As D.C. officials consider how to keep as many of the city’s students in class as possible, the broadly worded discipline policies of two public charter school networks are coming under scrutiny.
Students at any of the KIPP D.C. charter schools can be suspended for creating a classroom distraction or other conduct deemed “detrimental to the best interest of” the schools.
Similarly, those at DC Prep schools can face suspension for behavior “inconsistent with the best interest” of the schools, even if it occurs elsewhere.
Each of these well-known networks, which together enroll more than 6,000 D.C. students, have schools in the city that suspend more than a quarter of their students in a given year. Typical suspension rates in other D.C. schools range from 7 percent to 15 percent.
The situation in the charters has drawn attention from city officials.
D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), chair of the council’s education committee, is assembling a “working group” of officials to discuss whether new regulations should be imposed on charter schools. The discussions may include defining when a student is being disruptive or disorderly in a classroom, Grosso said.
Overall, suspensions appear to be on the decline in the city, according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. But experts say suspensions are still too frequent, especially for minor infractions.
The city has sought to reduce how often students get sent home for misbehavior, in an effort to keep them on track to graduate and out of the criminal justice system.
In 2009, the council passed regulations spelling out when D.C. public schools can suspend students. But those rules for the traditional school system do not extend to charter schools.
Charter schools often have higher expulsion and suspension rates than regular schools. Some observers want the city to force charters to have tighter definitions of misbehavior. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report this month on suspensions in the District recommended that the city issue more guidance on how to reduce suspensions in charters.
The GAO found suspension and expulsion rates for charters in the District were significantly higher than national rates. But charter officials dispute the findings. They say the GAO relied on old data that failed to show the progress they have made.
Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, told Grosso at a recent hearing that he is against any “one-size-fits-all” regulations.
Pearson said imposing regulations on charters is “inconsistent” with the law that gives charter schools autonomy to create their own mission and culture.
“We also need to keep in mind that public charter schools are schools of choice,” Pearson said. “Parents select schools and often tell us that an orderly environment that allows for a focus on academics is a reason that they have chosen their school.”
Patrice Wedderburn, an attorney with Advocates for Justice and Education, an organization that helps parents appeal suspensions, disputed Pearson’s point.
“The message seems to be if you don’t like it, you can pull your child out,” Wedderburn said. “That doesn’t sound like real choice.”
Wedderburn has represented students who were suspended under broad behavior policies at charter schools, including KIPP and DC Prep. She said she worries that schools are not consistent in how they dole out suspensions, especially for nonviolent behavior.
“We are concerned that these definitions become a catchall,” Wedderburn said.
In the last school year, DC Prep had about 1,500 students at five schools citywide. At one of those schools, Benning Middle in Northeast, 28 percent of the 220 students enrolled were suspended that year — the highest rate in the network.
Emily Lawson, the network’s chief executive, said in a statement that families choose DC Prep for its “safe, rigorous, and supportive learning environment for all students.”
Lawson said that suspensions are declining in the network and that she expects that trend to continue.
KIPP had about 5,200 D.C. students at 16 schools in the last school year. At KIPP’s AIM Academy in Southeast, 33 percent of its 350 students were suspended that year. At KIPP’s WILL Academy in Northwest, 30 percent of its 300 students were suspended.
Melissa Kim, chief academic officer for KIPP secondary schools in the District, said KIPP is “not okay with” those rates, which is why it is beginning to try alternatives to suspension.
“This is getting us to refocus and recommit to why we do this work every day, and it’s certainly not to suspend students,” Kim said.
But Kim defended the network’s policies. Parents choose KIPP, she said, because the network is “promising parents and kids a certain level of expectation that they are not going to be distracted by other kids in the classroom.”
Kim added: “At the end of the day we place our students in the hands of adults to make the best determination of what happens at schools. We have to give those adults some space to trust their decisions.”