Charter school faces withdrawals over punishment (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 22, 2009)
A south Fulton County charter school following one of the most lauded education programs nationwide is embroiled in a dispute over discipline that has led at least seven parents to yank their children out midyear.
The parents were so angry at what they saw as excessive punishment at KIPP South Fulton Academy that they complained to several agencies, including the Fulton school board and state Department of Education.
The parents said a group of children were mistreated by teachers who separated them from their peers in class and at lunch. The students, parents said, reported sitting on the floor and said one girl urinated on herself after not being allowed to use the restroom immediately.
School administrators said they erred in not calling parents as soon as their children got in trouble. First-year principal Jondré Pryor said he also should have done more to warn parents about the high expectations for conduct, as well as academics.
“I’m really saddened that the kids are gone,” Pryor said.
David Jernigan, executive director of KIPP Metro Atlanta, said the group has no plans to remove the administrators or teachers involved, adding, “We sincerely have learned from this mistake.”
Parents file complaints about Georgia’s 113 publicly funded charters infrequently, state Associate Superintendent Andrew Broy said. The schools, approved by local district boards or the state, are excused from some state mandates so they can try innovative approaches.
This is the first parent complaint the state has received about KIPP South Fulton, which opened in 2003 and teaches about 300 students in grades five through eight in an old public school building in East Point.
Discipline is a hallmark of the Knowledge Is Power Program, which operates 66 schools nationwide. KIPP is known for bringing high test scores and college-prep skills to children at higher risk of academic failure. The school is a big commitment, with long weekdays and Saturday and summer sessions.
The dispute erupted in December, after a teacher made a group of fifth-graders she said had been disrupting class sit in the back of the room. Kofi Kinney, who is also dean of operations, dubbed the group “The Little Rock Nine,” a reference to the African-American children who were blocked from, then allowed into, high school in Arkansas in 1957. The KIPP students, who are African-American like most of their classmates, later became the “KIPP Nine.”
The punishment continued in several other teachers’ classes. Kinney and the parents disagree on how long it lasted, but they say it was at least seven school days. The students — 17, eventually — ate lunch in silence and missed some school activities.
Parents said when they found out about the punishment, they demanded it end and asked for an apology.
Parent India Wood withdrew her son in February after he told her, ” ‘I can’t take them yelling at me 10 hours today.’ “
“They cannot be emotionally abused,” she said.
Some parents said their children needed counseling afterward.
“I just feel like these kids have been mistreated,” said Cordelia Johnson, who withdrew her son in January. “They shouldn’t have to sacrifice the emotional for the academic.”
KIPP leaders said no child was maltreated. Pryor and Kinney said they ended the punishment and apologized to parents and students. She said she had hoped separating the group, a common KIPP strategy, would motivate them to behave and return quickly to the class.
Kinney said she regretted the “Little Rock” reference, which she chose because she felt the students had encountered a barrier to their education. “I do feel the parents could have misunderstood or felt hurt by that,” she said. “That was not my intention.”
She and Pryor said the children’s learning was never disrupted and they were not forced to sit on the floor. Furthermore, Pryor said teachers told him they didn’t see the girl raise her hand asking to go to the bathroom during a gradewide session. She is still enrolled at the school.
Former KIPP teacher Reginald Christian, however, said the girl told him afterward that she had asked a teacher and was told she could not use the restroom.
Kinney said some punished students stayed and are doing better than before.
Parents have also complained to the KIPP board and the state Division of Family and Children Services, which said no child neglect had occurred.
The Fulton district found the school did not appear to have broken its charter agreement, spokeswoman Susan Hale said. Broy said it’s the district’s job, not the state’s, to make sure KIPP follows its charter.
Wood, who filed the state and Fulton complaints, said she wants Kinney fired.
Pryor said he won’t do that. He declined to discuss personnel matters but added, “I held my staff member accountable.” He and Kinney said they attempted to repair the rift with parents. “We tried, and we tried and we tried,” Kinney said.
Enrollment has dropped to 287 from 320 at the school’s start, but leaders said such attrition is not unusual. Pryor said he would welcome back the withdrawn students: “I feel like this is the ideal environment for them.”