Success Academy is a reflection of how the educational system in America negatively impacts certain student groups.
In response to the Success Academy charter network suspension debacle, I am choosing to speak to all educators in America since the Success Academy experience mirrors the educational public school system in the United States. To all educators, it would be effortless for me to engage in the type of politics that lends itself to solely being critical of Success Academy for exercising the type of school practices that have perpetuated segregation and discrimination of mostly Black, Brown (i.e. mostly Latino) and American Indian, as well as, poor students and their communities. However, we all have contributed to those school practices that lead to overrepresentation in special education and suspensions for the above identified groups in schools nationwide. Therefore, I will focus my response on the macro rather than the micro in order to infuse pragmatism into an issue that does not occur in isolation, but one that is systemic in nature. This way I can get to some of the root causes that allows us as educated citizens to intervene in ways that are targeted. Therefore, I ask readers not to use my statements to become the problem, but to become the solution. In other words, don’t take it as a personal attack on “you”, but a call for "all of us" to hold ourselves responsible for societal challenges such as inappropriate suspensions and classifications of marginalized groups in school. I am fully aware that these appalling outcomes at Success Academy and schools across the nation are not all intentional, but as a result of a lack of adult intentionality that is guided by colorblind approaches to teaching and learning.
Success Academy Charter Network Potential Root Causes of Suspensions
One root cause is that many believed charters were “the answer” we could trust, but it turned out to be an experiment on Black, Brown (i.e. mostly Latino) and poor students and their families in neighborhoods perceived to be deprived that did not live up to the expectations. A second root cause is that many charters, including traditional schools have always made the assumption that the only way for Black, Brown and American Indian, as well as, poor students to be successful were to help them acquire White middle class ways of being. A third root cause is that educated folk have engaged in making false comparisons by juxtaposing traditional and charter schools as competitors, when in essence they are unacknowledged conspirators in medicating, prosecuting and excluding students based on “differences” nationwide. We are all drinking from the same bottle, so changing the wine does nothing to the bottle of discriminatory practices. Yes…shame on Success Academy charter network for promising engaged hardworking families and students a better education only to then treat them as outsiders whose values were perceived as problematic. As a result, these students were seen as deserving of life-altering suspension sentences, which is a fourth root cause. A fifth root cause, is the “NO EXCUSES” and Zero tolerance culture cultivated by charters like Success Academy as a way to control the learning experiences of Black, Brown and American Indian, as well as, poor students. These potential root causes unfortunately are not uncommon experiences in most pre-k to college educational settings in America. It is a state and nation-wide problem and we all should be held accountable to change the beliefs, policies and practices that perpetuate these horrendous outcomes for these student groups. Why? Because one suspension is one too many, particularly for our Black, Brown and American Indian, as well as poor students who already enter the world with demerits facilitated by institutionalized bigotry.
Success Academy Potential responses to Root Causes
Where can Success Academy and all other Pre-K-through college educational settings in America begin in order to address disproportionate outcomes in suspensions and classifications?
Transform your school culture: School leadership must establish a shared equity vision in practice, not only in theory. Reflect on the mindset of your educational culture in relationship to students and families. If your primary reason for partnering with them comes from a deficit perspective with a desire to save, reprogram or assimilate them to exist within your cultural norms. Then, it is time to not only revise your code of conduct or handbooks, but revamp your school culture systemically. Ensure your school culture does not promote a one size fits all for instruction and social emotional learning. In addition, learning must trump disciplining. Train all staff on the differences between equity versus equality and opportunity versus access in order to create an inclusive and equitable culture.
Change your narrative about students racial, cultural and social identities: Dispel the notion that students with particular identities have a certain destiny. Promote multiple identities and critically analyze stereotypes that threaten student performance. Name the identities of students we suspend and classify in our data collection sets while examining our own racial, cultural and social identities in comparison to students we make decisions for and ensure our decisions are not based on norms devised by our own identities. Train all staff on culturally responsive education in order turn identities into levers for applying learning across experiences and not a way to acquire derogatory labels.
Suspend your privileges related to the benefits of playing the politics: Leaders must be willing to be disliked by families who encourage you to push out certain groups of students, so you cannot be influenced by their rhetoric, but stay persistent in ensuring all students have access to an exemplary education. Get over the fact that one-quarter or more of your staff will dislike you because they think you are soft on crime when you don’t suspend based on subjective feelings. Instead, do what’s right for each child based on their circumstances and spend quality time trying to win as many of the hearts of those naysayers within your staff by the way you treat them. Last, we should also suspend and classify adults that struggle with teaching certain children. Think about the learning that gets lost (i.e., willingness to work across and co-exist with diversity) and the learning that is gained (i.e., I can never be different or make a mistake) when we practice exclusion.
School as a protective factor, not a risk factor: Teach staff that suspensions are not an intervention, but a way to create pain and suffering that sustains the prison pipeline. Ask staff to reflect on, before suspending a student who is more likely to get stopped and frisked by police on their way home. Consequently, if they really care about their students and see them as they see their own children, then they should keep them in school and don't throw them away.
Embrace your biases in service of doing what is right by students: Don’t devalue the students and families you promised to serve as a result of your unexamined biases and distorted beliefs about them. For example, Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz wrote in the wall street journal op-ed in 2015: “People have understandably expressed concern that some students may have trouble meeting behavioral expectations and ask why we can’t simply relax them. “The answer is that success Academy’s 34 principals and I deeply believe that if we lessened our standards for student comportment, the education of the 11,000 children in our schools would profoundly suffer.” Here is an educator who expressed that if students can’t meet or achieve prescribed standards they are a problem. In addition, the message in this statement expresses that certain students are so problematic that to have them around other students will lead to suffering for those other students. I could not imagine letting anyone talk about my child in that way because it sounds predictive.
Success Academy and traditional schools will continue to hurt the lives of students and families unless we all abolish suspensions. As it stands now, how schools suspend is based on the following distorted perceptions of school practices, students and their families:
- Students are unfit to learn
- Student differences predict low performance outcomes
- Students standards are low compared to my norm
- Suspending certain students will ensure others succeed
- Suspensions lead to improved behavior and outcomes for the suspended students
- We only suspend students for egregious behavior (i.e. good reasons)
- It is our philosophy to suspend for bad behavior
These above sound too familiar in terms historical experiences in which certain groups were treated like property and not human beings. Success Academy and other educational settings in America need to loosen their restrictive boundaries on Black, Brown and American Indian, as well as, poor students, so that all can grow. In addition, all educational settings should stop de-authorizing the same people you promised to empower. Moreover, remember your role and task as educators is to serve and ensure all students succeed at similar levels. Therefore, all educational settings should apply research that leverages the strengths of the populations they serve and only hire technical assistance providers that have an equity and culturally responsive change process tailored to the needs of students.
Dr. Patrick Jean-Pierre is the Director of Technical Assistance Center on Disproportionality (TACD) at NYU Metro Center.