Brooklyn Charter Dials Back Discipline After Outcry

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Editor's Note: This is the third and final piece of our Charters & Choices series on charter schools and attrition rates, based on data obtained exclusively by SchoolBook. We made an interactive map that showed the movement of students in Harlem, and challenged the theory of "dumping" students onto local district schools. In the first report, Beth Fertig examined the churn in Harlem. In the second, she painted a portrait of two schools' approaches to a "no excuses" culture. Read the third article below on one school that lost a lot of students, largely because of its rigid approach to discipline. It says that spike in attrition occurred when it cracked down on discipline without first consulting its families. It claims more are now staying.

Rules and discipline play a large role in the culture of Achievement First Endeavor Middle School. There was a time in the school's short history when its approach to discipline led almost one in five of its students to leave. The current principal says the school administration learned from its mistakes and although the rules are still central to Endeavor's culture, the attrition rate has dropped.

On a recent visit a staffer with a clipboard stood in the doorway checking attendance. Students walked the hallways in total silence, stopping only to greet Principal Tom Kaiser. He said the serious tone underscores the gravity of the school's mission, to bring students up to grade level and performing at their potential as soon as possible.

"We’re trying to take in kids who are already, in most cases, years behind when they walk into our school. And what we are saying is they can leave our school performing at top levels," he said. "It can be done. But part of that equation is we don’t have time to waste."

You can feel that urgency in the classrooms. The teachers use stop watches to pace their lessons. There are two teachers in every class, so one can provide more individual help while the other leads. To minimize any disruptions, the kids use the three-fingered sign for love, and other hand signals, to show when they agree or disagree with each other. Students can lose points (called "scholar dollars") for speaking out of turn or not following rules. Kids can also redeem their points for rewards such as book bags or a detention-free pass.

Scholars at Achievement First

Techniques like these aren’t unique to Achievement First or even to charters. But some parents and former teachers strongly criticized the way the school enforced its policies.

Two years ago, almost 20 percent of the students left the Endeavor middle school. That's higher than average for the surrounding district schools and other charters, according to data provided by the city's Department of Education. Attrition had gone up the previous year, too.

Bazl Taliaferrow was finishing eighth grade at that time. He said small infractions would lead to deductions. A few deductions resulted in a detention.

"I wouldn’t talk to the person next to me while the teacher is giving a lesson in class or explaining something to ask a question, like ‘can I borrow your pencil?’" he said.

Between fifth and eighth grade, Bazl estimated he was sent to detention 10 or 12 times. But he said that's not a lot compared to other students.

"The other kids they went to detention, about, I would say honestly over 50 times," he recalled, while sitting in his family's living room in a townhouse near the Barclays Center. "It was detention every day for most kids."

Vanessa Herrer said her teenage son was sent to detention so often that she and her husband came to believe the school wanted him out.

Vanessa Herrer

"It was always about 'Jose’s not listening, Jose’s not following the rules,'" she recalled. "We complained about being, you know, at the point that we might lose our jobs because we constantly had to come down here."

Herrer was especially mad because her son had a learning disability and she claimed the school didn’t give him enough help. At one point she had three children enrolled in the Endeavor middle school. Jose and his sister graduated but she pulled her other son out and enrolled him in a district middle school.

Herrer and Bazl’s mother, May Taliaferrow, are vocal critics of Achievement First. Taliaferrow was once an active parent on the board of Endeavor who "drank the Kool Aid." All of her children had previously attended Catholic schools and she was initially excited about the new Achievement First charters opening in Brooklyn. But she grew skeptical when she saw how strict the discipline policies had become.

"By the time Bazl graduated it was all about discipline, very little about learning," she said. Two of her grandchildren attended the Achievement First Crown Heights middle school where they complained about similar strict policies. Attrition at the Crown Heights school was also high, at 14 percent, in 2010-11.

Achievement First has more than 20 charter schools in New York and Connecticut. The president and co-C.E.O. of the network, Dacia Toll, described both the Endeavor and Crown Heights middle schools as anomalies. She explained that both schools went through changes at around 2009 that caused their attrition rates to spike.

"At the two middle schools in New York we re-set expectations," she explained, referring to the increased use of deductions and detentions. "And we did it over the summer at the last minute and with little parent and student involvement."

When Schoolbook examined discharge rates at charter schools, the Achievement First middle schools had higher than average attrition rates. The rates at three of the network's other schools in New York City ranged from low to a little above the citywide average for charters and district schools during the years we examined (2008-2011). Charters and district schools had an average attrition rate of about 10 percent, although elementary district schools were a little higher.

Tom Kaiser, principal of Achievement First Endeavor Middle School

Tom Kaiser took over as principal of the Endeavor middle school in 2009, at the age of 27. He’d been teaching at the school for three years and said "there was a lot we needed to change" starting with low test scores.

"We were not providing rigorous instruction consistently in the classrooms. And our school culture had deteriorated to the point where it was just, it was not part of the fabric of the school that kids listened to adults. And when that is the case, that is not a safe place for a kid to be and it certainly is not a place where kids are going to be learning," he said.

He said the school eased up on some of its rules after listening to parents. For example, after-school detentions are given the following day so parents can plan for it. Students don’t have to wear all black footwear anymore. They’re allowed to have colored laces. And students provide feedback through a leadership circle.

Achievement First claims attrition at the Endeavor school was just 5 percent last year.

Vasiaka Jabateh, who has a son in sixth grade and two daughters at the Achievement First high school, said he likes receiving regular reports about his children. A teacher emailed him a photo one day when his son was goofing off. "He’s learning from his mistakes," Jabateh said.

Eighth-grader Justino Fernandez is on the school’s honor council. He said he appreciates the structure, even when it means he gets a detention like he did after falling asleep in class.

"It’s easy to be upset," he said. "But then you really have to ask, 'But what if I was falling asleep and, like, when I’m older at a job interview? What if I fell asleep on a train and missed my stop? What if I fell asleep on any other occasion?' That’s disrespectful."

Three years ago, Achievement First Endeavor earned a C from the city on its annual progress report. But in the two years since it received A's. During that same time period, it also scored top grades from parents, teachers and students for its overall school environment.