TOPICS > Education

Is kindergarten too young to suspend a student?

October 12, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT  | Updated: Oct 20, 2015 at 6:05 PM
At the largest charter school network in New York City, strict academic and behavior standards set the stage for learning. That doesn't exclude children as young as 5 or 6 years old, who can be given out-of-school suspensions if they don't follow the rules. Special correspondent for education John Merrow explores what that policy means for both the child and the school.

Editor’s note: Since this story aired, Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academy, has raised concerns that during her interview she was only asked questions about suspension policy in general and was not given an opportunity to respond to Jamir Geidi and his mother. NewsHour regrets that decision. You can read Ms. Moskowitz’ letter here and NewsHour’s response here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With more than three million students suspended from public schools each year, President Obama and the federal Department of Education want schools to find alternatives to sending kids home.

Studies show that students who are suspended are more likely to be held back a grade, to drop out of school, or end up in trouble with the law. Most suspended students are in high school or, less often, middle school.

But in some schools, children as young as 5 or 6 are being disciplined this way.

NewsHour special correspondent for education John Merrow looks at high-profile charter schools network in New York City.

JOHN MERROW: If you have ever been sent home from school, what they call suspended, if that ever happened to you, raise your hand. No hands at all.

Do you use out-of-school suspension for kindergartners and first graders?

MARIE CHAUVET-MONCHIK, Principal, PS-138 Brooklyn: No, I can’t. I can’t see it. I don’t see the benefit of it.

When you send a child home, the child is missing instruction. So, I’m actually robbing the child of an education if I suspend the child.

JOHN MERROW: This is PS-138, a public school in Brooklyn, New York. It reports suspensions in kindergarten and first grade. But at the public charter school in the same building, things are different.

WOMAN: So, here at Success Academy, we do have a very structured environment, and we do have very high academic and behavioral expectations for our scholars. And we do suspend children.

JOHN MERROW: Quite a few. Last year, principal Monica Komery issued 44 out-of-school suspensions to her 203 kindergartners and first graders. Her school is part of Success Academies, the largest charter network in New York City. Like all charter schools, they’re publicly funded, but privately run.

The network’s founder and CEO, Eva Moskowitz, believes behavior sets the stage for learning.

EVA MOSKOWITZ, CEO, Success Academy Charter Schools: If you get it right in the early years, you actually have to suspend far less when the kids are older, because they understand what is expected of them.

JOHN MERROW: Moskowitz opened her first Success Academy in 2006. Since then, the network has grown to 34 schools, nearly all of them elementary. They emphasize science and the arts and are wildly popular among parents, with 10 applicants for every seat.

WOMAN: I was ecstatic when we got into Success Academy. Great school, I tell all my friends and family, if you can, do it.

JOHN MERROW: And what else do they find appealing?

WOMAN: For us, the learning, to me, and the discipline as well.

WOMAN: We do have a zero-tolerance policy around certain behaviors. But I don’t just suspend children as the first course of action. It’s well-thought-out. It’s a process, and there are systems in place.

JOHN MERROW: The code of conduct runs six pages and identifies 65 infractions, from bullying and gambling to littering and failing to be in a ready-to-succeed position.

Former Success Academy student Jamir Geidi told me about some of the other rules.

JAMIR GEIDI, Former student, Success Academy Upper West: I would always have to keep my shirt tucked in. And let’s say I wasn’t wearing black shoes, and I was wearing red shoes. Then that would be an infraction.

JOHN MERROW: These infractions, if repeated, could trigger an out-of-school suspension, at the discretion of the principal. By contrast, principals at traditional public schools have to have district approval before suspending any K-through-third-grade student.

Suspension rates at Success Academies are almost three times higher than the city’s K-12 public schools, even though 70 percent of Success Academies are elementary schools.

What does a 5-year-old do that warrants an out-of-school suspension of one day or multiple days?

EVA MOSKOWITZ: Well, using sexually explicit language. It’s very upsetting.

JOHN MERROW: First time?

EVA MOSKOWITZ: First time, yes.

JOHN MERROW: But your code of conduct calls for out-of-school suspension for a lot of other things, not just sexually — I mean, for example, calling out the right answer twice without being called on.

EVA MOSKOWITZ: That’s not…

JOHN MERROW: The first time you do it is at level one infraction. The second time is a level two. And one consequence of level two is out-of-school suspension. Or getting out of your seat without permission…


JOHN MERROW: … is a level two, which could be out-of-school, or even having…

EVA MOSKOWITZ: But it — it could be, but it’s not.

JOHN MERROW: I’m sorry?

EVA MOSKOWITZ: We haven’t.

JOHN MERROW: It’s there, but you don’t — you haven’t done it?

EVA MOSKOWITZ: I mean, that’s not the context. A disciplinary code is written to give maximum freedom. And we believe it’s preparing children for life.

JOHN MERROW: Success Academies are obviously doing something right. Last year, 93 percent of Success Academy students passed the state’s math test, compared to just 35 percent in the city’s traditional public schools.

Could out-of-school suspensions be a factor in the network’s academic success? Eva Moskowitz’s critics think so. They accuse her of suspending very young children over and over to persuade parents to change schools before state testing begins in third grade. Could that be true? We do know that some Success Academy students are suspended over and over.

The 44 suspensions at this school were issued to just 11 kindergartners and first graders. One child was suspended 12 times. Eventually, the family withdrew the child. At another Success Academy, 101 suspensions went to just 32 students.

JAMIR GEIDI: I was suspended so many times, it was just like — it was just — it was like, why do I even come here every day if I just know that I’m going to get suspended?

JOHN MERROW: Jamir’s mother told us he was suspended three or four times his first year for losing his temper. She said she was also called two or three times a week to pick him up early.

Other parents told us their young children were sent home multiple times for infractions like not paying attention or for getting out of their seats to look at the bulletin board.

Why do we hear so many stories, and why do we keep meeting these parents who say, early on, we were counseled out; our kid was, like, sent home because he would get up and go look at the bulletin board, a 5-year-old?

EVA MOSKOWITZ: First of all, anecdotes don’t make for statistical trends.

But, in my experience, you know, parents often have a different interpretation of what happened. I often have parents say to me, my child never punched the teacher. I say, well, but you weren’t there.

JOHN MERROW: Jamir’s mother withdrew him from Success Academy after two-and-a-half years. Now 10, he just began his third year at a public school that approaches discipline differently.

FATIMA GEIDI, Parent: Yes, Jamir has had meltdowns. Yes, he has anxiety. Yes, he’s cried. Yes, he’s had outbursts. But guess what? The school says, fine, you need a break. You’re going to go help one of the secretaries in the office. You are going to shred paper. You are going to go water the plants. You are going to do something helpful. When you are ready, you will come back. And guess what? He is getting his education.

JOHN MERROW: Do you ever use out-of-school suspension as a way to persuade parents that…

EVA MOSKOWITZ: No. No. We don’t suspend in order to boost our academics. Like, that’s just crazy talk.

JOHN MERROW: But our sources, including several public school principals, quite a few former Success Academy parents, and one person inside her organization, charge that is exactly what she does, repeatedly suspend certain kids to push them out. However, none of these critics were willing to publicly confront Moskowitz.

EVA MOSKOWITZ: Well, the numbers just don’t support that, John. I mean, what you get is what you see, which is suspending kids doesn’t lead to high attrition rate. That is what the data shows.

JOHN MERROW: In fact, the attrition rate is at least twice that of another major charter network, KIPP. A Success Academy representative told thaws for every 100 new students, at least 10 leave before the year’s out, most of them in the first few months. They are then replaced by students chosen from the waiting list.

In the end, how charter schools conduct their business is basically their own business. New York could demand detailed information about out-of-school suspensions, but they allow all charter schools, not just Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies, to set their own rules.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m John Merrow, reporting from New York City.