Filed Under:  Education, Local, News

Carver parents, students express their dissatisfaction, concerns

23rd December 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Harden
Contributing Writer

Parents Bianca Johnson and Darlene Scott aren’t making any excuses for their teenage boys.

They don’t deny that their children can at times be a handful, and that they resist – and act out – especially when they feel they are aren’t being treated fairly.

“I’m not saying he’s an angel,” Johnson said.

The boys, Jherrel Johnson and Kalob Scott, have also been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and can require a different approach than other children, both mothers said.

But the G.W. Carver Preparatory Academy’s hyper-strict discipline policies, along with building academic concerns, have become too much for Johnson and Scott to tolerate.

Their boys are spending too much time out of the classroom – not learning—for minor infractions that could be addressed without kicking them out of class, giving them detentions and suspending them from school, they said.

Both parents made the decision this month to withdraw their kids from Carver Prep and transition them into home schooling.

Their decision was announced publicly on Tuesday at a press conference, along with one other Carver parent and an announcement from the group Public Education Support Team (PEST) that “Liberation Academy,” a home schooling initiative, would open in January to provide “certified retired teachers and a sound education without the harsh rules and oppression that occurs at charter schools.”

Collegiate Academies, the Charter Management Organization that runs Carver Prep, Carver Collegiate, and Sci Academy, has a zero-tolerance discipline policy that escalates their boys’ issues rather than solving them, Johnson and Scott said.

Criticism of Collegiate has heated up over the past month.

In November, students walked out in protest against conditions at the school, including the discipline policies.

On Wednesday, a rally was held to bring attention to the concerns of the students. A list of demands and concerns was then brought to the Collegiate board meeting.

Scott said she has tried to work with the school over the past year and a half. However over the last few weeks was pushed to her limit. At one point, she was called and told that Kalob had been suspended for wearing the wrong color shoes. Kalob told her he had been told he was suspended because he had been absent the day before. The following week Kalob was punished for stepping off the taped line in the hallway and interacting with a passing student.

On Jherrel’s first day of school, he was suspended for cursing on the bus. Johnson asked to see the video because she knows it takes a lot for her son to curse. She was told she couldn’t see the video. The next day, Johnson said they determined that it wasn’t Jherrel who cursed. No apology was given.

Then Johnson says, Jherrel was suspended for being disrespectful and for excessive talking. So thereafter, he was suspended because he had a certain number of detentions, which Johnson said was like double punishment. When Johnson tried to get more detail about the charge of “excessive talking,” she said teachers and administrators would only tell her that that was the policy.

Johnson said she tried to get Jherrel evaluated by the school because of his ADHD, so that he could get an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or some type of extra support, but that never happened.

“My son was becoming depressed,” Johnson said. “He dreaded Mondays – he felt like he was going to prison.” If he asked a question, he would get punished, and if he didn’t, he wouldn’t understand the lesson, she said.

For minor infractions, like not having a belt, she said Jherrel would be “side-lined,” – kept in school, but not allowed to go to his regular classes, and not allowed to do the work. “He needs to be in class. What a child is wearing has nothing to do with education. If a child does not have a belt, how does that disrupt a classroom?”

Kalob had an IEP, Scott said, but she felt that there were simple steps that could be taken under his Behavior Intervention Plan that simply were not taken.

But it’s not just Jherrel and Kalob who are being suspended.

Collegiate Academies takes the top three spots for out-of-school suspension rates in the state’s discipline data for the 2012-2013 school year.

At Carver Collegiate, 68.5 percent of the students were suspended at least once. At Carver Prep, 61.36 percent of students were suspended at least once, and 58.39 percent at Sci Academy.

While statistically out-of-school suspensions are a tool Collegiate uses at a rate exponentially higher than city, state and national averages, according to the Carver handbook: “When a scholar is out of class he/she is not learning. Therefore, we take suspensions at Carver Prep very seriously. Many of our scholars have extreme academic deficits and needs and cannot afford to miss a minute of class. We believe that our classes are so packed with learning that missing a day at Carver Prep is like missing a week at another school. Because of the academic consequences of suspensions we focus on small behaviors in an effort to prevent the more serious behaviors from occurring.”

On any given day 20 to 30 students were being suspended, Johnson alleges. Academically, this made Johnson suspicious because she said the test scores continued to rise. “How can they keep going up if they are never in class?” she asked.

Collegiate’s response to the sky-high out-of-school suspension rate is that first, the data is self reported, and that not all schools report with transparency. Also, “80 percent of the suspensions in our schools are for a single day.” Collegiate also refers to their expulsion rate – just 2.6 percent for the 2012-2103 school year. And “We use so many other interventions!” wrote Collegiate President Morgan Carter Ripski. “All scholars benefit from individualized behavioral supports via our advisory program, mental health programming, and positive behavior intervention systems.”

In the concerns presented to the board on Wednesday, the Carver students wrote that: “We get disciplined for everything and anything. We get detentions or suspensions for not walking on the taped lines in the hallway, for slouching, for not raising our hands in a straight line. The teachers and administrators tell us this is because they are preparing us for college. But walking on tape doesn’t prepare us for college. It trains us for the military, or worse, for jail. If college is going to be like Carver, we don’t want to go to college.”

Asked about the taped lines, CEO Carter Ripski gave the following response: The average high school transition time (time it takes to walk from one class to the next) is nine minutes long! At Collegiate Academies, we value expediency. Our hallways are narrow and, in an effort to build the habit of walking quickly from one class to the next, we ask 9th grade scholars to walk in line. As scholars increase in grade level, the lines in the hallways disappear – in 10th grade, there is a single line down the middle of the hall and students are asked to walk to the right of the line (as is customary in any crowded public space), by 12th grade, there are no lines in the halls.”

But in terms of expediency, Scott and Johnson argue that if time is so precious, they would do away with the lengthy practice of shaking every single faculty member’s hand every morning.

Also on Wednesday, the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote a letter in support of the Carver students. “We write to express our concerns about the poor school climate and harsh disciplinary practices at Carver Prep and Carver Col­legiate,” the SPLC letter reads. “It is clear that the current practices lack pedagogical value and run afoul of your own code of conduct.”

The letter alleges that students are being suspended without due process and their right to appeal and without the legally required documentation. “Second, students are being suspended for infractions that your Family Handbook clearly states should receive demerits or detentions,” the letter continues. And in conclusion: “Ignoring their request sends a disturbing message of disrespect and disregard to the same youth whom you pledge to inspire and motivate.”

The SPLC is currently suing the Louisiana Department of Education on behalf of students with special needs in New Orleans based on evidence that schools are not providing students with special needs the access, evaluations and accommodations as required by law, and that students with disabilities are being unjustly disciplined.

“The teachers are not equipped to deal with ADHD or any learning disability,” Johnson said of her experience at Carver. “You can’t use one teaching style or one discipline approach to teach all children. And you have to have classroom experience. I don’t have a teaching degree and I know that. It’s common sense.”

She said that punishing her son every day, and then forcing him to shake every teacher and administrators hand with a smile every morning – was having the opposite effect of instilling respect.

Things like punishing the kids for stepping a half inch off a taped line, and locking bathroom doors, and serving cold food every day, show disrespect toward the kids, Johnson said. “They wouldn’t put their own kids in this school,” she said of the faculty. “They wouldn’t want their own kids to endure such torture.”

Scott said that Kalob really hated it when an administrator would talk to another adult right in front of her son, using big words and acting as if Kalob couldn’t understand what they were saying.

But in addition to their sons too often getting in trouble, Scott and Johnson said they had concerns about academics and the inexperience and qualifications of teachers.

According to Scott, there is no library, no textbooks to take home, and no computers for the students to use. “How does that prepare them for college,” asked Scott.

Johnson also did not like that at Carver, a 65 was considered a “C.” And that the letter “D” was eliminated entirely from the scale.

To Johnson, it felt like the grades were being manipulated to appear better than they really were.

Scott also said she did not feel like she was comfortable with the grading scale and with Kalob’s academic needs being met.

A 65 at Carver would translate to a D or F at another school she said, thus setting him up for failure.

According to Carter Ripski, “The academic program, coursework and assessments at Col­legiate Academies are rigorous. At many high schools, homework is more heavily weighted than test scores. This is not the case at Collegiate Academies. Thus, set our grading scale to avoid unfairly penalizing students for these rigorous assessments. Additionally, the grading scale at Collegiate Academies closely mirrors the state scoring for the End of Course assessments (on which a “Good” = 60%).”

Scott said she had to battle with the school for months – even securing an attorney – just to get a copy of Kalob’s report card so that she could even explore the option of transferring him to another school.

At Wednesday’s rally and meeting, the Carver students also listed additional academic concerns: Learning material below grade level, not having a library or textbooks to bring home and having their reading abilities and test scores publicized to their peers.

Under “Respect for Students,” the Carver students wrote that “The teachers don’t connect with us or where we come from. . . Some of the teachers are racially insensitive. None of the teachers are from New Orleans. They can’t relate to us, our neighborhoods, or our community. They have no respect for our customs and cultures, and simply want to make us more like them without understanding us or our background.”

School food was also an issue addressed. The students wrote that they wanted hot meals, a larger portion size, and to be allowed to bring food from home.

On Friday, Collegiate CEO Ben Marcovitz wrote an open letter to the Collegiate community in which he began, “Recently, a small group of activists has been making inaccurate claims about Collegiate Academies.”

The November student protests, Tuesday’s press conference and Wednesday’s rally were “not authorized by our schools; we encourage parents to discuss these events with their students and the dangers of leaving campus without permission and unsupervised,” wrote Marcovitz.

Students who left the campus without permission to protest in November were suspended, as according to the rules in the school’s handbook Marcovitz noted. On Nov. 25, the Juvenile Justice Project of New Orleans, joined by several other organizations, wrote the following in an open letter to Marcovitz: “In November 2013, students at public charter schools across New Orleans are exercising their right to assemble and speak freely about their concerns regarding the quality, policies and practices of their schools, following in a rich tradition of student protests that have led to significant change in our community. Unfortunately, these young people have been met with the consequence of out-of-school suspensions or the threat of out-of-school suspension. . . suspending students for a peaceful protest sends the wrong message to our youth about the power of using their voice (individually and collectively) and about the impact of being civically engaged.”

But while the students and community organizations hope to make changes at Carver, Johnson and Scott decided they’d had enough of the Collegiate philosophy.

While Jherrel struggled in the classroom, Johnson said he was thriving with his initial online lessons, and comprehending what he had been unable to learn at Carver.

Scott said that she had previously considered home schooling and is prepared to get Kalob to the point where he can take the GED exam before enrolling at Delgado.

But according to Marcovitz, a recent survey determined that 93 percent of parents were satisfied with their experience at the school.

Beginning this week, Marcovitz noted that a series of meetings would begin with parents and students to listen and respond to “scholar concerns.”

He also wrote that Collegiate leaders will meet with community activists to learn more about the issues raised in the SPLC’s letter.

For Johnson and Scott, they concluded that the environment wasn’t benefitting their children. “There’s too much emphasis on discipline and not enough on education,” Johnson said.

This article originally published in the December 23, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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