This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Esperanza Academy is disputing recent assertions made in a study of the first-ever national data collected on charter schools and discipline, maintaining that the study – and the Notebook’s coverage of it – contained inaccuracies and misinformation.
On March 29, the Notebook published an article on its website reporting that the study found Esperanza and another Philadelphia school had among the widest disparities nationally in the rates of suspensions for disabled versus non-disabled students.
In an open letter posted on Esperanza’s corporate website and circulated to its supporters via email, school officials criticized the Notebook and the study.
“Both the article and the study it references are poorly researched, poorly reasoned, and intentionally inflammatory,” said the letter from Esperanza officials.
Esperanza said the data used in the study, from the 2011-12 school year, were outdated. By 2013-14, the disparity had disappeared, the school said, with students without disabilities suspended at a slightly higher rate than students with disabilities. The school also pointed to the high graduation rate of its students with disabilities as a sign of its success.
The data in the study — which was conducted by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, part of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project — were submitted directly to the U.S. Department of Education by the charter schools. The UCLA report is the most recent in a series of reports on school discipline.
According to the study, “Charter Schools, Civil Rights and School Discipline: A Comprehensive Review,” two Philadelphia schools were among the nation’s 10 charter schools with the largest gaps between the rate of suspension of students without disabilities and students with disabilities. At Esperanza Academy, students with disabilities were suspended at a rate of 31 percent, compared to a 12 percent for students without disabilities. That means 31 of every 100 students with disabilities were suspended out of school at least once versus 12 of 100 students without disabilities.
At Philadelphia Electrical & Technology Charter, the rate of suspension of students with disabilities was 25 percent, while the rate for students without disabilities was zero, the study showed.
The 2011-12 data used in the study are the most recent national comparative numbers available. The federal government is expected to release data covering the 2013-14 school year in the early summer. The data are collected every other year.
Daniel J. Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California at Los Angeles and the study’s lead author, wrote to the Notebook in response to the school’s complaints. In his letter, Losen stood by the accuracy of the data and the validity of the concerns raised in the report.
“For the record, the statement in our report about schools with high and disparate rates suggests that ‘any school that suspends students with disabilities at such a substantially higher rate raises concern that it may be failing to meet these students’ educational needs.’”
“… We are not asserting that each of the listed schools was found to have violated civil rights law. We are merely raising the possibility of civil rights violations in such schools based on the data from 2011-12,” Losen wrote.
Losen also defended the study’s conclusions.
“… The conclusion that suspensions contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline is because several studies have shown that they are, in fact, ‘associated’ with lower performance, lower graduation rates and heightened risk for juvenile justice involvement. That inference is based on some of the most rigorous studies in the field,” Losen wrote.
Losen noted that the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools said the study put “an important spotlight on an issue that requires attention.”
“The study confirms what many working in the sector already know to be true. Unfair discipline practice is a public school problem and charter schools are simply no exception,” the center wrote in a statement.
Publisher Maria Archangelo said the Notebook stands behind its reporting on the study.
“The Notebook strives to produce high-quality journalism with integrity,” Archangelo said. “We have featured Esperanza, along with other charter and District schools, in articles about innovation. We believe our reporting on Esperanza has been accurate and fair."
The Notebook attempted to contact school officials for comment on the original article, Archangelo said, but Esperanza officials did not return a reporter’s call. Esperanza’s open letter said the school has no record that it was called. Esperanza declined to comment for this story.