When Charter Schools “Pick” Their Way To Success

January 21, 2016  |  

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There have been a number of stories in the media lately highlighting charter schools for doing what others in the past have failed to do: raising test scores and having near perfect graduation records among mostly disenfranchised minority and poor populations.

Most times, the narrative around these celebrated charter schools is that they are able to engage students academically in ways, which are not – and can not – be duplicated in most traditional public schools in America.

Most times, the failure of the traditional public school system is blamed on the teachers’ union and unimaginative curriculums, while the success of these high performing charter schools (which are not binded by unions and stringent curriculums) are attributed to their possessing a higher standard for academic excellence.

Likewise, these high achieving schools are occasionally held up as models for how education – be it public or private or even a public/private partnership – should be done in this country.
But sometimes the focus on the end result, including high scores and near perfect graduation rates, will mask what is often the less acknowledged reason for a particular charter school’s ability to outperform traditional public schools.

And that is the ability to pick and choose the type of kids they want to teach.

For most school districts, selective-based practices are considered illegal. But that doesn’t mean that some schools haven’t found crafty ways around the rules.

Take for instance the allegations against the Success Academy.

For those who don’t know, the Success Academy is a network of 34 charter schools based in New York City. Last year, the network of schools came under fire for using a “Got to Go” list, as well as other tactics, to allegedly weed out undesirable students.

At the center of this scandal was Success Academy charter school principal Candido Brown, who earlier this month took a “leave of absence.”  And as reported late October of last year by the New York Times:

“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.”

According to the New York Times, the list featured the names of students who were deemed “unruly” by school administrators. Some of those students also had learning disabilities including Attention Deficient Hyperactive Disorder. And as the paper reported, “Got to Go” tactics included: not sending home re-enrollment applications; frequently suspending students for minor infractions of the school’s strict behavior code; and blatantly telling parents of four students in particular (with the oldest being in the third grade), that they were not a right fit for the school.
As a result nine of the students on the list withdrew from the network of schools.

Although SA administrators would tell the Times that Principal Brown had been reprimanded for the list, Brown told the paper in an email that: “he thought the disruptive behavior of the students on the list was dragging the whole school down, and “I felt I couldn’t turn the school around if these students remained.”

Granted, he has a point. It is hard to have a school exceed certain levels of academic excellence when some students just can’t perform up to task. But at the same time, if traditional public schools could pick and choose the type of students they wanted, their graduation rates and test scores would likely be higher too.

And that is kind of a problem.
And not just because of the underlying implication in Brown’s list, in particular placing a much higher value on picking students who already conform to the institution’s image of success. But also the extent to which he – among others at the institution – were allegedly willing to go to ensure that the so-called bad apples didn’t ruin the bunch including funneling children through the school-to-prison pipeline.

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