At Democracy Prep Harlem Middle School, a sixth grade math teacher started her class by giving her students exactly four minutes to solve a problem involving ratios. When her watch beeped, homework was collected and all eyes turned to the front of the room.
"Pencils in the groove and you're tracking me in three, two, one and zero," she said, using a term common among charter schools where students are frequently instructed to "track" a speaker with steady eye contact and full attention.
Almost everything on a recent visit to a Democracy Prep charter was highly disciplined. Students spoke only when their teachers allowed them. They could lose points for talking out of turn, or chatting in the halls between classes.
Democracy Prep is among several charter networks with a "no excuses" philosophy. Like other charter schools the days are long, running from 7:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., and the academics rigorous. But there is also a culture of discipline that can cut both ways. In some schools, and with some families, the tough approach has worked well while for others it has prompted students to leave.
The "no-excuses" culture at Democracy Prep could explain why one of its schools had a high attrition rate, according to data obtained by Schoolbook and WNYC. The data only included the network's oldest middle school, where more than 23 percent of the students left during the 2010-2011 school year. That's higher than most charters, athough some regular district schools in Harlem also have equally high attrition.
"No excuses means that there’s no excuse for our kids not being successful in the college of their choice and a life of active citizenship," said Seth Andrew, founder and Superintendent of Democracy Prep, which runs five charters in Harlem.
Tough Promotion Standards
Verkechia Johnson was one parent who took her son out of a Democracy Prep middle school. She transferred him to a district middle school so that he did not have to repeat seventh grade which he would have done at the charter despite passing his state math and English exams. Democracy Prep requires students to get a 70 average in their classes, instead of the typical 65. Johnson’s son fell a few points short.
"Not only did he pass his state exams with double 3’s, but the work - he knows the work, he knew what he was doing," she said.
She also called the school's various rules "petty."
Like other charters, and some district schools, Democracy Prep has a point system linked to student behavior and classwork. Students, or "scholars" as they're called, can cash in their points for rewards and field trips. And they can lose points for infractions or get sent to detention.
Parent Tonia Bean said these rules created a respectful learning environment. Her 16 year-old daughter, Jennifer, needs special services for a reading disability and Bean credits Democracy Prep for her progress.
"You have to commit to this," she said. "There's a goal, it’s set for you and if you want it that’s great but other people choose not to because it’s their choice."
Eighteen year-old Kevin Salgado agreed. He's repeating his sophomore year but he's not discouraged. "Like, they won’t give up on you," he said.
Democracy Prep founder Seth Andrew acknowledged his tough standards drove some families away.
"The biggest percentage of attrition that we have at Democracy Prep by far, if you put it into categories, is families who say ‘I can be promoted down the block at a regular district school and you’re going to hold me back a year.’"
But he blamed the district schools for setting the bar too low. "We could just promote kids based on whether they have the mastery or not and just count seat time," he said. "Or we can say we’re going to hold the bar high, we’re going to give parents a choice, and we’re going to change the framework for parents in our community about what promotion means, what mastery means."
Robin Hood in Reverse?
Raising standards may sound like a fine goal but critics say charters, which are publicly funded but privately managed, have a negative impact on the rest of the public school system.
"It’s a kind of a Robin Hood in reverse," said Leo Casey, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank run by American Federation of Teachers.
"The students which require the most attention, the students that are the ones that start out with huge deficits in terms of their academic performance, they get sent out of the charter schools and then where else do they go but to the neighborhood district schools?" he said.
Several principals at district schools told Schoolbook the students who transferred from charters tend to be low-performing. We weren’t given enough data to see if those claims are true; the city cited privacy reasons.
New York City has several demanding charter networks including KIPP, the Success Academies, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First and Harlem Village Academies. The teachers' union cited statistics showing some charters had high suspension rates. And a few didn’t replace kids who left, leading to what the critics consider an academic survival of the fittest.
Attrition rates varied widely among the charters as do school environments. The Icahn network in the Bronx emphasizes small class sizes and opposes some of the rules found at other charters. Namely, superintendent Jeff Litt said he tries to avoid holding students back a grade. Instead, he promotes those who are almost ready and then makes them repeat their weakest subject before or after school, or on Saturdays.
"If a child is held over, they lose a year of their life forever," he said. "They can never regain that year."
A Charter with Low Attrition
Another charter network with a demanding "no-excuses" culture, KIPP, said it prides itself on keeping struggling students enrolled.
KIPP has nine schools in New York City. The city calculated attrition rates for a few of the older schools that had enough data and found they averaged about 5 or 6 percent, which is lower than average for district and charter schools. The KIPP network has been around for almost 20 years. It used to get criticized for being too harsh. But it's since softened its approach.
At the KIPP Infinity middle school in Harlem, a teacher recently led a fifth grade math class in a song about geometry. "Triangles have three sides, quadrilaterals have four," they chanted in boisterous voices.
There were 44 students packed into long rows that fill the classroom. It was more crowded than other grades because about 10 percent of the kids at KIPP Infinity have to repeat fifth grade.
Fourteen year-old Carlos Pineda knows what that’s like. He landed at KIPP after being expelled from several other schools. But he’s now in 8th grade and looking forward to high school. When asked why he stayed, he mentioned a teacher.
"She used to come to my house whenever I didn’t do my homework and sometimes even stay 'til 10 to make sure I finished it," he said, in a quiet voice. "That felt like I really did have somebody by my side."
He recalled being suspended and going to a public library each day where the school sent a tutor to meet with him. His mother, Maria, cried when she described the school as a "miracle" for both of her boys.
On the surface, KIPP shares many of the same rules as other demanding charters. Its school day is nine and a half hours. Kids gain or lose points that can be spent on rewards like field trips. And there are signs saying "No Excuses." But Josh Zoia, superintendent of the nine KIPP schools in New York City, said that phrase also applies to his staff, not just students.
"I’ve gone to kids' houses in morning, honestly," he said. "Sometimes we’ll have the advisor call a kid in morning at the right time. That’s what no excuses means, we’re going to do everything we can to help you."
A new national study looked at whether students who transfer out of KIPP schools are lower performing than those who stay. Mathematica Policy Research in Washington, D.C. found those who left were low performing. But the report's co-writer, Christina Clark Tuttle, said this didn’t give KIPP's charters an extra advantage.
"That’s also the same as any other schools that we looked at, including traditional public schools, other district schools," she explained. "The kids who end up leaving before we would expect to see them leave, they are also lower performing than the kids who would stay."
In New York, Zoia said he wants his schools to have a "warm and demanding" environment. Staffers visit the homes of all incoming fifth graders so families understand know what to expect. Zoia said they also warn students in January if they’re at risk of being held back.
"Any kid that leaves is a failure on our part. That’s how we see it," he said.
KIPP Infinity also has a greater share of students with special needs than the citywide average.
A few other charter networks claim their once-high attrition rates are now coming down, thanks to more outreach with families. Democracy Prep said its students also get more support earlier in the year so they understand repeating a grade is not a punishment but one way to help them get ready for college.