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Charter schools slow to discipline reform

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Charter high schools in San Francisco are taking certain measures to reduce suspension rates. A student sits outside of City Arts and Technology High School, one of the charter schools in The City trying to alter its discipline practices. (Emma Chiang/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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KIPP Bayview Academy Principal Sherrye Hubbard learned a couple weeks ago that a fifth grade student at the charter school had been stealing items from campus.

Two years ago, Hubbard likely would have suspended the student.

Instead, Hubbard gathered the repeat offender and his victims in a circle and together they discussed what he had done and tried to make amends.

“It’s such a sensitive situation,” Hubbard said. “It takes a lot for a person to consistently steal things and then to have to confess to it.”

Restorative justice circles are just one of the ways teachers and administrators at the middle school reconcile issues among students without removing them from class or the campus altogether. The effort is part of a larger push for restorative practices as the middle school strives to cut down on its zero-tolerance policies.

Hubbard attributes the drop in suspensions at Kipp Bayview — from 40 of 270 students in the 2011-12 school year to 21 of 297 last school year — to its use of restorative justice practices.

But not all charter schools in San Francisco are following that trend.

A report released last month from the University of California Los Angeles examined the suspension rate of all charter schools across the U.S. combined in the 2011-12 school year, and found it to be higher than that of public schools.

A San Francisco Examiner review of school data reported to the state found that relationship to also be true of charters and public schools in The City, not just four years ago but in each school year since then.

The Board of Education has in recent years been pushing schools in the San Francisco Unified School District toward alternatives to suspensions, approving a policy in 2014 that banned suspensions for “willful defiance,” or for disobeying authority.

But charter schools are not beholden to district policy and some of them have continued to use suspensions at rates higher than 10 percent.

“There’s nothing about charters that would make it have to be this way,” Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA, said in a recent phone interview. “In fact, because charters can change their policies and practices we would hope that we would see discipline changing in a more enlightened way.”

Suspensions have been shown to push students out of school and toward a life behind bars, according to Losen, who refers to the system as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Though there was a slight uptick in the numbers last school year, the San Francisco Unified School District suspended 40 percent fewer students than in 2011-12 — with the overall suspension rate falling in those years from 2.51 to 1.54 percent.

On the other hand, charter schools in San Francisco have in that same timespan had a combined suspension rate higher than five percent each year, reaching six percent in two of the past four years.

“This has consistently been one of our concerns about charter schools,” said Board President Matt Haney. “All of our district schools are required to participate in restorative practices, and charter schools are not. Some of them have much more punitive responses to behavior than we would have in our district schools.”

BAD ACTOR

One school in particular has had the most trouble with a high rate of suspensions in recent years.

Tucked into a hillside in the Excelsior, a working-class neighborhood in the southern reaches of San Francisco, City Arts and Technology High School has for the past two school years suspended more children than any other public or charter school in The City.

When CAT was before the Board of Education on March 22 for charter reauthorization, which was approved, board members criticized the school’s principal and CEO for its use of suspension.

Commissioner Jill Wynns voted against the charter reauthorization and said she was “concerned because the suspension rate is very high at CAT.”

Last school year, CAT suspended 60 of its 367 students — or 16.3 percent, according to school data reported to the state. In 2011-12 that number sat at 16.2 percent with 71 of 439 students suspended.

Board Vice President Shamann Walton said at the meeting that the school’s suspension rates were not in line with “what we’re trying to accomplish within the district.”

Students “should not feel like they’re threatened when they come to school, and they should not feel that because of minor incidents that they may be thrown out of school or told that they should go pick another school setting,” Walton said. “They shouldn’t feel forced out.”

This is the first school year that Brianna Winn has been principal at the school. At the board meeting, Winn told commissioners that the “predominant” reason for suspensions last year was for drug-related offenses.

“This year it’s different. [Suspensions are] from altercations, fights, different student conflicts,” Winn said.

In an email to the Examiner, Winn said the school has begun “to implement much more robust preventive and restorative practices.”

“We expect our rates to come down significantly this year and in the years to come,” she said.

Commissioner Rachel Norton called on school administrators to cut the suspension rate “at least in half” in the next academic year and to report back to the board next year.

Phillip Chardon, vice principal of student support at CAT, told commissioners at the meeting that he has begun to change the discipline system at the school in his second year there.

“As a school we’re working with people services to try and align our discipline practices with SFUSD,” Chardon said.

ZERO-TOLERANCE FOR SUSPENSIONS

Not all charter schools have such high suspension rates, however. The head of Life Learning Academy Charter, for students who have had trouble with the law or in traditional schools, is opposed to the use of suspensions altogether.

“It takes an Act of Congress for me to suspend someone,” said Teri Delane, the school’s principal. “My whole thing is to get these kids that no one else wants through school, graduate, and have a life.”

The Sheriff’s Department’s Five Keys Charter school also does not use suspensions, but was not included in the combined suspension rate for charters compiled by the Examiner because of its unique circumstances.

Five Keys was started in 2003 inside County Jail, and has since expanded to include satellite campuses around San Francisco. The jail program technically cannot suspend incarcerated students, though the Sheriff’s Department can remove students for safety reasons.

The school also runs an independent study program, which served almost 7,000 students older than 17 last school year. The workload is based on completing packets.

More than 1,200 incarcerated and recently released women also attended the Five Keys Adult School in 2014-15.

“It’s very rare that we have someone acting up in our community,” Director Steve Good said in a recent interview. “Somebody has to be motivated enough in the first place to go to these other programs.”

In the past four years, none of the Five Keys campuses have recorded a single suspension.

If Five Keys suspended students, Good said, “We would be contributing to the exact same thing that got them here in the first place.”

This story is the second in a two-part series that explores the use of suspensions in the San Francisco Unified School District. The first ran in the April 3 edition of the Examiner. Read it online here.

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  • JB

    Not only is restorative justice a waste of time but it is a denial of free will. I would not want my child in any kind of circle. I want them in the classroom and I’d want the disruptive students out of the classroom as my kids can learn nothing from them and they can learn nothing from them. Charter schools should be free to set their own standards.

  • Buzzy O’Brien

    We are in worse shape than I thought. It’s okay to break all the rules as long as you sit in a ‘restorative circle’ and say oops my bad.

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