Suspensions have spiked at most of Charlotte-Mecklenburg's new pre-K-8 schools, which were launched in hopes of creating a calm learning environment for adolescents from troubled middle schools.
That's partly because Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools closed its three most suspension-ridden middle schools and moved those students into schools with younger students. Some of the middle schoolers are continuing to be sent home for making trouble. But an Observer analysis of CMS numbers also shows discipline problems have risen out of proportion to the changes in enrollment. And at some schools, middle-school turmoil seems to be spreading to the younger grades.
Consider these numbers, pulled partly from a report given to the school board in December:
During the first three months of this school year, Walter G. Byers, a pre-K-8 school, had a higher suspension rate than Wilson Middle - which sent students to Byers - had during the same time last year. Normally schools that serve adolescents have higher suspension rates than those that include younger children. At Byers, suspensions in grades K-5 rose from 48 during the first part of 2010-11 to 140 as this year began, even though enrollment in those grades is down.
At Reid Park Academy, K-5 enrollment rose less than 15 percent, but suspensions in those grades almost tripled.
All eight pre-K-8 schools had logged 922 suspensions as of Dec. 1, according to the CMS report. During the same stretch in 2010, those eight schools and the three closed middle schools had 750.
Principals and CMS officials pin the suspension surge on a transition year and a get-tough approach designed to lay a foundation.
"We have just taken a very hard stance on behavior," said Tonya Kales, principal of Ashley Park PreK-8 School, which had 118 suspensions as of Dec. 1. "We have zero tolerance for putting your hands on others."
Tamisha Payne, mother of two students at Reid Park, blames the upheaval on poor planning that left some classrooms so crowded that kids can't move without jostling each other. Her fourth-grader is in a class with 51 students and two teachers, awaiting mobile classrooms that will allow splitting the group.
"It's like a domino effect: One kid starts misbehaving, then another kid starts misbehaving," Payne said. "There's a point when the parents say, 'Enough. This is not a good environment. It's insane.' "
Why the change?
CMS doesn't usually report on suspensions in the middle of a school year, but the school board is trying to monitor conditions at 42 schools that were part of a budget-driven shake up of students and programs. As part of that shuffle, then-Superintendent Peter Gorman and the board closed three high-poverty middle schools serving mostly minority students and divided the students among eight elementaries, also with high poverty levels.
Those schools also picked up Bright Beginnings pre-kindergarten classes for disadvantaged 4-year-olds, but those children are not included in suspension tallies.
Merging elementary and middle schools is a popular tactic in districts trying to avoid the plunge in test scores that often occurs in sixth grade. But research shows that such mergers haven't brought significant academic gains in other high-poverty settings.
Unrest first, then calm
Gorman and his staff said CMS' new schools would help students by breaking up large clusters of adolescents and putting them into smaller, more controlled settings with strong principals and teachers. The plan will eventually create more stability, allowing children to stay in one school from age 4 until they move up to high school.
But this year it brought massive change.
"We started back at square one," said Kales, who became Ashley Park's principal in 2009. This year not only brought in older students, but changed the zone for elementary kids. That means faculty are starting over in forging relationships with students and their families, she said.
"None of my kids are bad or dangerous," Kales said, butmany have been sent home for such things as disrespecting adults, pushing other students and leaving class. They have to bring a parent for a conference when they return.
In contrast, Berryhill School, which had reported only three suspensions as of Dec. 1, saw much less change, says Principal Paul Pratt. Most of the students who came to Berryhill after Wilson Middle closed had gone to Berryhill when they were younger, he said.
"The kids that are on our radar screen (for trouble) are kids that did not come through our school," added Pratt, who has led the school on Mecklenburg's western border since 2003.
While most of the principals came from an elementary school background, Jan McIver came to Thomasboro Academy from Spaugh Middle. She said elementary schools may give kids a break on infractions such as minor scuffles, but she has to hold all her students to high standards.
"We will not have an unsafe building," McIver said. "It has to be tight."
McIver says she's still dealing with a transient and sometimes troubled population - one student had been suspended for 49 days at his previous school - and she expects suspensions will rise in the spring. But she believes this is the right move: "This is where the middle school kids need to be right now. These kids' scores will go up because of the structure."
Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh first crafted a report on 42 schools reshaped by closings, mergers and other budget-driven changes at the request of former board member Kaye McGarry. The one-page data sheet he prepared in November, which the Observer got from McGarry, had nothing about discipline.
Data deep in report
The board voted to delay the report until December, when three new at-large members would be sworn in. McGarry and others, including newly-elected member Ericka Ellis-Stewart, urged him to include information on suspensions and other indicators of school safety.
The report Hattabaugh presented in December highlighted discipline at high schools - particularly Harding, which saw a huge spike in suspensions and arrests when it lost some magnet students and added neighborhood students from West Meck and the now-closed Waddell High. Harding's troubles had been the focus of extensive news coverage.
In that context, Hattabaugh said his team had learned that they should have paid more attention to discipline trends in preparing for closings and mergers.
But Hattabaugh's report at the board meeting hit only the bright spots of the pre-K-8s. "The early indications for pre-K-8 schools are very positive," he said.
An 88-page document given to the board and posted online included the suspension comparisons for all 42 schools, including the pre-K-8s. Six board members said earlier this month that they didn't delve into that information in the holiday weeks that followed.
Trouble rife at old schools
A review of historical suspension data signals the challenges pre-K-8s would face.
The Observer reviewed state suspension data for 2007-08 to 2010-11. During that time, J.T. Williams Middle averaged 162 suspensions per 100 students per school year, indicating many students were committing repeated offenses. That was the highest of any non-alternative CMS school.
Spaugh and Wilson were second and third, with 147 and 97 per 100, respectively.
Aggressive and disruptive behavior, fighting, disrespect to faculty and "insubordination" were some of the most frequent offenses at those schools, state records show.
School board Vice Chair Mary McCray said she has asked for more information about discipline issues.
Ellis-Stewart, who criticized the closings last year as a Harding High parent, said it will take at least a full year of data and feedback from the front lines to pass judgment on the new schools. She has called for close monitoring of all 42 schools, and said she realizes some discipline problems are linked to transition issues.
When the Observer asked about the pre-K-8 suspensions, Hattabaugh referred questions to Scott McCully, a student placement and planning official. Ralph Taylor, who has been in charge of school safety and discipline, just left for a new job in Georgia. "This is really, truly a year in transition," McCully said. "This data's going to change."
Pre-K-8 principals agree.
'Just can't snap your fingers'
Reid Park Principal Mary Sturge says the new schools are following a well-known turnaround path: Suspensions rise after a dramatic change, then level off as kids learn the ground rules. State records show that in 2008-09, the first year Sturge was in charge at Reid Park Elementary, the school had 209 suspensions. Last year it had 46.
From Aug. 25 to Dec. 1 this year, the pre-K-8 version of Reid Park had 101 suspensions. "We're birthing something new," Sturge said. "Pre-K-8 is the way to go. I'm convinced. But you can't just snap your fingers and create something new." Database reporter Gavin Off contributed.