Roxbury Preparatory Charter School, long known for strict discipline, has been ordered by the state to lower its suspension rates, an unusual move aimed at keeping more students in class.
The charter school has the second highest out-of-school suspension rate in the state, with 21.1 percent of students receiving that punishment during the last school year. That’s far higher than the state average of 2.9 percent.
State education officials are also troubled that Roxbury Prep appears to be subjecting some student groups to more discipline than others, according to a memo released last month. Nearly 38 percent of students with disabilities were suspended last year, almost a third of male students, and a quarter of economically disadvantaged students and those lacking English fluency.
Across the state, schools with the highest suspension rates are predominantly charter schools, giving rise to accusations from opponents that they are weeding out problematic students — a criticism that charters deny.
“The state is rightfully concerned the school is depriving students, particularly black and Latino students, instructional time by an overreliance on harsh discipline practices,” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. “These disciplinary actions are being used to eliminate students that charter schools don’t want to educate or that charter schools consider difficult to educate.”
At Roxbury Prep, which educates more than 1,500 students in grades 5 to 12, attrition rates are also significantly higher than those for the state and Boston school system, according to state data. Some 19.4 percent of students left Roxbury Prep at the end of the last school year, including 40 percent of eighth-graders, while the state average across all grades was 2.6 percent and for Boston, 9.3 percent.
Nearly all Roxbury Prep students are black or Latino, and more than half live in households receiving government assistance.
The nonprofit management company that oversees Roxbury Prep, Uncommon Schools in New York City, defended the charter school’s disciplinary practices.
“We are committed to educating every one of our students, and suspensions are always the last option to ensure that all students can learn and grow in a joyful, safe school environment,” said Barbara Martinez, a school spokeswoman, in a statement, adding that suspension rates this year have already fallen to 10 percent.
She denied the school uses suspensions to force students out of school. She said many students depart after eighth grade for Boston exam schools or don’t want to stay because Roxbury Prep’s high school program is currently split between two temporary locations.
State officials mandated lower suspension rates when they renewed the school’s five-year operating license in February. The school must demonstrate significant improvement in discipline rates by Dec. 31, 2021, or it could face probation. School officials must also develop an action plan based on a comprehensive evaluation of Roxbury Prep’s discipline policies, climate, and cultural practices.
This is the first time the state has ordered a charter school to reduce suspension rates. However in January, the state required City on a Hill Charter School in New Bedford to comprehensively evaluate its school climate and discipline practices.
The state’s highest suspension rate, 41.1 percent, belongs to Libertas Academy Charter School, which opened last year in Springfield.
The order comes at a precarious time for Roxbury Prep, which is seeking city approval to construct a new high school building in Roslindale, a plan that has generated intense passions among opponents and supporters.
Roxbury Prep bills itself as a college preparatory program and emphasizes character-building. It outperforms the Boston school system on most MCAS exams but tends to trail state averages, according to state data.
While Roxbury Prep’s suspension rates are high, the numbers represent a vast improvement from six year ago when it had the state’s highest rate, nearly 60 percent.
Deborah Dunlap, whose 16-year-old daughter is in the 10th grade, said she has noticed the school has loosened up on discipline, noting in the past they were “over the top,” and they continue to make adjustments.
“I think as a new high school proving itself, they decided to be strict, but I guess they came to a point and realized it’s better to have kids in school than out of school, except for serious issues, for which I’m grateful,” said Dunlap, who likes the school’s quality of education, zero tolerance for bullying, and dedicated teachers.
Jeffrey Riley, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, acknowledged in his memo the school has taken steps to reduce suspensions but he added “the rates remain far too high.”
Roxbury Prep’s behavioral expectations rely on rewards and punishment. At the start of each week, students receive 60 points and earn additional points for good behavior. Students can eventually use the points at a school auction to purchase gifts, such as sports equipment or an activity, like bowling with a teacher.
However, students who misbehave lose points, which can lead to a visit to the dean of students, detention, steps to remedy their behavior, or eventual suspension.
The school says it suspends only for egregious behavior, such as violent acts and disrespect, including swearing at a teacher. However, a few years ago deductions for dress code violations and other minor infractions could accumulate into suspensions. According to state data, 264 students were disciplined — including out-of-school suspensions — for noncriminal, nonviolent, non-drug-related offenses last year.
Sandra Saavedra said disagreement over the school’s suspension practices prompted her to resign as dean of students at its Dorchester campus in December. She said she used to send e-mails to teachers around 6 a.m. about which students were suspended for the day and that by 7:15 a.m. teachers were already sending students to her office, where dozens would filter in throughout the day.
Students, she said, were getting kicked out of class for minor incidents, like getting out of their desks too frequently or questioning a teacher’s directive. Her day usually ended by notifying parents about suspensions.
She said the school had a mentality of “suspending students into compliance.”
“Some of the students feel like they are in jail,” she said. “Slamming the hammer down is not going to help them behave. Getting students excited about their education will do it.”
She said she worries the students will become so fearful they won’t learn how to advocate for themselves, which could hamper professional advancement.
Janiah Ancrum, 16, a 10th-grader at Roxbury Prep, said a teacher last month wouldn’t allow her to take a test until she put on her dress shoes, required for the school’s uniform. Ancrum, who wore sneakers to school because of torrential rain, said she forgot to change her footwear because she was preoccupied about doing well on the test.
Another time, she said, she was instructed to go home and get her dress shoes.
“My house is far away from school, and I told them if I leave I’m not coming back,” she said. “I think they are more focused on discipline than kids’ education.”
Her mother, Sholonda Ancrum, a member of the Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network, said, “We are hoping she will get to college, but they are so focused on the school uniform.”