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.
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?”