Testimony of Shannon Hodge, co-founder and executive director of Kingsman Academy Public Charter School, at the Committee on Education for the Student Fair Access to School Act of 2017

Good afternoon, Councilmember Grosso and members of the Committee on Education. I am Shannon Hodge, co-founder and executive director of Kingsman Academy, a public charter middle and high school in Ward 6.

Kingsman Academy serves about 270 students in grades 6 through 12, in a project-based academic program that emphasizes a therapeutic approach to education. Our students face challenges like homelessness and incarceration, and 81 percent of our high school students are over-aged and under-credited. Forty-five percent of our students have disabilities, and a quarter of those students have emotional disabilities.

While I support the Council’s efforts to tackle the overuse and disproportionality of school exclusion, I do not support the Student Fair Access to School Act in its current form. I take this position even though Kingsman Academy has not suspended or expelled a single student in over a year and a half.

I oppose this bill as proposed primarily because it focuses on the symptom and misses an opportunity to address the problems.[1] School exclusion is a symptom of an education system struggling to meet demands to educate the whole child, to reach all students where they are, and to demonstrate high academic achievement using inadequate metrics. School exclusion is a symptom of schools willing but unprepared to take on the challenge of educating all students to high standards while also managing the effects of trauma, mental illness, and intergenerational poverty.  School exclusion is a symptom of recognition and accolades going to schools who show great results on limited metrics with little exploration of the sometimes less-than-desirable tactics used to get there. School exclusion is a symptom of distributing resources for citywide issues, such as improving school climate and special education services, to a limited number of schools on a competitive basis.

Over two years ago, Kingsman Academy made the decision to reduce school exclusion because of its role in the school-to-prison pipeline. None of this work was legislatively mandated. None of this work was required by our authorizer. None of this work was easy.

We made the decision because we experienced firsthand the futility of suspending and expelling students who were already struggling in school. In fact, many of our students came to us from other schools they were suspended from, expelled from, or counseled out of. We realized we needed a different approach to get different outcomes.

At our commencement ceremonies in June 2017, one graduate spoke about being suspended for thirty days as a fifth grader for bringing a knife to school, being kicked out of school in the eighth grade, dropping out of high school for a couple years, and finally making his way to us. He shared with the audience how Kingsman Academy saved his life, gave him hope, never gave up on him, and provided him an opportunity to make his family proud. We did that without excluding him, and he felt and spoke to the difference.

Ending suspensions and expulsions was an arduous process that required much more than simply making the decision to do so. We revisited our code of conduct and ensured that all faculty and staff were familiar with the range of responses available. We implemented positive behavior interventions. We spent time working to identify and address each underlying issue, and many families reported this was the first time a school had done so. We reviewed and revised our interventions system month after month.

We dedicated a significant portion of our limited resources to staffing to be able to change our response to student disciplinary infractions. We have an adult-to-student ratio of 5-to-1 and a student-to-teacher ratio of 13-to-1. One-third of our staff, including 3 social workers and 9 interventionists, are assigned full-time to respond to students’ socioemotional, behavioral, and engagement needs.

We continuously research evidence-based practices appropriate for our student population. With OSSE’s support, we receive ongoing assistance on restorative practices, school climate, and teacher recruitment and retention strategies.

We also experienced unintended consequences. We lost and let go of good teachers who were not willing to work through the change or teach in classrooms where students knew that they would not be suspended. We lost students whose parents did not believe their children were safe in an environment where their peers were not suspended.

Even though we have one of the most challenging populations in the city, we have not needed to suspend or expel a student in a year and a half. Yet our work is not done. We need more. We need the resources to address the problems that result in exclusion. We need resources distributed to schools based on student and school need, not competition. We need improved collaboration between government agencies, community support organizations, mental health practitioners, and schools. We  need to be able to work with the agencies providing our students therapy and medication, but we rarely have the opportunity. The Council can facilitate that collaboration through legislation addressing challenges such as information-sharing and by creating incentives for schools and organizations to create model partnerships to support these students.

Actually reducing school exclusion–and not just on paper–will require more than just the prospect of punishment.

Thank you, Councilmember Grosso and the Committee on Education, for your willingness to tackle this very difficult matter, and we look forward to supporting that work however we can.

[1] In addition, I am concerned that the bill in its current form adds untenable requirements and unreasonable deadlines to the Individual with Disabilities Education Act. Furthermore, the bill as proposed disadvantages single-site charter schools, which often do not have “victim transfer” or “safety transfer” options available to them and need to be able to exercise discretion to ensure the safety of their students.

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