This school year, most schools in New Orleans are using the same expulsion and enrollment policies and procedures for the first time since 2005, when many of the city’s schools were taken over by a state authority or converted into charter schools as the school system was rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina.
A centralized expulsion center, a new focus on identifying students who might be unwillingly leaving publicly funded schools, and a newly standardized enrollment system are among several efforts in the city that are aimed at protecting the rights of students involved in school disciplinary procedures.
The changes were spurred partly by data indicating that inconsistent and punitive discipline policies at city schools were resulting in large numbers of suspensions, expulsions, and discipline incidents.
Local educators say the changes represent a new step in the evolution of the governance of the city’s charter schools, which by design have the autonomy to create their own policies and procedures. And some say the measures introduced in New Orleans may offer lessons for other urban centers with growing charter school enrollments.
“When you have charters here and there, it’s easy to preserve 100 percent autonomy,” said Laura Hawkins, the chief of staff of the office of portfolio in the Recovery School District, the state authority created in 2003 to run low-performing schools in the state. It took over most of New Orleans’ schools after Katrina. But as the charter sector grew in New Orleans—the majority of students now attend charters—a degree of oversight became necessary to ensure that all students were being treated fairly, she said.
Limits to Autonomy
Indeed, an Education Week analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights shows the city’s charter schools suspending students at higher rates than the regular public schools in 2009-10.
Ben Kleban, the chief executive officer of New Orleans College Prep, a charter-management organization that runs two schools in the city, said that while autonomy is key to charters’ success, “that doesn’t mean that every aspect of public schooling is best left to the site level.”
He said that expulsion and enrollment, in particular, affect multiple schools in a system, and that variations in those policies can result in inequities.
“If you told me I’d be the one asking for less autonomy on something, I wouldn’t have thought that’d happen,” he said.
Advocates for student rights agree that the changes are a step in the right direction, but they say that divergent suspension policies and punitive disciplinary systems in many of the city’s charter schools remain a focus of concern.
New Orleans’ convoluted system of school governance—the Recovery School District runs 12 schools directly and oversees 56 charter schools, while the Orleans Parish school board runs six schools directly and oversees 12 charters—has been touted as a testing ground for school choice. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools points to the city’s charter schools as an example of charters outperforming regular public schools in the same city.
But having more than 50 such schools led to more than 50 discipline policies.
“In a system of independent, autonomous schools, there are going to be fractures kids can fall through because schools don’t have the same kind of accountability,” said Jolon McNeil, the managing director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, a local advocacy group.
Single Hearing Office
The new expulsion policies were developed through the Recovery School District, or RSD, last spring with input from a group of charter school leaders. The policies are now required for schools overseen by that district, and were adopted voluntarily by schools under the Orleans Parish school board.
As of the start of this school year, every public school in the city except for the International School of Louisiana, a language-immersion charter school, uses the same list of expellable infractions and the same expulsion-hearing office, which is hosted by the RSD. Previously, each charter school or its board ran its own hearings, Ms. Hawkins said, which could lead to a conflict of interest. Noncharters used a centralized court but its high expulsion rates were drawing notice.
Most expelled students from schools throughout the city now attend a single alternative school, run by Rites of Passage, a charter operator. The centralization prevents students from moving from one school to the next without notifying the district or the new school about their disciplinary history, said Ms. Hawkins.
Ms. Hawkins said that so far this school year, she thought fewer students have been expelled, and that most of the cases brought to the central office were appropriate.
Mr. Kleban of New Orleans College Prep said that while charter school leaders involved in the working group on the new expulsion policies had strong opinions about what offenses should result in expulsion, in the end most were amenable to the new system.
“It was hard to argue with,” he said.
The RSD’s Ms. Hawkins said that while centralizing the expulsion policy was an important step, the expulsion numbers don’t tell the whole story of discipline practices at a school.
“Expulsions are so rare, and an event like a fight might lead to a spike in expulsions at a school,” Ms. Hawkins said.
She said charges that students in some city charter schools are counseled out of school or leave after repeated suspensions without officially being expelled were harder to track and address.
Despite the lack of concrete data, the issue is worrisome enough that three parent centers that deal with transfers in the RSD have trained counselors to spot cases in which parents are withdrawing their children or students are leaving unwillingly, Ms. Hawkins said. She said a new standardized enrollment system would also help provide more data about when and why students switch schools.
Ashana Bigard, a parent organizer with United Students of New Orleans, a student-advocacy group, said that while the new policies were an improvement, they did not address some other issues with discipline policies. Individual charter schools can still set their own out-of-school suspension policies, for instance, she said.
Mr. Kleban, the charter-management executive, said the assertions that the city’s charter schools attempted to push students out were overblown.
He described suspensions as a tool for schools seeking to hold students accountable: “It’s not because we’re trying to push them out; it’s because we’re trying to hold them to higher expectations.”
But repeated suspensions or retentions can also increase the likelihood that students will leave school, regardless of whether they are explicitly counseled out, said Ms. Bigard. “Until they deal with the very subjective offenses and reasons you can suspend kids,” she said, “there are going to continue to be issues.”
Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment.
A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2013 edition of Education Week as New Orleans Schools Set a Unified Front on Expulsions