A School’s “Got to Go” list and the Meaning of Success

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One of NYC’s most successful charter networks, Success Academies, is on defense after admitting to a “Got to Go” list of students at one school, where not coincidentally most of those high needs students on the list withdrew.  The NY Times article describes a seemingly deliberate pattern to push out higher needs students, often documented in emails.

Since our early post, Getting Honest on Charter School Admissions, I have railed against the selective practices of charters (and District schools).  Here’s an excerpt, from the Times article that largely confirms what I have been saying.

From the time Folake Ogundiran’s daughter started kindergarten at a Success Academy charter school in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, the girl struggled to adjust to its strict rules. She racked up demerits for not following directions or not keeping her hands folded in her lap. Sometimes, after being chastised, she threw tantrums. She was repeatedly suspended for screaming, throwing pencils, running away from school staff members or refusing to go to another classroom for a timeout.

One day last December, the school’s principal, Candido Brown, called Ms. Ogundiran and said her daughter, then 6, was having a bad day. Mr. Brown warned that if she continued to do things that were defiant and unsafe — including, he said, pushing or kicking, moving chairs or tables, or refusing to go to another classroom — he would have to call 911, Ms. Ogundiran recalled. Already feeling that her daughter was treated unfairly, she went to the school and withdrew her on the spot.

Success Academy, the high­ performing charter school network in New York City, has long been dogged by accusations that its remarkable accomplishments are due, in part, to a practice of weeding out weak or difficult students. The network has always denied it. But documents obtained by The New York Times and interviews with 10 current and former Success employees at five schools suggest that some administrators in the network have singled out children they would like to see leave. At Success Academy Fort Greene, the same day that Ms. Ogundiran heard from the principal, her daughter’s name was one of 16 placed on a list drawn up at his direction and shared by school leaders. The heading on the list was “Got to Go.”
This student was suspended 19 times in the first grade.

The school and network defended themselves, saying that this was an aberration and that the “Got to Go” list was retracted when network staff found out.  They also talked about “fit” and how not all students are a good “fit” for their schools.

Success Academies have become a national model in the so called charter movement.  3000 miles away in CA, I have had multiple arguments/discussions with school leaders, funders, and even District leadership about Success.  Usually it starts with them telling me, how we need more schools like Success, and I say yes and no.

Yes, Success delivers a top flight education to the children it serves—the children that “fit”.  And while I am an oft critic—they give those families a robust experience they likely would not get otherwise and have significantly expanded the opportunities for those students.

But, no, not all students do “fit” and unfortunately it’s not an equally distributed set of students.  It seems that many higher needs students, those suffering from trauma, and those with special needs are the ones that tend not to fit there, and they are shuffled on to someone else.

As charters, we rightly hold on to the banner of “public” schools, which to me means free and open access.  At the same time we want to create unique environments that sometimes do require parental buy in to be effective.  The balance between these is the key.  And reading the article, we honestly can’t rely on each school to always do the right thing.

There is immense pressure on school leaders to show academic performance.  And one perceived short cut is to be selective about your students, pushing out the more challenging.  An email from the principal in this case captured this, “I felt I couldn’t turn the school around if these students remained” he wrote.  And while he put this in writing, he is not the only one thinking it—both at charters and district schools.

There are no magic bullets, but some quick answers include, real transparency on enrollment and discharges of students with increasing financial and public relations consequences for schools that disproportionally push out high needs students.  We also need authorizers to take these issues more seriously and proactively work to maintain the integrity of admissions and discharge processes.  Most generally though, we need to look hard at the definition of successful schools, moving from one that looks almost strictly at achievement, and undervalues progress, and particularly progress of our most challenged students, for the students that may not “fit”.

Education Reform’s “Other People’s Children” Problem

We have a serious “Other People’s Children” problem in education reform. Many if not most of the spokespeople and decision makers, really don’t represent or often understand the communities they are “reforming.” This has a distorting effect on the reforms and also gives folks the often real impression that reforms are being done to them rather than with them.

When parents are polled around the general outlines of reform—parental choices of schools, charter schools, and accountability based on achievement—they agree and are generally positive, but I bet if you asked parents in many “reforming” communities whether they liked the advocates of reform—the numbers would be radically lower, and marked by distrust.

And when you work with the reformers, you get where this mistrust comes from. Most of the people really making decisions are White, they did not grow up or work (for more than 2 years in Teach For America) in the ’hoods, and their kids would never ever go to the schools they are advocating for.

Let me repeat, they would never ever send their kids to the schools that they praise, no matter where they were located. Their children need to experiment and have self-directed learning with projects, arts, small class sizes, and differentiation. A fertile ground for individual development.

The schools they praise have all the (Black and Brown) kids sitting quietly, tracking the teacher with their eyes automatically, never talking out of turn or getting up, walking silently in line, eating lunch silently—they are models of social control.

While there are “no excuses” for aberrant student behavior or families, the staff have abundant excuses around the students they can’t serve, and who are quietly shown the door, punished into expulsion or more likely, voluntary withdrawal.

I could replay a hundred different “conversations” I have had with reformers, on how race doesn’t really matter (“it’s all class”), on their misguided educational theories (too many to quote), how not all kids can be prepared for college (though all of their kids can of course) the problems of Black culture (“there isn’t one”), or a host of other things that make you want to punch someone, literally or rhetorically.

Thurston_Howell,_IIIIn particular, I had this long conversation with a Thurston Howell the Third-type on the importance of schools having strong academics AND cultural competency. As one of the very few students of color where I grew up, I got great academic skills, but culturally felt put off by school, and felt how the invisible, White, curriculum was weighing on me. I gave a long impassioned plea around the need for kids to understand their history and themselves from a positive place. I thought this guy is going to get it.

He sums up our conversation, by repeating the stereotype that for Black kids in the Black community academic achievement is frowned on, and that they will get called “punks” for doing well in school when they get home. We were done.

Probably two decades ago, I read Lisa Delpit’s “Other People’s Children,” which, to oversimplify, looked at how schools and interactions with students of color embed a whole set of assumptions about student capacity, motivations, integrity and potential, and when one looked objectively at these schools, it played out every day in the way some schools are structured and the way educators interact with children. With predictable racial effects. These lesson reverberate even more as I climb the education reform hierarchy.

I am painting this landscape with an overly broad brush. I have met some reformers who have focused on listening, tried to understand their own limits and blind spots (which we all have), and have had true empathy for students. But they are the exception, many view our communities through a lens of pathos and dysfunction—and see those traits as indigenous and not a reflection of the broader historical dynamics or a rigged system. And so our kids need to be controlled, and good schools do that.

Change is hard, and reform is always a fight, but we need to do a better job of generating and supporting authentic leaders, who not only know how to fight but what we should be fighting for. If “winning” means a set of “no excuses” compliance factories to house poor, Black and Brown students, I think I might be on the wrong team.

Segregated Housing, Costly Transportation, and the Practicalities of Inequality

5972078107_d79bae3cc1_obus stopStudents in Oakland have had to choose between food and the forty dollar monthly bus fare to get to school.  That was one of many troubling things we heard at a recent committee hearing as students from Unity Charter High and Skyline, as well as community representatives testified about the hardships that students face getting to school.

Thankfully the Alameda County Transportation Committee voted for a pilot program to provide free bus passes to some middle and high school students.  The article Alameda County to pilot free student bus passes, highlights the practical challenges that many Oakland students face.

Prior blogs have covered the ways that the lowest performing schools tend to be clustered in the Flatlands and particularly West Oakland, as well as the disturbing statistics around access to the best schools (low income students are 18 times more likely to be in the lowest performing schools than non- low income students).

Well, as Oakland moves towards a common enrollment system, which should increase student mobility, we have to pay attention to the practical issues.  Like transportation.  If kids can’t pay for the bus, there is no choice.  And if bus service is not aligned to student travel patterns, with multiple transfers, and long waits, it again becomes impractical.

Or to be more specific, it becomes impractical to some, those most challenged students.  Some parents can drive their kids, for others bus fare is not a problem, and others live in the Hills, within walking distance to high quality options.

Increasing choices by itself does not necessarily lead to more equity.  We need to write rules and provide supports that will not only open up hypothetical choices for families, but actuate real ones, paying most attention to what is happening with our highest need students.

Too often the rhetoric of school choice floats disconnected from the realities faced by families.  This is one area where we need to be sure the rubber hits the road, and get everyone on the bus.

The Real Stories of Unaccompanied Minors and What Oakland is Doing

4328353763_e70e74400a_ostat of libAmidst the hysteria over cantaloupe-calved human marijuana “mules” you might miss stories from children like Victor found in the recent NPR story about unaccompanied minors and the ways the Oakland Unified has adjusted to, and tried to support them.  And while I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these brothers and sisters are called “mules” by some, when you hear from children about their struggles and traumas, you can’t help but feel their humanity.

Here’s Victor’s story,

“In Guatemala, my parents were homeless. They had nothing,” he explains.

When he was 5, Victor’s parents found work in a nearby village and left him with neighbors. They said they’d come back in a few weeks.

“Months and years went by, and my parents never came back,” he says.

Victor’s neighbors took him in, but they couldn’t protect him from the violence that plagues Guatemala. He remembers once being beaten by police until he lost consciousness.

At 12, Victor ran away, crossing the scalding Sonoran desert by himself and getting lost for weeks at a time. He’s lucky to have made it to the U.S. alive. Once here, Victor turned himself over to immigration authorities. He now lives in foster care and attends high school.

Other students spoke of their traumas, losses, and the ongoing debts to smugglers, of the beatings, rapes, and forced participation in drug gangs.  Mind you Guatamala has a murder rate 10 times the United States’.

Thankfully, Oakland has really tried to get out in front of these issues, providing legal support, and garnering County resources for mental health supports.  But, as you can guess, there is still a lot more to do.

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

That is what we said to the boats coming into New York from Europe, emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty.  I am Proud to be in Oakland a City and District trying to take these words to heart.  I just hope that these sentiments are contagious, and that as a country we can empathize with these children and find ways to support them.  In a time of division and deprivation, we need humanity, above all, and to see and treat these children as our sons and daughters, to do less dehumanizes, both us and them.

The Real Challenges of District Reform

3149147091_cdc8e63b5e_zsnd castleChanging District behavior is really hard. I learned this first hand working with OUSD to reduce restrictions on schools and implement so called “site based decision-making” as part of its broader New Small Autonomous Schools Policy.   And it was often not bad actors or bad intentions, but just an inertia that kept the district hurtling forward in the same direction as we tried to steer it, which honestly is harder to grapple with.

It was over a decade ago that OUSD went through its most comprehensive set of reforms, the new small autonomous schools—which created academies in larger schools or fostered the creation of new schools, and its related policy of increasing site based decision making, and giving more authority over budgeting and operations to all sites, starting with some pilots.

I was on the School Site Council for Bret Harte at the time, and we were a pilot school, along with Edward Shands, Melrose and a couple of others.  We were charged with making suggestions around how to effectively move authority from the District offices to schools, and piloting those policies.

We needed some tangible benefits for schools to get them interested and one obvious pain point was the purchasing process, which required, a request from the site, signed by two people there, and then it had to go to the central district offices, get a signature there, and then sent to the vendor, who would deliver it to the OUSD warehouse on High Street and then from there it would be delivered to the school.  So something like ordering reams of paper would take weeks or months as forms sat on peoples’ desks, with a circuitous and inefficient process of shifting papers at the site, at the central offices, then delivery to a central warehouse and then delivery to the school.  There had to be a better way.

An easy win that would be very attractive to schools seemed to be to just get a credit card for the schools and they could go to office depot or whomever and just get what they needed.  Makes sense.  Made sense to everyone around the table, but because it made sense doesn’t mean it worked.

So we asked the district about credit cards—they said schools could not get them, a bank would not issue them to the schools.  Okay, I also worked with charters and we got them.  So we asked a bank and they said it could be done.  So we come back to OUSD and they say, okay it can be done but it can’t be a credit card, you need a debit card.  Okay so we get the schools to pre load a debit type card as part of their budgeting process, to go through district approved vendors, and the card would be used for smaller purchases and they would go straight to the schools.  Makes sense right?

Well the delivery guys “know” that schools don’t get direct deliveries, so when they got pickup orders from the vendors for delivery to school sites, they just dropped them at the OUSD central warehouse, believing the delivery addresses to be mistaken.  So now things are lost at the central warehouse.

We went through a whole series of troubleshooting discussions, and started to work out the bugs.  Mind you, we are probably 18 months into a seemingly simple foray, and were just starting to get it right.

Then, Oakland Unified finally starts to understand its budget, and realizes it’s broke and deep in structural debt.  The old superintendent is gone, the district is put into receivership, and a new appointed administrator takes over.  Pretty sure they just cancelled the whole debit card thing at that point.

This experience did not turn me away from wanting to make things better within districts, but it did open my eyes to the challenges.  Nothing is simple, many parts are interrelated, and the convoluted/bureaucratic infrastructure sometimes lives and breathes on its own, and has settled into its own inertial course, regardless of what leaders or workers within it want.

And this is not to say that policy or reforms don’t matter.  For even as the tidal flow of inertia, slowly washed away the reforms we worked on, decentralization and small responsive schools policies, there remained a series of new castles in the sand in the schools that were created.  LIFE Academy, Ascend, Met West, and really most of the District’s best small schools came out of the reforms.  So while the reforms may be dead, their children live on, and better serve Oakland’s students, and that is something.