Thirteen year old Shakaijah Calvin had been out of school for more than a month after O’Farrell Community Charter School kicked her out for a string of problems. Her mother Mavis Thompson rattled off her misdeeds: Not wearing the right uniform. Swiping a cell phone from a classmate.
But when Thompson showed up to enroll her daughter at her neighborhood public school, Bell Middle, the principal turned her away. He gave her a terse, handwritten note to for the O’Farrell school director.
“I will no longer be accepting your students in the middle of the school year,” it read.
Shakaijah was smack in the middle of the gap between charter school and school district rules on how to handle misbehaving students. Though O’Farrell kicked Shakaijah out under its own rules, her future was still in the hands of San Diego Unified, which ultimately oversees O’Farrell and other charter schools.
The school district didn’t agree Shakaijah should be expelled, because it sets a higher bar for expulsion. It couldn’t send her to an alternative school for expelled students. It couldn’t send her back to O’Farrell either. So instead, San Diego Unified sent her down the road from her apartment to Bell.
But Bell Principal Michael Dodson was sick and tired of getting troublesome students in the middle of the year, though he said they’d be welcome to return in the fall. Thirty-one students had already transferred to Bell midyear from nearby charters, Dodson said. Some were actually removed like Shakaijah was; others voluntarily switched to Bell to avoid being kicked out under charters’ stricter rules.
Charter schools, which are publicly funded but run independently from the school district, can remove students, but school districts have to review charter school ejections because charters can’t technically expel students, according to the County Office of Education.
San Diego Unified reviews the facts and decides whether it would also have expelled the child. If so, the student usually goes to an alternative or county school to get special attention.
But if the school district decides that they wouldn’t have expelled, the child is free to go to his or her district school, as if nothing had happened at all. San Diego Unified can only send a child back to a charter in a few rare instances. So when charters and school districts differ over cases of student misbehavior, a charter student may be removed, but not technically expelled.
Some charters call it “disenrollment” — removing a child without a formal expulsion. Critics say charters’ greater freedom to remove kids who act out has set up an uneven playing field because charters can oust misbehaving students that other public schools have to handle.
“It’s totally unfair,” said Bell counselor Hector Escalante, who complained that the new students tend to disrupt classes because they arrive after school meetings about bullying and conflict resolution. “It’s like the charter school has the upper hand.”
O’Farrell Executive Director Jon Dean said he understands their frustration, but the school isn’t doing anything wrong or illegal. Parents are free to pull their students out of charters if they wish. Students who end up going to Bell haven’t done anything that a student transferring from another San Diego Unified school couldn’t have done.
And the whole point of charter schools is to do things differently.
“We have more stringent rules and regulations,” Dean said. “We don’t follow exactly what the traditional school does.”
Bell finally agreed to enroll Shakaijah, who has a legal right to attend her public school. But it isn’t the first time this has happened — and likely not the last. School officials say such transfers have also happened at Mann and Memorial middle schools in years past.
Charter schools must follow the expulsion rules they set forth in their founding documents, said Julie Robbins, an attorney who frequently represents charters. They also have to give ejected kids some kind of hearing. But they don’t have to specify what offenses will cause a child to be expelled or suspended, though some do it anyway, Robbins said. Nor do they have to follow the elaborate rules that limit when California school districts can expel or suspend students, unless they decide to.
O’Farrell warns parents that children can be disenrolled if they don’t wear the proper uniform five or more times. Students can also be ejected from O’Farrell if they rack up 10 days of suspension, which doesn’t happen in San Diego Unified. And Walsh said that while the district usually expels kids after three schoolyard fights unless a single fight is especially violent, charters will sometimes disenroll students after one.
Charters’ freedom to impose tougher rules is both a selling point and a prized form of local control.
In South Park, Albert Einstein Academy Charter Middle School has disagreed with San Diego Unified over what constitutes “brandishing a knife,” an expellable offense. If a student had a knife on campus and the blade was open, Einstein was inclined to expel them. But San Diego Unified has disagreed with that decision, Principal David Sciarretta said, if the students didn’t actually intend to harm anyone.
“There’s a perception that charters can run kids out. I don’t want to be a part of that,” Sciarretta said. “But my school community needs to know that I’ll do anything to keep the campus safe.”
Students can also switch to district schools to avoid being kicked out of charters. For instance, a parent might pull their kid out of O’Farrell after nine days of suspension, knowing that another day out of school would mean expulsion. Keiller Leadership Academy Principal Joel Christman said in less serious cases, his charter sometimes lets parents pull their students instead of being disenrolled.
“Charter school is a choice,” said Lisa Berlanga, regional director of the California Charter Schools Association. “If you don’t fit into their expectations, you don’t have to stay.”
One such parent is Shelton Harris, who pulled his son out of Keiller after the boy slugged another student outside of school. Vice Principal Julius Lockett warned Harris that the father of the other child had threatened to seek criminal charges if Harris’ son didn’t leave Keiller.
“I said, ‘I can’t stop you from sending him back here,’” Lockett said. “It was his decision.”
Harris said nobody forced him to go, but he didn’t feel he had a choice. “I just thought of my son’s future and said — forget it,” Harris said. “I don’t want him with a record because of a seventh grade fight.”
There are some promises for change: O’Farrell has pledged not to let parents avoid disenrollment by pulling out students, though they can still leave earlier. School board member Shelia Jackson also wants the district to create a transitional school for children ejected from charter schools, where they would finish up the school year before enrolling elsewhere. It’s the kind of place that would welcome Shakaijah.
“I just wanted to get my daughter back in school,” Thompson said. “I don’t know what the hell was going on with O’Farrell and Bell — but it had nothing to do with my daughter’s education.”