There were two big school stories in the past week – the hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees for minor infractions charged to students by Noble Charter Schools, and the sit-in at Piccolo Elementary by parents and supporters opposing a turnaround by the Academy of Urban School Leadership – and one issue that cuts across both is growing opposition to harsh, ineffective discipline policies that force kids out of school.
At AUSL, where the Board of Education will vote on six additional turnarounds on Wednesday, it raises questions about unstable school leadership, wildly shifting school policies, and failure to support programs promised in AUSL submissions to CPS.
Largely lost in the coverage of Noble (particularly in the Chicago Tribune’s editorial , once more attacking critics of CPS) was the actual source of concern – the campaign by Voices of Youth in Chicago Education  to reduce the dropout rate, which has led them to focus on disciplinary policies which push kids out.
“We agree there should be consequences for minor infractions, but Noble is not doing it the right way, and as a result, students are leaving,” said Emma Tai of VOYCE. She said Noble has acknowledged that 40 percent of entering students leave before senior year. (Ben Joravsky has previously reported on Noble’s fines, demerits, counseling out of kids, and charges for make-up courses.)
But Noble is “just one piece of a much larger picture,” Tai said. “Whether it’s demerits and fines at Noble or suspensions, expulsions, and arrests at [traditional] schools, there are practices in all our schools to keep students on lockdown and push them out.”
Concern over test scores may be a bigger driver of the approach than concern over safety, she suggests.
“We should be making sure that all schools are putting a full-faith effort into keeping young people in schools,” she said. “What’s happening in all our schools [reflects] the real failure of our public officials to use our public dollars to make sure every child gets a quality education.”
At Piccolo, parents protesting the proposed turnaround charged that at other turnarounds, “AUSL has not lived up to promises of increased support for at-risk students” and “AUSL has pushed out students through zero tolerance discipline” as well as “dropping students and counseling out low-performing students.”
One group backing Piccolo, Blocks Together , has worked extensively with students at Orr Academy, now in its third year as an AUSL turnaround school, and they report a variety of practices that seem to conflict with AUSL’s commitments to CPS.
AUSL and the CPS code
In its 2007 RFP submission to CPS prior to being given Orr, AUSL pledged to follow the district’s student code of conduct, to support students with behavioral issues, and to institute a peer mediation program.
Instead, Orr students are routinely given automatic suspensions for minor infractions, BT says. “We get suspended for the pettiest things,” said Malachi Hoye, an Orr senior active with BT’s youth group. “Being tardy, not wearing your ID – it’s two days.” Cursing gets you an automatic two-day suspension.
The CPS code calls for an investigation of an incident with students “afforded the opportunity to respond to the charges.” That doesn’t happen at Orr, BT says. The code indicates a range of consequences for first-time minor infractions (like inappropriate language), including teacher-student conferences, conferences including parents or administrators, and detention; suspension is reserved for repeat offenses. That’s not the practice at Orr either, apparently.
“There are no steps, there’s no effort to look at the situation,” said youth organizer Ana Mercado. She adds that, with constant administrative change at Orr – two principals in three years, and a revolving door for other administrators — disciplinary policies have fluctuated greatly. “The expectations and consequences keep changing on the kids,” she said.
Turning kids away
Orr also “turns kids away when they come to school without their uniform,” said Hoye. “The tell them don’t come back till you have one.” (He also complains about steep increases in the price Orr charges for its uniform jersey.)
The CPS code specifies that students who fail to abide by a school’s uniform policy may be barred from extracurricular activities but may not be given suspensions or detensions “or otherwise barred from attending class.”
And while the code requires parents to be informed of punitive measures, Orr got in trouble last year  for dropping students without informing them or their parents.
AUSL also promised to institute a peer mediation program, but when BT trained students in restorative justice methods so they could serve as peer jurors, Orr administrators provided little to no suppport. In the first year, administrators referred six cases to the peer jury; this year they’ve referred none, Mercado said.
“They said they would do it and then they just didn’t do it at all,” said Hoye, who was trained as a juror. “The administrators are not following through on what they said they were going to do.”
CPS drops the ball
That’s mirrored on a district-scale by CPS, which included restorative justice language in a recent disciplinary code revision, but has failed to “put their dollars where their mouth is,” Tai said.
Last year VOYCE issued a report  documenting many tens of millions of dollars spent on zero-tolerance strategies that are “not only ineffective, but counterproductive.” Restorative justice programs in schools rely on local initiative and must scuffle by on one-year competitive grants, Tai said.
Research is clear that zero-tolerance approaches — and heavy use of suspensions — do not improve school safety or student learning, Tai said. She points to a recent study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research , which shows that it’s the quality of relationships staff have with students and parents that distinguishes schools where students and teachers report feeling safe.
“In fact, disadvantaged schools with high-quality relationships actually feel safer than advantaged schools with low-quality relationships,” according to the report. And notably, schools with high suspension rates are less safe than schools in similar neighborhoods with low suspension rates.
The Consortium argues that “emphasis on punitive discipline approaches” is particularly unhelpful with “students who are already less likely to be engaged in school.” “Schools serving a large number of low-achieving students must make stronger efforts to foster trusting, collaborative relationships with students and their parents.”
Notes Tai: “When young people are given a five dollar fine for slumping in their seats, or when they’re suspended for a week for trying to calm down a fight, you’re eroding those relationships.”
“You’re forcing students out, and you’re not making schools safer.”
There’s another bottom line, she notes: The fact that under zero tolerance, black students are given much harsher punishments than white students commiting the same infractions shows there’s something very wrong with the whole approach.
Increased accountability for charters, turnarounds, and other nontraditional schools – and a commitment by CPS to implement restorative justice system-wide – would make schools safer and help the kids who need the most help become better students, she says. It seems clear – with 11.6 percent of Orr’s students meeting or exceeding expectations, and a steadily-declining attendance rate, now at 66 percent – the status quo isn’t working.