Is harsh discipline really the best way to prepare low-income minority students for college?
Quick reader: what is the best way to prepare low-income minority students for college and 21st-century success? If you answered *an obsessive focus on the students’ smallest behaviors (particularly infractions of the uniform variety) paired with plenty of harsh discipline for disciplinary infractions* you are in excellent company. In fact, almost everyone who is anyone these days is in near uniform agreement that harsh punishment today is a recipe for 21st century success tomorrow. Well, not everyone. A group of New Orleans parents recently filed suit, claiming that a *demeaning culture of discipline* at three of the city’s charter schools, including Sci Academy, considered a model charter for New Orleans and beyond, violates the civil rights of students.
Rights and wrongs
The parents’ complaint, filed with US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and the Louisiana Recovery District and others, raises a thicket of thorny questions—like whether or not students attending privately-run charter schools even have civil rights. Or why sky-high suspension rates are apparently A-ok when done in the name of college prep. The three Collegiate Academy charters cited in the complaint, by the way, posted the highest suspension rates in New Orleans last year, ranging from 58% for Sci Academy, the city’s flagship college prep charter, to 69% for Carver Collegiate.
Butterflies and broken windows Why such high suspension rates? As I’ve written previously, schools like Sci Academy and Carver Collegiate embrace a philosophy that can best be described as *broken windows schooling.* Even the smallest behavioral infractions—say an untucked shirt or failure to use a designated hand signal to indicate a bathroom request—lead to greater and greater infractions, until finally the tenement of college preparedness is on fire. [Note: much to my surprise, this is not an insight original to me but is actually the description used by one of the Collegiate schools as you’ll see below.]
Perhaps the New Orleans suit will finally start a much needed conversation about how exactly these super stringent disciplinary practices prepare low-income students for college—a fundamental tenet of the no-excuses schools that a growing percentage of urban students will soon have no choice but to attend. (Not to mention the queasy-making reality that the loudest advocates for these schools wouldn’t consent to subject their own children to such disciplinary policies for so much as a day). For now, we’ll have to rely on Collegiate Academies’ own student and family handbooks to make the case….
We sweat the small stuff
We believe that small things matter. We believe that a broken window or a piece of graffiti can, like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, have unintended effects and lead to greater infractions. When we focus on small behaviors, we are able to ensure that larger, more troubling behaviors never get the opportunity to surface. We also believe that by focusing on the smallest behaviors, we will be able to send a clear message to our scholars that our school is different, is safe, is a place for learning and not playing. When we focus on tucking in shirts, walking in lines, strict adherence to level volume instructions, gum or food, and the way our scholars sit in their chairs, we make it clear that everything matters here. Eventually, compliance with these rules moves to the “nonthinking” part of a scholar’s brain and becomes a ubiquitous part of our culture.
George Washington Carver Preparatory Academy Scholar and Family Handbook, 2013-2014, p. 14.
An introduction to culture
We take pride in everything we do. Attention to the smallest details in our school day saves us from confronting the larger issues that prevent well-intentioned people and schools from reaching our goals. Our attention to details empowers us to be attentive to uniforms, posture, tracking, homework, organization, conjugation of verbs, and more. We believe that only through this norming of excellence, can we cultivate the type of culture that will make our school and scholars truly sparkle now and once they leave our school! When these details are accounted for all the time, scholars simply move them to the “non-thinking” part of the brain. Speech, proper uniform, and posture soon become automatic, and minds are freer to focus on what matters most: competing with scholars all around the country, proving what is possible to themselves and others each day.
George Washington Carver Collegiate Academy Family Handbook, 2013-2014, p. 12.
The Importance of Discipline
We believe that every behavior matters – there is no problem too small to address. At Carver Prep, we “sweat the small stuff,” meaning that we correct scholars who sit incorrectly, speak incorrectly, wear their uniform incorrectly, show their work incorrectly, and transition in the hallways incorrectly. We correct all of these behaviors, and more, because we believe that by focusing on small behaviors we can prevent the bigger, more serious behaviors from occurring. Discipline is about transforming behavior through teaching, not about assigning consequences. In order to be effective disciplinarians, teachers develop warm/strict relationships with scholars. They hold scholars accountable to rigorous standards for behavior while focusing on positivity, highlighting success, and treating scholars with genuine empathy and caring. In order for strict discipline to work (develop long term positive habits), scholars must know that their teachers genuinely care for them and work for their success. Consequences alone will never work. Warmth, however, does not imply soft pliability. Our structures are designed to be rigid and clear and our enforcement of them must be emotionless and consistent. We display our confidence with straight posture and a calm, quiet, steady voice. We close every behavioral loop and never hesitate to act when action is warranted. Scholars will respect tenacity and strength; they will exploit inconsistency and hesitancy.
George Washington Carver Preparatory Academy Scholar and Family Handbook, 2013-2014, p. 29.
At Sci Academy we know that if we are vigilant about small misbehaviors, larger ones tend not to occur. We remain very aware of what every scholar is doing throughout classes, the halls and everywhere else on campus and are quick to address misbehaviors with a correction. The following behaviors are non-negotiable. We have a short school-wide list of clear observable misbehaviors that we demerit scholars for breaking without fail. 1. Gum: Chewing gum, straws, plastic, paper or any other items. 2. Tardy: Being late to any scheduled class or activity during the day. 3. Uniform violation: Un-tucked shirt, sagging pants, incorrect accessories, wrong colored undershirt, wrong socks or any other fixable uniform violation (see uniform section). 4. Transitions: Not following guidelines for transitioning between classes or upon arrival or dismissal to school (failing to walk to the right in lines, etc.)
Sci Academy Family Handbook 2013-2014, p. 26
Sit or stand up straight
Proper posture is both a visual demonstration of scholarly engagement and an effective way to stay attentive in class. When sitting, we expect scholars to have their feet on the ground, their backs up straight, and their heads up, unsupported by their hands, arms, or the desk. When standing, scholars are expected to stand up straight without leaning against the wall.
George Washington Carver Preparatory Academy Scholar and Family Handbook, 2013-2014, p. 16.
Hallway transitions at Carver Collegiate are unique, ripe for the core values. Staff members are expected to be in the hallway as often as possible for transitions, even during off periods. Hallway transitions are one of the major opportunities for bullying and misbehavior in schools. We need to eliminate this. The hallway is an incredible forum for building culture, building relationships, and for priming scholars to dominate their very next class. We even use the hallway for academic campaigns.Transitions should take no longer than three minutes. Scholars will walk to the right and within the lanes. They will immediately proceed silently and in single-file lines to the front of their next room.
George Washington Carver Collegiate Academy Family Handbook, 2013-2014, p. 19.
Because there is no time to waste during transitions at Carver Prep scholars are not permitted to use the restroom during transitions between classes. Scholars may use the bathroom during independent practice in class. They may not miss any part of class during which the teacher is delivering instruction, but when they are working individually scholars can make the bathroom sign (the hang-ten sign with the thumb and pinky) and then sign the bathroom log. Scholars should not be in the bathroom for more than 5 minutes at a time. At Carver Prep, it is never acceptable to interrupt class for a personal issue or request. The following hand signal is a method for scholars to inform their teacher of a bathroom request without disrupting the flow of a lesson. Bathroom signal: Scholars will hold their hand in the air, as if they were asking a question, but instead show the “hang ten” signal. (Hang ten is when only the thumb and pinky fingers are showing while the scholar’s hand is in the air).
George Washington Carver Preparatory Academy Scholar and Family Handbook, 2013-2014, p. 20.
Detention is meant to be served immediately and to provide a clean slate from which scholars can continue to practice successfully the habits that will keep them out of detention.Detention meets regularly.It is silent. Scholars must stay seated. They refrain from asking questions, turning around in their seats, and making eye contact with other scholars. The options are completing homework, reading, or writing apology letters. Scholars will always serve detention because it will meet during the day regularly. If a scholar is present at school and refuses to serve detention in act of defiance, he or she will automatically receive additional consequences. This is not a good choice on the part of the scholar, for it would mean that he or she ignored several adult directions and a clear system…
George Washington Carver Collegiate Academy Family Handbook 2013-2014, p. 34.
Consequences for scholars who do not serve detention
Scholars may not select which detention to attend. If a scholar does not serve detention at the next available time (after notified that he/she owes detention) the scholar will be suspended from school the following day. This includes lunch and after school detention.Here is an example: Scholar receives scholar slip Friday morning that states he/she has 3 units of detention.Scholar must serve detention at lunch and then after school. If the scholar does not report to lunch detention he/she will be suspended from school. If the scholar reports to after school detention but leaves early or is dismissed for misbehavior, he or she will be suspended from school.If a scholar finishes the week having served all possible hours but with hours of detention owed, it is the responsibility of the advisor to create a growth plan for the scholar that will help him or her burn off excessive units of owed detention and change behavior so he or she is earning fewer units of detention through out the week. The scholar will not be suspended from school.
Sci Academy Family Handbook 2013-2014, p. 25.
School officials (anyone the school designates) may perform random searches of scholars when they enter campus. All scholars arriving late to school will be searched. Any item that a Sci Academy staff member determines is unsafe or distracting to the learning environment may be confiscated. A scholar may be searched on campus at any time if there is suspicion the scholar is in possession of an item that is illegal, against school rules or distracting to the learning environment. Scholar vehicles brought on campus (inside outer gates on Read Blvd.), scholar book bags, school desks and other school property are subject to inspection and search by school authorities at any time without prior notice to scholars or parents. Scholars are required to cooperate if asked to open book bags, purses, or any vehicle brought on campus.
Sci Academy Family Handbook 2013-2014, p. 36.
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