Esperanza’s Open Letter to The Notebook in Response to: “2 Philly charters cited for disproportionately suspending students with disabilities”

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Esperanza’s Open Letter to The Notebook in Response to: “2 Philly charters cited for disproportionately suspending students with disabilities” (by Greg Windle, published 3/29/2016)

There are several very serious problems with The Notebook’s recent article on suspensions of students with special education needs:

First, the article’s conclusions (excerpted from a recent UCLA study) are not only inaccurate, but also defamatory. Second, the language in the article is misleading and offensive. Third, the quotes pulled from the UCLA study make baseless and incorrect assumptions about our school that border on libel. Fourth, the statistics referenced in this article are outdated, decontextualized and meaningless.

1) Problem #1: Conclusions are inaccurate and defamatory.

The article claims that disproportionate suspension of special education students is “associated with lower performance and graduation rates, and a heightened risk for delinquent behavior and involvement in the juvenile justice system.” It then lists Esperanza Academy’s 2011-2012 statistics as an example of this discipline discrepancy, and suggests that Esperanza’s practices “are contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline.”

This claim is unsubstantiated, specious, and irresponsible. The truth is the complete opposite for our school.

The most important outcomes for any school are graduation and continuance to post-secondary education. By this measure, Esperanza Academy’s special education students have achieved extraordinary academic success (outcomes data below). Esperanza’s graduation rates and college attendance are far higher than neighborhood schools and most public schools in the city. And, Esperanza Academy achieves this success despite the fact that it has a higher proportion of special education students as a percentage of its student body than most other schools in the city.
The article takes a statistic about disciplinary action out of context, to draw a conclusion about academic performance that simply does not hold true. A school should be evaluated by its overall success with this population of students, not an arbitrary statistic about one measure of the students’ academic experience.

In fact, Esperanza’s outcomes demonstrate that it is one of the charter schools diverting the “school-to-prison pipeline” rather than contributing to it.

Here are the facts:

  • The graduation rate for Esperanza’s special education students in 2012 (the year reported in The Notebook) is 96%. Nearly half of those graduates went to college, a higher rate than the national average. This proves that the rate of suspension does not have an adverse effect on the success of the students at Esperanza Academy.
  • Moreover, our special education students graduate at a higher rate than in the City or the state:
    Graduation Rates
  • Furthermore, in 2013-2014 Esperanza’s out-of-school suspension rate for regular education students was 10.6%, and for special education students it was 9.6%. Therefore, more recently, special education students have been suspended at a lower rate than regular education students, and Esperanza Academy performs better than the national average for this measure.

2) Problem #2: Language is misleading and offensive.

The wording of the title “2 Philly charters have been cited” is misleading. It risks being misinterpreted to mean that Esperanza Academy has been subject to some formal disciplinary action or citation by a governing body, which it has not.

The statement that “Representatives from the schools did not return requests for comment” is also misleading. Esperanza has been told by a representative from The Notebook that one its interns reached out by phone once. However there is no proof of this outreach or any other, on Esperanza’s phone systems or email. Prior to the article’s publication, Esperanza’s leadership had no knowledge that any attempt at contact had been made, despite the fact that contact information (phone and email) for many of Esperanza’s executives is widely available. Esperanza’s leadership would gladly have responded to a request for comment, to clear up the author’s misunderstanding of how disciplinary measures impact academic performance and future success.

To Esperanza, the repeated use of the word “disability” and “disabled” to refer to students with special learning needs is offensive. Despite how special education law may label them, Esperanza’s students with special education needs are not disabled; they learn differently, and we serve them accordingly based on their unique strengths and weaknesses.

3) Problem #3: Incorrect assumptions are made that border on libel, and The Notebook’s journalists should approach their source material with a greater degree of due diligence and journalistic integrity.

The study’s statement “It appears that, instead of providing needed behavioral supports, the school is suspending these students because of behavior that is a manifestation of their disability” is outrageously unfounded and categorically false. This statement lacks both academic and journalistic integrity. The rates of suspension have no correlation to availability of support services. Instead, many factors impact each student’s individual academic journey. Since neither the authors of the UCLA study or The Notebook article spoke to Esperanza’s leadership to learn about the supportive interventions we offer, they would have no way of knowing that Esperanza provides a comprehensive spectrum of both academic and personal support services to special education students.

The study’s statement “Whenever and wherever students with disabilities are denied educational opportunities because of their disability, it is a blatant violation of anti-discrimination law” is borderline libelous. This statement implies that Esperanza Academy may be guilty of denying its students educational opportunities. The truth is the opposite. Esperanza Academy’s administration and faculty work tirelessly to ensure that all of its students are well-prepared to succeed not only until they graduate, but also in college. The statement also implies that Esperanza may be guilty of violating anti-discrimination laws, based on how students are treated. This accusation is damaging, undeserved, reckless and false. Esperanza’s special education students are served equitably, with the same diligence and care as the rest of the student body.

4) Problem #4: Statistics are outdated, decontextualized and meaningless.

The article refers to data that is four years old, and states that “On the national level, the average discipline gap was…more than 10 points at the secondary level.” However, the study does not specify exactly how high the national average gap was at that time, other than to say it was more than 10%. Also, the study does not specify the raw numbers being used to calculate the suspension percentages. Therefore, a 19% discipline gap could translate to an impact on as few as one additional special education student, depending on the number of non-special education students suspended in the year in question. Also, none of this data takes into account the fact that states measure and report data differently, so any attempt to make comparisons will be faulty unless any differences are identified and explained.

In sum: Both the article and the study it references are poorly researched, poorly reasoned, and intentionally inflammatory. Esperanza Academy is an extremely high-performing school by any standard. And Esperanza achieves these strong outcomes with student body that is 100% minority, 88% poverty, 20% limited English proficient, and 17% special education. Rather than attempt to malign the reputation of an inner city organization that does exceptional work with economically disadvantaged families who desperately need it, The Notebook should be investigating the cause of Esperanza’s success.

For more than a decade, Esperanza has provided services tailored to its students, where they live. We have created an environment in which special education students and their parents feel welcome, safe, secure, and supported. The best measure of Esperanza’s success is that our special education students stay with us, and they graduate. In addition, the Esperanza English Institute serves almost 200 community members; multiple generations of families attend Esperanza College; our robust afterschool programming and Latin music education is available right around the corner; and teachers recommend Esperanza Immigration Legal Services to parents working to keep their families together. Esperanza’s kids are achieving unprecedented, unparalleled success in a community faced with many challenges and barriers.

We know who our students are. We know they can succeed. We know how to support them and enable them to achieve that success. Esperanza Academy has earned the position of being considered a model of success for those with similar populations. The Notebook owes Esperanza’s staff, students and families an apology for irresponsible reporting and mischaracterization of our institution and the community.