Public School Notebook Advocates Compromising Rights of Many for Rights of Few

by Christopher Paslay

The Notebook continues to lobby to keep violent and unruly students in classrooms, suggesting that America’s discipline policies are racist and culturally insensitive.  

Despite recent accolades from the New York Times and the Philadelphia City Paper for their investigative reporting, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook remains committed to its roots: lobbying for the disenfranchised on the fringes of the educational system.  As a result, they often compromise the rights of the many to stand up for the rights of the few.         

This was the case when the Notebook supported the conclusions drawn by Youth United for Change’s two controversial reports—“Zero Tolerance in Philadelphia” and “Pushed Out”—both of which rely heavily on the testimonies of disgruntled youth to paint dropouts and chronic rule breakers as victims of an intolerant and racist school system.  Both lobby for keeping incorrigible students in classrooms where they consistently rob other children of their right to learn; the Notebook’s Winter 2009 article “A growing expulsion pipeline” did much of the same.       

Most recently, in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity, the Notebook ran the story “Expulsion epidemic draws national attention,” which also lobbies to keep problem students in schools, calling for alternative forms of remediation that are often unrealistic or achieve limited success.  The story, like the YUC reports, portrays students expelled from schools across the country as victims caught in an oppressive and racist system, despite the findings of reports such as the Inquirer’sAssault on Learning,” which reveals how disruptive student behavior in Philadelphia schools negatively impacts achievement and learning. 

To protect the rights of the hardworking 90 percent of America’s children struggling to learn in environments tainted by the violent and unruly, I wrote a comment on the Notebook’s website trying to shed some light on the issue:   

“Expulsions in America’s public schools do not happen willy-nilly.  Students are given due process and granted a hearing before they are removed from the system.  In addition, IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) protects students with anger management issues and the emotionally disturbed (many minorities are diagnosed as such) from being removed from a school, and the “Stay-Put Provision” law allows such students to remain in school even during the actual hearings.  In Philadelphia from 2002 – 2008, not a single student was expelled from the District.  Not that the District is free from violence, or those who perpetrate violence against other students; just read the Inquirer’s “Assault on Learning” series and look at the numbers.  It is EXTREMELY DIFFICULT to expel a student from a district (in Philadelphia, even the “permanently expelled” can reapply for admission after their punishment is served), and this is in light of the fact that many serious discipline incidents go unreported.    

[Your article] bills expulsion as an unfair “epidemic” gaining “national attention,” but it ignores the everyday offenses of troubled youth and focuses on the outliers.  The real victims in this situation are the 85-90 percent of America’s public school children who are being held hostage by the violent and unruly few.  Yet somehow the Notebook consistently fails to address THIS issue.  They campaign against a discipline system that is already lacking real teeth, which is counterproductive to establishing a culture of learning in all schools.  If we want to save the education of the masses, we should advocate for better parenting, call for a return of traditional values in our schools and communities, and demand that ALL children respect each other, as well as their teachers, parents, and other authority figures. . . .”

Paul Socolar, the Notebook’s editor, responded to my post by writing the following:

“Some quick comments from the editor to explain the Notebook’s continued interest in this topic of high rates of expulsion as an issue of educational quality and equity.

Philadelphians ought to be considering what approaches to discipline and to curtailing school violence are effective. We know that what many schools are doing now is not effective. There is a growing body of evidence in support of less punitive approaches to school discipline such as restorative justice. We are open to other topics for our reporting. We haven’t seen a similar body of evidence that more systematic implementation of the traditional approach of suspensions and transfers to disciplinary schools advocated here by commenters is effective.

In a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world (that hasn’t alleviated high crime rates), the issue of whether harsh school disciplinary policies not only mirror our ineffective criminal justice policies but also create a school-to-prison pipeline is a real concern to many in Philadelphia.

Study after study provides evidence that harsh disciplinary actions are not meted out in a color-blind fashion. This article points to the finding from North Carolina that Black students were more than twice as likely to be suspended for a first-time cell phone offense compared to White students. . . .”

I followed-up Socolar’s comments with the following post on the Notebook (Socolar never did address the fact that the Notebook compromises the rights of the many for the rights of the few):

“. . . Schools must do what they can to address and remediate the behavioral and psychological problems of their students, but there will come a time when a line must be drawn.  There IS a protocol that public schools follow, and by law, a series of interventions in most cases DOES take place before an expulsion.  But when these interventions meet with limited success (including Positive Behavior Supports and Restorative Justice, both of which can only be done effectively in small, one-on-one situations), there will need to be a policy in place to keep the learning environment safe and organized, a policy that allows the majority of hard working students to get an education, and that policy is expulsion. 

As for The Notebook’s obsession with race and their need to keep reminding everyone that expulsions “are not meted out in a color-blind fashion,” I’d like to ask what they are insinuating by this?  It seems clear that they are suggesting that teachers and administrators in public schools are either racist, or culturally ignorant or insensitive.  As an urban schoolteacher of 15 years, as a coach, as a mentor, and as a citizen of Philadelphia, I would have to beg to differ.  Although this may have been the case 30 years ago (or in very limited situations today), I think the disparity in disciplinary measures by race has more to do with environmental factors such as poverty, education and employment; it’s documented that a higher number of minorities are impoverished, have a higher incidence of out-of-wedlock births, have poor nutrition, etc.  These factors all impact a student’s behavior.  Likewise, these factors impact a student’s ATTITUDE when responding to authority, which may explain why a cooperative student, who surrenders his cellphone with little resistance, may not get suspended for the infraction, while another student, who has a difficult home life and has not learned to deal with authority in a positive manner, might get hit with a suspension for a simple cellphone violation. 

The hardworking motivated students should have a right to learn.  Generally speaking, expulsions are the only reasonable way to accomplish this, in light of the tragic condition of American families, poor parenting, society’s attitude of entitlement, and the overall decline in respect for authority.”

This comment was not rebutted by the editor.

YUC Report Uses Questionable Methodology

by Christopher Paslay


Discipline policies in Philly schools turn innocent youth into criminals.  Metal detectors cause children to break rules.  Removing violent and disruptive students from classrooms lowers achievement and makes schools less safe. 


These are just three of the many outrageous conclusions drawn in Youth United for Change’s recent report entitled Zero Tolerance in Philadelphia: Denying Educational Opportunities and Creating a Pathway to Prison.  In a nutshell, the study absolves chronic rule-breakers of basic responsibility for their own behavior and portrays violent and unruly students as powerless victims caught in an oppressive disciplinary system.


Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this “report” is its methodology.  As its authors noted on more than one occasion in the study, the Philadelphia School District did not release the actual case records detailing the causes behind student suspensions, expulsions, arrests, and referrals to alternative school placements; much of this information is protected under state privacy laws. 


So without any hard data or actual facts on the reasons why students were disciplined in the first place, United Youth for Change, in conjunction with the Advancement Project and the Education Law Center, piecemealed their report together by surveying several hundred random Philadelphia school students; they did not adequately consult school administrators, or disciplinarians, or anyone with objective firsthand knowledge of district discipline policies.


Interestingly, a number of the students interviewed just happened to be the very disgruntled rule-breakers facing discipline actions by the district.  More disturbing was the fact that some of the students who provided testimony for the study were actually YUC members!  Talk about having zero regard for research ethics and integrity.


Tragically, what the YUC report doesn’t reveal is that the true victims in this situation (other than the YUC members who’ve been indoctrinated by unscrupulous adults) are the cooperative students who make-up 85 to 90 percent of Philadelphia public schools, those diligent, hard-working students whose educations get compromised on a daily basis by the violent and disruptive actions of the incorrigible few. 


The question is, who’s looking out for their rights?  Who’s teaching these children that in order to become truly empowered, they must become drivers on the road of life and not get tricked into remaining powerless passengers


Apparently, no one associated with YUC or this unethical, misguided report.   


To Mayor Nutter: What happened to stopping contracts with outside managers?

by Christopher Paslay


“As Mayor, I will call for a reduction in contracts with outside contractors unless there is a compelling educational purpose for renewing the contract.”


Mayor Michael Nutter, Putting Children First


In an educational reform plan dubbed Imagine 2014, Philadelphia schools’ chief Arlene Ackerman announced her intention to shut-down 35 of the city’s lowest-performing schools and reopen them as charters or schools run by outside management.


Although I agree that the District’s failing schools need additional help and resources, I don’t believe the answer rests with outside contractors.  Studies show that educational management organizations (EMOs) such as Edison Schools, Foundations Inc., Victory Schools, and Universal Companies are not producing results.  In 2007, Research for Action, a nonprofit organization working in educational research and reform, conducted a survey on the private managers.  The report stated: “We find little evidence in terms of academic outcomes that would support the additional resources for the private managers.”

The Bulletin wrote an article based on these findings as well.   In it they concluded, “EMOs receive an additional $18 million per year, approximately $768 more per pupil, to run their schools with no measurable difference in test results.”     


But Dr. Ackerman assures us this time around things will be different.  Only successful organizations with proven track records will be given opportunities to run Philadelphia’s failing schools.


One organization Dr. Ackerman touted was the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP).  KIPP schools are praised around the country for high student achievement, especially with minorities in high poverty areas. 


However, KIPP schools are not always what they seem.  A three year study by SRI International, a Menlo Park, CA-based research institute, found that many KIPP schools have an alarmingly high rate of student attrition, which in some cities was as high as 60%.  The same trend was true for teachers, who had a turnover rate of almost 50% in some districts. 


In other words, the time and energy required to work or attend a KIPP school is overwhelming for many adults and children alike; at KIPP, the school day begins at 7:30 and runs until 5:00, and classes are held every other Saturday.


So the question remains: How are we going to staff these schools?  Also, what do we do with the high number of students who transfer out of KIPP schools because the work load is too difficult?          


As Mayor Nutter announced in his education plan outside Samuel Powel School in the fall of 2007, “We know that contracting out to the education management organizations—the EMOs—are not producing results that are any better than many of our regular public schools. So instead of allowing consultants to profit, we should return some of the consultant money to the classroom.”




So what are the solutions?  How do we save the District’s lowest-performing schools? 


By not shutting them down or giving up on them.  By investing in HOLISTIC education, and funding programs that help struggling parents and neighborhoods gain some stability.  By not only holding principals and teachers accountable, but also parents and the students themselves.  By actually ENFORCING the District’s policy on zero tolerance for violence—going into unruly schools and systematically weeding-out the bad apples—permanently removing the students who are ruining everyone’s educations. 


Outside management is not the answer for Philadelphia’s failing schools.  The research proves this, and the Mayor himself has acknowledged this reality.  My only question is, when will Michael Nutter step in and challenge Dr. Ackerman’s new reform plan?  When will he fulfill his campaign promise and stop contracts with outside managers?     


Cracking down on disruptive students isn’t as easy as it sounds

by Christopher Paslay


According to a recent editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer (Education Interrupted, 12/29/08), “The district must do more to quickly remove troublemakers by expediting expulsion hearings and meting out strict discipline.”


This article was written in response to the 1,048 “serious” disciplinary incidents reported in the Philadelphia School District in the first two months of the current school year.  


The sentiments expressed in this Inquirer editorial seem to be echoed by many of Philadelphia’s citizens: The need for the District to crack down on disruptive students. 


As a teacher who’s worked inside Philadelphia’s school system for 12 years (and not a member of the media or a man-on-the-street looking in from the outside), I’ve always been bothered by the accusatory tone of statements like these.  It’s almost as if these people are saying, Our city’s schools could be safe if only the District would get its lazy butt in gear and start disciplining students.


This makes me think of the line in the film Superman III when villain Robert Vaughn says to Richard Pryor, “I ask you to kill Superman, and you’re telling me you couldn’t even do that one simple thing.”


There are over 167,000 students in the Philadelphia School District.  Too many of these children come from households and neighborhoods where education is not a high priority.  Too many come from environments that teach them to solve their problems by using physical force—punching, kicking, slapping, choking, stabbing, shooting.  Their mothers do it, their brothers do it, so why shouldn’t they?


Then you have drug addiction, teen pregnancy, gangs, mental heath issues, the hip-hop culture, and a technologically driven society that panders to the lowest common denominator—a society that teaches our young people to live their lives according to two principles: The path of least resistance; and instant gratification.  


Public schools are not like private schools.  There are laws in place to keep children in the classroom.  You could expedite the expulsion process as the Inquirer suggests, but throwing kids out isn’t as simple as it sounds.  Besides all the red tape of due process, you have issues with special needs students. If a child is learning disabled (if they have an Individualized Education Plan), it is nearly impossible to remove him or her from the classroom without facing a lawsuit; unfortunately, too many of the District’s “serious” discipline incidents come from emotionally disturbed students with special needs.  


Then you have the No Child Left Behind Legislation, which penalizes schools for having too many reported discipline issues (the incentive with NCLB, if you haven’t figured it out, is NOT to report or expel, so your school can make Adequate Yearly Progress and you can keep your job).


In addition, in the United States we have something called the Compulsory Education Law.  This basically means it is the state’s job to educate the citizens.  In PA, kids must remain in school until they are 16, even if they don’t want to be there, even if they’re parents don’t give a hoot about education.  If you remove them from the classroom, you must provide them with an alternative education.  And alternative schools cost millions of dollars to build.  Plus, they have a stigma, which is the real reason why they don’t get built. 


If the District expelled every single student who ruined another child’s education, if 440 North Broad got serious and tossed-out all the gang-bangers, drug dealers, bullies, gun-toting thugs, and every other kid who had absolutely no respect for authority, his peers or even himself, then the city would have a big problem on their hands.  What would they do?  Get to work building a dozen new disciplinary style schools to house and educate these wayward students?  Where would the money come from? 


Plus, you’d have a backlash from parents and without a doubt, the African American community.  There would be cries of institutional racism when our city’s alternative schools were suddenly filled with mostly black and minority students (the majority of the District’s “serious” incidents involve black and Latino children). 


Expediting and implementing the expulsion process isn’t as easy as it sounds.  It is literally the District’s job to “baby-sit” the city’s children until they are at least 16, which is why not a single student has been expelled in over four years; this also explains why unruly students are transferred from school-to-school. 


When you cut through all the smoke-and-mirrors, not many people (outside of schools and the District itself) care about education.  Parents don’t; the community doesn’t; our consumer-driven society doesn’t; and neither do too many of our city’s young people. 


Expelling students is not a viable solution to the District’s discipline problem.  The system can only work if everyone—from parents to the District to the community itself—pulls their own weight and instills in young people the value of respecting their peers and getting an education.   


District Must Expel 20 Students Involved in Sayre Brawl

by Christopher Paslay


It appears that the Philadelphia School District is finally getting serious about their “zero tolerance” policy for violence in schools.  According to a story in today’s Inquirer, “Philadelphia School District officials have vowed to expel the system’s most violent students, tighten codes for others, and attempt to streamline a dysfunctional, inconsistent disciplinary system.”


“We mean business,” district CEO Arlene Ackerman said, vowing to enforce the zero-tolerance policy to the letter of the law.  Yesterday, Ackerman sent out a letter to parents and students detailing this policy.  The heart of her letter reads as follows:


Effective immediately, school administrators are required to suspend a student or group of students for 10 days with intent to expel when there is reasonable and probable grounds to believe that a student or group of students has:

          –Assaulted an adult or another student

          –Committed or incited an act of violence

          –Possessed or has transported onto school property materials to utilize as potential weapons

          If a student commits offenses in any of the aforementioned categories he/she will neither remain at his/her present school nor will be transferred to another district school.  Instead, I will recommend that your students be immediately enrolled in an alternative school placement and, pending the result of an expulsion hearing by the School Reform Commission, will not be allowed to return to a district school for a minimum of one year.  Expulsions may be permanent.  


Mayor Nutter also supported this policy.  “We collectively—the city and the school district—are saying enough is enough,” Nutter said.  “How could no child have been expelled from the school system in four years is impossible for me to understand.” 


No expulsions in four years is not so hard to understand when you teach inside the district.  For starters, keeping tabs on suspensions and expulsions are part of the No Child Left Behind Act.  In order for a school to make Adequate Yearly Progress, suspensions must be kept to a minimum; this might be why suspensions were never enforced.


Second, it’s people like Sheila Simmons, education director at Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, who keep the school district’s zero-tolerance policy for violence stuck in neutral.  Simmons believes the district should put its energy into preventing discipline problems before they start, not “throwing kids out” or “locking kids away”.


Although Simmons seems to mean well, she obviously doesn’t understand the dynamic involved in managing hundreds of students on a daily basis, and the fact that a line must be drawn in the sand.  With the lack of parental and community involvement (and the overall moral degradation of urban society), a school can only give a child so many second chances; soon the education of the children who know how to follow rules and respect authority must be made a priority over the violent youth who continue to rob others of their right to learn.


Kudos to Dr. Ackerman, Mayor Nutter, and the SRC for making safety and discipline a priority in Philadelphia public schools.  Now let’s see if we get results.  The district can put its money where its mouth is and start by making an example of the 20 students who used violence against teachers, police officers and other students last week during a brawl at Sayre High School in West Philadelphia.  The brawl supposedly started when school officials refused to admit students into the building because of dress code violations. 


These students should be suspended expeditiously.  And their hearings should be made public so others in the district can truly see that the Mayor and the SRC mean business.


Let’s ALL enforce our district’s policy of zero-tolerance for violence.  Students, teachers and principals alike should stand up for safety and the rights of the children who want to learn, and stop allowing bullies and thugs to run our schools.   

Philadelphia Needs More Disciplinary Schools

by R.B.


This is what I’ve noticed in my almost 15 years of teaching in Philly schools. 


In all the articles I’ve been reading, in the Inquirer, PSU, and Chalk and Talk, I find one element missing.  It’s not about money.  It’s not about certified teachers.  It’s about the idea that Philly is forced to teach all children.  I agree with this, but with a caveat; there are some students who need to be taken out of traditional schools and placed in alternative settings.


Who am I talking about?  The unruly students whose names come up repeatedly in the discipline office, year after year.  They are a major disruption to the majority of students who want to learn.  Notice I said majority. I believe in giving chances.  But enough is enough.  I’d like to think that if the parents of the students who cared about school sat in on class and witnessed these disruptions, they would be appalled enough to raise their voices in protest and anger.  Their children are being denied a full education because of a handful of disruptive students. 


I go back to my first year as an appointed teacher.  There was a woman who was going to ‘model’ a lesson for me.  The lesson took place after lunch, and it took her almost one half hour just to get to the motivator; she had already lost her temper with two children.  The principal, who was next door, had to come in and see what all the noise was.  Her lesson was interesting, but the disruptive students made it impossible for her to teach.


This is why the majority of students do not get a decent education.  We don’t hear about these problems in the suburbs, just in the inner city.  Why do these problems exist?  Because parents of failing students NEVER show up to school.  Parents who are fed up with their children, tired of teachers calling, don’t know what to do about their children.  These parents then turn around and blame the school for not providing for their child. 


I do believe every child can and wants to learn.  I also believe that students who are disruptive should not bounce from school to school, but be placed in an alternative program where their needs are better addressed. Maybe we should build more alternative schools for these inner city children.  If after one year the student has been suspended multiple times or called to the office multiple times (some schools don’t like suspending), the student must be transferred to an alternative school. 


I can not tell you the many times I have had incredible lessons that died before they even got started.  I can not tell you how many times I’ve watched students shut down because of the few that made it impossible to teach.  It’s not fair to the children who come to school to learn, and it’s not fair to the teachers who spend great amounts of time finding lessons that are not only interesting but allow for critical thinking.  Teachers and students should not be held hostage by a district that says, “we must teach everyone”.


Government is about the good of the people versus the good of the individual.  Maybe the district needs to change its policies so our attention lies with the good of the class, not with the good of a few disruptive individuals.