College Perp

Is harsh discipline really the best way to prepare low-income minority students for college?

silent lines

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

broken windows

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.

Non-Negotiable Behaviors
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
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.

Bathroom Policy
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.

Scholar Searches
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.

Send tips and comments to


  1. This description is beyond satire. I would call this colonialism. Let’s grow “scholars” in an atmosphere of repression. What sort of “college ready” are they aiming for? The University of Rigid Compliance.

  2. So I have a few questions. Are only low income and minority students subjected to these rules? If not, then am I to assume that anyone who is not low income should have no issue following these rules but we can not expect the same high standards from someone who is from a low income or minority family? Is everyone in the school governed by the same rules and consequences? What is their success rate – graduation and college acceptance or job acquisition? Are the low income students failing while those who are not low income succeeding? If so, what study explains this? I just really think that by telling kids they are handicapped due to being a minority or having a low income level, that they are not able and should not be expected to conform to the high standards of those from white middle class families is a great disservice. Are these students prepared to go to college, follow the college rules and succeed once they complete their studies at these schools? I know I have heard complaints, from college professors, of students who waltz into class when they want and truly believe that they should be excused, of students who do not pass in assignments on time but expect full credit anyway, and of students who make excuses for not studying for assessments and want a “do over.” Isn’t that more of a disservice to students than some strict rules? When they fail their first semester of college I’m thinking that they are being punished because the rules changed and they were not prepared. Is that fair? Talk to area industries and businesses. Ask them how their new young employees are working out. You will get a mix. They will complain that work starts at 7 and new employees will walk in at 7:03, get a verbal warning and be confused and irritated because for the 12 years prior they waltzed into class late without consequences. Cell phones in the work place. The younger ones (and I know, now some older) will tell their boss, I was just checking home, or I had to check a message – emergency. Well guess what kiddies, these excuses aren’t accepted, you are disciplined in the workplace for cell phone infractions even though you went through school getting away, for the most part with using your cell phone if you could invent a viable excuse. I bet those employees who have lost jobs because of repeated infractions would have been more successful if following the rules would have been ingrained equally across the board. These rules listed are simple rules, rules that anyone can follow regardless of race or income status so why are there complaints? First show me it doesn’t work and that it targets only the minority or low income students, then I will listen but more than likely I will come up with a million more questions. And before anyone assumes my background, I was a low income student, low enough to have my whole college career paid for, not on scholarships, on grants for low income students. And yes, I failed my first semester and dropped out, lost the grant completely, then paid over $10,000 to obtain my degree a couple years later partly because I wasn’t prepared for the no excuse attitude of college – the first time around anyway. Second time around, after suffering the harsh consequences and having to prove I could pass college level courses by enrolling in continuing ed first I learned and complied.

    1. “…no excuse attitude of college …”

      Well, now that’s interesting because I was just about to say that my college certainly didn’t have a “no excuses” uniform policy – in fact, we didn’t have a uniform policy at all. Students were known to come to classes in their bathrobes. We also didn’t have a “no excuses” transition policy. I couldn’t even find any “lanes” painted on the quads. I’m pretty sure we didn’t have detention. Heck, we didn’t even have attendance policies. Guess my college wasn’t very excellent, was it? But then, what would you expect of the University of Chicago?

  3. A reader just emailed me the following and I’m posting for him because I think he raises really interesting questions. I’m interested to hear what you all think…

    1) Very interesting post. Can’t say that I agree 100% with the policies being listed (particularly about the strict adherence to how a uniform is worn).

    2) That said, I think the lax alternative that I’ve seen is far more dangerous both in the short-term and long-term. What, exactly, constitutes as appropriate discipline/consequences? Most of the critics I’ve seen on Twitter seem to harbor some illusions that children are naturally good and would never misbehave if given the right among of love. Not true.

    I’d argue that if children do not understand that there are real consequences to their actions, we’re actually strengthening the school-to-prison pipeline. This doesn’t mean that the police have to be brought in to break up a fight at school–it does mean that kids should understand that their behavior can and will land them in jail elsewhere (i.e., when done in the streets and you happen to be the unlucky one caught by a cop).

    3) The first link below is a really interesting (but also a very long) article about how self-control–which they call willpower–is actually something that is depleted throughout the day. And it depletes even faster (because you have less to start off with), if you’re living in chaos/poverty. The second link is an application to the classroom.



    My point is that maybe–just maybe–kids who are coming from a disadvantaged background might actually need, from a physiological standpoint, a different learning environment that their wealthier counter parts.

  4. I believe for non negotiable behaviors 1, the category should be: chewing on things, and gum is a sub category of that. Straws and pieces of plastic are not a sub category of gum. This is just common core standards 101.

  5. A few things…First, let’s be clear that most of these “no excuses” discipline systems are not about changing behaviors, but are a sorting mechanism to weed out lower-performing students, students with behavior issues, and students with disabilities. Giving out hundreds of detentions/suspensions clearly does not improve behavior, but it does demoralize students until they choose or are forced to leave the school.

    Second, these types of harsh discipline policies (which are often coupled with rigid academic and retention policies) are actually extremely damaging to many kids, especially students who have experienced trauma, have disabilities, or suffer from various mental health problems. And kids living in poverty-especially deep poverty-are more likely to have experienced trauma and toxic stress and therefore more likely to suffer from problems like PTSD, depression, and suicidality as a result of that poverty. I work at a psychiatric hospital in Chicago and have had many kids from charter schools that practice these same kinds of disgusting discipline policies. And the schools’ treatment of students is, in my opinion, abusive and immoral. I spoke at Chicago’s board meeting about this problem:

    Lastly, I think there is a conversation to be had about schooling specially designed for kids from marginalized communities and low-income backgrounds, but that is not what these charter schools represent. The schools that practice the harshest discipline structures tend to be corporate franchises-like KIPP-which are founded, financed, and fawned over by wealthy, white elites. These schools are absolutely a form of colonialism, paternalism, oppression, and White supremacy. The fact that these prison-like schools are being pushed by one percenters who send their own children to progressive, lax-discipline schools, with highly creative and personalized instruction performed by fully-qualified career educators matters.

    The charter movement has tried to cloak themselves in the language of social justice to hide the glaring inequalities and racist structures these schools too often represent. When schools are born out of authentic democratic community action, they tend to value social justice and culturally relevant curriculum, include space for student and parent voice, and practice humane discipline. (The Little Village Lawndale Campus which was started after a parent hunger strike in Chicago comes to mind: These charter schools are the opposite–places where parent and student input is silenced, where cultural assets the students bring with them are devalued and criminalized, and where the legacy of hundreds of years of oppression is treated like a personal flaw, not systemic societal failure.

    1. Bingo. They’re using polarizing techniques to sort “good” from “bad”, smart from dumb, high achieving from low achieving, etc . They want the bad kids gone. They can’t just tell them to leave, so they bully them with strict application rules. If a “good” kid is seen with an untucked shirt, it will never be noticed.

      Eventually, the “sorting” behavior of charters will become a supreme court case (not unlike the very cases that so drastically changed things back in the 70’s).

    2. What she said. If a school is truly committed to the success of *all* of its students, kicking certain of those students out of school for longer and longer periods of time is a prescription for failure.

  6. If this were the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” we could add: “Or… Twelve Years a Student”.

    I find this interesting from a different perspective. The public school district where I teach is absolutely terrified of the “competitive threat” of new online (and brick & mortar) charter schools that are popping up all around us. Even though we inherit so many of their expelled kids (and even though so many parents and kids end up seeing that the grass isn’t always greener and come back). We do almost anything to make kids and parents want to stay “public”. For example, the cell phones. We allow them on my high school campus and leave it up to individual teachers on what their in-class policy is. Which (to the kids) means cell phones are allowed in class (even if they aren’t). The only things that get a kid suspended in an “off-campus” way are stealing (almost always cell phones) and physical violence. We’re obsessed with offering electives that the kids “like” to keep them wanting to stay. The whole dog & pony show is ridiculous.

Comments are closed.