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For public school teachers, getting rid of tough kids shouldn't be an option

MANY years ago, there was a notorious class of kindergarteners at one of the schools where I teach. You can still say “those kindergarteners” to anyone who was there at the time and they’ll know exactly who you’re talking about. It feels both factually and morally wrong to talk about five and six year olds being that bad. They are babies, almost literally, though it may not feel like it when they are pushing, hitting, kicking, biting, running away, climbing, or disregarding your crucial safety instructions. When children are old enough to understand what you ask them to do yet decide not to do it, it’s remarkably easy to forget, or stop caring, that they are young. With those kindergarteners, I had become completely desensitized to their youth. I remember thinking: “Being five is no excuse for this.”

One day they were late to my class, and I looked down the hall to see if they were on their way. Their teacher was carrying one of them—the most notorious of them all, a child beyond his years in disrespect —in her arms. He had fallen asleep as she read them a picture book, reminding me that, in fact, being five is a pretty good excuse for acting childish.

It was kindergarteners whose names appeared on a list circulated last year at a charter school in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Sixteen names of children who had been repeatedly suspended, whose parents had been called to pick them up early, who had been threatened with a call to 911 if they didn’t stop “defiant and unsafe” behavior. “The heading on the list,” reported the New York Times late last month, “was ‘Got to Go.’” Of the children, the principal of Success Academy Fort Greene explained: “I felt like I couldn’t turn the school around if these students remained.”

His justification confirms what Success Academy’s actions have indicated for years: the status of the school is a higher priority than the students who attend it.

The news of the Got to Go list came only a few weeks after a different controversy involving Success Academy, a growing charter chain with 34 sites across New York City that largely serves students of color. Also in October, a PBS NewsHour report entitled “Is kindergarten too young to suspend a student?” featured a 10-year-old former student at Success who had been repeatedly suspended. Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz responded by releasing details from the boy’s disciplinary history, which the boy’s mother argued was a blatant violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Moskowitz doubled down, invoking the First Amendment to defend releasing the boy’s private and protected information to “set the record straight.”

In response to a story looking at the impact of suspensions on very young students, Moskowitz’s defense was “This student was very bad.” That’s an answer to a different question: How bad does a student have to be to be removed from a school? It’s not the question PBS asked, and it’s not the question we should be asking as we face this country’s entrenched school discipline problem.

By throwing the boy under the bus to save her school’s image, Moskowitz tellingly revealed that, to her, the integrity of her school comes before the rights of a child. It’s a helpful distillation of where an actual child stands in relation to the grander education reform vision of Improving Our Schools. The ideology of reformers like Moskowitz justifies a Success principal suspending 44 out of 203 kindergarteners and first graders in one year . It justifies violating a little boy’s privacy. It justifies closing public schools entirely. It calls for punishing children—particularly children of color—in the name of helping them.

The question at hand is: what comes first, the expectations for the classroom or the well-being of the children inside it?

Because I remember those kindergarteners, and I understand that some teachers in the classroom really and truly feel that there are kids, no matter how small, who prevent them from doing their jobs. If you need to get through a lesson and 10 kids out of 20 can’t stay in a chair for longer than a second, the problem feels insurmountable. Ask a teacher if there’s a kid or two they could remove to make their classroom easier, and almost all of them would have names for you. Ask anyone who ever went to school if there was that one kid who derailed the whole class.

But the thing is, they’re kids, and you’re not supposed to just get rid of kids when they give you a hard time. If they’re yours in a legal or biological way, you’re expected to love them unconditionally. If they’re yours in an educational capacity in a public school, you’re responsible for finding an appropriate setting for them if a general classroom is not the right fit, regardless of what physical, intellectual, emotional or behavioral issues they may have. But if they’re yours at Success Academy, and a number of other charters whose suspension rates top those of public schools , they are removed from the classroom entirely.

Moskowitz has condemned the Got to Go list, of course, insisting it is not Success Academy policy to push out students . “We are not perfect,” she said at a press conference after the Times story broke. “We are a work in progress.”

To be a “work in progress” is a privilege afforded to Success Academy but not to many of its students.

It’s a logical conclusion of the high-stakes educational climate that it’s preferable to get rid of certain students than it is to keep them. The more pressure on teachers, the more kids will need to go. It’s happened at public schools, where “zero tolerance” policies grew strong under No Child Left Behind, as teachers’ livelihoods began to depend on the output of their students. Each disruptive kid is a threat to test scores and, by extension, to teachers and even to schools themselves.

What behavior is seen as “disruptive,” however, depends on the body of the student. A cell phone video filmed inside a South Carolina high school classroom, also from last month, showed a 16-year-old black girl thrown to the ground by a school police officer for allegedly refusing to leave the classroom. That’s one of the same behaviors mentioned in the Times story on Success Academy Fort Greene, where the principal told a six-year-old’s mother that he would call 911 if it continued.

A number of the students on the Got to Go list had disabilities, reinforcing federal civil rights data that shows that black and brown students with disabilities are at even higher risk for being pushed out of school than their non-disabled peers . For those children, the struggle to sit still becomes one that impacts their entire educational future.

The most tragic thing about the Got to Go list is that some of the most rewarding moments in an educator’s work are the times when the most difficult kids have a breakthrough. Sometimes it happens on a minute to minute basis—a kindergartener who runs around the classroom every day has a fantastic morning where he sits down and finishes a project. His teacher gives him stickers and call his mother to tell her the good news, even if he’s off-track again by the afternoon.

But sometimes it happens in a much bigger way. I saw those kindergarteners grow into fifth graders. Somewhere over the course of six years at elementary school, they transformed from a teeming puppy pile into the school’s leaders, taking time to stop and hug the newest batch of kindergarteners whenever they passed them. I remember looking at them when they were so little and so hard and thinking to myself: What will they be like when they’re older?

The answer turned out to be as complicated as childhood. As fifth graders, some of them turned out to be so on-point that it must have been some kind of groupthink that made the whole class so out-of-control that year. Some of them still had a really hard time. But that feeling that teachers have of a student being yours—the way teachers say “my kids,” which I always assume is confusing to non-teachers—at its best extends through time and space and frustration and catastrophe. The ones who are “yours” in the most powerful sense are often the ones who you spent the most time wishing weren’t in your class.

From year to year, with every one of those kindergarteners who I kept seeing, I’d have these gradual realizations of what incredible kids they were. The one who still acted out during class but always came up afterwards to apologize. The one who was so excited when he got old (and trustworthy) enough to walk his little brother home. They were children I didn’t have the ability to see in the fog of the classroom. And they were children who needed the space to be imperfect works in progress.

The Got to Go list—not the list itself, which will probably not happen again, but the idea behind it—prevents a school from experiencing the tremendous joy of watching a student grow. It falsely presumes that a really difficult five-year-old has nothing to offer and has no one to grow into. It creates a school where the students’ value is conditional on grades and behavior, where a child’s presence is not reason enough to support them. If the educator is only responsible for the output of the child, then children will always need to be pushed out of the classroom. Children have disabilities, they go through trauma, they are hungry, they are brand new to this country, they are emotional. When the educator has the space and support—materially, mentally and practically—to be there for the child because of these things, not in spite of them, there is not a single kid who’s got to go.

Late on a Friday afternoon, when those kindergarteners were fifth graders, a few of them were getting on my nerves, playing around and talking as I was trying to teach. I said to them, “You’ve been with me a long time, and you know what I expect from you.” One of them snapped back, “I haven’t been with you that much.” I looked at him—he was the one whose teacher, in kindergarten, had to carry him down the hall like a little baby as he slept. He was a big kid now, and still just as notorious as he was when he was five.

“I had you kindergarten,” I told him.

He shrugged and looked away. “I don’t remember that,” he said.

At first I was indignant. How could he not remember? Then I realized, again, how young he’d been. I don’t remember anything about being five except falling asleep in exhaustion every day after school. And I’m glad he doesn’t remember kindergarten, because I probably got mad at him in ways that I wish I could take back.

But he got more focused after I called him out, and for the rest of class that day, we had a great time. And I was so glad that he was still there to show me how well he could do.