
“We could not establish a quiet, safe environment conducive to learning without relying on suspensions,” Kleban said. “There just has to be a consequence.”