Jailing Our Minds

By Abbie Cohen

Illustrator: Hanna Barczyk (hannabarczyk.com)

A crowd of students milled about aimlessly — the doors were locked. Hoods on, shoulders slumped, huddled together to avoid the cold morning wind. They exchanged looks and morning yawns. Every face was Black or Brown. Suddenly, a loud buzz. The doors unlocked. Bodies filed in one by one, feet barely lifting off the cement. At the first set of doors, a petite white woman greeted each person. She stuck out her hand, expecting a firm handshake and eye contact. If anyone did not meet her standards, she sent them to the back of the line to try again.

After passing through the first checkpoint, the students silently climbed a staircase and stripped off their winter clothes. The rules were clear: all jackets, hats, and gloves had to be removed. Everyone had to be in uniform. If anyone failed to complete that task, they were taken into a side room to finish the job.

At the top of the stairs stood another white woman. Everyone also had to give her a firm handshake with satisfactory eye contact. In addition, she offered every person the command: “belt.” On cue, each individual raised their shirt to prove that they were, in fact, wearing a belt. If the woman surmised that someone lifted their shirt in a sassy manner or demonstrated “attitude,” she directed them into a side room. If a person messed up their uniform in the process of revealing their belt, they too were ushered into the side room to re-tuck their shirt and redo the presentation.

Finally, the group entered a large open area. They sat silently in rows, fidgeting uncomfortably. Many of their bodies were too big for the small space mandated for them. As they awaited instructions, there were two options: read silently or stare off into space. There was no noise. No chatter. No laughter. No fun.

After 10 minutes, another white woman emerged. She dismissed each row individually. The silence remained. If a person made a sound or stood up too soon, the woman ordered the entire row to sit back down and try again. The task had to be performed to her exact specifications. As the room gradually emptied, the bodies trudged off in a variety of directions for other checkpoints.

It felt like some sort of prison. At best, it resembled some kind of Dickensian factory, ruled with an iron — and white — fist. In reality, this is the daily routine at STRIVE Prep-Green Valley Ranch, a Denver public charter school that in 2016-17 housed some 120 6th graders, 120 7th graders, and 120 8th graders.

These children are not inmates, they are middle schoolers.

What it means to STRIVE

The STRIVE Preparatory Schools network of charters was founded about a dozen years ago. It has quickly expanded throughout Denver’s educational landscape and to date this charter management organization (which according to the Colorado League of Charter Schools is actually a CMO-nonprofit/EMO-for-profit) has opened 11 schools serving students from kindergarten to 12th grade across the city. STRIVE Prep claims, on the homepage of its website, to provide an academic space “where a revolutionary education is commonplace and attending college is expected.” This CMO boasts that it provides academically demanding courses and high expectations for students. But in practice, in order to reach these objectives, STRIVE Prep has implemented a regimented, punitive educational experience that eliminates creativity, fun, self-expression, and the joys of being a child or going to school.

The STRIVE Prep network appears to fully embody the “no-excuses” pedagogical approach to teaching and classroom management. The no-excuses movement emerged in the 1990s and was later also supported by federal education policies like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) that encouraged market-oriented reformers to solve this country’s stubborn opportunity gap. No-excuses schools argue that they can increase the academic performance of Black, Brown, and working-class youth by instituting a rigid and inflexible disciplinary system. Severe punishments like suspension and expulsion are linked to small infractions like talking in the hallway or not wearing appropriate attire. No-excuses schools suggest that ending behavioral issues guarantees academic success. In practice, however, many no-excuses schools have simply over-punished urban youth, turning public schools into detention centers.

I visited STRIVE Prep-Green Valley Ranch as part of my job as a member of the administrative team at Breakthrough Kent Denver, an organization that provides opportunities to under-resourced middle and high school students, while also preparing recent high school graduates and college students to enter the field of education. I spent much of my time recruiting 6th graders across the city to apply to our program and checking in with our alumni. During the 2016-17 academic year, I visited nearly 30 middle schools and 20 high schools in Denver. What I witnessed at STRIVE shook me to the core. Their disciplinary procedures highlighted the potential pitfalls of turning over public schools to the free market. This kind of autonomy from the public school district is one of the key reasons that charterization appeals to free-market reformers — and other Denver charters have also adopted punitive regimes that essentially criminalize students’ behavior. They seem to take their cues from this country’s prison-industrial-complex: Students are inmates and deserve to be treated as such.

Certainly, not all charter schools have a disciplinary program as strict, rigid, or problematic as STRIVE Prep. But the fact such a program exists in the first place — and in the public system, no less — presents a grave threat to the future of public education in this city and across the nation.

“No excuses”

“No-excuses” charter schools suggest that Black and Brown youth can achieve academically only within environments that have a disciplinary code that mirrors that of the carceral state. These schools explicitly critique the cultural norms and rhythms of non-white students. They imply that the only way to learn is by conforming to a prescribed routine and strict rules that dictate what students wear, what it means to pay attention in class, how students should organize their work, and even how they should walk up a flight of stairs or enter a classroom. In many ways it adheres to a type of “broken windows” reasoning employed by some police departments. If students are slouching, they must be punished. If students are talking in the hall, they must be punished. If students don’t have their eyes on the teacher, they must be punished. Research shows the “no-excuses” model is also built on a profound system of rewards and punishments. If students perform or execute a task well they could receive merits or shout-outs at an all-school assembly. However, if students perform poorly or execute a task not up to “standard” they may be given a range of punishments from detention to all-too-frequent suspensions.

A report published in 2015 by Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, a nonprofit in Denver that, among other things, works to illuminate harsh school discipline, zero-tolerance policies, and the disproportionate impact of those practices on students of color from working-class families, found that from 2013 to 2014 STRIVE Prep-Green Valley Ranch had the fourth highest rate of out-of-school suspensions (OSS) in the city. That year the school had a jaw-dropping rate of 29.5 incidents of out-of-school suspensions for every 100 students. A school that sends kids home so often cannot be effectively educating all of its students.

“No-excuses” discipline is a problem that extends beyond this one school. In Denver’s public school district, more than one-fourth of the just over 200 schools are charters. The 2015 Padres & Jóvenes Unidos report illustrates that in 2013-2014, five of the top eight schools with the highest OSS rates were all charters. The most flagrant offender, Sims-Fayola International Academy Charter School, was Denver’s first all-boys public charter. It had an OSS rate of 71.3 percent in 2013-2014 and shut down about three years after opening, throwing its students and their families into turmoil. The next seven schools on the Padres & Jóvenes Unidos list all have OSS rates between 25.6 and 32.7 percent. Three of them are in the STRIVE network.

School suspensions traumatize students and families, making teaching and learning more difficult. While writing this piece, I had the opportunity to discuss disciplinary procedures with students at Breakthrough Kent Denver’s monthly “Saturday School” program. One student who attended STRIVE Prep-Green Valley Ranch described to me the fear STRIVE instilled in her. Like many 7th graders she enjoyed experimenting with her newfound sense of maturity and creativity. She had recently dyed her hair red. Only afterward did she panic and realize that this act violated her school’s disciplinary code. If an administrator or teacher noticed, she would be subject to an in-school suspension (ISS). She noted that she had already been suspended three times this academic year for wearing the wrong shoes to an exam, wearing fake nails, and wearing an out-of-dress-code shirt because her mother could not afford another STRIVE polo. If she received another ISS, she was sure she would receive an out-of-school suspension. This young student is bright, highly motivated, and excited about her future; she wants to be an engineer. However, she has come to hate school because she is unable to express herself and embrace her creative side.

“Got to Go”

This disturbing phenomenon is not unique to Denver. Success Academy Charter Schools, New York City’s largest charter network (with more than 40 schools and plans to expand), has made headlines for its punitive measures. Two years ago, the New York Times published an exposé of Success Academy based on interviews and documents that “suggest that some administrators in the network have singled out children they would like to see leave.”

The article noted that at Success Academy Fort Greene, a K-4 school, school leaders had a list of 16 students’ names:

The heading on the list was “Got to Go.”

Nine of the students on the list later withdrew from the school. Some of their parents said in interviews that while their children attended Success, their lives were upended by repeated suspensions and frequent demands that they pick up their children early or meet with school or network staff members. Four of the parents said that school or network employees told them explicitly that the school, whose oldest students are now in the 3rd grade, was not right for their children and that they should go elsewhere.

Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy’s chief executive officer, responded to the list by saying “mistakes are sometimes made.” The numbers suggest a different story. Suspensions appear to be endemic to Success Academy and NYC charter schools. According to that same New York Times article:

In the 2012-13 school year, the most recent one for which state data is available, Success schools suspended between 4 percent and 23 percent of their students at least once, with most suspending more than 10 percent. According to the most recent statistics from the city’s Education Department, from 2013-14, traditional public schools suspended 3 percent of students that academic year.

Moreover, the 7 percent of students who go to charter schools in New York City made up 42 percent of suspensions, according to an article in The Atlantic that cited data from 2014. The article also noted that comparable patterns exist in Washington, D.C., and Boston and that in 2014-2015, 48 of the 50 schools in New York City with the most student suspensions were charters.

It is important to note that Moskowitz is a supporter of controversial Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. DeVos, an ardent believer in school choice, envisions school systems entirely geared to the free market. DeVos’ budget proposal outlined her desire to expand school choice across the nation, while also eliminating programs for our most vulnerable students. Her plan would slash $9 billion in the 2018 fiscal year. This includes a $3.5 billion cut to teacher training and after-school programs, among others.

Meanwhile, DeVos wants the federal government to stimulate more choice options both in the public and private school sector. Education Week reported that while DeVos was visiting a charter school in Washington, D.C., she explained, “I think the choices that have grown up and have been afforded to families here are very, very strong and encouraging. I think there’s continued room for more choices and improvements across the board.” DeVos’ support for choice in D.C. ignores the larger context. Charter schools in D.C. suspend and expel at rates substantially higher than the national average. A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office reveals that Black students in Washington, D.C., and students with disabilities were expelled and suspended at disproportionate rates in the 2013-2014 school year. The Washington Post, citing data from that GAO study, noted that “Black students were 80 percent of charter school students, but 93 percent of those suspended and 92 percent of those expelled during 2013-2014.” Moreover, Black boys represent “39 percent of the charter students, but 56 percent of the suspended students and 55 percent of those expelled.” Even more appalling evidence from the GAO report points out that “16 of D.C.’s 105 charter schools suspended over a fifth of their students over the course of the school year 2015-2016.” By expanding charterization and choice, DeVos’ budget will only exacerbate the problem of no-excuses discipline, widening the opportunity gap in the process.

A national report published by the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles, run out of the University of California at Los Angeles by Gary Orfield and Patricia Gándara, provided the first comprehensive nationwide description and comparison of school discipline in both charter and non-charter public schools in 2011-12. Of all 95,000 schools across the country included in the Civil Rights Project’s report, more than 500 charters suspended Black youth at a rate that was at least 10 percentage points higher than the rate for white students. Clearly, the racialized impact of these policies is a national phenomenon. This intensive policing of students of color has bleak consequences for our young students and our democracy.

Educational research has shown that students who are harshly disciplined in school are more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system. A report published in 2011 by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and Texas A&M University’s Public Policy Research Institute found that more than one in seven students who was suspended or expelled “was in contact with the juvenile justice system (i.e., contact with a county’s juvenile probation department) at least once between 7th and 12th grade.” According to a Washington Post article from 2011 that cited the data, “by comparison, just 2 percent of students with no suspensions or expulsions had juvenile justice involvement.” The evidence is clear: No-excuses charter schools only exacerbate this country’s racialized criminal justice system.

Denver Public Schools and the city government have publicly expressed that they want to end the school-to-prison pipeline. Local officials will never reach that goal as long as so many schools treat students as inmates. Democracy is healthiest when our educational institutions reflect our best virtues — creativity, joy, and growth. We must strengthen our oversight over no-excuses charter schools, thereby ensuring that no child in that city — or our country — is subjected to policies that could have been culled from one of Denver’s neighboring prisons.

Abbie Cohen spent a year as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Medellín, Colombia. She is currently a master’s candidate at Harvard Graduate School of Education studying education policy and management.