Turmoil at an Achievement First high school has escalated into a larger reckoning for the charter school network spanning three states.

The spark was two videos released in January. In the first, the former principal of Achievement First Amistad High School in New Haven, who is white, is seen shoving a student. In the second, a former staff member, who is black and who released the first video, described the school as “oppressive.”

The ensuing backlash — including over the fact that the principal was not immediately fired — has pushed the network’s leaders to accelerate planned changes. Now, they say they’re open to reconsidering things big and small, from how students are expected to sit in class to even the network’s leadership.

The two CEOs have recently sent a series of candid emails to the network’s staff, who work across 36 schools in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York. Those emails, obtained by Chalkbeat, illustrate how the events at Amistad raised significant questions about the network’s approach to racism, discipline, and leadership.

“The last 3 weeks have been the hardest weeks we’ve ever had leading our network,” CEOs Dacia Toll and Doug McCurry wrote. “What happened at AF Amistad High School is a failure of our leadership.”

Many of those questions connect the controversy to a long-standing debate about so-called “no excuses” charter schools, which emphasize strict discipline, high expectations, and an academic focus. Research has found that these school networks, including Achievement First, substantially increase students’ test scores and, in some cases, help more of them attend college. But critics and some scholars argue that the discipline-heavy approach amounts to a racist, even abusive form of control over mostly students of color, while failing to prepare them to lead independent lives.

In the last two months, more Achievement First teachers and parents have called for change. The network’s leaders say they are committed to improving students’ experiences — and everything is on the table as its principals gather this week.

“We’re going to remain a high-expectations organization. The provocative question is, what does high expectations actually look like?” Toll told Chalkbeat in a lengthy interview. “Is it high expectations or low expectations to insist that kids fold their hands?”

‘This is not a proud moment for AF’

The controversy broke into public view because of Steven Cotton, a behavioral specialist with Achievement First who worked for the network for five years.

Cotton says he saw the security footage in October showing principal Morgan Barth grabbing and shoving a student emerging from a classroom. By January, Cotton had resigned and posted a lengthy Facebook video criticizing Amistad’s treatment of teachers and students, including its merit and demerit discipline system.

“There’s not a place in that building at this point where a kid can be a kid,” he said. “Yes, we’re here for education, but we’re not here to be robots.”

The New Haven Independent published a story featuring the security camera footage and Cotton’s video. In the piece, the brother of another student said that Barth had shoved his sibling at a Bridgeport Achievement First school Barth led in 2013. (Toll told Chalkbeat that, because it was a personnel matter, she could not comment on whether she or the network had known about that allegation.)

Barth resigned that day, hours after the Independent story.

McCurry soon emailed the entire Achievement First staff, telling them that an “unfortunate situation” at Amistad “has growing implications for the rest of AF and the external community.”

In that email, McCurry noted Barth’s resignation and described the principal’s actions as “improperly restraining a student.” McCurry called the conduct unacceptable, while noting that Barth had been disciplined after the incident, had apologized, and that Barth “has given 15 years of service to the kids of AF.”

McCurry also said Achievement First would hire an independent firm to examine the chain of events at Amistad.

“This is not a proud moment for AF, and I’m not going to close out by trying to put a silver lining on it,” McCurry concluded.

To some Achievement First teachers, it was an inadequate response that minimized the seriousness of the principal’s action — and did nothing to explain why the network’s leaders had allowed Barth to stay in his position until the video went public.

“A lot of us are not happy with the emails,” said Rousseau Mieze, a teacher and dean at Achievement First Bushwick Middle School in Brooklyn who has criticized the no-excuses approach of some charters. “What feels like a cover-up — the fact that this happened and the guy continued to have a job — those things, they don’t foster trust.”

‘We are facing another reckoning’

McCurry and Toll acknowledged that anger in another email to staff on Jan. 22, four days later. Staff members at Amistad, they said, are “furious with us, and they have every right to be.”

McCurry and Toll reiterated their plans to ask an outside firm to investigate.

“We have also asked the board to use the final report to determine if additional consequences should be implemented, including for the two of us,” they wrote.

Their next steps would be to confront the broader issues raised by the incident, they said, just as the network had navigated other challenges like adapting to the Common Core standards and reducing suspension rates.

“Now we are facing another reckoning,” they wrote, one that “has everything to do with race, power, and privilege.”

“There are many classrooms and schools at AF where the adults lead with love and students are empowered — and there are too many where that is not yet the case,” they said.

A day after the email, parents and students from Amistad called for change at an unusually packed board meeting.

“I get calls for him slouching, he gets detention for apparently not focusing, he gets demerits for being late for class during the first two weeks of school,” said one parent, referring to her son, according to the Independent. “This whole system is a school-to-prison pipeline.” (A spokesperson for Achievement First said its internal network-wide survey data from last year show most parents had a positive experience. For instance, among the two thirds of parents who responded to the survey, 94 percent of them rated their child’s school as an A or B.)

Teachers spoke up, too. Sixty-eight staff members signed a letter, obtained by Chalkbeat, noting they had spent days discussing the school’s discipline system and that they felt “disgust and disappointment” at the network’s lack of transparency after the Barth incident.

On Feb. 7, McCurry and Toll wrote to staff again, this time offering a mea culpa.

“We want to apologize. What happened at AF Amistad High School is a failure of our leadership,” they said. “We inaccurately called what happened a restraint. And we did not clearly treat the scholar involved in the incident as the primary person who should be receiving our care and concern.”

But they promised that change is on the way.

“Core to who we are has always been growth mindset, and it’s time for the next chapter at AF,” they concluded.

Can Achievement First change — and will it?

Achievement First’s principals are gathering Friday for an annual meeting. There, Toll says they will continue grappling with how their schools can improve, part of a year-long effort to rethink the network’s approach and values.

“What we’ve said to them is, it’s all on the table,” she said. “Do kids have to fold their hands? Do they have to make eye contact with other students when they’re speaking? Do they have to raise their hands? Do they have to walk in lines in the hallway? Part of what our principals are doing, getting together tomorrow, is revisiting those expectations: which ones continue to have real learning value and which ones do we think no longer have the value.”

But Toll also noted that school environments are more complicated than their most visible elements. “If only this issue was that simple,” she said. “A whole bunch of our schools kids no longer walk in lines. That doesn’t mean that when they sit down and reflect on their school experience, that it’s positive.”

The network is also going to focus on how teachers interact with students — ”whether something is done with purpose and out of love or done with control and out of fear,” as Toll put it — as well as ways to give students more choices and make their academic classes more engaging.

“On all of those dimensions, there is a range” across the network’s schools, Toll said. “But the AF average has not been strong enough, and was not strong enough at Amistad High.”

Achievement First has told staff it plans four organizational shifts, which came out of work started before the Amistad incident: explicitly embracing anti-racism, improving the student experience, holding its leaders accountable, and moving decision-making closer to schools. Student surveys will play a bigger role in school evaluations, Toll said, and teacher training will do more to emphasize building relationships with students.

Toll said she had given serious thought to whether change was needed at the CEO level, too.

“For now, I’m choosing to channel my embarrassment into urgency and commitment to change,” she told Chalkbeat. “So I am here now, and deeply committed to leading us through this challenge the way I have tried to lead us through past challenges. If there is a time when AF needs new leadership, I would step aside.”

Will all of that amount to meaningful shifts? Joanne Golann, a Vanderbilt sociologist who has extensively studied (and sometimes criticized) “no excuses” charter schools, said she found the network’s promises notable, but thought they could prove difficult to enact.

“I was encouraged reading Achievement First’s email and the direction they’re planning on going,” she said. “It’s more than a symbolic change.”

Golann’s work has found little evidence that “no excuses” charter schools’ strong academic results are a direct result of their strict discipline. But changes could still come with tradeoffs. A recent study on restorative justice showed that the initiative reduced test scores for black students, for example.

Cotton, the former Amistad staff member, doubts that the changes will be substantive. “I think what they’re saying is what we want to hear at the moment,” he said.

“Why do we want Doug and Dacia to fix the issue when you’re a part of the problem?” he said, referring to the CEOs. “You all thought it was good judgment to keep [Barth] on staff. Had I not come out and said anything, he would have been there until the end of the year.”

But Kerri-Ann Thomas, an Achievement First regional superintendent, says she has successfully pushed for changes, including diversifying school staff. Forty-seven percent of teachers and other professional staff in schools are black or Latino, the network says.

I’ve “personally been a part of the pain and the progress,” she said.

Mieze, the Brooklyn teacher and dean, sees reason for skepticism and hope.

“There are ways I’m disillusioned to it — I’m just like, that is never going to change,” he said. “But then there are also ways in which I think that I’ve seen, over the years, AF put its money where its mouth is.”

The story has been updated to include information on Achievement First’s parent survey data.

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