Charter school founder Ben Kleban penned an op-ed in the New Orleans Advocate this week explaining how his charter network has changed course (or begun to change course) on school discipline policies.

As the founder of New Orleans College Prep, a network of four schools serving over 1,500 students in pre-K through 12th grade, I have grappled with the complex issues of school discipline since we opened our first school 10 years ago.

And, as the father of two children, ages 4 and 2, my thinking and approach to discipline systems have continued to evolve. I’ve learned what works best can vary greatly for every child. What works to improve my daughter’s behavior is totally different than what works for my son.

Kleban’s schools embraced the traditional “no excuses” approach to school discipline. It’s interesting, though perhaps not relevant, to mention that Kleban founded his charter at the age of 28 with a BS in business administration and an MBA, not a background in education. It’s more interesting to note that he admits that the experience of fatherhood has changed his views on discipline. I’d be willing to bet that significantly fewer charter school leaders who embrace “no excuses” discipline are parents than school administrators who use traditional or progressive discipline systems. But it’s great to see that fatherhood has taught this man that one-size-fits-all discipline policies make it very difficult to meet the needs of diverse learners.

In the beginning years of New Orleans College Prep, we modeled many of our structures and policies on those found in high-performing, urban charter schools across the country, including our approach to student discipline. Many of these schools had improved test scores with disadvantaged populations — and it seemed to be a practical model to follow.

And yet, our focus on structure, order and strict consequences in our early years left us feeling unsatisfied with our mission to meet the needs of every child. Our schools were working for about two-thirds of the students we were serving. And as a result, the percent of students scoring proficient on state exams increased by nearly 40 percent within our first two years. Our team and many of our families felt good about the progress we were making.

But we also knew there was significant room for improvement. Too many of our students were losing class time because of repeated out of school suspensions. We had to ask ourselves why we were suspending these students over and over again if it wasn’t working.

Kleban claims to have come to understand that higher test scores in and of themselves do not indicate that the school is meeting the needs of students and community. It is somewhat surprising that it took this long for his school to realize that repeatedly suspending students wasn’t working, but then again, his school came of age in the era in which test scores were the only yardstick of a school’s effectiveness. That, thankfully, appears to be changing.

Over the last several years, our schools have implemented an approach to student discipline that is far more data-driven, adaptive and responsive to individual student needs. We have empowered our school leaders to make decisions in the best interest of each student and the interest of the entire school community; they are no longer bound to a strict adherence of our code of conduct. While it is sometimes messier than we’d like to admit, our new approach has benefitted our children significantly.

The term “differentiated discipline” is very scary for educators; it sounds like it means that children committing the same offense will receive different treatment. It implies a lack of consistency. (For this reason, someone out there should probably come up with a better term.) To me, what it means is that each child gets the support he needs to build the skills with which to confront challenging situations that would have otherwise resulted in unproductive or maladaptive behaviors. As Kleban says, yes, it is messier. But if the “messiness” of this approach is what it takes to make school work for all of our kids rather than just some, isn’t it worth it? (And I also think there are strategic ways to decrease, if not eliminate, the “messiness” factor.)

As I always say, the goal of this site is to explore ideas and issues in school discipline, not to wade into education politics. That said, I wonder how the education community will view charter schools’ about-face on discipline. It’s no doubt heartwarming to see schools embrace a system that cares more about kids than stats, but what about the collateral damage done by years of no-excuses zero-tolerance discipline? I feel for the kids who suffered while school leaders lagged behind in “figuring it out.” I understand that as educators we are all a work in progress, but it’s hard to forget the cavalier way in which charter leaders dismissed and sometimes denigrated the approach of traditional and progressive schools.

Well, no sense crying over spilled milk now. Great to see a school leader embrace a policy that serves kids and community over compliance and stats.

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