A Brooklyn Charter School Looks Past ‘No Excuses’

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Dhara Patel teaches math at Brooklyn Ascend Charter School in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Ascend is retraining teachers to focus on social and emotional development.CreditDemetrius Freeman for The New York Times

Four years ago, while reporting on the difficulties of life in Brownsville, Brooklyn, one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York, I met a school administrator named Marsha Gadsden who worked for the Ascend Public Charter Schools network. Ms. Gadsden had grown up not far away, attended prep school on a scholarship and later went to Georgetown and Harvard, and she told me she worried about the unforgiving disciplinary codes used by her employer and so many urban charter schools around the country.

Despite a culture that emphasized aspiration — pennants from Stanford, Vanderbilt and Louisiana State lined the walls at Ascend — opportunities for failure abounded. The schools held to a “no excuses” philosophy, the notion that poor children are best taught in highly regulated environments. A child could accrue demerits and suspensions for a wide range of infractions; there were strict protocols for speaking and walking in the hallways. What if you were so excited by a discussion of “Animal Farm” in your English class that you wanted to continue talking about it on your way to science? You couldn’t, because certain transition periods demanded silence.

A 6-year-old could be dinged for failing to wear a part of her school uniform or arriving late, mishaps that are nearly always the fault of a harried parent who has misplaced the keys or forgotten about the laundry. White, privileged children are, for the most part, groomed for self-expression, and Ms. Gadsden feared that a generation of poor black children would be shaped for something different: a reflexive compliance that would leave them unable to question authority.

In 2015, two separate studies were released that put the problems of “no excuses” education in high relief. One, from the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, tallied the disproportionate severity of school suspension and expulsion on black students in 13 Southern states. In 132 districts, black children were suspended at a rate at least five times as high as that for others in the student population. A second study by Joanne Golann, a sociologist, argued that “no excuses” schools produced “worker-learners,” children who might do well on tests but who were constantly self monitoring, held back their opinions and had, in effect, little chance of becoming the next Steve Jobs.

By this time, Ascend’s founder and chairman, Steven Wilson, inspired by the Black Lives Matter phenomenon and the national conversation around mass incarceration, was also questioning the network’s approach and had begun to make changes. Some other charter networks were starting to move in this direction as well, but Ascend, according to James Merriman, head of the New York City Charter School Center, remains the only one in New York City to have formalized an entirely new and progressive system of managing behavior.

Borrowing from the practices of a program called the Responsive Classroom, Ascend began to retrain teachers to focus on social and emotional development. This provided the framework for creative problem solving to help prevent conflicts between students, or between teachers and students, from escalating.

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Students leaving Hannah Young’s math class at Brooklyn Ascend Charter School in Brownsville.CreditDemetrius Freeman for The New York Times

A few weeks ago, for instance, two high schoolers got into an argument in the cafeteria and threw food at each other. Under the older disciplinary model they would have been hauled straight off to detention. But under the new approach they were encouraged to burrow down and explore the root causes of the fight. Melissa Jarvis-Cedeño, the network’s high school director, said that instead of asking students in a situation like that, “What did you do?” the closest adult will ask, “What happened?” These nuanced shifts in language are crucial to keeping children from becoming more angry or defensive. The two boys talked things out, apologized to each other and on their own came up with an appropriate penalty: They volunteered to clean up the lunchroom for several days.

On the day I visited the Ascend high school in Brownsville, a number of 10th graders were grieving for a former student, 15-year-old Rohan Levy, who had been shot to death on a street in East Flatbush not long before. A 10th-grade advisory group, which meets every morning under the direction of a young science teacher, Dan Sonrouille, was seated in a circle and talking. Some of the students were going to Rohan’s funeral that evening, and Mr. Sonrouille told them that everyone processes their grief differently and cautioned them, as he put it, not to “judge the journey.”

In many ways, the most visible change at Ascend is the presence of a school culture that has become intensely therapeutic; teachers are instructed to be warm and present rather than distant and controlling. The chair circle is a regular feature. Often, Mr. Sonrouille said, students will pull him aside when they are on the verge of an ugly dispute and ask him to lead one. Just before Christmas a group of girls who were arguing over boys and accusations that had been made on social media asked him to convene a circle. He told them, as he often does, to “attack the situation rather than one another.” When it’s over, he has the students pose for a circle selfie.

So how has this all panned out? Across the network, suspension rates dropped to 4.2 percent of the student population during the 2015-16 school year, from 9.5 percent in 2012-13. That figure is in line with the statewide suspension rate, though the state has a much lower percentage of children from struggling communities. Of course, suspensions can be reduced simply by refusing to dole them out, but certain transgressions, like physical fights, are still likely to get you suspended at Ascend. The goal, which the network appears to be meeting, is to reduce heated conflict over all. Ascend has also tried to move toward in-school suspensions, to remove children from their peers, but not, counterproductively, away from the process of learning.

For the most part, the students I spoke with felt energized by a new system they perceived as loving and self-directed.

Prianca Pal, a 10th grader, talked about how demoralizing it had been to get detention for missing a homework assignment.

Around the same time that Ascend was transforming its culture, it put in place a new curriculum, more closely aligned with progressive schools, that focuses on intellectual inquiry rather than received knowledge. At Ascend’s lower and middle schools in Brownsville, passing grades on the annual state English test increased to 39 percent in 2016, from 22 percent in 2014, while the rate on the math test increased to 37 percent, from 29 percent. It’s hard to isolate the cause for the improvement, but it is likely to be a combination of both the academic and cultural changes, which makes Ascend a bold testing ground for the theory that children from low-income homes can be educated the same way as children from affluent families.

“Our big purpose here is to create agency,” Mr. Wilson told me. “Our view is not about grit. Our students have a lot of grit, look at their lives. But if all you have experienced is unrelenting structure how do you emerge with autonomy?”

Private-Independent School Leadership and Upper/Middle-Class Families

ISM

Columbia University researchers have published startling—and, for private-independent school leaders, profoundly disturbing—findings from a comprehensive project focused on characteristics of upper- and middle-class youth and their families.1 This is the population from which private-independent schools in the U.S. draw most heavily. The researchers’ overarching conclusion is that “youth in upwardly mobile, upper/middle-class community contexts … [are] statistically more likely than normative samples to show serious disturbance across several domains.” Many of these problems are associated with and/or leading to rampant substance abuse, barely manageable levels of stress, and persistent high anxiety.

The authors, citing their own research and decades of findings from other projects, acknowledge many of their findings to be counterintuitive, in the sense that the traditional problem-family focus in the U.S. has been in the opposite direction socioeconomically. Those on their way to prestigious universities and high-paying jobs may deserve at least as much corrective attention as those found elsewhere on the socioeconomic scale. Although not all affluent students are distressed, “an unusually large proportion shows serious levels of maladjustment, relative to parallel rates in national normative samples.”

For private-independent school leaders, the researchers’ most critical observations include the following. (The headings reflect ISM’s categorization of the research findings, not those of the researchers themselves.)

Maturation

  • Around the age of 13, affluent youth start to exhibit signs of emerging problems.
  • Seeking independence from their parents, early adolescents increasingly strive to be popular with their peers. These affluent peer groups typically endorse “counter-conventional behaviors.”
  • As students experience the hormonal changes of puberty, they also begin identity exploration: Who am I? What will I amount to? “The increasing salience of all these developmental issues across adolescence … accounts for escalating signs of trouble.”

Stress

  • In affluent communities, there is an inordinate emphasis on striving for high achievement throughout the school experience. The chief goal is to develop an impressive résumé.
  • Of major concern is “the sense of pressure, criticism, and overly high expectations from adults. … It is critical to note that pressures to succeed come not just from parents but … from outside the family.”

Home Life

  • Affluent students do not feel any closer to their parents than do low-income students.
  • “Laissez-faire monitoring is a particularly powerful predictor [associated with] high substance use, delinquency, and depressive/anxiety symptoms.”
  • Students show elevated symptoms when they believe their parents value their success more than their integrity. Perceived parent pride drives student self-worth, which then “rests largely—and perilously—on achieving and maintaining ‘star status.’”

Résumé-Building and Anxiety

  • Many students see their success as primarily depending on luck, not effort—which leads to learned helplessness and despondency.
  • For children, mental health suffers when wealth provides more than a comfortable subsistence and the omnipresent desire to acquire yet more pervades. Presented with a multitude of choices (e.g., college-level courses, AP, sports), many students worry about how their decisions will impact their résumés and future job opportunities.
  • Students are “preoccupied with becoming … ‘commodities,’ pursuing activities chiefly if they will enhance their résumés. There is scant time or space to [investigate] ‘who they are’ as individuals, nurturing their unique interests, passions and life goals.”

Alternatives

  • What should we see among upper/middle-class youth? We should see evidence of “a balanced set of values, with behaviorally manifested commitment to intrinsic goals, integrity, and low rule-breaking.”
  • “Ratings [of students] by teachers are easier to obtain [than peer ratings by the students themselves], but can grossly underestimate adolescent problems; [the researchers] … have found consistent elevations on rule-breaking by [students’] self-reports, and almost none by teacher reports.”
  • Parents must be “especially vigilant about keeping their children firmly grounded in intrinsic values.”
  • Because prevention efforts are not succeeding with affluent students, address rampant substance abuse with more urgency.
  • “Our task … is to learn how we might achieve peer contagion of a balanced set of personal values—with authentic commitment to intrinsic aspirations … enlisting the help of teens who widely command respect among their age-mates.”
  • Put greater emphasis on training and supporting teachers as student mentors—“formalization of training and support for teachers in this area, to enhance these beneficial relationships with students in ways that are sustainable at both the individual and institutional levels.”
  • When working with distressed students, empathize not only with students but with their parents, “as their overt wrath and contentiousness often stem from intense underlying fearfulness, and even self-blame, for the child’s problems.”

Leadership in Private-Independent-Schools: Suggested Approaches

Following is an array of ISM-suggested corrective steps. Some of these are perspectives ISM has previously published (indeed, for several of them, for many years now). Others are new to this publication.

Consider the extent to which your school can approach these suggestions to counter the destructive trends highlighted by the Columbia University research team. The first list, “programmatic steps,” deals with organizationally complex approaches. The second list, “administrative steps,” deals with organizationally less complex—though not necessarily simpler or easier—approaches.

Programmatic Steps

    • Focus in lower-school parent education on the upcoming threats to children and their families as the children mature into pubescence and adolescence. The researchers note that lower-school parents must recognize:
      • “the long-term risks to their children of embarking on a path overly focused on achievements;”
      • “the critical importance … of shared leisure time, good communication and monitoring, and firm limit-setting, all starting from the earliest years. By middle and high school … it will be extremely difficult to change family patterns that have become well-entrenched.”
    • Enlist the support of middle- and upper-school youth who serve in leadership positions (e.g., student body officers or editorial staff of school newspapers) or those who are de facto leaders (e.g., those opinion-shapers who do not hold leadership office or title). Solicit their help in addressing the need to focus on:
      • intrinsic over extrinsic values and value-development, and
      • a heightened and strengthened sense of shared community values and mutual support and concern.

The research team notes that, for example, “Interactions with [high school newspaper editors and writers] … have been especially gratifying, as students … have initiated active dialogues about the nature of stresses in their high-achieving communities.”

  • Establish your advisory program as a difference-maker. Incorporate advisory-program excellence into the faculty evaluation system, so that a sustained high level of advisory focus and skill becomes a basic condition of employment for middle school and upper-school teachers. Commit adequate time and utilize some of the faculty professional development budget (ISM benchmark: two percent of the operating budget) to fund appropriate levels of faculty education and training.
  • Design student surveys to measure levels of middle school and upper-school attitudes and behaviors that tend to exacerbate the threats highlighted in the research outcomes. In addition, utilize or develop faculty surveys designed to estimate the faculty’s level of understanding of, and self-perceived capacity to deal with, the network of issues contributing to the threats.
  • Develop a system that integrates philosophically the personal counseling program and the college counseling program so that the two share a common perspective and can mutually reinforce the other’s efforts. Strive to ensure that both programs focus on what the researchers have termed “intrinsic” values and goals, and that the college counseling office therefore shines its spotlight as much toward undergraduate institutions whose missions include developing campus communities, as on high-prestige research universities whose missions may not.

Administrative Steps

  • Review effects of Advanced Placement programs and IB programs on stress-and-health levels of students and their families.
  • Review and reassess the effect of the school schedule and calendar on stress and health levels of students and their families.
  • Assess current approaches to hiring and evaluation of teachers and coaches in “performance” areas, e.g., sports, music, and drama. Hire and reward those who hold, espouse, and model the same “intrinsic values” implied by the school’s Purpose and Outcome statements.
  • Assess the adequacy—in view of the research project cited here—of the current Parent Retention and Education Plan.
  • Encourage, in advisory, personal counseling, and college counseling settings, student consideration of middle school, upper school, post-high school, and post-college “leveling” experiences (experiences providing exposure to people from all socioeconomic strata).
  • Host a research intervention as described in the project cited by this article. “Parent groups, students, and teachers have all been invariably not just receptive … but eager to work with data that are: (a) scientifically rigorous; (b) presented with no judgments … and (c) with specific messages about areas that need attention.”

Private-independent school leaders’ contributions to the issues described by the Columbia University research team (and by many others, usually less comprehensively, over the years) have tended to be indirect. No educator wishes, via adversarial or accusatory messaging, inadvertently to contribute to the “serious disturbance across several domains” described in the research report. A blunt-instrument approach could jeopardize student and family retention.

The ISM-suggested programmatic and administrative steps are designed to assist school leaders in navigating these shoal waters with enough care so as not to antagonize the student-family population, and yet with enough force to make a difference. In combination with one another, this suggested array of corrective programmatic and administrative steps may—with leadership persistence, courage, and patience—allow the institutional ship to sail toward a safer, healthier, and more emotionally and psychologically balanced destination.


1 See “‘I can, therefore I must’: Fragility in the Upper-middle classes,” Development and Psychopathology, 25th Anniversary Special Issue, by Suniya S. Luthar, Samuel H. Barkin, and Elizabeth J. Crossman.

Professional Ethics in Advising

ISM

March 28, 2016, Vol. 41 No. 4

I find ways to make it obvious to all students that I want them to become better, more virtuous people (in ways consistent with our school’s stated purposes and projected outcomes for our graduates).

— ISM Characteristic of Professional Excellence No. 2

The Professional Characteristic expressed above derives from ISM’s research on school culture, and student performance and satisfaction. It is a distinguishing component of ISM’s approach to faculty growth and renewal. A core principle behind ISM’s guidance to schools, in general, is that their reason-for-being is to benefit students. As one dimension of this student-centered focus, we have endorsed a mission basis for middle and upper school advisory programs and emphasized that the advisor is a professional. We have recently encouraged the adoption of a strengths-based approach to advising. To engage in advising that is thoroughly professional and, in the process, to benefit all the student- and family-serving roles a professional educator plays when fully exhibiting the Professional Characteristic noted (i.e., including encouraging student virtue by being a “virtuous” advisor), we recommend incorporating the consideration of theprofessional ethics of advising into advisors’ professional development. Such a consideration would complement steps you already take to inform all faculty of the legal responsibilities that apply at your school.

Professional Ethics

Communities of educators can (and should) collaborate to create shared understandings about the professional practice of advising that serve institutional mission, align with its values, put benefit to students first, and identify legal or other limits and constraints. The terms “ethics” (rather than “morality”) is conventionally used to apply to members of a particular group’s principled consideration of right or good actions. Service to others without attention to its ethical as well as legal dimensions is not fully “professional.”

The Ethical Advisor

An understandable question may arise: Is the ethics of advising any different from that of teaching (since most advisors are classroom teachers)? Why “the ethical advisor”? Why not just “the ethical teacher”? Certainly some ethical principles apply to all who work with young people. However, the following situations suggest some distinctively advisor-centered ethical considerations:

  • advisor personal experience and feelings—feeling especially positive or negative about an advisee, making assumptions about others’ (advisees’) situations and feelings, offering advice to an advisee, coping with own personal life difficulties, and making personal self-disclosure to advisees;
  • advisors’ dual or multiple roles, which raise questions about the advisor’s duty to advisee and to others (advisees’ teachers, coaches, or parents; school administration), including when the advisee is a child of a faculty colleague and when a classroom teacher is “pressuring” an advisor to get advisee compliance with that teacher’s expectations;
  • a planned advisory group activity that (inadvertently) touches on an advisee’s current emotional vulnerability;
  • the high degree of interpersonal closeness that may develop across a four year advisor-advisee relationship; and
  • in academic advising the advisor’s bias (for or against certain courses or courses of study) or, in a highly departmentalized program, lack of understanding of the full curriculum.

In these or other situations, the professional advisor exercises judgment, most often autonomously, with an intention of doing both practical good (effective advising) and ethical good (principled advising).

Professional Development

The topic of ethics has, of course, a long history in philosophical and religious traditions and is a staple of training and continuing education in other professions. It is not possible to summarize that history here or appropriate to direct schools on what assumptions and specific ethical principles should underlie their approach to this topic. We do, however, suggest four approaches to your consideration of the ethics of advising, each of which may include advisor group discussions in a seminar-like atmosphere as well as some measure of individual advisor reflection.

Hold case conferences. With preliminary understandings about student and family confidentiality, have discussions of current advisee situations with the intention of resolving particular ethical questions and, more broadly (and, arguably, more importantly), of focusing awareness on general advising situations and related ethical questions that other advisors may encounter. Instead of or in addition to actual cases, you may wish to discuss fictional
case studies that present potential ethical problems and raise ethical questions.

Discuss queries and other prompts. Consider and discuss any or all of ISM’s Characteristics of Professional Excellence through the lens of ethics—asking: What is “good” about this characteristic? What does it “look like” when practiced in an intentionally ethical way? What are challenges or potential obstacles to expressing this characteristic ethically?

What does it mean to be a “professional advisor? What are the essential differences between being an advisor and “just” being a teacher or an “amateur” caring adult? How does the matter of ethics distinguish “amateur” from “professional”?

What are the essential qualities of an ethically good advisor? From where do these qualities come? Are they “out there” as something like universals for us to discern, embrace, and aspire to? Or are they “up to us” to generate through the shared beliefs and expectations of our community? What would be the benefits and drawbacks of having an Advisor Code of Ethics? What do’s and don’ts should be explicitly articulated? What advisor virtues do we identify and define as central to professional practice in our school’s advisory program?

As appropriate to your school’s faith-based or secular identity, devote time to prayer or to meditation with a guided focus on student (advisee) well-being and on advisor ethical goodness. “Compassion” may serve as a focal point in this practice.

Draft an advisor(y) code of ethics. You and your colleagues may see potential value in creating an Advisor or Advisory Code of Ethics. A simple internet search will yield various codes of ethics in education and other professions, codes that can serve as models in terms of structure and content. You may find that the processes of making the decision to initiate this kind of project and then the collaborative work performed to create the draft document are the main value derived. Your final document might best be viewed as open to future revision. Most important, in practice, it will be hollow, useless, or even detrimental if the culture of the school does not authentically both support and reflect the code’s content and if attention is not given to shared understandings about responsibilities to enforce it. The code cannot create the culture; the culture must be a vital context for the code. It is recommended that your final draft and plan for publication or other uses be reviewed by school legal counsel.

Host a presentation by, and discussion with, an outside professional. Invite an academician, clergyperson, or member of another profession with expertise in ethics to make a presentation and lead a discussion on this topic. In advance, provide him or her with your program’s mission statement, a definition of advisor roles in both group and one-to-one advising, and, if possible, descriptions of some actual ethical challenges and dilemmas that your advisors have faced. You may wish to give him or her an edited version of the list of situations described above to provide focus on professional ethics.

The potential benefits of advisors’ engaging in these practices include enhanced clarity about professional priorities and responsibilities, renewed focus on program mission, and heightened in-the-moment awareness (mindfulness) in encounters with advisees and their families. It is also likely that this awareness will extend to other professional roles at school (as teacher, as coach, as colleague) and, in general, foster a more contemplative way-of-being at school. While these practices may elicit feelings of caution, at least initially, the longer term benefit can be the reward of advisors’ sense of defined and delimited purpose and the feeling of satisfaction in taking the ethical high road in being of help.