Student suspensions, by the numbers

May 13, 2014

WBEZ/Becky Vevea
Students involved with VOYCE want schools to be more transparent with their discipline data.

More than 50,000 Chicago Public Schools students got out-of-school suspensions last year, according to a WBEZ analysis of state and district data. That’s about 13 percent of the district's population.

At about a dozen high schools, more than half of the students enrolled served at least one out-of-school suspension. All of those schools are majority African American and only a few are charter schools.

The numbers provide one of the first looks at how charter schools compare with traditional public schools when it comes to suspension, and also reveal troubling inconsistencies with how data is reported.

You decide: Does the punishment fit the student's offense?

The data, obtained through multiple Freedom of Information Act requests, show charter schools suspended a higher percentage of students than district-run schools. But in separating out high schools from grammar schools a different story emerges.

CPS-run high schools and charter high schools suspended basically the same percentage of students, with 18 percent of kids enrolled getting at least one out-of-school suspension last year.

In fact, nine of the thirteen schools suspending more than half of their students are neighborhood high schools. Three others are run by the Academy for Urban School Leadership.  

*CICS disputes the number reported to the state for CICS-Ralph Ellison. A spokeswoman said the number was misreported at the campus level.

**These schools closed in June 2013.

OSS stands for “Out-of-School Suspension”
ISS stands for “In-School Suspension”
Student Count is the number of students who received one or more suspension last year, meaning if a student got more than one suspension, they were only counted once.

CPS tracks the number of suspensions at its schools and recently released that data to the public. But charter schools are not required to report suspension numbers to CPS. They are now, however, asked to report the number of students that got at least one suspension in a given school year on compliance forms filed with the Illinois State Board of Education.

WBEZ obtained those forms through a Freedom of Information Act request. But in order to look at suspensions across all schools, WBEZ also filed a Freedom of Information Act  request with CPS for comparable numbers—counting students—at district-run schools. (Earlier this year CPS released data around suspensions and expulsions, but those numbers counted suspensions, not the number of students affected.)

Here are the main findings:

  • Of all students enrolled in CPS, including charter schools, more than 50,000 students (13%) got an out-of-school suspension last year.
  • On average, charter high schools and district high schools suspended 18 percent of the students enrolled.
  • Charter grammar schools, overall, suspended 14 percent of all students enrolled. That’s double the percentage of students suspended from district-run grammar schools, which on the whole suspended 7 percent of the students enrolled.
  • Collectively, schools run by the Academy for Urban School Leadership suspended about 22 percent of their students. AUSL’s five high schools, on average, suspended 42 percent of their students.
  • The district’s therapeutic day schools, which serve students with the most severe behavior problems, gave out-of-school suspensions to large percentages of their students last year, with Montefiore suspending 100 percent of the students enrolled.

Suspensions and expulsions have been in the spotlight a lot lately. CPS has revised its Student Code of Conduct more than once in recent years and is in the process of reviewing it again. In January, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice urged schools to use suspensions and other strict discipline only as a last resort.  And in March, federal data showed what juvenile justice advocates have known for a while: that minority students, especially African Americans, are suspended at disproportionate rates.

“We know (the code of conduct) is not being applied the same way,” said CPS spokesman Joel Hood.

District officials are currently conducting community summits and focus groups, including one on the West Side this Thursday. CPS plans to do district-wide professional development over the summer.

Charter Schools Vary Widely

On the whole, charters suspended a larger percentage of their students than district-run schools did, but the numbers vary a lot from school to school.

Generally, charter schools in Chicago have a reputation for being more strict than other CPS schools--and, at many of them, you can feel that when you walk in. The logic goes: a more orderly school, fewer disruptions, more learning.

Bill Olsen, the principal of Noble Street College Prep’s flagship campus, said the network’s approach to discipline is part of the draw.

“We just had a lottery with 840 families who want to send their student to Noble and one of the big things that families say over and over again is safety,” Olsen said. Noble has gotten criticism for it’s strict approach to discipline and the detention fees it would charge students. Last month, Noble announced it would drop those fees, because they were becoming a distraction.

Overall, a quarter of the students enrolled at Noble schools got at least one out-of-school suspension last year. The flagship campus, where Olsen is principal, had the least, suspending 14 percent of its students, while the newest campus in the 2012-2013 school year, Hansberry College Prep, had the most, suspending 59 percent of its students.

“One of the things we do see is that some of our younger campuses tend to have higher rates, while some of our more established campuses have lower rates,” said Noble spokeswoman Angela Montagna.  “If they only have freshmen, you might see that be a little higher because freshmen tend to get suspended more than seniors. But also, it’s a school establishing itself in a community. People know what Noble’s like in West Town.” (Noble’s older campuses, including its flagship, are on the city’s west side.)

Of all the charter school networks, Perspectives Charter Schools suspended the largest percentage of its students, with 41 percent getting one or more suspensions last year.

In a statement, Kim Day, the network’s chief education officer, said the Perspectives schools “sweat the small stuff—and the majority of consequences are based on principles of restorative discipline.” The network focuses on what it calls “26 principles of A Disciplined Life.”

A few single-campus charter schools suspended almost none of their students. At Namaste Charter School, where 6 percent of students got an out-of-school suspension last year according to CPS numbers, school officials attribute low numbers to the school’s commitment to physical activity throughout the day.

There are at least 90 minutes of movement worked into every school day, said Rickie Yudin, the school’s Director of School Culture & Wellness. There are 60 minutes of formal physical education, 20 or 25 minutes of recess depending on grade level, and another 10 to 15 minutes of movement within the classroom.

The two people speaking in this clip are Yudin and Namaste’s Director of Development Allison Isaacson Lipsman.

At the Academy for Global Citizenship, no students got an out-of-school suspension.

North Lawndale College Prep’s two campuses reported low numbers of out-of-school suspensions. John Horan, the school’s founder, said they’re able to keep misbehavior at bay by keeping a lot of counselors on staff.

“We have no metal detectors and we probably have three security guards,” Horan said. “We have nine counselors and they’re all in on this culture of peace, doing the front end work to prevent the sort of behaviors that result in out-of-school suspensions and expulsions.”

Chicago International Charter Schools—the largest network in CPS—suspended 19 percent of the students enrolled across its schools.  A CICS spokeswoman said several of their campuses, including Ellison, misreported suspension numbers on the ISBE compliance form.

Data Quality Problems

CICS wasn’t the only charter school network with mixed up, inconsistent or incomplete data.

According to the data reported to the state, NLCP-Collins had fewer than 10 suspensions. But the Collins campus Principal Tim Bouman said the school had more suspensions than what was reported. That’s because they only reported suspensions resulting from serious infractions. He sent WBEZ numbers for all out-of-school suspensions, even for minor things, and turns out about 40 percent of the students enrolled last year got one.

LEARN Charter School Network misreported numbers for two of its five campuses. Greg White, LEARN’s chief executive, said it’s unclear why the numbers were misreported.  Ten charter schools filled out compliance forms, but left the section regarding discipline blank. And a handful of charters did not file a form with ISBE.

A lack of consistent and reliable data around suspensions and expulsions is nothing new. The student group Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, or VOYCE, found similar problems several years ago when they began researching school discipline.

“Either people would say they didn’t have the data or they weren’t going turn over the data, so we ended up having to file Freedom of Information Act requests,” said Shawn Brown, an organizer with VOYCE.

VOYCE is pushing a bill in Springfield that would require all publicly funded schools to annually publish numbers of suspensions, expulsions and arrests. It passed out of the Senate last week, 55 to zero. The House Education Committee is scheduled to take it up on Wednesday morning.

CPS spokesman Joel Hood says charter schools are currently not required to report suspension numbers to the district. But, district officials are pushing charters to join a district-wide effort away from zero-tolerance policies to more restorative discipline. Hood said new charter school applicants will also get preference in the approval process if they develop holistic discipline codes.

AUSL spokeswoman Deirdre Campbell said the numbers of students getting suspended at the schools run by the non-profit group seemed off, too. She specifically took issue with the numbers at Orr Academy, which suspended the highest percentage of its students last year, according to CPS data.

Campbell said school leaders at Orr argued that using 20th day enrollment didn’t capture the total number of students that went to Orr last year and therefore, the proportion of students getting suspended would be lower if you factored in student mobility. As a rule, however, CPS uses the 20th day count for nearly all of its data collection and school accountability metrics and there's no way to know if students who left the school or entered after the 20th day got an out-of-school suspension.

Keeping Calm Over Time

The majority of the schools suspending a large proportion of their students are on the city’s West Side. One of them, Manley Career Academy, has been working to improve its culture and reduce suspensions for years.

In 2009, then-CPS CEO Ron Huberman launched a $30 million initiative to create a “Culture of Calm” inside the city’s most troubled high schools. Manley was one of them.

School administrators and community partners, like Umoja Student Development Corporation, say it worked—out-of-school suspensions dropped 30 percent between 2010 and 2013. Principal Warren Morgan says serious infractions, like fighting, drug possession and vandalism, continue to fall.

But last year, the total number of suspensions doubled, and more than 70 percent of the students enrolled got at least one.

Morgan said that after the success with Culture of Calm, he wanted to focus on the school’s academic performance. But students were still coming late to school and not getting to class on time.

So last year, he said, he implemented a few policy changes. It was the first year students were required to wear uniforms and the first year that students would be required to serve a 9th period if they were tardy. If a student skipped out on 9th period, they would get a suspension.

And a lot of students learned the new rules the hard way. Hence, the spike in suspensions.

“Whenever you start a new policy that hasn’t been done and it’s a culture of no expectations, you’re going to have a lot of students that are pushing that. And we wanted to follow through on it,” Morgan said.

But the policies contributed to an overall increase in attendance and academic performance, Morgan said. Last year, Manley moved from a Level 3 school, the lowest rating CPS gives, to a Level 2 school. At the same time, many of the resources—and people—that came with the Culture of Calm grant left.

Ilana Zafran works with Umoja, the group that partnered with Manley under Culture of Calm. They're still involved at the school, though not as much as when the grant was in place.

She says Principal Morgan’s choice to tighten up on kids coming late is not bad intentioned.

“Ideally, you’d be able to assign each of those young people a case manager to figure out what’s going on. Why aren’t you getting to school on time? And then that person might show up at the kid’s house every morning and escort them to school,” Zafran said. “Schools unfortunately don’t have that type of man power or woman power. Non-profits don’t have that type of funding to be able to staff that kind of thing.”

Principal Morgan was able to keep Brian Collier on staff as the school’s dean of students.  And during a  visit to the school during dismissal, it’s easy to see why.  Collier stands at the entrance, wearing a bow-tie, dreadlocks and a smile as wide as his face, interacting with students as if he’s known them since they were five.

He still staffs the peace room, but only as needed. But he says the biggest challenge isn’t inside of Manley.

“What comes into anybody’s school building is what is happening on the streets of their cities or their townships or the homes,” Collier said.  “The shift has to not only happen in here but we’ve got to start doing things differently outside.”

For now, Collier says, that is a “utopia that does not exist.” 

Becky Vevea is a producer for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.

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