In the Classroom

Known for ‘no excuses’ discipline, Tindley charter network loosens policies to reduce suspensions

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Earlier this year, La Wanda Girton’s son was facing a three-day suspension from Tindley Accelerated School for handing a pencil to another student.

A teacher was trying to settle down the class, she said, and told the students to be quiet. But when Edwin, a sophomore, lent a pencil to a classmate in need, he said, “Here you go.”

Tindley’s network of six charter schools has long been known for strict discipline policies imposed alongside rigorous college prep. But after 14 years and some of the highest out-of-school suspension numbers in the state, the Indianapolis charter network is relaxing its controversial, unapologetically tough approach to discipline in the upcoming school year, Tindley CEO Kelli Marshall told Chalkbeat, in an effort to reduce suspensions and better serve students and families.

“Things are changing,” Marshall said. “Maybe we have to loosen some bolts a little.”

In the next school year, Tindley will move away from automatic suspensions for minor infractions, such as chewing gum and repeatedly coming to class unprepared, Marshall said. Instead, the network will adopt a demerit system, where students accumulate points for misbehaving and face suspensions after reaching a certain number of points.

The flagship high school will also loosen several signature rules — allowing vending machines, longer hairstyles on male students, cell phone use before school and during lunch breaks, and longer passing periods between classes. Gone will be the silent transitions while students stand in line waiting to be dismissed.

“It was a very, for lack of a better word, militaristic way of running the building,” Marshall acknowledged.

The decision to relax the rules came in part from feedback from students and families concerned that some rules were unreasonable. The changes, Girton said, are “well overdue.”

The relaxed rules could offer myriad benefits for Tindley, a cash-strapped network trying to stabilize after fast growth and troubled leadership while facing increasing competition from other charter schools — all during an educational moment that is embracing a gentler approach to discipline.

The changes could keep students — the Tindley term is “scholars” — learning in classrooms instead of sitting out a suspension at home. They could make Tindley more accessible to students who act out because of their backgrounds in poverty or traumatic situations. And they could stem dropouts and retain more students, including those who might be leaving Tindley schools because of excessive discipline.

While charter schools with “zero tolerance” or “no excuses” discipline philosophies often see high academic results, those approaches have also faced heated criticism nationally for being so rigid that, for example, students aren’t even allowed to use the bathroom.

Still, at least one local education expert says even Tindley’s revamped policies could do more to address misbehavior in a preventative way, rather than a reactive one.

“You want to avoid children being suspended, period,” said education consultant Carole Craig, a former education chair for the Indianapolis NAACP who has been critical of Tindley’s strict discipline.

“Chewing gum, not having books, talking out in the hallway — those are misbehaviors, certainly, but why would you want to get to the most extreme on even adding up points and leading to a suspension?” she added.

Craig advocates for a positive discipline system that addresses the root causes of behavioral issues, as well as training for teachers in urban schools on implicit biases and working with children who may be acting out because of traumatic experiences at home.

Nationally, this is part of a larger conversation about stemming disparately harsh discipline against black boys in particular, in addition to Hispanic students and students with special needs.

Tindley serves nearly all black students. Last year, roughly two out of every three students at Tindley’s high school were suspended from school at least once, according to state data. The school, which enrolled 273 students, reported 182 students receiving a total of 568 total suspensions.

None of the network’s six schools, including three elementary schools, recorded fewer than 100 suspensions. The highest rates were at the all-boys’ middle school.

PHOTO: Sam Park
These are the numbers of out-of-school suspensions at Tindley charter schools reported to the state in 2017.

Tindley, which enrolls about 1,700 students across the network, is trying to become more aligned with restorative justice practices and look more into what’s causing students’ problems, Marshall said. Any time students get into trouble, school officials will call families in for conferences.

“What we’re trying to do is bring parents into the consequences before we [take students] out of school,” she said.

Sometimes, she thinks discipline issues arise out of students not being accustomed to the fast pace of Tindley’s curriculum — and then suspending them from school leads students to fall further behind. “It’s proven more effective to put that time into instruction,” she said.

The changes could also push teachers to improve their relationships with students and develop classroom management skills instead of resorting to suspensions, Marshall said.

The shift away from automatic suspensions is a dramatic turn for Tindley, which was an early charter school choice in an underserved, impoverished neighborhood — and, with test scores climbing to be among the best in the city, one of the first to show high achievement among its predominantly black students, many of whom come from lower-income families.

The high school distinguished itself with high expectations and long school days. The school’s front hallway is lined with years of college acceptance letters, with its motto painted in enormous letters: “COLLEGE OR DIE.” In the early years, founder Marcus Robinson explained that while the motto may sound extreme to some people, he felt passionately that it was in fact the reality for many of Tindley’s families. Education, he believed, could be a way out of the crime, drugs, and poverty surrounding them.

Stringent rules were put into place to eliminate classroom disruptions, create a safe environment for students, and establish a baseline of expectations for students coming in from often-troubled schools, officials said.

In 2012, Tindley took its controversial discipline tactics to Arlington High School, a chronically failing school in IPS taken over by the state and handed to Tindley, then known as EdPower, to turn around. While some, including Craig, criticized the high suspension rates that followed, some students said the strategy made the chaotic school feel safer under Tindley’s management, which ended in 2015.

Robinson stepped down from Tindley in 2016 amid scrutiny over his lavish spending at the network’s expense, which exposed broader financial problems within the network. That led to the hiring of Marshall, a former Tindley middle school principal tasked with stabilizing the network.

The kinder, gentler approach to discipline is being explored elsewhere in Indianapolis. At KIPP Indy, part of a national network of schools that also started with a “no excuses” philosophy, schools have started incorporating programs for mentoring, peer mediation, and “holistic social-emotional learning,” executive director Emily Pelino Burton wrote in an email.

“Again, maximizing learning time by keeping our students in the classroom is incredibly important to us,” she wrote.

KIPP Indy recorded 678 out-of-school suspensions last year at its middle school of about 300 students, according to state data.

Indianapolis Public Schools has also taken steps to reduce out-of-school suspensions, though some worry that the sole focus on lowering those numbers could create unsafe school environments because staff might downplay dangerous behavior.

La Wanda Girton, whose son ended up with a one-day suspension after the pencil incident, admits, “I almost have a double standard,” because she chose Tindley in part because of its strict discipline. She values the safe environment and doesn’t want her three children in classrooms where other students fight or throw chairs. But at the same time, she thinks Tindley needed to relax its rules to make school more “reasonable” and “doable” for students.

“I am a Tindley advocate,” Girton said, “but when I would talk to parents about their children being there, as a parent, I’m saying to people, it’s a great school — but it’s very strict discipline-wise. I felt the need as a parent to put that caveat there, because I didn’t want to set people up for failure.”

For her three children, the strict rules have largely not been an issue, she said, with only a couple of isolated incidents, and they have thrived under “the Tindley way.” Girton, who is on Tindley’s parent council, is excited that the discipline changes could make the schools more attractive to other families.

Marshall said she doesn’t expect the changes to erode Tindley’s distinctive culture. Consider, she said, that when the high school began piloting the changes and announced that male students — gentlemen, in Tindley parlance — were no longer restricted to short haircuts, a student double-checked with her before getting his hair done, to make sure he wouldn’t get in trouble for showing up with braids and a fade.

On a recent morning, as students arrived before class, they walked into the multipurpose room, where the new rules let them play on their phones and talk before class.

It’s not loud, not like school cafeterias can be, but for principal Marlon Llewellyn, this is a big difference.

“This would’ve been completely silent,” he said. “Girls on one side, boys on the other. No devices.”

But when it’s time for school to start, Llewellyn takes a few steps toward the middle of the room with one hand raised — and within seconds, the room falls completely quiet. Silenced phones disappear into backpacks as classes file out one by one.

Two student ambassadors stay to talk about the discipline changes and how Tindley’s structure and fast pace have prepared them for real jobs. One shaved off his dreadlocks to attend Tindley schools. They wear what they consider ugly, plain shoes every day because that’s the dress code, along with neatly tucked-in polo shirts, sweater vests, and khakis.

They can recite the punishments for misconduct from memory. Horseplay: three days’ suspension. Profanity: 10 days.

Taran Richardson, 16, a sophomore, mentions having been suspended for being involved in horseplay — even when it wasn’t his fault.

“Guilty by association,” fellow sophomore Dajour Finley said, nodding solemnly.

“You’re sending us out of the school with a suspension, so you’re not learning,” Taran said. “They can still discipline us in a decent way and still allow us to receive an education.”

But they also talk about how Tindley is more than the rules — how teachers can see if a student is having a tough day, and might ask what’s going on instead of deeming it insubordination.

“I always thought it was the people that made up Tindley — the staff and students connecting with one another, and striving for success,” Taran said.

First Person

I was too anxious to speak in class. Then the adults at my school teamed up to help me.

PHOTO: Getty Images

“Which group wants to present first?” the teacher said.

That day, the whole school had worked on mini-projects in groups, and now it was time to share our work with students from different grades. I was surrounded by a lot of faces I had never seen before. I was only a freshman and everything felt new.

My heart started beating fast, like it was trying to pop out of my chest. I started sweating, even though the air conditioner was on. I tried to dry my trembling, clammy palms by rubbing them against my pants. I wanted to raise my hand and say I wasn’t feeling well, but my mouth clamped shut and it felt like gravity made it impossible for me to lift my arm.

Usually I would get a little nervous when I had to do presentations, but I could always get through them. This day was different.

When the teachers closed the classroom doors, I felt trapped. I wanted to run outside, take a deep breath of fresh air, and calm down. To distract myself, I started to pinch my arm under the table. Then it was my group’s turn, and somehow my legs managed to make the motions to get me in front of the class.

When it was my turn to speak, the words I was supposed to say didn’t come out. I froze. Finally a familiar voice brought me back to reality. It was one of my groupmates presenting my part for me.

After we returned to our seats, I hugged my book bag. It wasn’t as soft as my pillow, but it was the only comfort I was able to find. I stared at the floor, which seemed like the only thing in the room that wasn’t disappointed in me. Once the bell rang I speed-walked past everyone to the train. As soon as I got home, I cried.

Unfortunately, memories of that awful afternoon stayed with me. I began to panic every time I had to talk to new people, which had never been a problem for me before.

The night before a presentation I wouldn’t be able to sleep or eat. I was afraid to tell my teachers how I was feeling; I didn’t want to be seen as asking for special treatment. Fortunately, when I did presentations, I managed not to freeze like before, but I still got incredibly nervous and sometimes stuttered out my words. If I had the choice, I’d make sure I wouldn’t have a speaking part in group presentations.

In 10th grade, my English class read “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” I thought it was going to be just another lame book, especially since I hated reading. But when we finished the first chapter I felt the main character, Charlie, was speaking directly to me. It’s made up of letters he writes to an anonymous person. Charlie has a hard time talking about his emotions. When something bothers him, he stays quiet.

As an introvert, I related to Charlie. Besides the anxiety I got around presentations, I often felt bad about myself. So I decided to write an honest letter to someone I trusted: my English teacher, Ms. Boeck. I wrote about all my insecurities: my weight and my appearance, and how I felt worthless. While I was writing, I realized that I was depressed, my anxiety was getting worse, and I needed to get help.

I woke up early so I could approach Ms. Boeck before class. As I stood in front of her door, I got the sudden urge to turn around and throw out my letter. But then I remembered why I had written to her. I could tell she cared for each student, and I had seen other kids go to her for help.

I walked into the classroom and Ms. Boeck greeted me with a smile. All I had to do was give her the letter I was clutching tightly in my right hand. I knew this was the first step toward letting go of the pain in my chest that came from silently holding onto my struggles.

“This is a letter I wrote explaining something personal about me, and I wanted you to read it so you can help me,” I said, my voice cracking.

“Thank you, I’ll make sure to read it.” My teacher smiled and held eye contact, as if to assure me that whatever I’d written, she and I were going to find a solution together.

Around that time, I also told one of my closest friends about my anxiety. She understood, even though she didn’t have anxiety herself.

“Don’t worry, Natalie,” she said. “If you need help, you can come to me.” For the first time, I felt supported by people who cared about me.

After Ms. Boeck read my letter, she invited me and my friend to have lunch with her in her classroom. I learned that Ms. Boeck had also been diagnosed with anxiety. I couldn’t believe it, since she spoke with confidence in class.

Two weeks later I wrote another letter to my crew leader, Mr. Afghahi. Unlike the letter to my English teacher, this one acknowledged that I’d been having suicidal thoughts.

I found Mr. Afghahi in the hallway on a Friday after school. “I wrote you a letter,” I said.

“Is something wrong?”

I shook my head no as he took the letter. I left before he could ask any more questions.

On Monday morning Mr. Afghahi pulled me aside. “Thank you for sharing this with me,” he said. “The part of your letter about your suicidal thoughts concerned me. I don’t want to lose your trust, but I think it’s best if you go see a counselor who can help you. ”

I nodded. I didn’t want to speak to a stranger, but I knew it was the right decision.

A few days later, Mr. Afghahi walked me to the counselor’s office. She introduced herself with a warm, welcoming grin that showed all her teeth. I forced a smile.

After Mr. Afghahi left, the counselor talked about my letter as if she had memorized every word. It made me uncomfortable. I had only intended for Mr. Afghahi to know these things.

As I looked around the counselor’s office, a photo of her and her daughter caught my attention. It made me imagine the sadness a parent must feel when their child tells them about the kinds of feelings I was having. I pictured my mother with sorrow in her eyes.

The counselor asked me to clarify what I meant by suicidal thoughts, and when my depression and anxiety started. My vision began to blur as tears started forming, but I managed not to cry.

She told me I had to talk to my parents. In fact, the school required their approval for me to keep seeing her. I didn’t want my parents to know because they already came home tired and stressed. I wanted to be the “perfect daughter” to make their lives easier. I was also nervous because they were too busy to come to my school, and they don’t speak much English.

When I got home, my mom told me to go with her to her doctor’s appointment. In the empty waiting room, I told her that I was going through a tough time in school and felt anxious and depressed. I looked down when I saw her eyes redden and the first tear roll down her cheek. I had seen her cry before, but I had never been the reason.

I wanted to cry too, but I held it in. I felt as if my mom was asking herself what she’d done wrong, which broke my heart. My mom wrote a letter in Spanish saying I could see the counselor.

Over time, talking to my counselor got easier. After a month, I felt comfortable expressing myself to her. I even consider her a friend. Talking about my insecure feelings has helped me understand them better. I feel better about my appearance. The counselor made me do an exercise where I had to consider the positive aspects of my body, which helped me a lot. I’m less anxious now and I don’t feel as depressed. I keep my mind busy and have more support and people to talk to than I did before.

The counselor also taught me breathing exercises that help me calm down when I’m anxious. I close my eyes, inhale, and wait for two seconds to release the breath. When I close my eyes it feels like the world has stopped. No one else is around; it’s just me and my blank mind. My body is no longer tense. The silence is comfortable, not awkward. When I exhale, I feel like I’m letting go of everything that made my day bad.

Now I encourage myself to try new ways to practice speaking in front of people. I’ve started participating in Socratic seminars, which are open-ended discussions we have in class. I make sure I’m prepared and say something, even if I’m feeling nervous. Though I still don’t speak a lot, I usually get at least one idea out.

I’m a junior now, and hopefully by the end of the year I will be able to speak at least three times in one discussion. I still get really nervous in large groups and new situations. But when I feel like running away, I think of the progress I’ve made. I may still stutter or mess up in a presentation, but at least now I know that I’ve tried.

It was hard to open up, but having people to talk to about my anxiety has been a big help. Besides my counselor, I’ve told some other friends, though I didn’t go into the details. I also talk to my three brothers now, and they help boost my confidence and make me feel safe. My parents know about my anxiety, but I only tell them about my accomplishments, like participating in a discussion, so they are able to feel proud of me.

Now, before I have to give a presentation, I do things to prepare and feel more confident. I drink water to hydrate my body, do my breathing exercises in a quiet area, and practice my presentation with a friend. This year, we had to give another group presentation like the one on that awful day when I was a freshman. When it came to my part, all my fears went away, and I spoke loud and proud.

Natalie Castelan is a student at Expeditionary Learning School for Community Leaders in Brooklyn. This piece originally appeared in YC Teen, a project of the nonprofit Youth Communication. 

the best

Indy counselors share secrets to get middle schoolers on track for college scholarships

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkebat
Students at Northwest Middle School

Indiana makes a promise to students from low-income families: maintain a 2.5 GPA and fulfill basic steps throughout high school, and the state will foot the bill for up to four years of college tuition.

But there’s a catch: For students to qualify for the aid, they must sign up for 21st Century Scholarships by the end of eighth grade, before many students even begin considering how to pay tuition. It falls on school counselors to let families know about the program, help them apply — and follow up relentlessly.

So it was a feat when counselors at Northwest Middle School in Indianapolis Public Schools were able to get nearly 100 percent of eligible students to register for the scholarships in 2017, the latest year with state data. That’s nearly double the signup rate across Marion County.

Now, the city is hoping that other educators can learn from Northwest and other successful schools. In May, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett’s administration launched Indy Achieves, a campaign to help more residents go to college or other post-high school training. One piece of the initiative is a coordinated effort to boost participation in 21st Century Scholars that includes a newly released toolkit for other guidance counselors.

The toolkit explains how educators can track which students have enrolled in the program, and it includes sample recruitment plans and letters to parents. It also offers practical tips, such as giving parents the paper worksheet instead of asking them to apply online and sending the form home with other permission slips. Finally, Indy Achieves offers administrative assistance submitting applications.

“I’m here today in no small measure because you all have this process figured out,” said Hogsett in a ceremony Monday.

At Northwest, the campaign to get students money for college had two prongs. First, it depended on getting students, teachers, and even counselors excited about the scholarships, staff say. Classes competed against each other to see who could get the most students signed up, with the promise of a pizza party for the winning class.

Last year, they upped the ante by offering ice cream and candy bars to students when they brought in their applications. When students saw others getting the rewards, it was a reminder to bring in their own forms, said counselor Vernita Robinson.

It was also important that teachers were enthusiastic about the effort, say the counselors who led the initiative. Even the counselors developed a spirit of competition as they tried to sign up as many students as possible.

“You just have to make it fun for the kids, and you have to make it fun for yourself,” said counselor Theresa Morning.  “I don’t know if we really changed any of our methods last year except for, we made a point to make sure last year that we had every child signed up.”

That dedication to getting students signed up is the second reason why educators at Northwest believe they were so successful. Beginning in September, they told parents about the scholarships, and for months afterward, they used a spreadsheet to track which students had applied. They sent home official letters telling families about the program. And as the year progressed, they called families to follow up.

“I think the key is to not stop at a handful of applicants,” said counselor Nicole Reid. “Just keep going until you have everyone on your roster that’s in eighth grade enrolled.”

All three counselors have left the school for other Indianapolis Public Schools campuses this year, following a districtwide high school reconfiguration that ultimately led Northwest to convert from a school serving grades seven through 12 to a dedicated middle school.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim superintendent Aleesia Johnson challenged the new students at the school to continue the success. “You all have to now carry on that legacy,” she said.

“We are all as a city committed to our students and our young people being able to go on and be successful,” Johnson said. “You do your part, and we commit to do ours.”