I have a couple of thoughts on the recent controversy about Success Academies enrollment, suspension, and discipline policies and the larger debate it’s kicked off that it’s ok that some charter schools (or any school) are not the right fit for all kids.
The larger debate about whether an individual school is the best fit for all students ignores the reality that in many states, including Pennsylvania, charter schools have a legal (and I’d argue ethical) obligation to provide a support/program/school that is best for each student…even if that is not what the school typically provides. Arguing that it is not your mission or “it’s not what we do” doesn’t matter one bit – it’s your job. See the footnote below for more on this.
I’ve written pretty extensively about my belief that my goal at KIPP Philadelphia Elementary Academy is that we must work hard to meet the needs of all kids who are lucky enough to get a spot through our open lottery. We have an obligation to serve a student body that is representative of the neighborhoods where we work, that we must keep our students, and we must serve them well. We have almost 90% of our families qualifying for free/reduced lunch and about 25% of students having an IEP, with that number including students with Autism, Down’s Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, severe emotional needs, auditory/visual challenges, and intellectual disabilities.
It pains me when I see others in the broader movement for education reform and excellence seemingly not operating from the same mindset or even straight up arguing that charters don’t need to work hard to meet the needs of all kids. It especially pains me when we’re talking about kids in elementary school where because of age, size, and developmental reasons, it’s frankly easier to do this than working with older students. At the same time, it is important to recognize that kids as early as kindergarten can present real and significant challenges that can be dangerous to other students and really impact the education of others. Don’t fool yourself and think otherwise.
But what I’m not hearing in the debate that is playing out right now is that there are so many options for what schools (of any type) can be and should be doing when students are struggling. The debate does not need to simply be tolerating unsafe schools vs. kicking out “hard” kids. A good school can serve all students and have safe, productive learning environment if that is your goal – but you have to try and you have to commit the resources, including money, to doing it. I don’t know what Success Academy did or didn’t do to support students in the examples in the Times, but here is how this plays out at KPEA. We try to do the following:
- Build strong, trust-based relationships with families starting during the enrollment process through home visits, Open Houses, positive phone calls, Saturday School, etc.
- Create a student culture approach based on teaching students common expectations and values without a punitive discipline system
- Hire teachers and staff who are talented, mission-aligned, and culturally competent.
- Even more than that, you need a staff who understands that there will be challenges and hard times working with students with real needs. Staff members need to have that magical combination of patience, understanding, and urgency to figure out what will work for a student. It’s not easy!
- Align all adults in the building that student compliance is never our only goal and that we give our kids freedom knowing they will sometimes make mistakes.
- Understand that student success will look different for each kid and that’s ok. We need to do what’s best for each individual student and that sometimes looks very different.
- Make sure teachers are trained in problem solving approaches so they have the skills to work with students and families to make a plan for what a student needs to be successful
- Because we know we will have students with a variety of needs, we need to staff our schools that way. In kinder and 1st grade, each of our classrooms has two full-time teachers. Each grade has a special education teacher; we have a social worker, 1.5 speech therapists, and an occupational therapist. We have a Dean of Students and a behavior specialist who work proactively to support students who have behavior interventions.
- Sometimes it makes sense to change a student’s seat, carpet spot, or even their homeroom for one reason or another.
- The teachers for each homeroom meet every 3 weeks with the social worker, assistant principal, speech therapists and any other adults involved with support students in that room to talk for 50 minutes about students in need of extra support, whether it is academic, emotional, social, etc. We check up on plans already in place and create new ones as needed.
- Because we know occupational therapy (OT) needs often impact attention and focus, we provide students with OT tools like inflatable seat cushions, weighted stuffed animals to hold, and safe items for students to chew, all to meet their sensory needs.
- In a similar way, students with language needs may have trouble expressing their frustrations and feelings, leading to tantrums and outbursts. Our speech therapists work with students on their expressive language so they can communicate not only academically but about their feelings.
- We work collaboratively with any outside agencies providing support to students and families so that the support we provide in school matches. Our social worker is an expert at supporting families so they can successfully access these services.
- When kids are struggling, we work with families to figure out what is possibly behind the behavior and think about what we all can do better. This could be phone calls, in person meetings, or sometimes going out to the family’s home if that is easier. The conversation is always framed from the perspective of, “What can we all do differently so that the student is more successful tomorrow, next week, and next month?”
- This sometimes looks like kids getting very different kind of plans. Students may earn special rewards, have adjusted schedules with more breaks, start their day with a trusted staff member, etc. We have students who do yoga every morning when they arrive, others who get a dance break every day at mid-morning, and others who have a special hand signal to privately tell their teacher when they are getting frustrated. Key idea is we need to plan for each student as an individual.
- When kids need even more support – give it to them. This can look like 1-1 reading groups, more frequent work with our social worker, or having one of our student culture/behavior staff members support the student 1-1 during certain parts of the day.
- Sometimes this means clearly laying out consequences for students. When we do call mom? When does a student lose a privilege? What has to happen for the student to leave the classroom? But we always operate from the standpoint that consequences are not by themselves going to lead to long-term success for students.
- If this isn’t enough for a student to be successful, we work with families to make sure they are accessing any services they can (when relevant) and means we may hire (at our expense) additional behavior support staff hours to provide 1-1 support if needed.
- During our six year, we had one student whose family agreed that it would make sense for a temporary change of placement to a more specialized program for students with emotional needs. Since we are our own LEA, we worked with the family to find the best program for their child, paid for this expense, and worked with the program staff to make sure everyone was on board with supports she was getting, and then successfully transitioned the student back to KPEA, where she is doing wonderfully this year.
What we don’t do is expel, counsel out, or suspend students to “push” them out. We also never tell families that we can’t meet their needs or that another school would be a better “fit”. Every year, our student attrition rate is below 3%, our suspension rate was 2%, and we’ve never expelled or counseled a student out.
This work is hard and it depends on an amazingly dedicated staff working in concert. In real life we don’t always feel successful with every kid each day at KPEA, but that doesn’t mean we give up on kids or accept kids not learning. It means we figure out what is working, what’s not, and work as a team to try something different. That’s our job and it’s our mission.
Final footnote - I’d love to read more reporting about how New York state charter law works with regards to serving students who may need additional supports. I especially have not read anything about how NY charter school LEA (Local Education Authority) status impacts the decisions Success Academy makes. This varies by state, but In general, if a charter school is its own LEA, then the charter school has the legal obligation to serve every student who enrolls. This may mean providing extra services inside the school or potential finding a specialized program for a student, with the charter school paying for this program. In short, if a charter school is its own LEA, it’s analogous to being a school district and you can’t “pass off” a student to another entity. If a charter school is part of a larger LEA, normally the school district the charter school is physically part of, then the LEA may have final responsibility to find and pay for specialized programs. In this case, a charter school would legally be allowed to refer a student to a more specialized program without paying for the program or having further responsibility for that student’s education. Like I wrote above, these legal issues are important because different schools in different states have different legal (but maybe not ethical) responsibilities.